In early 2013 I stepped away from a local authority education service, for several reasons, but partly because the standard of information I was getting about my assignments with Deaf students had dropped to the level where I could not routinely expect to get the full names of the people I needed to ask for at reception desks, or anything more than the vaguest hint as to what kind of meeting or lesson I was going to, or a start time accurate to more than one significant figure, or a room location more accurate than a postcode. I don’t need to put up with this any more, I thought, I’m a qualified interpreter now and therefore above such things. So I walked away, and started looking for work organised by “professionals”.
How naive I was. The world outside of education is much, much worse.
When you register as a sign language interpreter with NRCPD, there is an online “profile” that you have to fill out. If you choose to advertise your services, there is a form titled “Assignments” where you tick off the settings you are competent to work in – Further Education, social services casework, physical health, police work, workplace disciplinary proceedings etc. etc. It’s quite a long (if not fully exhaustive) list. When you first enter these details, the word “Pending” is displayed next to each entry: they must be verified by a pusher of buttons somewhere, after which they show as “Active”.
But it is all completely pointless. Absolutely nothing is done with that information. It is never displayed to anyone; it is not searchable; it is left to rot in a walled-off database somewhere, gathering electronic dust. I am a former database programmer and it makes my nose bleed. To find an interpreter, you either have to know their name or you can search by postcode and get a list of very basic information. Nothing at all about specialisms and competencies: no detail at all of what they know or don’t know, can do or can’t do.
I asked NRCPD why the data is never displayed and not searchable. Five months later, I had a response: the ability to search by specific domain competence was taken away because “users” did not find it useful – I assume this means the users of the search function, not the interpreters themselves. So who are these “users”?
I’m still a relatively raw interpreter. I’ve been on the Register for sixteen months. In that time, contact from out of the blue has escalated to the point where I’m currently deleting 10-50 emails and 3-15 SMS messages requesting my services every week, plus a few voicemails. Due to my other commitments and regular clients, I can typically accept none or perhaps just one of them. Nearly all of them are from interpreting agencies – both sign language specialists and not – who have harvested my contact information from the Register and are blindly pumping out job offers. Some are in domains I have no experience of; most have very little information at all. I have devised an array of filters so that some of the worst offenders are simply dismissed automatically.
From only a couple of firms do I get anything approaching the information necessary to make an informed decision about whether I am the right interpreter for that job, a core stipulation of the interpreting Code of Conduct: it’s right here in section 2, in glorious monochrome. The rest ask me if I can do “a meeting”, “an appointment”, “a job interview”, “a training day”. How can you say you are competent when you know almost nothing about the setting, topic, content, aims, attendees? The agencies ask me to get in touch, but they rarely want to know about my experience or my specialisms, or any evidence that I know the first thing about the setting I’m bidding for. They don’t want to know much about me at all, in fact, except that I have to tell them how much I want to be paid – do not hold your breath waiting to be told what they think your time and skills are worth.
I do also get a very small handful of messages from private individuals looking to book an interpreter – something like 5% of the total requests, probably less. Those also rarely tell me anything useful, but with them, it’s excusable: they are not in the business of making money out of interpreting and do not make claims, on pretty websites drowning in stock photography of attractive grinning actors, that they are experts in the supply of quality interpreters; they are just Deaf and hearing punters. It is not their fault that most of them don’t know what an interpreter needs to know to take a job: no interpreter or organisation claiming to represent interpreting has successfully imparted that knowledge to them.
Obviously there are understandable reasons why perhaps not all of the necessary information can be revealed in an agency broadcast to freelancers. Quite apart from confidentiality concerns, the agency is also a business and therefore self-interested above anything else: it doesn’t want to tip people off to the identity of the client, not for their protection or any other moral reason, but to stop freelancers and other agencies from poaching and under-cutting the work.
And of course there is nothing to stop me from replying to each and every request with an indication that I am available and a request for sufficient information. Nothing, that is, except the hours of extra, unpaid work every week it would take to do that. As a part-time freelancer with more than enough additional admin and reporting duties in my education work, as well as a higher education course to struggle through, I simply don’t always have that time. It would not solve the problem anyway: the same fear of poaching puts us in a chicken and egg situation (do you see what I did there? Try rendering the “spirit of meaning” of that in another language without “adding” or “taking away”). I can’t accept the job until I know it is within my competence, but they can’t give me the information I need to make that decision until I accept the job.
If I were full-time, the load would likely be even higher because I would likely have actively signed up with agencies – all of the above describes only randomly broadcast spam. I have not “registered” with any private firms, just with a couple of public sector services. (Ping: as I am writing this, my phone goes off, for a job 73 miles outside of my normal radius, in a hospital. I have no real experience of the medical domain.)
Remember, all of this is happening before you’ve even accepted the job – the problems with getting adequate preparation for a difficult assignment after you’ve accepted it are another blog post entirely. It would be like getting blood out of a stone only if the blood were a teaspoon of helium Einstein-Bose condensate and the stone were a three solar mass pulsar rotating at relativistic velocity. (It is difficult.)
Given the above and that there are about a thousand registered sign language interpreters in the UK, it’s entirely feasible that the NRCPD Code of Conduct is being flaunted hundreds of times per working day and that the industry is not merely complicit with this, it unwittingly encourages it. I say unwittingly because I am not yet fully convinced that there is a widespread conscious intention to play tiddlywinks with the lives of Deaf community members and put interpreters into repeated positions of mind-imploding dissonance until they burn out or screw up so badly they can never work again, at least not in every case. It is just a zombie tendency of the zombie capitalist society we live in, where it’s acceptable for the clients of social services to be seen as just another McProduct to be flogged off by the lowest bidder. (We put our faith in ghosts. Companies and corporations have the legal status of humans: they are mythic entities we imbue with human agency and talk about in the third person singular, like Godzilla or Bagpuss, but it is hard for a myth composed of many decoherent parts to keep a grip on the social conscience and enquiring mind that attend actual humans.)
So most agency staff don’t wake up in the morning consciously deciding to encourage bad practice; they aren’t completely ignorant on purpose about what interpreters really need and do. They are just permitted, by their bosses, by government, by capitalism, by regulators and by us to continue believing that their work, the industry, is just fine. It’s not that they don’t see the big picture: they don’t even know they are in the gallery. They have not merely got the wrong end of the stick, but have a different stick entirely, or perhaps not even a stick but something very different, like a jelly, or blue. I could go on.
None of this is a problem, according to some colleagues. The Code of Conduct and the resulting complaints process exist, in part, to curb this very tendency, they say: if you accepted those informationless jobs, you’d be a bad interpreter by definition. The problem with this is that going by the volume and quality of agency job offers, the Code clearly isn’t having much of a retardant effect; those jobs will probably be accepted by someone, and unless they are an immortal soul that has stalked the Earth for millennia, drinking directly from the fountain of all human wisdom, they would be making as uninformed a decision as I. As for the rigorousness of the complaints process, the number of upheld complaints by NRCPD in 2013 was zero. In 2012 it was one. What a terrifying deterrent.
For my MA dissertation, I surveyed the attitudes of interpreters who have worked, or might be asked to work, in Sex & Relationships Education (SRE). I asked whether any of them had ever declined an SRE assignment and, separately, whether they felt well prepared to interpret SRE. 77% of them had interpreted SRE already. 60% of them were qualified interpreters. 34% said clearly that they were prepared. 11% had taken SRE-specific training. 0% of them had ever declined an assignment.
Impotent deontological codices aside, is it correct to blame interpreters and only interpreters for accepting those jobs? They have bills to pay, mouths to feed; they are pumped just as full of consumerist desire as anyone else, beamed from every available urban surface. Do the industry and the self-appointed “regulator” share none of this moral responsibility, can they fob all of the ethical burden onto our shoulders? Where is the conscientious structure that binds them?
The incredibly unfunny joke is that with a fairly trivial update to their public-facing database interface, a compulsory instruction to list specific competencies, and a pulling out of their collective fingers, NRCPD could put every shoddy agency in the country out of business and improve the general standard of interpreting and increase the job satisfaction of interpreters and halve the cost of interpreting services to commissioners by cutting out the profiteering middle-persons, all in one go, just by doing what they should be doing by the letter of their own oft-vaunted principles: enabling and encouraging people to find interpreters who have the specific linguistic and knowledge-based competence for specific domains of work. To collect that data and then deliberately not use it speaks of being totally sheltered from the real world of community sign language interpreting.
And so baby interpreters like me gawp in wonder at the amazing technicolor blizzard of spam, and read the repeated messages from professional bodies which encourage everyone to believe that registered interpreter status is the end of a journey instead of the beginning of one, and they think, I could give that unknown job a go, why the hell not? I have a pretty yellow badge now.
And then – toss a coin – they crash and burn.
None of it is good enough and we shouldn’t put up with it.