discrimination (mass n)
Pronounciation: / dɪˌskrɪmɪˈneɪʃ(ə)n /
1. The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex
2. Recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another
– Oxford English Dictionary, August 2014
The older you get and the more you learn, the less anything seems to make any sense at all. “Wisest is he who knows he does not know”, indeed, but it can be a proper headache.
There is a yawning divide in the UK between those who provide signed and spoken language interpreting services. We have separate qualifications, separate voluntary registers, different letters after our names and (with one recent exception) different national bodies. Yet the jobs we do are the same jobs, more or less, even if it’s one of the most varied jobs in the world.
We rarely co-operate, although when we do it’s impressive, such as the campaign against the Ministry of Justice’s decision to farm out court interpreting to Capita/ALS. But winter is coming: there are augurs that a National Framework contract for public service interpreting is in the works, in the exact model of the MoJ disaster. If so, interpreters need to brush up on their solidarity more than ever before.
So which of the above senses of the term “discrimination” is the most faithful? Are sign language interpreters really being asked to sit in a different part of the bus, or is there a genuine and well-understood difference in their work that necessitates the silos? Perhaps it isn’t actually about the “professionals” at all, but all about their clients?
Here are some viewpoints – some of them are more opinion than fact, and I don’t necessarily buy them all in their entirety. Do you?
When is a terp a terp?
As experienced ASL/English interpreter Daniel Greene recently pointed out, sign language interpreters are also spoken language interpreters. It’s not even as though sign language terps are unaware of it – one of the foamy crests on the regular waves of horizontal violence that batter us into submission is the admonishment that BSL/English interpreters are expected to have an excellent command of both written and spoken English, and sometimes there is much hand-wringing regarding the ability of colleagues to function on issues that range from the grocer’s apostrophe to the shocking sin of sounding like you come from Peckham. (Sometimes the same critics talk about “levels” of English, as though accent, dialect and sociolinguistic register are best understood as an Olympic podium or a trombone.)
But the general point is inarguable. While there is a relatively small number of qualified interpreters that only ever work between two or more signed languages, the great majority of us use our throats, tongues and lips in every single assignment, even when working in a more frequently monological setting such as Higher Education. A good proportion of our training is supposed to revolve around the art of public speaking. The manner and content of our speech reflects, inescapably, on the client we are representing.
The real difference is that sign language interpreters are merely bimodal. The volume of research demonstrating the commonalities between aural and visual modes of language in terms of their structural, social and cognitive function is huge and grows every year, while the few identified differences give us a broader insight into the human potential for variation in all languages. While I can’t speak for interpreters who took the sign language NVQ or spoken language DPSI routes to qualification, a good proportion of my training and study was modality-agnostic – I took classes alongside Chinese translators and Spanish-German conference interpreters.
So how am I not a “spoken language interpreter”?
Disabled or not, here I come
What about the identities of the linguistic communities that interpreters serve? It’s impossible to be involved in the Deaf World without running head-first into the persuasive but contentious view that Deaf people are not disabled. You can study this kind of thing for years and many greater intellects than mine have done just that, so you’ll forgive the following bastardised summary: Deaf British people are not physically or cognitively impaired and are, instead, a linguistic minority directly comparable to the Welsh or Scots Gaelic communities. BSL was even recognised in 2003 as an indigenous UK language by a representative of government, although it still lacks most of the attendant rights of a national language. In this paradigm, it is not any biological sensory “impairment” that “disables” the Deaf community: it is the mass of “hearing people” that actively disables them, forcing the Deaf to live in a world that is designed and run by an oppressive majority which uses different articulators and sensory apparatuses to communicate and is generally ignorant of any diversity in that regard.
(Note for visitors to whom this is all new information: the capital D “Deaf” typically refers to the community of sign language users, as opposed to the lower case d for “deaf” which indicates those who may not know any sign language, are more likely to identify as English users and are also more likely to consider themselves as having “hearing loss”. When we want to talk in English about both groups at once, we use the awkward and unpronounceable term “d/Deaf”.)
This argument holds a great deal of sway in the voluntary/charity and public sectors as well as the disability campaigning movement: their sociolects now include preferred phrases such as “deaf or disabled people”, despite the concept being practically identical to the social model of disability that they all already subscribed to (arguably, the “Deaf is not disabled” argument does depend quite heavily on a medical model definition of “disabled”). Perhaps it was the disability movement’s failure to be fully inclusive that has led to people talking about exactly the same thing in completely different terms, or maybe Deaf campaigners are ambivalent about solidarity with disabled people for other reasons, but that analysis is well beyond the scope of this blog post. Regardless, the Deaf-as-linguistic-minority argument finds its fullest and most extreme incarnation in scholar Harlan Lane’s argument that Deaf people are better understood as an ethnic minority. Even many d/Deaf folks find that one hard to swallow, but that doesn’t stop many of Lane’s arguments from being useful, provocative and difficult to dismiss, especially in discussions about rights. Who do spoken language public service interpreters work with? Ethnic minorities. How do we frame access to information and participation in society? As a right.
There are admittedly counter-arguments to the “cultural minority” stance, many of which quickly degenerate into destructive sniping about the Deaf community accessing disability services such as Access to Work, welfare benefits and so forth (which arguably matters less and less as the welfare state is progressively dismantled and sold off to the old boys’ network), but regardless of any of that, the existence of BSL as a real and distinct language used by a real and distinct community is impossible to dispute. I’ve had this view of the Deaf identity drummed into me so deeply that it’s almost second nature.
Are we all interpreters, or not? If we campaign for equality, just how selective are we allowed to be about how we define it?
Ever decreasing circles
The final difference between signed and spoken language interpreters in the UK is one of structure, organisation and purpose: the latter tend to sharply divide themselves into conference and public service interpreters, and see those as very distinct settings and skills, with separate qualification and training routes; they (arguably) carry a very different sense of status and there was a time when community interpreting was widely seen as a poor cousin to the more illustrious conference setting.
Registered sign language interpreters, on the other hand, are usually assumed to be competent in both, despite there being no compulsory training in conference interpreting in order to qualify for registration and absolutely no systematic structure of pupillage or time-based accreditation in place post-qualification. (Most of the work of sign language interpreters takes place in community settings nonetheless, for similar reasons to those necessitating the existence of public service interpreters: power disparities resulting in specific client group demands from public services.)
These different approaches are reflected in the way that signed and spoken interpreters organise themselves: the voluntary register for all BSL/English interpreters in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is the National Register of Communication Professionals Working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD), which also “regulates” a shrinking handful of other job titles; the register for public service spoken language interpreters is the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI), but spoken language conference interpreters tend to organise themselves on an international level.
NRCPD and NRPSI exchange friendly letters occasionally, and apparently hope for a closer working relationship. Perhaps the relationship should be much, much closer. Perhaps they could merge? Sadly, whenever sign language interpreters go through their periodic phase of arguing about setting up a new register, it is met with fierce internal opposition on the grounds that having more than one register would be divisive – which is bizarre, because we already have more than one register in the UK, even before you get into the semantics of the term “register”. Scotland still just about maintains SASLI, a small independent register of sign language interpreters, and NRPSI patently exists as a register of interpreters. But even the most outspoken “all for one and one for all” practitioners appear to believe that division is completely acceptable between languages of differing modality.
Not that spoken language public service terps are any more inclusive. In 2012, NRPSI published a Strategy Document on the future of registration, which begins with a Vision, which ends with the strapline “We Are Stronger Together”. But, anecdotally, I’ve been given to understand that BSL/English interpreters pursuing NRPSI registration are refused, regardless of qualifications or experience, and are directed instead to NRCPD. One could easily talk about this in terms of inequality: is it discrimination number 1 or number 2? Perhaps it is less sinister than that and merely a manifestation of “third sector thinking”, whereby organisations are reluctant to poach from each other’s “patches” – this parochialism makes some sense for franchised charities that provide services but is less logical for the regulator of a well-defined profession. Or perhaps it is down to the common public misperception of BSL as being a pantomime instead of a living language with its own syntax, vocabulary and idiom. Or maybe spoken language interpreters are blameless and the division is maintained by forces from within the Deaf political sphere which assert some sense of ownership over “their” interpreters. Whatever the cause, the NRPSI Vision should be more accurately rewritten as “We Are Stronger Together (Terms & Conditions May Apply)”.
But an inclusive view of “interpreting as interpreting” is not without precedent. NRPSI and NRCPD are not the only players and we now have five sign language interpreter members of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI). In addition, the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) accepted its first sign language interpreter member earlier this year, who works in Dutch Sign Language, spoken Dutch and spoken English. Neither ITI nor AIIC call themselves “registers”, but just like “discrimination”, the intent and function behind the word “register” is a matter of semantics. Both ITI and AIIC have a graded membership structure with exacting requisites for full membership based on qualifications, experience and sponsorship; they have a Code of Ethics/Conduct and a disciplinary process which can lead to expulsion (see this post for my comparison of the codes to NRPSI and NRCPD’s codes); they require a commitment to “professionalism” and collegiality; they make lists of their members accessible to all and promote the preferred use of their members over non-members; and membership is seen by at least some sections of national and international society as conferring a particular professional status. They have essentially all of the features of a “register” barring the arbitrary use of the dictionary word itself. Nor is “registration” a term or concept used in many other countries’ interpreting professions regardless of modality; licensure, certification and simple membership are all options that apparently work out.
Another difference in purpose between the regulators is that NRPSI primarily exists to protect, support and promote its registered professionals, while NRCPD is proud to say that its main purpose is to protect the “consumers”, the d/Deaf communities; since its formation five years ago, it has been governed by people with no training or experience in interpreting whatsoever, whose experience is in healthcare regulation instead (although after a good deal of pressure, it is just recently promising to reform that). Arguably, it consequently has always taken a somewhat “medical model” approach to regulation and the needs of the Deaf community, delegating the interests of the actual linguists who fund it to a rapidly multiplying gaggle of other squabbling organisations (ADEPT, ASLI, NUBSLI and VLP). The NRCPD Chair is on record as asserting that it is neither sustainable nor good practice for a regulator to represent both its registrants and their clients, though strangely, SASLI, NRPSI and a hefty array of much larger professions all seem to have absolutely no problem with that. NRCPD’s perception of conflicts of interest is somewhat selective, given that they are not an independent organisation and are actually just a wing of the awarding body Signature, that issues the very same qualifications that are then accepted for registration purposes.
NRCPD even believes that it is sane and realistic to believe that it might become a statutory regulator, despite being unable to organise a regular newsletter and despite two successive governments giving a whole bag of patently more established professions the statutory brush-off, and they do nothing to check the spread of the myth that it is possible to “legally protect” the dictionary word “interpreter”; nor is there any hint that they intend to gain consent from spoken language interpreters for this trademarking attempt. I don’t support this aim, as you may have been able to detect, and certainly have no intention of funding it, but the relevant point here is that even if I did and even if there were the faintest spark of hope for the endeavour, it would still not be possible without a more united approach to interpreting regardless of language modality. It is sometimes tempting to think that sign language interpreters believe they invented interpreting, or perhaps they have simply forgotten that any other interpreters exist outside of the Deaf world.
Finally, there is some separated workers’ union activity. Recently-formed Unite branch NUBSLI, which apparently represents the interests of “BSL interpreters”, justifies its open call for poaching potential members from NUPIT by citing “health and safety considerations” as a special case for signers, the same beige blanket used for decades against Deaf workers and students to prevent them from receiving reasonable accommodations. As a professional interpreter I can’t guess at what those differing health and safety considerations might be – I hope (against hope) that it isn’t anything to do with so-called “repetitive strain injury”.
Perhaps all of this explains why, to an outsider at least, spoken language interpreting seems like a more cohesive and less volatile occupation. If interpreters were really united, perhaps some of the infighting and pointless duplication of effort amongst sign language interpreter organisations might finally become obsolete and we might stand a chance of escaping the relentless hyperprofessionalism and performativity that is ripping the occupation apart.
What I did on my holidays
Possibly none of this cuts any ice with you, dear reader. But if it did, here are some suggestions.
- At the very least, talk to your colleagues about this. See what they think. Do they shoot it down in flames or get all sparkly-eyed about it?
- Make friends with an interpreter in a different modality. Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook are all pretty horrifying in their own way but put them to work regardless and strike up a new professional friendship with someone from outside of your comfort zone. What have you got to lose?
- Ask your regulators, NRCPD and NRPSI, why interpreters are split down the middle. Let other people know about their responses, if they respond.
- Ask the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL), who set the IoLET Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI) examinations that lead to registration with NRPSI, if a British Sign Language examination could be developed. Not only would this create greater equity in the profession, it would avoid indigenous BSL users having their language classed by NRPSI as “Rare”, and it would also give BSL/English interpreters an equitable shot at achieving Chartered Linguist accreditation with CIOL, improving the national and international standing of BSL itself as well as the interpreting “profession”.
- Pending acceptance by NRPSI, if you are a sign language interpreter and you are lucky enough to be comfortably well off, consider joining ITI as either an Associate or full Member. It’s not cheap to get in and I’m not going to go as far as saying that ITI is a direct replacement for NRCPD, although it does fulfil some of the same functions (and provides several that NRCPD doesn’t) – there is nothing to stop you affiliating with both (except the depth of your wallet). At the very least, it would let you put more letters after your name in your e-mail signature (if you believe in that sort of thing).
- If you’re a sign language terp with years of experience in conference interpreting, get inspired by Maya de Wit’s lead and work towards AIIC membership. We all clucked and tutted about Thamsanqa Jantjie but this would represent actually doing something about it.
We all have so much to learn from each other. Let’s not waste the opportunity.