Recently there’s been a digital fuss about Mark Cave, an Auslan interpreter, uncomfortably dubbed #signguy by people with smartphones. He is the latest in a line of interpreters in recent years who have lingered for their fifteen minutes of limelight, following Lydia Callis, Jonathan Lamberton and (in a very different category) diagnosed schizophrenic and alleged murderer Thamsanqa Jantjie. Depressingly, the story is rarely about what is really happening, but about people’s reaction to it. Tweets used to react to news media stories, but now they are the stories. (Updated 17/3/2015: a mere three weeks later, we can now add Tommy Krångh to the list, a Swedish interpreter whose TV performance triggered a social media reaction which virtually eclipsed the original artists.)
For me these episodes raise questions not only about the public perception of signed languages and interpreting but about the register of interpreted monologues and our alignment with interlocutors. It’s all very well to talk about “Deaf culture” as an undifferentiated slab and to assume the authority to claim that what we do is “just how sign language is” or that interpreters are inexplicably “not aware of how we look“, but Deaf professionals and academics will sign differently when they’re presenting their findings to a conference to when they’re telling a fishing story in the pub, just as I would be unlikely to shriek, swoop and use the “quotative like” if I were, for some reason, interpreting a hurricane warning from BSL to English. I question whether we are doing our commissioners or ourselves a service when we “pull focus” at press gatherings about emergencies. Now, I’ve “been distracting” myself and had quite short shrift with those complaining: I’m not saying that we should opt for fading into the wallpaper, that we must by necessity tug our forelocks in the direction of a dominant culture or authority. Nor am I saying that we should treat the reaction of Twitter as anything more than it is. I’m saying that perhaps our training is doing us a disservice if it simply boils the entire concept of register down to “formal” versus “informal”; that for a profession which has historically made a somewhat misguided fuss about “invisibility”, we could have a think about some double standards here; and that there are some serious issues with interpreters becoming the “public face” of signed languages and Deaf culture.
But what depresses me most about the spectacle of terps in the media is the distraction from social reality: Twitter and the BBC’s narrative of interpreting is completely divorced from mine. December 2013 was an utterly miserable time to be a terp because of the blather over the performance at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. For the next three months or so, I was fending off well-meaning but tiring questions about this man from thousands of miles away. My responses escalated like this:
“No, that wasn’t interpreting.”
“No, it wasn’t actually a language.”
“No, schizophrenia doesn’t cause you to suddenly forget a language.”
“How would I know if his appointment was politically motivated?”
“No, no idea what you’re on about.”
“Nelson Mandela is dead??”
The response from interpreting associations was mostly either muted or slow-off-the-mark or both. For me, the best of all came from the European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters (efsli):
The use of an incompetent interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service is, of course, a scandal but perhaps an even greater scandal is that untrained and unqualified interpreters are used on a daily basis in most settings where, according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Deaf people have the right to full and equal access, from schools and colleges to hospitals to courts of law. It isn’t the fault of the interpreters, the vast majority of whom are doing the best they can with inadequate access to appropriate training; instead it is the fault of the policy makers who often don’t think it is important that those who work to give Deaf people access to the essential services we take for granted are properly trained.
– efsli, 12.12.2013 (emphasis mine)
There are two nuances here which I believe have fully sailed over the heads of many. The first is that an interpreter who is untrained or unqualified is still an interpreter. We do not stigmatise villagers in the Gambia for interpreting the King James Bible into the local language and idiom, untrained. We do not attack the British Army for recruiting local Aghani citizens without interpreting qualifications but we did angrily campaign against it when those same interpreters were left behind to face the Taliban as “collaborators”. But Communication Support Workers (CSWs: mostly unqualified interpreters working in deaf education) on our home soil? Everything they do is a matter for anxious nail-biting. They “experiment on deaf children”, as a colleague once charmingly put it.
The second nuance is that there is a demand for unqualified interpreters, and therefore they are going to crawl out from under rocks even if people continue to sneer so hard that they pull a nostril muscle. Of course those of us that actually work in education (unlike many of the commentators) know that the majority of CSWs act with integrity, are painfully aware of their limits and do the best they can despite receiving little or no support, often not from their employers and certainly not from hyperprofessionalised interpreters or the Deaf Industry unless you have ready cash in hand. Most CSWs want to develop their skills but it’s a pipe-dream if you’re working for a pound an hour over the national minimum wage with no guaranteed income in an economically stagnant part of Essex, with no sick pay, childcare, maternity/paternity leave or holiday pay, in-between perpetual recessions, in a tanked economy, under a government ideologically committed to dismantling and auctioning off all public sector services. The fault is with policy makers and enactors.
All of this is largely absent from the never-ending supply of “opinion pieces” which list people’s “concerns” and “anxieties” about CSWs without ever once offering anything concrete, no matter how small, to help CSWs develop their skills and inch up that golden escalator to sanctified, acceptable terphood. There are now FE colleges and local authorities contracting deaf education services out to agencies who won’t even pay CSWs if the student decides not to show up. Who would work under those conditions? Only the most desperate, and apparently there is nothing more despicable to a professional than being desperate. Uncomfortable reminders of where we’ve come from, of the dodgy things we did for money that one summer? It will be interesting to see how many interpreters with plastic badges get desperate enough to come knocking for the kind of work I do when the government has finished restructuring their “profession”. Just once, instead of endless green ink, it would be nice to see some actual lobbying towards better funding for CSW development – NDCS are the only people who have ever been active on this front and that money is now spent and gone.
When it’s foreign and exotic and comfortably distant, then we can sweep in magnanimously with our best colonial airs and graciously teach people how to do it properly before catching a supersonic air liner back home. Because the reason that organisations like efsli and its big sister WASLI exist is, in theory, so that nations with more “advanced” interpreting “professions” – coincidentally First World “white” nations such as the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, Germany – can foster and develop those states that don’t have professionalised interpreters yet. But perhaps efsli and WASLI should be paying the UK a bit more attention, now that we’re a third world interpreting country again, with our national associations splintered into multiple shards, our union members running astroturf campaigns and bullying people from behind anonymous Twitter accounts, and a make-believe “regulator” which is actually the near-empty dusty north wing of a minor exam board chaired by an accountant.
Let’s support families to hold their councils to account for what’s laid out (or not) in their Local Offer. Ask councils to account for how they ensure continuity of support and what measures they take to develop and retain the skills of the professionals who work with deaf children. We’re making a song and dance about the National Framework Agreement for public service interpreting, and that’s as it should be, but in education we’ve already had those same working conditions for at least five years if not decades. Where was the outcry then? In someone else’s back yard.