Let’s be done with euphemism for five minutes. When we talk about statutory regulation for sign language interpreters, we are really talking about deliberately creating a new breed of criminal: we need and want more criminals. We are so desperate to be preferred that we are preparing to use the bluntest of instruments to cleave the world of community interpreting into two halves: interpreters over here, and criminals over there. With us, or against us, in the name of public protection. Because historically, black and white solutions have worked out so well.
We’re looking at a 19th century solution to 21st century interpreting whereby mediating between languages and cultures in the community without the proper credentials would actually become punishable by force of law. If unregistered interpreters are found “guilty of interpreting” and cannot pay a fine, perhaps they should lose their freedom and be locked up with all the other criminals, where they will be able to undertake all manner of useful CPD activities.
People are seriously contemplating this. It’s what 67% of respondents said they wanted (wittingly or not) when NRCPD conducted a tick-box survey of a self-selecting sample of interpreters, although what is not made quite so obvious in the tabloid PR blurb is many of them did not want that regulator to be NRCPD themselves; furthermore very few of them explicitly demonstrated a clear understanding of what statutory regulation really involves or guarantees. There is such a thing as the manufacture of consent.
Obviously, we assume that all “real interpreters”, or the completely untrained non-interpreters who self-identify as “interpreting regulators”, are fully qualified to make this judgement call. Frustratingly though, we’re pretty much powerless to get a fix on any transgressive interpreting as an act. Can you imagine phoning the police station and saying “I want to report a crime: there was this guy in the pub who was listening to something one guy said in Somalian and then trying to say it out loud in English”? Impossible. And even the coldest of terps would hesitate before demanding that the mothers/sisters/daughters (because it is usually mothers, sisters and daughters) who step in to interpret for sick and wounded family members when the hospital doesn’t provide a competent interpreter should be punished by a court of law. Suspiciously, we are less interested in these phenomena than we are in people stealing our work.
So the only thing we have the remotest hope of getting a handle on is how people title themselves, or on the words they use in print (evidence!) to describe their potential act of interpreting: we can use brute force to make airs and graces illegal, and we can also control advertising to some extent, by force of deterrent. The focus for the profession, then, is not on improving working conditions or opening up access to decent, non-monopolised interpreter training or on effective public engagement, even in the name of “public protection”, but on campaigning for “protected titles”. Where’s the public protection benefit in piffling matters like workers being adequately rewarded and supported for their toil? In our impotent rage at having our own status ignored, from our sheer frustration of not being able to impose our will on others in any other way, we will grasp at any straw, no matter how brittle.
But unfortunately, titles and labels of any kind are slippery. We already have a battery of euphemisms and fudges to deploy when it suits us, just as interpreters are much more likely to invoke chapter and verse of their codes of ethics when it conveniently dissolves a personal quandary but not otherwise. Most readers will clearly remember the astonishing interpreting malpractice that took place at the Nelson Mandela memorial service in December 2013. Not quite so many will also remember a “viral video” that did the rounds almost at the same time, of a very young hearing girl interpreting Christmas carols for her Deaf parents. Shockingly, this small child was practicing without a licence. Should we round up this dangerous criminal? Pack her off to a juvenile detention centre, or maybe make her parents pay a whopping fine for her vile misdeed?
No, of course not. That would be insane. We accept it, and we probably coo and simper because it was a small blonde American girl-child doing it and not a sixteen-stone shaven-headed bloke with a Dagenham accent and a broken nose. But interpreters still have a problem with what it was or with how it might be perceived; so we need to label it as something “other” than interpreting, in an attempt to reduce the crippling dissonance our current state of affairs has reduced us to. We call it language brokering instead: problem solved.
Meanwhile, the hearing world is actually handing out awards to child interpreters acting in medical emergencies, because in the eyes of most non-terps, this kind of child action is an incredibly brave and un-childlike act of compassion and humanity. But of course, interpreters and the non-interpreters who govern them know better. We see these despicable criminals for what they really are.
Unfortunately, as in any arms race, the weapons of euphemism are available to both sides. I’m currently working with Communication Support Workers who are so intimidated and bullied by the interpreting “profession” that they will jump through any number of flaming hoops in order to describe what they are doing as something other than “interpreting”. They communicate, support, translate, talk, sign. They introduce themselves as “I’m just a CSW” and accept a crippling lack of self-esteem as part and parcel of the job. Perhaps it’s a good tactic after all, because it will be entirely successful if the state regulator ever does come looking for “fake interpreters” to prosecute. No interpreting, no false advertising, just communicating and supporting, officer. And so we reinforce a world of lies and self-delusion and mealy-mouthedness, the exact opposite of what we intended and need.
Perhaps if our regulators, industry leaders and policy-makers hadn’t failed us so utterly, we wouldn’t be seriously thinking about resorting to threats and we’d still be working on a better breed of carrot instead of a heftier stick.
But as Isaac Asimov (creator of fictional empires populated by robots with problematical ethical codes) put it, violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.