in Access to Work

The Access to Work ‘staff’ interpreter – we need to start a conversation! (Part One)

20130512-100044.jpgJules Dickinson is a BSL/ English interpreter, consultant, trainer and practitioner-researcher based in the East Midlands. She has a strong interest in office/ Access to Work interpreting, which led to her PhD research at Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, completed in 2010. The research takes a Community of Practice approach to examining the ways in which signed language interpreters impact on the interaction between deaf and hearing employees in workplace settings, focusing specifically on humour, small talk and the collaborative floor.
Can a ‘staff interpreter’ [1] ever fully integrate into the workplace and be treated as a real employee…or even as a human being? Having worked in this particular domain for over 10 years, this is a question which has been on my mind for some time. I have often struggled with what feels like a lack of basic recognition of my needs as a fellow employee. Sometimes, just getting my presence acknowledged is a challenge. If asked to describe my stint as a staff interpreter I would say that I have often felt as though I have been treated as a ‘robot’, a ‘commodity’, or even as a ‘dog’- these descriptors might seem a little harsh, but from discussions with other colleagues I am aware that such experiences are common in this setting. It seems unlikely that deaf and hearing colleagues are treating interpreters this way intentionally, so we need to look closely at where this issue is originating from. Is it just a lack of awareness about our role? Are we, as interpreters, projecting a message of invisibility? Do we direct the focus of hearing people to the deaf client to the detriment of representing ourselves and our needs? Does this relatively new domain bring with it a need for a redefined, more visible role? Do we need to expand our ‘role space’? (Lee & Llewellyn-Jones 2011). Let’s consider some of the issues in more detail.
Regular contact
On the surface, the staff interpreter’s role should be no different to the interpreter’s role in other domains. However, there are a number of factors which make working in this setting quite different to other assignments which interpreters undertake. One issue is the regularity of contact with both deaf and hearing clients. Educational interpreting aside, the majority of our assignments in the community do not result in us working alongside the same deaf and hearing people for months (sometimes years) on end. This degree of regular contact we have with all employees can lead to boundaries being less clearly defined. You cannot work in the same team or organisation, day in and day out, without engaging in personal social conversation. In doing so we often form acquaintances and friendships with the individuals with whom we work and this in turn inevitably leads to a blurring of the traditional interpreter/ client boundaries. Through this regular, social contact we effectively become ‘more visible’- we affirm our presence in the workplace. This consistency of contact should result in interpreters being seen very much as human beings, but research findings (see Dickinson, 2010) and anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not the case. For example, in a previous staff interpreter role, I was continually referred to as ‘the interpreter’ by both deaf and hearing staff, despite having worked alongside them on a daily basis for a number of years. This left me feeling depersonalised and objectified, with a strong sense of not being a ‘real’ colleague or fellow employee. Was I the instigator of this objectification? Did I, through my behaviour and my language choice, subtly reinforce the perception that my role as an interpreter precludes my ability to also be a colleague or fellow employee? Reflecting on my practice in this domain I think that I probably did. I believe that the conduit model of interpreting is so deeply entrenched in our psyche that it overrides what we have been taught about being a ‘pro-active third participant’. We are experiencing a tension between how we think we should conduct ourselves (be neutral, be impartial) and how we need to behave in this new domain (be human, make contact, be involved). I believe we unconsciously resist the pull to engage with our colleagues and fellow employees, so as not to undermine our neutral stance.
A change in the power dynamic – from client to boss
Another major difference is the shift in power in the interpreter/ client relationship. Traditionally, in community interpreting, deaf people have been in a relatively powerless position, often the recipient of services from other professionals. This presents a very different power dynamic to a situation where the deaf employee is on an equal footing with both their hearing peers/ fellow professionals and with the interpreter. Often, the deaf person is now our ‘boss’. Whilst on a conscious level, we can understand the change in power and can accept the ‘control’ the deaf client has over us, we may nonetheless experience ‘cognitive dissonance’ (Kushalnagar & Rashid 2008), i.e. a feeling of discomfort, on a subconscious level, with this shift in power. The other side of the coin with this change in the power dynamic is how the shift affects the deaf person. After years of powerlessness, where a lack of control dominates many areas of their lives, how do deaf people manage this new-found power? It is particularly relevant to examine how they manage this in relation to interpreters, given the undisputed powerful positions which interpreters have previously held in deaf peoples’ lives. It is not hard to imagine that for some deaf people there may be a temptation to ‘control’ the interpreter, to exercise this newly-acquired power by treating them as a commodity, as an object.
Starting the conversation
From my perspective then there are at least two areas of tension in the staff interpreter’s role. There is the pull between wanting to engage on a social level with fellow colleagues, both deaf and hearing, and the need, embedded in our understanding our role and enshrined in codes of conduct, to maintain a neutral and impartial stance. There is also the shift in power- the disparity between ‘I think you’re my client, but you think you’re my boss!’ as Gillespie and Wolfenden (2012) so neatly put it. The tension in both of these areas will undoubtedly produce some strong emotions and feelings. There is clearly a need to start talking to both deaf and hearing colleagues about our role, to begin what might initially be uncomfortable conversations about how to satisfactorily address these (and other) issues. As interpreters we also need to examine our own behaviour and look closely at what lies at the root of how we conduct ourselves in the workplace domain. In Part Two, I will look at ways of beginning that process of self-reflection and at how we can initiate discussions with our fellow colleagues.
[1] If an organisation has one or more Deaf employees, they have the option of employing an interpreter in a salaried post. This can be arranged with the agreement of Access to Work, and whilst the funding is partly provided through this government scheme, the interpreter is directly employed by the organisation, rather than being contracted on a freelance basis or through an agency. This arrangement is often referred to as a ‘staff interpreter’ post.
Bailey-Bowen, D. (2013) ‘Ethical Choices: Educational Sign Language Interpreters as Change Agents’ (Street Leverage Blog)
Dickinson, J.C. (2010) Interpreting in a Community of Practice: A Sociolinguistic Study of the Signed Language Interpreter’s Role in Workplace Discourse. PhD. thesis, Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt University
Gillespie, H. & Wolfenden, C. (2012) I think you’re my client, but you think you’re my boss!’, In Dickinson, J. & Stone, C. Developing the Interpreter; Developing the Profession, ASLI Conference Proceedings, Doug Mclean Publishing: Gloucestershire, England pp. 118- 140
Lee, R.G. & Llewellyn Jones, P. (2011) Re-visiting Role: Arguing for a multi-dimensional analysis of interpreter behaviour, Paper presented at Supporting Deaf People online conference 2011
Kushalnagar, P. & Rashid, K. (2008) ‘Attitudes and Behaviours of Deaf Professionals and Interpreters’, in Hauser, P.C., Finch, K.L. and Hauser, A.B. (eds.) Deaf Professionals and Designated Interpreters: A New Paradigm, Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press, pp. 43-57.

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  1. Couple of points I didn’t see raised here. I was indeed offered this option by AtW but declined it on grounds of practicalities.
    * Lack of flexibility (perceived?). The ability to have a pool of ‘terps to draw upon in case of cancellations/last minute illness or when a co-worker’s needed.
    * Company payroll/HR policy. For a large organisation, not sure if they would be willing to consider having this kind of arrangement.
    A separate comment…
    * “The interpreter”. Sometimes I fall into this habit as I can’t always remember who was working for me in the past on a specific day! 🙂

    • Part 2 is now up.
      For me ‘staff’ doesn’t necessarily only apply to employed interpreters but an interpreter who works in the same team regularly. The issues apply.
      Of course, it’s hard to remember which interpreter was working when but its about how the interpreter labels themself too that makes the problem worse.

    • Both options (staff interpreter and using a pool of interpreters) have advantages and disadvantages. If the interpreter is a member of staff, there are the benefits of insider/ implicit knowledge and familiarity with company language, jargon, and the intricacies of workplace relationships. On the negative side, HR generally find the staff interpreter to be a very strange beast indeed and there are all sorts of issues in terms of line management and where the role fits within the overall company structure. A common problem is that the interpreter is always asked to interpret staff meetings, but is rarely given the opportunity to attend in their own right, as a member of staff. Additionally, as you note, if the staff interpreter is off ill, it can be difficult to get cover. On the plus side, there is no hassle with booking interpreters. I can imagine that using a pool of interpreters takes some initial setting up and co-ordinating, but would work well thereafter.
      I fully appreciate that it is hard to always remember the interpreter’s name, especially when you are drawing on a large pool 🙂 I was just trying to highlight the dehumanising aspect of being referred to solely by role and how we as interpreters can be complicit in perpetuating this behaviour.