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”
1. A twenty-first century register
The core of a register is just a list of practitioners, a database table: other interpreting registers acknowledge this openly. All the rest of it – fripperies like this year’s fashion in codes of ethics, occupational standards, rainbow medallions – is just icing on that stodgy cake. It stands to reason that database functionality, the public-facing database interface, has no excuse for not being world class. Data isn’t just for sticking on your mantlepiece like a tacky china kitten: you have to be able to make it do some work.
It should be compulsory for registrants to disclose their experience and strengths in some detail, and to specify which settings they cannot/should not/will not work in; all of those competencies must be indexed and searchable and we should be encouraging the general public to search (once, of course, they have actually heard of the register in the first place). Not only is it obvious good practice but it would save commissioners (Deaf and hearing individuals and organisations) time and money. A really useful register would not only work to drive up the quality of interpreting at a time when the average length of experience has plummeted (see note 7 in this post), but also weaken the stranglehold of the private sector, whose typical solution to managing availability and specific competence is to carpet-bomb us all with spam and pick out whichever terp replies with the lowest quote (but still charge the client the same).
What we have is completely broken: distance from a given postcode is not the alpha and omega of terp selection. Helping people find the right interpreter, and helping interpreters find the right work, is fundamental, but we don’t currently have anything in the way of organised national structures to make it happen despite throwing money at it for decades.
2. Certification to work in critical domains
Some settings are more critical than others (though even one so-called “domain” will vary: compare and contrast Mrs Scroggins’s bunions with her open heart surgery). Specialist, mandatory certification for the kind of work that will seriously harm people if messed up has been requested repeatedly for the last two decades at the very least. See Kyra Pollitt’s 1997 essay on professionalisation and role to find out how little has changed in the intervening 17 years.
I was taught that qualifying was only the start, but the current system encourages everyone to believe that the “yellow badge” means that you are ready to work, unsupervised, in critical settings such as the judicial system and emergency medical care, even though interpreter training does not make any specific domain a compulsory area of study or experience. There is very little to work against brand new interpreters charging the same as someone with decades of community interpreting experience and we’re now seeing that bubble finally pop.
Other linguist professions take a very dim view of the “one size fits all” approach to interpreting as well: perhaps a new register could look to organisations such as the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, the Chartered Institute of Linguists or the Institute of Interpreting and Translation for inspiration about models of progression, certification, interview and sponsorship required for public service interpreting in critical domains.
The only remaining debates are over which “domains” are “critical”, and where their boundaries lie. For example, why isn’t education “critical”?
At the opposite end of the ladder, we’ve got the similar problem of how you help newly qualified terps deal with the transition shock of being cast out from the bouncy castle of training into the gritty and suspiciously ammoniac sandpit of the free market. While there might be a couple of teaching institutions which build some form of internship or “work experience” into their training programmes, this is very far from being the norm.
Otherwise, there are currently two established routes to interpreter registration: post-graduate qualification, which entails no work experience at all, and the National Vocational Qualification route, which has its roots in the exact opposite of post-qualification experience. NVQs were originally designed to allow master craftsmen to compete in the mid-late 20th century employment market by validating their accumulated expertise as being equivalent to some form of higher education. They were already experts: they didn’t need any work experience, they just needed to pad out their CVs. Arguably, NVQs were never intended to teach new languages or churn out new social practitioners.
I don’t know of any other job which mandates expensive and challenging training but then throws its newly qualified, inexperienced and substantially poorer neophytes to the wolves. There are many, many other professions – note my lack of inverted commas on this occasion – that require practitioners to complete a supervised or mentored programme of work post-qualification (or during qualification in the case of some association-accredited courses) in order to meet the criteria for full registration: 100-150 hours is not uncommon. Being more sizeable and better developed professions, there are ample opportunities in the public, third or private sector markets (populated by stable, salaried practitioners running tried and tested systems of compulsory supervision) which allow them to complete the pupillage within a year of qualifying. Do you still wonder why I prefer to work for the public sector, in a team heaving with procedure and accountability and networks of support, for two-thirds the pay? In that setting, the current register is an irrelevance, a low fidelity duplication, that I can’t afford.
Lee & Llewellyn Jones point out in their recent book on “role space” (see Resources) that if no interpreter had ever gone against the letter of our code of conduct and undertaken an assignment that was outside of their competence, no Deaf person would have ever understood a spoken language performance of Shakespeare, there would be no in-vision interpreting on the BBC News, and there would have been no Nuremberg Trials and thus no interpreting profession as we know it. This is true, and one of many strips of gaffer tape around the funereal shoebox of professional deontology (see below), but it doesn’t mean that introductions to new experiences should not be prepared for, guided and supported whenever possible. If private agencies are going to continue top-slicing our funding, we should be insisting that they account for the “added value” they give us as developing professionals, and if they can’t, they should be boycotted until they shut down for good.
Perhaps, in the absence of leadership on organised commissioning practices from any so-called regulator, we need to re-think and re-develop co-operative and mutual organisations and networks of our own. Maybe the old monolithic model of “professional association” is too prone to splintering and we need a new approach: less brittle obsidian and more springy gossamer. This wouldn’t be necessary at all if we had a register/regulator capable of recognising that the best way to protect the users of Deaf language services is to stand up for those that provide them, but that’s where we are. We’re constantly reminded by regulators and agencies that the Deaf community deserves quality. Well, right backatcha.
Or we could just continue to peel off the ceiling as a pancake-shaped “profession” so completely overbaked and fragile that a single funding change in a single government department can apparently rip it apart in a matter of months. Other professions – teachers, nurses – are talking about sustainability: why aren’t we?
4. An end to deontology
We’ve been here before and before and before. There is a reason why people say that rules were made to be broken, yet some people persist in trying to create Codes of Ethics/Conduct/Practice which prescribe completely context-free limits on our work. Back again to Lee & Llewellyn-Jones, leading figures in UK interpreter training, with a quote from a book which is incidentally on the recommended reading list for the brand new Signature Level 4 “Introduction to Interpreting” unit:
The codes, as they stand, merely represent the prototypical lay-person’s understanding, and hence expectations, of what we do. We don’t expect the lay-person to understand the complexity of the activity that is interpreting but neither do we expect the lay-person to define and regulate the way in which we do our work.
– Lee, R. & Llewellyn Jones, P. (2014): “Redefining the Role of the Community Interpreter: the concept of role space”, SLI Press
And of course, the current register is all about the lay-person. The general problem is that our current approach to Codes is an example of what I’m calling “off-the-shelf professionalism”. When I did some work on comparing contemporary codes of interpreting conduct, I could almost see at a glance who pinched what from whom. And we’re not even nicking the right stuff: it’s not as though deontology (rule-based conceptions of ethical behaviour) is especially favoured by social professions at large. I’m really not sorry for the repeated use of the following quote and I really should get some T-shirts printed:
No code can replace the need for psychologists to use their professional and ethical judgement. … Thinking is not optional. The code has been written primarily to guide, not to punish.
– British Psychological Society’s Code of Ethics and Conduct, 2009
Thinking is not optional. Guidance is good, but any rule will fail given enough time (and some will fail on day zero). We don’t train for years and bust a gut being continuously reflective and collaborative only to be hauled into a kangaroo court by the whim of a dead piece of paper.
So what should replace a Code of Conduct? Personally, I have no issue with the general statements of ethical principle: be nice, be honest, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t kick puppies etc. They’re an acknowledgement that the real purpose of these codes is a performance, public relations, persuading or reassuring everyone that we do have some integrity, and perhaps that does have some utility. So I’m happy to sign a piece of paper that says “I promise to be normal”, because that is what every other member of society already expected of me. I am an expert at pretending to be normal. Like so much else in interpreting, this is essentially about trust.
What I do take issue with is being told how to do my job by people who don’t know how to do my job, whether hearing or Deaf, OBE or GCSE. I will always listen to users of interpreting services to find out what they need and want, their insights on working with interpreters, and their feedback on how I might do better next time. We need more of that kind of research. But ultimately, the decisions about how to approach our work in any given moment are ours to make. We are all researcher-practitioners (or should be).
In what became a textbook study of the issues interpreters have with mechanically obeying instruction sets, Granville Tate and Graham Turner suggested back in 1997 (see Resources) that we need a dynamic and indexed corpus of reflective case studies, to be deployed in a similar manner to the legal concept of “case law”. Arguably, society in 1997 did not have easy access to the technology that could make that happen cost-effectively. Less arguably, it now does. Myself and a colleague would like to make this happen and it’s in our diaries for 2015.
5. Evidence-based decisions and practice
The scientific method is not (necessarily) rocket science. You have a hypothesis, essentially a question. You think of an ethical way to test it – that might be your own experiment/investigation or simply searching for patterns in other people’s data. You then reflect on your method of testing/searching and how it actually worked out; you also reflect on the extent to which the results really answered the question. You may then have some evidence: contrary to popular belief, it does not prove anything, but it may strengthen arguments and cases. You try and tell everyone else all about it, even if you failed to conclude anything very useful, because even that might save someone else a lot of bother. You think of an even better question, which hopefully leads to even better evidence. Rinse and repeat. This is all well known.
The “borrowing” of professional trends – off-the-shelf professionalism – is obviously not limited to Codes of Ethics: other widespread examples are compulsory Continuous Professional Development, compulsory reflective practice, and campaigns for statutory regulation. Let me make this very clear: I think CPD and reflection are great. I love learning and thinking – who doesn’t? Last year I logged 90 hours of CPD, or seven and a half times the amount I needed to renew. Some of it was even useful. (With statutory regulation however, I think it’s a ludicrous goal while we’re two-and-a-half meals away from revolution, and even if this were a good time, I have no interest in someone like Michael Gove or Tristram Hunt getting under my feet while I’m trying to work.)
But while interpreters split themselves into camps about whether or not CPD should be validated, and whether or not we should hand oversight of our work to the state, other professions have already had these arguments and moved on, for better or worse. T9000 has already covered (twice) the sad, sad story of the Institute for Learning, the professional regulator for Further Education teachers. In just twelve years, FE teaching went from non-regulation to voluntary to statutory to voluntary to their current professional limbo. Post-nominal letters now litter college corridors, like the discarded cocoons of exotic caterpillars that become drab, unremarkable moths.
Teaching, of course, is one of the most inspected, measured and performative professions, if not the most (medicine would probably have to duke it out with them). The smoking gun which crippled the IfL belonged to Lord Lingfield, who led the investigation (including evidence from Ofsted) which concluded that (a) statutory regulation on the model of organisations like the GMC and Bar Council, which were set up by Victorians, was not effective in the context of a completely different profession, and (b) compulsory CPD and its auditing process had had absolutely no effect whatsoever on the standard of teaching. This is a profession two hundred times larger than BSL/English interpreting and is, not-so-figuratively, drowning in benchmarks and data. Is that the kind of attention we want from the state? Be very careful what you wish for.
Other professions big on compulsory CPD include social workers, but then, the Moon is made from neither chalk nor cheese. Teaching, nursing and social work academics have each published thousands of papers on professionalism and professionalisation and what it might take to get this stuff working and why the hell we’re dancing to the government’s whistle and a hundred other issues: why do we see no evidence of any of this in any discourse from interpreting regulators? Sign language interpreting academia is pretty damn strong considering our size, with respected international networks: where are its findings in the discourse from interpreting regulators? We could ask:
- When NRCPD introduced compulsory logging of CPD, did they do it (a) because of evidence which showed a marked and worthwhile improvement in quality of services as a direct result of CPD logging, or (b) because everyone else was doing the same thing seven years ago and they mistakenly assumed it worked out really well, or (c) a blind hunch that maybe it would help, dunno really, let’s give it a go?
- When we campaign for statutory regulation, do we do so because (a) there is clear and persuasive evidence that statutory regulation in other social professions resulted in a marked and worthwhile increase in quality of services and working conditions, or (b) to keep up with the Joneses at <competing register X>, or (c) because of a blind hunch that it might increase our own “professional standing”, because that’s what really counts?
- When it was decided, as CACDP/Signature/NRPCD have decided every five years or so, to tinker with the Code of Ethics/Conduct, were the changes made because of (a) solid evidence from interpreting professionals about how they go about their work and the difficulties they have with externally-imposed ethical restrictions, or (b) because the changes were the same as someone else made although we have no idea how that actually turned out, or (c) because it makes us look busy?
If you, dear reader, are planning on changing the course of a whole profession – of sending the lives and well-being of professionals and those who depend on them in a new direction – please do us all the simple courtesy of having the first clue what you’re doing, and share your reasons and evidence for doing it. We have amazingly talented researchers and practitioners, in academia and home-grown: let’s use that. This is not about ivory towers: anyone can do research and create evidence, and a research task can take anything from an hour to a lifetime.
Let’s own our work and our decisions.
Let’s take it back.