NRCPD have this week announced that they have become a “separate and independent” company and registered charity which is also a “subsidiary of Signature”. We are told that this paradox is a step along a “transition” towards “full independence”; nonetheless, the adjective “independent” appears five times. The entity was born on 1 January 2017; NRCPD’s director attended a local workshop on 2 February and updated them on this new status, a full week before registrants themselves or the outside world were informed, nearly six weeks after the fact. The Strategic Plan was also revealed, in all its vague and unsubstantiated glory. Elsewhere, in an advert for an Honorary Treasurer, we can confirm that the new NRCPD is a “wholly owned subsidiary” of Signature (the trading name for CACDP, the actual legal entity: as we’re discussing legal entities, I’ll only use CACDP hereon). So what does “separate and independent” mean, exactly?
Post-truth. Alternative facts. Brexit is Brexit, and statutory regulation is statutory regulation.
It’s only mid-June: more than a month to go until the formal end of the academic year. But Further Education colleges, already sparser than I’ve ever seen them, have definitely stepped down a gear. For a good many students, all the boxes have been ticked; Ofsted have been and gone, leaving in their wake discarded clumps of hair and the ringing, indifferent hum of chemical sedation; the External Verifiers have been propitiated like household gods with offerings of burned portfolio samples. With the exception of one difficult but very rewarding out-of-office-hours assignment, most of my time in classrooms for the next few weeks will be relaxed and sociable. This has been a difficult year but “my” students have mostly done very well. A few have struggled, more with the system and with daily living than with learning.
So it’s time to reflect and review. Recent events have led me to recall that interpreters in education have to work within a broad cast. I believe the next closest public service sign language interpreting arrangement to working in education is that of the “designated” workplace interpreter, as opposed to the freelancer flitting around the region, picking and choosing agency jobs to suit their own agenda. For designated interpreters there is that same sense of continuity and of being embedded in an establishment, of having to accommodate your client’s colleagues and behave in a way that is expected and appreciated by that specific local culture, of not always being able to have things your way. Sailing into an unknown office/classroom and behaving like the lord of the manor, bossing or even bullying the local inhabitants and making inexplicable demands, is ultimately going to reflect badly on your client/student and may jeopardise or permanently alter their standing and progress. But then so will being perpetually meek, a push-over. Like any other micro-culture, colleges and companies are an orchestrated dance of expectations, face-saving manoeuvres, superstitious rituals, and continual pitches and broadcasts to establish status and dominance. It might look on the surface like nothing more than a Level 1 Multiskills course or a Primark decked in plastic and vulgar primaries, but millimetres below the surface these settings are a sixteenth century bal masqué, all lace, illicit love-making and poisoned needles.
Where does an Educational Interpreter mesh with this stepping gyre, these wheels-within-wheels, this brass and wire engine of competition and camaraderie? Who is our primary ally? Who is the engineer of the FE train, to whom should the interpreter turn first for succour?
The answer is obvious. It’s the dinner ladies.
“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.
I was unable to attend Signature’s statutory regulation meeting in January due to being unexpectedly hospitalised (I’m fine now). While waiting for my belly-button to resume normal service, I did a little bit of reading and uncovered a range of interesting and depressing responses to the statutory regulation struggle in the annals of several other professions. Many of these are the kind of practitioner-focused issues that have so far (to my knowledge) been absent from dialogue. This is a long post so let’s start with the main shakedown and then move on to the sources.
Key issues raised
- Statutory regulation encourages “medical model” approaches to practice which even healthcare professionals may find oppressive, let alone those in occupations which are patently not healthcare.
- Excessive regulation – increased inspection regimes, measurements and managerialism – can lead to increased “reactivity”, a term which describes practitioners feeling a pressure to select “easy wins”, reject more difficult work, abandon more difficult clients and “cover their backs” instead of acting from best professional judgement.
- Campaigns to promote statutory regulation above self-regulation have historically resulted in schisms and increased disunity within various professions. Almost all the campaigns resulted in failure and wasted resources, even for professions between thirty and two hundred times the size of BSL/English interpreting.
- A political will is required to take up the cause of state regulation, which brings with it political scrutiny, which entails unpredictable effects such as sudden reversals of support or unexpected spotlights on bad training/practice. Statutory regulation can stop being statutory at any time should political will or public support be withdrawn: the fight to keep your status may be even more effort than that expended to attain it. The current political will is opposed to statutory regulation even for highly specialist and expert clinical professions taught over and above postgraduate level, let alone social/linguist ones with a mixed bag of vocational qualifications that verify skills instead of teaching them.
- Meta-regulators such as the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) and its predecessor the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence (CHRE) have long asserted that regulation must be based on empirical assessment of “actual harm” and not “possible risk”, i.e. regulation must be proportionate to the problem it is trying to solve. A regulator that creates sledgehammer/nut issues is incompetent.
- Given that absolutely none of above is even acknowledged, let alone addressed, by Signature’s meandering rationale for pursuing statutory regulation, it becomes necessary to ask whether the current governance of their “NRCPD service” is fit for purpose and their personnel are qualified to decide our profession’s future. Who watches the watchers?
- Finally, the concept of principled non-compliance may offer some solutions, or at least traction, to those with doubts and fears about the path ahead, while those who favour statutory regulation have a paradox to resolve.
About a year ago I wrote some bits and pieces about the incoming changes to how support for children and young people with “special educational needs” is funded. I gave an overview of the preceding disability politics background and the potential for a new market where families with Deaf and disabled children will apparently pick their own support from a menu-which-is-not-a-menu (the Local Offer) or elsewhere. I also described how I felt that the professional sphere of BSL/English interpreting has completely failed to engage with what should have been the biggest changes to Deaf Education for thirty years. There’s been no improvement there, that I’m aware of, in the 11 months since: that sphere orbits some other, slower, planet.
What I completely failed to anticipate is the possibility that there will be little or no Further Education (FE) for young Deaf people to go to, whatever their support funding. The irony is that by the time SEN support has completed its reform, perhaps there won’t be anywhere near as much to support with.
It has been about a year since my decision to voluntarily leave the NRCPD register and I’ve done no freelance work during that time. All of the BSL/English interpreting work I’ve done since then has been through a public sector employer (this actually provides “consumers” with a higher level of scrutiny, support and accountability than any voluntary regulator can muster). Now that I’ve completed another degree and have more time to work again, it recently crossed my mind that I could re-register. And then today, NRCPD did three things:
- Announced a formal statement of regulatory intent, in which they set out their long-term but short-on-details plan to criminalise unregistered community interpreters
- Published a new Code of Conduct and complaints process
- Revamped their website slightly (I’d feel bad if I didn’t point out that they’ve stealthily removed all previously published correspondence between registrants and the Board) (Further note, 20/11/2015: the missing correspondence has now reappeared elsewhere on the site, prompting us all to remember the importance of Hanlon’s Razor.)
What do I make of all this? More below the break.
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.
I was a bit blown away by the interest in my Great Flounce – in just five days, it had double the total traffic of the last ten months – a little nerve-wracking. Some very fair criticisms were made: I agree completely with those who pointed out that it isn’t especially helpful to dismantle things without offering any kind of solution. This post is an attempt to redress that, pulling together bits and pieces I’ve rambled about here over the last year.
Here’s what would bring me back into the loving arms of my comrades, if a register (or equivalent) could manage it. It’s not a shopping list: they are my terms, which sounds super-butch but has that faint implication of compromise. Most of them (except possibly the first) have been talked through by others for decades, and they all overlap to some extent. If you don’t like longform (essay-length) blogs, here’s a quick list with soundbites.
- A twenty-first century register: the register as a “really useful” public-facing database interface, emphasising specific competencies
- Certification to work in critical domains: the death of the “pancake profession”, the birth of structure and progression
- Pupillage/internships: mandatory hours of supervised work experience for full registration status, post-qualification
- An end to deontology: no more stone tablets which contradict contemporary research and cripple us with dissonance
- Evidence-based decisions and practice: a permanent ban on blind faith and “off-the-shelf professionalism”
I returned last night from the annual conference of the European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters in Antwerp, Belgium, which was simply amazing. It was fascinating to be surrounded by so many spoken and signed languages (with participants from 25 countries, some of which represent more than one language in each modality) and hugely satisfying to meet interpreters from hundreds and thousands of miles away and immediately recognise their experiences. It was a total pleasure to leave “local concerns” behind and talk about what interpreting is for once. I’m already looking at how to get to Warsaw for the 2015 conference.
The theme of the conference was the underlying cognitive processes (“mind tricks”) that make interpretation possible – totally my cup of tea. If I were going to be constructively critical, I’d say that the only flaw in the extremely well-organised proceedings was the total onslaught of information – my brain currently resembles an over-boiled primary school dinner cauliflower, and physically I feel like I’ve spent the weekend mountain climbing. The main day was a long series of (fascinating) presentations with no “break out” exercises or workshops – although the standard was extremely high and all of the topics useful, I’d have enjoyed the opportunity to pause from passively receiving information and engage in more structured dialogue with colleagues from abroad.
Because of this, there is absolutely no way I can describe here everything I took away, and most of it hasn’t settled down yet – I expect things will continue to poke me for months to come. So the following is an almost random selection of just a few of the bitesize “messages” I found easier to process as they’ve fit with my reading and thinking so far – I should say that they do not necessarily represent the views of the presenters, and there was a metric shedload of other interesting stuff.
Can we take a break from “professionalisation”?
Peter Llewellyn-Jones, president of efsli (and my former supervisor) began and ended the conference by reminding us that while the early years of interpreting research had a notable focus on cognition, perhaps that fell by the wayside: we have collectively spent much of the last 15 years talking instead about what it means to be a “professional”. That dialogue is sometimes useful but arguably there is little point in endlessly elaborating on our status as interpreters if we do not understand how interpreting works.
A trivial bit of new knowledge on my part was finding out how interpreters are named in other languages – for example, I met Swedish, Dutch, Danish and Flemish interpreters who use some linguistic variant of the word tolker, which is best translated as “interpreter” but more literally means “talker” or “explainer” or “spokesperson”. Good luck to any statutory regulation afficionados with trademarking that title. On a related note, efsli’s long term aim (perhaps by 2020) is to create a Europe-wide register of interpreters – many countries such as Croatia and, surprisingly, Sweden do not have a national register – and I’m excited by the idea of an international register of public service interpreters set up by interpreters.
Why do we default to simultaneous interpreting?
Debra Russell gave the keynote presentation, which was a goldmine in itself and had my brain whirling before we’d even reached the first morning’s halfway mark. Evidence was highlighted which demonstrated what spoken language interpreters take for granted but sign language interpreters often completely ignore: simultaneous interpreting is worse than consecutive in terms of faithfulness, quality and, often, believability (a vital and sometimes overlooked requirement for settings such as court interpreting, business and education). In one measure of quality on the work of experienced interpreters in court settings, error percentages were worse for simultaneous interpreting by more than a decile compared to consecutive; accounts from Deaf users were highlighted, which clearly expressed that they disliked interpreting errors more than they disliked consecutive interpreting.
I’ve said this myself in my own workshops for CSWs – we “grow up” as interpreters emulating what we have seen others doing, and we think that it must be right just because that is the status quo. But the main utility of authority is that it is there to be questioned. We have successfully persuaded large sections of the community that just because bimodal interpreting can be done simultaneously without racks of specialist technology, it should be done that way, even though research shows time and again that it creates more errors and less “natural” target language renditions. Perhaps consec should be the default stance whenever possible – yes, it does have some disadvantages (lawyers don’t like it, for example, perhaps because it takes up more of their precious time), but in which situations are those disadvantages outweighed?
Discourse and what we are doing
A recurring theme in several of the presentations was that interpreters seem to struggle with maintaining the discourse functions of language, what language is doing above the word and sentence levels. Debra Russell talked about interpreters working in education, who tend to get sucked into processing language on just a lexical level but are not mindful of the discourse, where the language is headed, what the point is, even when they have actually been prepared and included in those aims as a proper colleague of the teacher (which never happens enough). Terry Janzen discussed “intersubjectivity” (a term which is ironically very hard to translate and which called to mind Robert Lee’s writing about the identity and personal history of interpreters) and communication as “construal”: the problem here is a possible tendency in interpreters for “over-contextualisation”, which I regrettably recognise in myself as an someone who started off working in the education field.
Yes, interpreters are “explainers”, but perhaps it is more common than we realise for a speaker to need to leave things unexplained, to be obscure on purpose, at least for the time being. Discourse is co-constructed: we all unconsciously probe each other’s understanding all the time, and maybe an interpreter who is driven to make everything crystal clear, to the lowest common denominator of meaning, is completely screwing up that everyday process. In education, it is common and important for a teacher to “test” learners by saying things s/he expects to not be understood. So how can you interpret something “faithfully” if you don’t know why it was said? When interlocutors complain that they didn’t understand the interpreter, do we have the courage to tell them, when it’s true, that they weren’t supposed to? These themes kept bothering me all the way through my training – all these wonderful models and diagrams about interpreter-mediated communication seem to assume that people make sense all the time. They don’t. They frequently talk a load of crap. We should recognise and indeed celebrate that.
What I found fascinating is that as frequent as these ideas about discourse, goals, construal etc. were across the presentations, there seemed to be many colleagues present (both from abroad and home) who seemed to find it all quite new, and there were even suggestions that it needed more of a focus in interpreter training. I was a bit surprised and disappointed to find out that people aren’t really being taught this stuff. Pragmatics, discourse and illocution – functional/purposeful approaches – were introduced on day one of my own interpreter education, but (for example) I don’t see them prominently listed in Signature’s NVQ curriculum.
There was so much more – you’d need a short-ish book to properly cover everything that came up – but I’ll stop there for a lie down: the over-boiled cauliflower needs time to cool off. Thanks to all the organisers and participants for an amazing experience.