This wasn’t an easy decision. You could choose to look at it as though I were leaving a profession. If you really want to think that, I can’t stop you. But to me, it feels like I’ve decided to join one.
Graduating as a qualified interpreter was one of the proudest days of my life. I got to surround myself with the most important people to me, the ones to whom I owe everything and who have put up with all manner of crap over the years, while shuffling around in a Harry Potter costume. I was called up onto a stage, saluted by men carrying giant sceptres, and shook hands with a very important personage in gold-threaded robes (I don’t even remember who she was, just that she was venerable and illustrious and vaguely beneficent). We were flanked by my academic superiors, arranged in tiers of increasing breadth and floppiness of hat, looking on with weary approval. Hundreds of strangers applauded, there were drinks and flashing cameras and a thousand permutations of mutual congratulation. We were the very last BSL/English interpreters to graduate from the University of Leeds MA programme, a course that was axed without even a whimper from sign language interpreting professional membership bodies.
The same month, my yellow NRCPD badge arrived in the post, and everything went downhill rapidly from there.
I immediately discovered that UK sign language interpreting lacks one of the most basic features of a “profession”: structure. There is no recognised system of post-qualification pupillage or internship – there may be small pockets of this kind of activity but despite my best efforts they have eluded me. Any qualified interpreter is apparently as appropriate a choice as any other in the eyes of NRCPD, and so any interpreter can immediately charge the same as someone with 25+ years of Deaf community experience the instant they can flash their badge (a fee which professionalisation has inflated to many multiples of the national living wage), and unlike some other linguist professions which certify members for work in critical domains through a process of post-qualification assessment and sponsorship, NRCPD stops interpreter progression dead in the water the moment you have the bare minimum to be considered safe to practice (with the exception of some CPD hand-waving which tempts people into ticking off boxes by going on “courses” to discover what their Myers-Briggs Personality Type is). Interpreter training does not contain any compulsory domain-specific training – you can choose to study any domain in more depth (I chose education) but you will typically choose one. This badly flawed process of “professionalisation” has resulted in the hordes of new interpreters thinking that they can charge the same as a junior barrister or surgeon and has also handed control of our work to a legion of profit-mongers who understand nothing about what we need to do our work effectively. Apparently this is “protecting the deaf community”.
Partly because of this background of “professionalisation without practice”, but also due in large part to NRCPD’s total IT incompetence, my registering as an interpreter also immediately opened a floodgate of liquid spam from choirs of agencies who wanted me, a brand new interpreter who has been in court precisely once as a trainee journalist and in hospital only ever to visit, to work in settings like hospitals, the criminal justice system and even conferences organised by the United Nations – I’ve talked at length about this before. We’re now seeing a small explosion of Deaf-led “services” (agencies) who are effectively doing NRCPD’s job for them by producing a useful interface to a database of specific interpreter competencies. I don’t rate any of them all that highly, but several of them are already more useful than the online NRCPD register, even if they do still encourage clients to think that you can just summon an interpreter to any setting by pressing a button and not have to lift a finger with regards to preparation, consultation, co-production etc. So why would I or my potential clients need NRCPD as well? You can ask for my police record checks or CV or references any time you like. It has therefore been within NRCPD’s power for the last five years to short-circuit the most blatant abuses of private market profiteering by providing people with useful and specific and unmediated access to the only truly national database of sign language interpreters – this is highly pertinent to the ongoing debate about fees and market inflation and ATW abuses – but the sad reality is that they have trouble figuring out how to send an e-mail or write a document in Standard English.
And despite this total lack of the most essential basics of a “profession”, NRCPD are pushing an agenda of statutory regulation. If you don’t know what that is, allow me to be blunt. It is a system where control of a profession is taken away from the people best qualified to understand it (if that hasn’t already happened, as in our case) and handed to politicians and civil servants, the very same who are currently rolling out an aggressive agenda of public service decimation and disability scapegoating. Bizarrely, NRCPD’s favoured route to statutory regulation is voluntary regulation, which is not actually concerned at all with what professionals do or how they do it: “questions of efficacy are outside the remit of the AVR [assured voluntary regulation] scheme”, which is essentially saying that the view of the “regulator of regulators” is that you can practice total nonsense and utter quackery as long as you are signed up and pay a fee. This might sound arrogant but I am better than that.
Rudderlessly adrift in the vengeful dark of space, the Starship Interpreter is explosively decompressing chamber by chamber under the combined suction of incompetence at “regulator” level, internal politics and sustained attack from political ideology. It should really be painfully obvious that the current board of NRCPD is entirely unfit to govern our work, and I’m not even certain they have any actual staff of their own. They repeatedly trumpet farces like their Ministry of Justice framework agreement as a mark of success when every actual working interpreter in the country knows that the reality under the MOJ/Capita contract is a sick joke; they repeatedly “consult” with “stakeholders” which mainly seems to consist of sending out closed-answer Survey Monkey questionnaires; their executive officers tell us that interpreters might need to take a pay cut to “save” other people’s jobs while also asking us to remind them what they are supposed to be doing. ASLI have splintered off at least three other groups (splitters!!) in the last five years, whether from external pressure or internal character deficiencies I don’t know and no longer care, so not much help there. I imagine that to NRCPD board members, their position is just another part of “managing a portfolio of board positions” and a way to field opportunities to their contacts, but for us, it’s our lives and our work, our future, not to mention the lives of the people we work with. They are now finally recruiting new practitioner board members (in a suspect manner) but this is all so, so slow – it has taken them eighteen months to lift this finger. They have taken in about £400,000 in registration fees during my brief two years as a qualified interpreter and have a pittance to show for it. Do you have any idea what some small/medium third sector organisations could achieve with that kind of money?
So I’ll be donating my £205 registration fee to a charity instead, probably NDCS. While I finish off my second pass at post-graduate study, I’ll be giving up freelance interpreting and “officially” returning to work in the education sector, an area where interpreters have always been under-qualified and under-paid and the most fundamental policy shift in decades is currently rolling out, but this has generated only a miniscule proportion of the outrage currently being directed at Access to Work. It’s a job worth doing: if education isn’t a critical service, what is? Apparently “we all did maths at school” but for many deaf kids and teenagers, that isn’t necessarily the full truth. You can call me a CSW or an interpreter or an OCS tutor or whatever the hell you like – when you’ve decided what I should be titled, let me know and I will do my utmost to give a damn, but in the meantime I have plenty of work to do. Hilariously, I’ve even been earmarked to teach (introductory) interpreting and translation theory. Critical thinking and purposeful approaches to translation aren’t on the Signature curriculum but I’d teach them anyway. The elbow patches were inevitable and, as they say, if you can’t do …
But I still believe there should be something like registration. I don’t think people should be completely open to being preyed upon by those pretending to be something they’re not – it’s just that I’ve never had much time for blind faith, and our current register does little to prevent it anyway. So I will return to NRCPD if they do manage a complete overhaul and can produce working conditions and guidance that are actually useful to me and are demonstrably shaped by research and evidence of best practice, although I don’t seriously believe that will happen and my greatly preferred option would be that NRPCD is abolished and replaced with something better and more independent from vested interests, such as a Europe-wide register. In the meantime, I’ll be exploring other registration options – NRPSI are currently considering a move for equality and allowing BSL/English terps to register alongside spoken language public service practitioners – I don’t believe they’re a perfect solution and their Code of Conduct is at least as problematic as NRCPD’s, but at least they are governed by people qualified to practice and have the general approval of their industry.
I was once told by an interpreter – one who used to run an anonymous blog criticising other interpreters – that registering was a matter of integrity. For me, it’s because I have a sense of integrity that I’m de-registering.
Good luck, and see you on the other side.