Conferences, Interpretation


Our profession was up for interpretation at the 2012 Summit. Is it a matter of education? Certification? Organization? Conversation? Or is it something much, much more?


If someone were to ask you: What makes an interpreter, and what does an interpreter make, how would you answer? Is there such a thing as “the interpreting profession”? We all agree that interpreters work to bridge the language barrier in communication between parties who would otherwise not understand each other. But how interpreters perform this noble task is not the same: some interpret without previous training; others have a masters degree in it. Some are conduits, while others contribute as cultural brokers. Some, despite their hard work, make a subsistence living, while others reap income more than that of doctors and lawyers. Some dabble in it in their spare time, others devote their entire lives to the career. Some work across different interpretation sectors, while others are employees in a single organization. Some are freelancers, yet others are single language service companies. Some have recently joined the profession, while others are seeking exit paths. Defining an interpreter is not easy, so then can different interpreters come together, if not to get married, at least to talk to each other?

The 3rd North American Summit on Interpreting, organized by InterpretAmerica, takes on the challenge to get interpreters in different sectors into the same room, giving them an opportunity to talk to each other.

A holistic influence
This year, InterpretAmerica’s Summit was held in Monterey, CA, home to the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), in June. Naturally, there was a good attendance from the Graduate School of Translation, Interpretation, and Language Education at MIIS, including the Dean, professors, alumni and current students.  Indeed, the summit had a large number of those who further the education and training of interpreters, not only local, but from different institutions and programs in the US and abroad. They influence the next generation of interpreters, and came to the conference for a more holistic view of the industry. There was high level discussion on the profession. There was talk about building a consortium for Interpreter Trainer and Educators. Dialogue ensued on how to best put together educational frameworks for interpretation students.

Conferences often have lunches not long enough for in-depth dialogue, but this summit had a full 90-minute lunch with good food. Good food you can find in a lot of places in Monterey, but invaluable conversations over good food with interpretation experts, you could have only at the summit. The roundtables were bubbling with exchanges of ideas and insights into other sectors.

Conversations continued in the exhibit hall, where one could find the best names in interpretation services. For example, William Sound was there. Almost all interpreters who work with transmitters and receivers have used William Sound equipment, and they were there to talk about their equipment, and to listen to their client—the interpreter. We also had the omnipresent booth of IntransBooks, with great reads and good customer service.

When the keynote speaker came to stage, the exhibit hall emptied into the conference hall to hear technologist Scott Klososky, who invited us to step into the future. Whether technology is friend or foe will depend on whether you fear it or not. As technology changes, how we work will have to change as well. As the industry changes, how we prepare and adjust will determine whether we survive and prosper or whether we just struggle to survive. That said, adjustment does not necessarily mean leveraging technology; it could also mean niche market and or boutique service. However you choose to position yourself in a changing technology space, you have to find your place.

Connecting the world
From inspiring sessions to intriguing discussions, interpreters learned a lot about each other. The conference interpreter learned that interpreters in other sectors also work in the simultaneous mode of interpretation. The legal interpreters realized that their code of ethics has much in common with that of the community interpreter. The community interpreter learned that medical interpreters are also called healthcare interpreters, and that it is a sector that is highly organized and is looking to create professional alliances in order to advance their profession, just as legal interpreters did to be where they are now.

In the summit, we learned that interpreters, as the world’s second oldest profession, indeed do identify with each other. They can share stories and understand each other. Interpreters sometimes have difficulty trying to explain to their family and friends exactly what it is that they do, and what challenges they face in their jobs. But here at the summit, interpreters found others who understand them.

The summit reminded us of many things interpreters have in common. The profession will witness more changes in technology, for which we need to be more prepared. We all contribute to the noble cause of connecting the world, with meaning units and conversion, décalage and split attention, balancing register and transparency. We do work in a uniquely stressful profession and should not neglect caring for our mind and body. We also must not forget our duties to advance the status of the profession by client education and continuing education. But perhaps the most important thing we have in common is that each sector has much to offer another: intervention protocols, certification processes, client education methods, marketing ideas—just to name a few.

So much in common
With so much in common, then, can interpreters unite? The summit discussed questions such as: Should we have a national interpretation certification, and is it even feasible? Should we develop a general interpretation training curriculum in schools? Will this attract more young people into the profession?

To these questions, some say “No,” because interpreters come from working environments so varied that it is hard to even categorize interpretation sectors.  Conference interpretation is sometimes put in one sector, while the rest of the interpretation world into another. Legal is sometimes lumped into community while legal proudly proclaims its independence. Business interpreting, cultural exchange interpreting struggle to find their own categories and sometimes even just recognition from fellow interpreters. Sign language wonders if they belong with speaking language interpreters.

Even within a sector, there can be a lot of categories. For example, when you say legal, do we mean transaction or litigation? If litigation, do we refer to legal court settings or the legal private market? If court, do you mean State Court or Federal Court, and do you include administrative hearings? If you are talking about State Court, do you mean employees or contractors? If you are talking about contractors, do you mean just certified or all contractors?

Another example of fragmentation is healthcare/medical interpreters, who disagree on how to name themselves. At the summit, three labels were discussed: “healthcare interpreter” because it is more inclusive, “medical interpreter” or “either one is fine and interchangeable.” Even if we can agree on a uniform name, medical interpreters do work in different settings: clinical, mental health facilities; through different channels: in person, or remote via video or telephonic in their own homes, or at call centers. When it comes to certification, medical interpreters can choose from two different national certifications. Most medical interpreters believe the two certifications are redundant, and some even say the certification bodies should unify the credentialing efforts. In the meantime, many interpreters in this sector select simply by tossing a coin. Clients, after all, don’t know the difference.

Putting it in perspective
The branches of the interpretation category tree grow long and tangled as interpreters indeed come from different sectors, and from a variety of work environments even if from the same sector. From the variety comes perspectives just as varied. The different perspectives are like oil and water, which might be hard to mix, but InterpretAmerica’s summit did manage to get interpreters together, and as lively discussion ensued, awareness and understanding resulted. For example, interpretation can have different roles of conduit, clarifier, cultural broker and advocate, and interpreters find themselves in one or more roles. With better understanding of this framework, an interpreter who works more in the conduit role might realize the cultural broker is simply another role, rather than an unethical practice of interpretation.

It is not surprising some interpreters don’t have a better understanding of the role other interpretation sectors have. After all, interpretation can be a lonely profession. The interpreter receives an assignment, travels to the assignment location, performs the service, and leaves. Sometimes, with luck, you may run into a colleague. But not often will you be lucky enough to see interpreters in other sectors. The medical interpreter will not run into the community interpreter. The conference interpreter will not get to talk to the legal interpreter. But at the summit, you not only could talk to each other, you could even debate each other. In the beginning of the conference, you could hear interpreters debate over which interpretation sector is the rock star of interpretation.

At the end of the conference, participants walked away on a path to knowing that it is not the sector of interpretation that makes you a rock star, but the quality of service you provide, the contribution to society you make, and the mark on the profession you leave, and just as importantly, your own job satisfaction. Interpreters after all, help their clients communicate, and how ironic it would be if interpreters themselves were not able to communicate with each other.

The end of the two-day summit was really just a beginning to more thinking about the interpretation profession(s). So, if you would like to further the conversation, mark your calendar for next year’s North American Summit on Interpreting in June 2013 in Washington DC. To learn more, go here. ML & EC