For her MA dissertation, poignantly titled “Do We Eat Our Young and One Another?“, ASL/English interpreter Emily K. Ott set out to investigate the phenomenon of intergenerational bullying in the local sign language interpreting profession – the “generations” described here are not supposed to imply older interpreters versus younger ones, but refer instead to the length of post-qualified experience. Interested in the ethnology of the profession, particularly the phenomenon of “burnout” and why some professionals decide to leave the field soon after qualifying, Ott was surprised by what she found: that while there was some evidence of this expected “vertical” bullying, accounts of “horizontal violence” (or “peer” bullying) were also very prominent, and decided to change the focus of her study to capture this.
(For myself, I’m not overly keen on the term “violence” in this context. Bullying is not necessarily violent or overt: it takes many forms and does not have to be explicit to have a serious effect. Arguably, subtle but sustained forms of denigration can have a far greater impact long term. But it’s the term used in these studies.)
What causes “horizontal violence”? Ott establishes that the phenomenon is relatively well documented in other female-dominated professions such as teaching and nursing (at the time of writing, the UK sign language interpreting profession has a male-female ratio of about 1 to 9) and highlights some explanations of “horizontal violence” as the result of the wider systematic oppression of women: members of groups who experience oppression from those “in control” are more likely to struggle to regain their own sense of control by dominating or striking out against each other, rather than attempting the overwhelming task of challenging the source.
A gender-free alternative generator of oppression and its stress responses is the simple existence of hierarchy, the crushing weight felt at the bottom of the pyramid: this explanation admittedly may work better in large, highly hierarchical settings such as nursing than it does in the tiny and relatively flat structure of sign language interpreting.
Ott also suggests that the regular witnessing by interpreters of oppression from power-holders against our Deaf clients, and their powerlessness to intervene due to perceptions of “role” and “impartiality”, may also contribute, similar to the so-called “vicarious trauma” effect (again, not a term I’m really fond of due to its association with the faith issues experienced by healthcare workers and missionaries).
Both victims and perpetrators will contribute to the creation of a “culture of silence”, perhaps unconsciously, denying that the bullying is taking place at all even when it is blatant to observers, explaining it away as “hazing”, “paying my dues”, “it was what happened to me when I was a trainee”, or even the classic bully/victim’s line that the victims are “too sensitive”. New interpreting professionals are inducted into this culture and, consciously or not, perpetuate it: it is almost a cliché that bullying produces more bullies.
Finally, citing Dean & Pollard’s work, Ott also cites “reduced decision latitude” as a stress-inducing factor which leads to bullying. This can be very roughly and quickly explained as the stress and irritation caused by not having the resources to do a good job: importantly though, it could refer to constraints imposed externally or from above, for example, the expectations of peers, mentors or even those imposed by the dead hand of a deontological Code of Conduct (see my earlier blog post on dissonance and transition shock).
Obviously any “real” professional feels the need to do a good job, to be competent, adequate resources or not: competence is part of the definition of a professional and is not specific to any field. Sign language interpreting Codes of Conduct typically contain numerous requirements which are completely extrinsic to the work of interpreting: it is not only interpreters who value confidentiality, declining work for which you do not have the required knowledge, honesty of advertising, not delegating work to others without consent, not bringing the profession into disrepute, and so forth. Interestingly, if you carry out an analysis of different interpreting associations’ ethical and professional codes (as I do here), it’s all the interpreting stuff that differs: what remains as a sediment when the differences of interpreters’ opinions and practices are boiled away is the values of professionalism in and of itself, the pure status of Professional that wider society and your mother-in-law value so highly. But the status does include competence. When the competence is at risk, so is the status.
While I was working on my qualifications, towards that status, I was told repeatedly it was so that when I was let out onto an unsuspecting public, I would be “safe to practice”: adequate. I was trained to have an awareness that there is no such thing as a perfect interpretation, especially not when the interpretation is simultaneous; that there are often going to be times when a smooth and natural interaction is better than a dysfunctional but unflinchingly accurate one; and that I need the assertiveness to decline or walk away from work when I know (or suspect) it is outside my competence. All of that theoretical framework was based on an assumption that I was actually going to get what I need from peers, my “betters” and clients in both the Deaf and hearing communities, so that I could do the best possible job I can.
But in the real world, the professional world, adequacy, being “good enough”, doesn’t seem to be the standard any more, and I am rarely given what I need even when I ask for it. More and more often, the standard appears to be perfection while the preparation and support is non-existent and the nagging is never-ending. I’ve been advised I should report colleagues to the NRCPD complaints process if they “make a mistake”; that we need, repeatedly, to “raise standards” (is it a standard if it keeps moving?); that the primary purpose of a national register of interpreters is not to create networks of support and professional development, or promote knowledge in the community about what interpreters actually need from their clients in order to work well, but to safeguard the vulnerable public from dangerous renegades; and in the tedious aftermath of the “Mandela fake interpreter” debacle, we all feel an obligation to create, read and share articles with attention-grabbing tabloid headlines claiming that sign language interpreters have “disappointed the world” and bemoaning our complicit “treachery” in allowing “sub-optimal” interpretations (ie. ones that are not as good as they would be in the best of all possible worlds). Suddenly we are all champions, wanted or not.
Small wonder so many interpreting professionals and academics suffer from the persistent undertow of “impostor syndrome”, when “faking it” is accorded such stigma. Oliver Burkeman in this piece for the Guardian cites idolising our mentors and superiors as a primary cause of imposterism, and suggests that our “higher ups” should talk about their own insecurities more: the very opposite of perfectionism and certainty. We need to recognise that even if perfection were possible, which it isn’t, it would not be desirable: Tomina Schwenke makes a good case for the contributions of “maladaptive perfectionism” to burnout and other interpreter stresses. Which leads us back to the roots of bullying.
I don’t want excellence, in the sense that I don’t consider it a failure when I am not excellent. I consider it a failure when I fuck up. I don’t want perfection because perfect interpreting is impossible by definition – pick up any first-year textbook on translation theory – and it is already scary enough that I am often the only one in the room that knows this. I just want to do a decent job.
Let’s please not turn the momentary blip in interpreter awareness caused by Mandela’s death into yet another witch-hunt and a scrabbling for status. Let’s think a bit more carefully about what we do and say to our colleagues in all disciplines, who are sometimes struggling to cope without the resources they need. Membership of a profession should not be about “us and them”, about who has the right to bear a title, about protecting your own status. We are all a resource for someone out there; we all have something new to learn; even the Queen has been known to defecate. Let’s find ways of enabling new professionals to be safe to practice – adequate – without letting our own anxieties and inferiority complexes turn us into bullies. Let’s be open and honest with ourselves and those we are working with about our capacity for failure and help each other learn from it, not use it as a stick to punish with.