It’s been nearly a year since my last piece and I have one excuse which is only partly true, but you’re gonna have to roll with it: I’ve been doing postgrad and working full time. However, because I truly love what I’m doing, I find myself permanently excited by the content I’m being taught. Around a week ago, I had an epiphany and managed to truly understand why I do what I do. Without further ado, this is my rant of 2018, just in time for International Translation Day.

Interpreting models have developed over the years to reflect interpreting theories and the evolution of our role. From machines to allies, interpreters are experiencing the consequences of greater social awareness and the acknowledgment of power intrinsic to our profession.

The more interpreting theory I study, the more my views on the profession change. Whereas I felt sufficiently far from my clients and their emotions, and I was convinced I would never suffer from the temptation to over-identify with someone simply because they speak my own language, experience has shown me I am a fool. I empathise with people and their problems because I am human, and being a foreigner in a place that doesn’t fully represent you makes you accidentally gravitate towards perceived cultural proximity.

The Conduit Model

With the beginning of professionalisation, the conduit model was conceived to offer a sense of seriousness and objectivity. Institutions such as the legal system want to think of interpreters as machines because they need to fit us into a structure that didn’t take us into account in the first place. We then found ourselves bending the system as best we could to accommodate for immigrants and foreign language speakers, as well as the necessary interpreters these people required. Viewing interpreters as conduits or machines let lawyers and judges feel like they still had full control of the situation.

However, THERE ARE PRAGMATIC HOLES. These theories can’t really hold up because we are not machines, we are humans. As individuals who are part of an interaction (however unusual its structure might be), we make choices. Interpreters are making choices all the time, affecting communication in a variety of ways. The idea of them being a conduit or machine leads to an assortment of problems in relation to the role of the interpreter and their power.

These problems have been addressed by scholars, who have been coming up with different models to conceive of interpreting. Interpreters have been seen as facilitators, as cultural brokers and, more recently, as allies.

The Interpreter as an Ally

Now, “ally” is a word I have been using more and more in my personal life, so I was quite surprised when I ran into it while reading about interpreting. The more I talk about allies in the context of feminism and racism in my personal life, the more I question interpreting theories which push us, professional interpreters, to remain impartial. The more I think about capitalism and the way it creates individualistic societies, the more I question how much of a machine I should be when facing a refugee who has been displaced and is now living in a completely foreign country, but can’t speak its people’s language.

The ally model is heavily based on the theories of the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Freire believes that ignoring oppression only serves to support and perpetuate the status quo, making social change impossible. Freire also speaks about the members of the dominant class joining the dis-empowered ones in their efforts to change power imbalance, and the importance of not underestimating the latter’s abilities. The idea is bringing the power back to those who have been exploited throughout history without leading the movement, just siding with it, letting them lead the change.

Interpreters and Power

As interpreters, we have power. We are working within the system, we can speak (at least) two languages and negotiate meaning between two cultures. In the room, we are the only ones who know what is happening at all times. Without us, people wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other. Recognising that power is a bit scary, to be perfectly honest with you. Power is a privilege, but it is also a responsibility.

Now that I am more aware of the power intrinsic in my role, I have been thinking how I should use it. If I believe that if you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem, that will directly affect the interpreting model I use: I want to be an ally.

Those are strong words, right there. They can be perceived as going against everything we’ve been taught. It can be used to question my professionalism. However, I do understand the importance of keeping a distance from my clients. I need to be able to work with them, I need to be able to transmit messages with as little interference as possible. I do abide by the code of ethics. It is there to protect us. I need to be able to go home and not carry these people’s problems with me, so that I can look after my own health and well-being, and then come back to help them again, as strong as ever. But there is an awareness which I think must inform our practice and sustain it.

The Importance of Professional (and Personal) Development

I often question why I am still studying. I believe that practice makes perfect, especially in such a hands-on profession as this one. So why am I still at university, focusing on theories and essays? Is it really going to make me a better professional?

Well, yes. As well as a better person!

I never thought I would have the possibility to share classes with such a diverse group of people. All ages, some ten different languages, most of us immigrants. Hard to explain the beauty in being this diverse. The class feels like a confrontation with the otherness, while recognising, at the same time, that these people are my people, all of us foreign in the same way.

During a lecture, I accidentally came across theories that apply to my political views, my roots as a Latin American woman, as a socialist feminist AND as an interpreter. I did not think I would find something to define me this way, as a whole. Something that would address all my interests and, basically, who I am as a person, informing the role that I want to fulfill in this world.

I always knew there was a reason why I do what I do. I always knew it sat very well with me. I knew that, somehow, it suit me. This is the reason, the clarity that I have been unconsciously looking for my entire life. I want to be an ally. I’m telling you, this is an awakening. The beginning of the rest of my professional career.

Some references

  • The Interpreter: Machine, Advocate, or Ally?, by Charlotte Baker-Shenk
  • Integrating the interpreting service models, by David Bar-Tzur
  • From Benevolent Care­Taker to Ally: The Evolving Role of Sign Language Interpreters in the United States of America, by Anna Witter-Merithew
  • NZSTI Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct

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