“Character-forming” is a euphemism
It was at about this time last year – early summer 2015 – that the full extent of my failure was finally confirmed. For five months, a suspicion had been growing that the Signature unit I had been persuaded to run, BSI423 “Introduction to Interpreting”, was not only prescriptive and very narrow in scope when it should have been a light and sweeping tour, but was quite literally unassessable as well. Like a painting by numbers kit with all the numbers missing and an unexpected last minute bill for fifty gallons of battleship grey.
Five months went by during which I played voice-mail table tennis, wrote many increasingly strident e-mails and did a lot of rocking back and forth in the corner of the shower crooning “Gov’mint come’n took mah baby” in order to establish that absolutely no-one involved in delivering this brand new course – myself, the centre, the awarding body – had much more than the faintest inkling of how it was actually supposed to be completed. Collectively, we all failed a small group of colleagues who were honestly trying to develop as new interpreters. (Fortunately all of them have great potential and I expect amazing things from them, regardless.)
The final deal-breaker was a suggestion, made to me by a member of staff at the awarding body, that if an assessment wasn’t working out then I might have to “make it up” a bit by asking leading questions. That’s really when I started walking away. I’m still walking.
Why is this kind of thing happening in the first place? First, we should explore what “standards” actually are. At this point you might want to supply your own Bagpuss-like wibbly-wobbly dissolve with a surreal harp scale, indicating that we are phasing into the recall of events from earlier in time or some kind of reverie.
Standards, red in tooth and claw
Standards bring security where there was once mere chaos: they are both huggy blanket and truncheon. They bring fairness, equity and transparency, but sometimes at a cost to creativity, individualism. Standards can be suggestion, foundation, scaffold, mould, or cage, and thus they make a controversial form of “training” possible: evidence-based vocational qualifications, such as NVQs, SVQs and VRQs. No standards means no “learning outcomes”, no “assessment criteria”.
They can’t flash into existence spontaneously: they are meme-like, ideas in people’s heads, and as such they compete with other standards and other ideas in a kind of neo-Darwinian struggle for selection. In terms of “professional face”, there is no not having them and BSL/English interpreters, like many other semi-professionals grappling for status in a disinterested world, just can’t get enough: standards will often make an early appearance in personal statements and “mini bios” on freelancers’ websites. Occasionally you see people and organisations claiming to work on the perpetual raising of standards, which would make an interesting Zen poem: the standard that never stays still. Or a carrot on a stick: compare and contrast “raising the standard” with “moving the goalpost”. We will raise those standards until everyone is above average.
The standards for interpreter training currently championed by awarding bodies Signature and iBSL (and by NRPSI, a voluntary register for spoken language public service interpreters, who divorced amicably from their awarding body the Chartered Institute of Linguists several years ago) are the so-called National Occupational Standards for interpreting (NOS). The title “National” is in no sense protected – it handily makes things appear to have been been conferred by the state, but here as in many cases it only means “found around the country”. There are NOS for many occupations but the interpreting ones were originally developed in a project led by the National Centre for Languages (CILT), which no longer exists, having been absorbed by another entity in 2011 after having some kind of lethal conversation with the Tory-Lib coalition government. The NOS are now held by the Council for Administration (Skills CFA): simply yet another charity, with no special status or powers, that has taken it upon itself to “promote skills and qualifications”, as long as those qualifications are NVQs. The purpose of NOS is to “define exactly what it is, in terms of performance and understanding, that individuals are expected to achieve when carrying out specific functions in the workplace” (source, my italics here). Standards are essentially codified expectations.
But there are alternatives, some with surprising pedigree. For example, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that since 2014 there has been an international standard for “oral and signed community interpreting” (ISO 13611:2014), officially adopted and published by the British Standards Institute (“Making Excellence A Habit”). The BSI operate under Royal Charter – that literally means the Queen herself thinks they are bitchin’ – and they have an official arrangement with central government to form the UK’s one and only National Standards Body. (This time, the “National” does actually mean “of the Nation”.) The BSI is one of the 161 international members that make up the International Organisation for Standardisation, who have created approximately 21,000 standards all designed to make the planet “safer, cleaner and more efficient“.
ISO 13611 itself is an interesting and relatively comprehensive outline of what might be expected from community interpreting, regardless of language combination or modality: in my opinion it reads somewhat lawyerly, compared to the plainer layman’s style of the NOS. There are important differences. Of note is that unlike the NOS, ISO 13611 sets standards for agencies and other interpreting service providers, defining their responsibilities to clients/commissioners and the workforce of community interpreters themselves, something continually demanded over many years by both groups. Another major difference is that it explicitly avoids redefining or overriding legal interpreting standards, with the understanding being that the legal domain requires additional training or at least some other supporting legal framework originating from the host nation. All of this is to be followed by a further standard (ISO 18841) at a later date, perhaps 2017, which seems at first glance to be more about gate-keeping professional status than 13611’s focus on practice, role and tasks (you can see an early discussion draft here).
But despite all this refinement and utility, ISO 13611 hasn’t taken root in the UK (or perhaps anywhere). There are few published references to it in academia so far (e.g. Pöchhacker 2016, Napier & Leeson 2016) and those are made in passing. As far as “regulators” and professional membership bodies go, the top Google hits are mostly links shared without comment on Facebook by European interpreting associations and agencies. You’d think in a field that’s all about languages, cross-cultural exchange etc. that the “international” part would be a crowd-pleaser and quite exciting, but no. Here at home, given that the deaf third sector seems to have the turning circle of a crude oil supertanker, perhaps two years is simply far too soon to expect even an acknowledgement, let alone action.
Or maybe there is some other resistance factor. Returning to our law-of-the-jungle, amoeba-eat-amoeba metaphor, I leave it as an exercise for the reader to speculate about what environmental conditions and pressures might inform the selection of one set of interpreting standards over another, what makes a set of standards “successful” in the primaeval soup of professional identity. What kind of standard is ever deemed an evolutionary dead end or simply prey?
The mouth of babes
The following dialogue is paraphrased from one of my classes.
LEARNER: Isn’t all of that just one organisation’s point of view, though?
ME: Yes. Yes, it is.
LEARNER: Will I get extra marks in the exam if I say so?
ME: No. No, you really won’t.
Weirdly, it was this more than anything else which gives me hope for the future.
Small pond in a big pond
Teachers finding themselves forced to “teach to the test”, just one of the many perils of performativity, is hardly a new concern. Morale in the education system as a whole is very low, with two fifths of new teachers dropping out within five years of qualifying. Why would interpreter training be any different? It could be asked: why am I moaning so much about this when mean-spirited grid-like prescriptivism is the norm?
If you’ve not heard about the SATs discontent and key stages controversy, or the boycotting of primary school assessments by parents, then please immediately read this resignation letter from a bright, cheerful assistant headteacher. When new politicians displace old ones, they have a need to distance themselves from the language used by their predecessors. Successive years of rifling through the thesaurus has now produced a world where standards are quite literally referred to as National Expectations in the interests of reducing an entire generation of children’s learning to the crunching of numbers.
So in a world where it is acceptable to drill 8-year-old children to regurgitate made-up nonsense in the name of standardised expectations – “fronted adverbials“, my arse – why should I be surprised at the nuggets of bullshit found scattered across popular interpreter training, such as the insane claims in Signature’s NVQ 6 Interpreting specification that there are exactly “five kinds of sociolinguistic register“, just one of many models and furthermore one that dates from the early 1960s, plucked randomly out of arguably the most diverse field of human endeavour to have ever been attempted? Or the ludicrous assertion that the terms “pronunciation and intonation apply to spoken languages and modulation to sign language”? I recently met some very bitter BSL learners who had more than enough intelligence to detect that losing marks in an assessment just because you didn’t refer to so-called BSL “time lines” by the same letters A, B, C etc. that were used on the course hand-out’s diagram, or struggling to remember without being allowed paper and pencil what had been signed up to 20 minutes ago by a 2D person on a DVD wearing black clothes against a blazing white background, is all the most abjectly petty nonsense. “You might have to make it up a bit,” said the awarding body’s assessment advisor: that is quite literally Ballsian fabrication in your face.
Why would anyone fork out thousands of pounds to subject themselves to this? This is not teaching, or learning, or teaching people how to teach themselves to learn. This is destruction, the violation of decades of work by the deaf and interpreter communities. We deserve to watch our semi-profession burn to the ground because we are all complicit in this. Instilling this puppetry in the next generation of interpreters, and then abandoning them to their fates the moment we think they won’t pay any more money to tick boxes, is not professionalism. It is a racket.
Reflecting on my failure, I think my main crime was naiveté, with a buttering of arrogance and hubris. It wasn’t my first teaching experience but it was the first time I had taught to someone else’s curriculum. It was in-house, for a small CSW team, so the damage was limited and did not involve fee-paying public. While I far surpassed Signature’s requisites to run the unit, perhaps a more qualified and experienced teacher would have spotted the gaping holes in the specification before making a commitment. By the time Signature finally admitted to me that I was the only person in the country that had got as far as teaching any of the BSI423 content and this was all completely uncharted territory that hadn’t been piloted, my alarm bells had already burned out.
But by that time, two experienced Deaf BSL tutors had also declined to continue with the other new Level 4 units. I later found out that one of the “consultants” who wrote this unit is actually less qualified to teach and interpret than I am – disturbingly, the same consultants were also involved in developing the BSL GCSE. It just got harder and harder to keep up the “lies to children“, on a course which is supposed to be equivalent to the first year of an under-graduate degree and encouraging critical thinking and not about jumping through stupidly designed hoops; towards the end, I probably accidentally taught them a few useful things. I just honestly thought that a course wouldn’t, couldn’t be published in this state. I feel like my intentions were honest, that I ran decent and interesting classes (I’m told there was great feedback), and that I flagged my concerns over and over from the moment I realised what was happening, which was the day before day one of teaching. Is failing utterly, but with integrity, acceptable? Yes. So I keep telling myself.
But I will never attempt to teach a vocational qualification designed by Signature or the voluntary sector ever again. I would rather interpreters remained “unprofessional” than be personally involved in perpetuating this travesty, as long as they get some notion of what integrity means from somewhere. The good news is that there are many good interpreters at large who can inspire those values, and better yet, Signature’s stake in our work is finally starting to shrink. There is now only one “centre” left which is offering the full unit complement of the Signature interpreting course in London, the nation’s capital where about one in seven of the UK population reside; two more are offering iBSL’s versions instead (their interpreting curriculum is also based on the NOS but while I don’t have any personal experience of the course, at least it’s a taught course and appears at first glance to be broader and less prescriptive, despite the dodgy “bilingual skills” labelling). Elsewhere in the country, Higher Education level interpreter training remains available to those, like me, who were privileged enough, or sacrificed enough, to afford it.
And that is where deaf BSL users’ participation in services and culture remains: dependent on the whims of charities and individual philanthropists while the industry grinds away, insensate.
It could be so much better.