Sunday, July 25, 2010

Critical Link

This weekend a crowd of experts on Community Interpreting (CI, which is called Public Service Interpreting by the British) is gathering, doubtless with great excitement, at the University of Aston, in Birmingham England, for the 6th Critical Link Conference, which is the premier international conference in its field.

I was closely involved in the organisation of Critical Link 1 (1995) and Critical Link 2 (1998), both of which took place in Canada. At Critical Link 2, in Vancouver, we already had 300 participants from 23 countries. Since then, its venue has moved around the world, and it’s now matured into Critical Link 6. Since I retired and moved to Spain I’ve lost touch with it, although at present I’m slowly perusing the proceedings of Critical Link 5. If any of the pioneers of the Geneva Park and Vancouver meetings are reading this post, I send you greetings from afar, thank you for happy memories and wish you a good meeting at Aston and many more Critical Links.

Thirty years ago, Community Interpreting could have been simply defined as voluntary interpreting by members of a community for members of that community in their dealings with people outside it. Now it’s not so simple, because there’s been a movement in developed countries, and more particularly those that receive large numbers of immigrants, to make it less voluntary and more professional, hence less Natural or Native and more Expert. One of the first such countries – perhaps the very first – was Australia, where they early on developed a telephone interpreter service to cope with the needs in a widely dispersed population. After that, Canada, with the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people in the 1980s. Unlike the traditional immigrants from European countries, the Vietnamese found no established community awaiting them. And then the United Kingdom, where there is now a well developed accreditation authority. And the USA, where medical interpreting now has a certification.

So the people who are gathering in Birmingham are concerned with the professionalisation and – pardon the word – expertisation of community interpreting and with the challenges thereof: best practices, training, pay, codes of ethics, specialisation, legislation, and so on. No doubt they will be debating the eternal question of whether the community interpreter should remain a neutral, disengaged language translator or can intervene as a cultural interpreter and advisor or even as an advocate. There will also be reports of research done on professional CI.

It makes common sense to insist on interpreters who are as expert as possible in critical, even sometimes life-threatening situations like hospital care, police investigations, the law courts, immigration hearings and so on. There still aren’t enough training programmes and there still isn’t enough awareness among social service providers. Sometimes there’s the awareness but the necessary funding isn’t forthcoming. In time, however, the development of distance interpreting by telephone and video should make services more accessible and economical.

On the other hand, to be realistic, there will always be circumstances in which interpreting by untrained members of the community for family members and for members of the community will persist willy-nilly. The difference in attitudes to it can be illustrated by the case of child and adolescent Language Brokers. For the experts at Aston, any suggestion that action should be undertaken to support Language Brokering would be anathema. It’s a leftover from a more primitive era. But consider the contribution of the Language Brokering Hero reported in the March 10 post. Or the in-school interpreters described in the paper I co-authored for Critical Link 1.

So my view is this, and I can express it by a metaphor. When you go for medical care to the doctor or a nurse, you expect to be looked after by people who are formally trained and accredited experts. But ideally everybody who has a basic education should be taught how to give first aid.

Professionalisation also leaves out a class of interpreters who are experts but who, with few exceptions, don’t seek remuneration. I think church interpreting should be recognised as a branch of community interpreting (for reasons why, see posts of July 29, August 3, August 9, August 11, August 27 and October 28, 2009; and April 10, 2010). It might be objected that there are no standards, no accrediting bodies, no training, no forums, no coordinating agencies. But 25 years ago that was the state of most of what will be discussed at Aston.

All the Critical Link conference proceedings have been published by John Benjamins of Amsterdam. Together they form an essential corpus of writings on the development of Community Interpreting in the past 15 years.

Carolyn Bullock and Brian Harris. Schoolchildren as community interpreters. In S.E. Carr et al. (eds.), The Critical Link: Interpreters in the Community, Papers from the 1st International Conference on Interpreting in Legal, Health and Social Settings, Geneva Park, Canada, 1-4 June 1995, pp. 227-235.

Image: CIOL

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