If Language is Power: Why Aren't We Using Ours?

Published 07/13/2010

David Evans

Thoughts about the term “freelance”

David N. Evans, RID CI & CT, NIC Master

When I’m escorted into a building to interpret, I’m often asked what type of interpreting work I do. I’m sure this is a common experience for those of us who interpret in community settings. Many practitioners probably respond with the term “freelance,” as I did for years. Yet I wonder whether this is the most accurate description of the reality of our employment.

In order to frame my discussion of the term freelance, I think it’s first important to have a foundational understanding about the type of field I believe ours to be: a practice profession.

ASL-English Interpreting is a relatively young field—being organized professionally only since 1964 (Quigley & Youngs, 1965). The majority of ASL-English interpreter programs (IEPs/IPPs/ITPs) have traditionally been housed in community and/or technical colleges. This has reflected the thinking that ASL-English Interpreting is a trade or skill. That programs are still housed in community/technical colleges today helps perpetuate such a belief. Recent research into the field of ASL-English Interpreting (Dean & Pollard, 2001, 2004; Metzger, 1999), however, has begun to view ASL-English Interpreting through a different lens, that of practice professions. Dean & Pollard (2004) state the following.

We view interpreting as a practice profession, like medicine, law, teaching, counseling, or law enforcement, where careful consideration and judgment regarding situational and human interaction factors are central to doing effective work. We contrast the practice professions with the technical professions, such as engineering and accounting, where knowledge and skills pertaining to the technical elements of a job are largely sufficient to allow the professional to produce a competent work product. Interpreters function more like practice professionals than technicians due to the significance of situational and human interaction factors on their ultimate work product; that is, factors beyond the technical elements of the source and target language (p. 259).

The variables relevant to interpreting work are much more extensive than those pertaining to language and culture alone. If we view the field of interpreting as a practice profession, the terminology we use to reflect that view ought to appropriately describe our work, especially to those unfamiliar with what we do.

In looking at the term freelance, definitions from online dictionaries (Cambridge, Ultralingua) note the idea of working independently but also mention trade work or creative professionals, i.e. journalist, programmer, writer, graphic designer, etc.

In contrast to this, terminology employed by other practice professions includes community-based, independent contractor, practitioner, and private practice. In discussing this topic with other ASL-English Interpreters, I have frequently encountered negative reactions to these terms with remarks about “putting on airs,” or “trying to make ourselves seem more important than we really are.” Another common response has been, “Well, freelance has always worked for me. Why change it?”

Comments about putting on airs seem to reflect the prevailing view of ASL-English Interpreting as a trade or profession based on skill—in this case the ability to interpret between ASL and English—rather than a practice profession that deals with human interaction.

Out of curiosity, I polled people who do not know sign language and do not work with interpreters about the word freelance. People associated freelance with writers, graphic designers (especially web-based), and “work on the side (of a regular job).” What I found interesting was the number of times “starving artist” was mentioned. Coincidentally, in Wisconsin (as well as other areas of the country) the sign used for FREELANCE is a sign that can be glossed as TO-MAKE-DO. This sign, produced with the middle fingers alternately brushing the chin, has a meaning of “having just enough to get by,” in this case monetarily. While this has been true in our history when wages were low and jobs were scarce, are these the associations we want for our profession today? By extension, how do these ideas reflect on our signing (d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing) consumers?

Studies (Lawrence 1998, and McIntire & Sanderson 1999) have shown that interpreters have an impact on the non-signing (hearing) person’s perception of the signing (deaf) person. This can be extended to more than just the interpreted act; the ways in which ASL-English Interpreters comport themselves—both positively and negatively—also reflect on the signing consumer.

A colleague (Lightfoot, 2005) recounted a story about interpreting at a multi-day conference for Ph.D.-level attendees. Due to the fact that the group would be meeting for multiple sessions, everyone took a turn introducing him/herself. Rather than saying nothing, the interpreters introduced themselves, stating that they were private practitioners who held advanced degrees in ASL-English Interpreting, held national certifications in the field, and would be present throughout the conference for communication needs.

Instead of the all-too-typical, “Did you drive her here?” or “Do you get paid for this?” types of questions, my colleague noted how respectful the attendees were of their presence, and how questions directed to them reflected an appreciation of the task at hand. They were also, in her opinion, more assertive in approaching the signing consumer to initiate conversation. She contrasted this with other encounters (including other conferences) where people’s questions and interactions reflected a lower view of interpreting and of the signing consumer (Lightfoot, 2004).

I, too, have noticed a difference in my own interactions with non-signing consumers on the job. When I refer to myself as a community-based interpreter in private practice, I find I don’t get the types of questions that equate interpreting with volunteer work; rather, a level of respect is given to me appropriate with the type of work I perform. I believe we potentially limit ourselves and our work in the eyes of the non-signing consumer by using the term freelance, which could potentially affect perceptions about our signing consumers.

But this change in terminology is not without its own potential pitfalls. One colleague (Nygren, 2006) expressed concern that referring to ourselves in the manner this article suggests could further estrange us from our signing consumers. I initially assumed she was only considering blue-collar consumers, and wasn’t taking into consideration the myriad consumers we may encounter. However, the recent article discussing the move to view our field as a profession (Brunson, 2006) in the Journal of Interpretation helped to clarify her concerns.

Only the elite are able to engage their doctors or lawyers on an intimate level. Is this the move we would like to make in the interpreting field? … We must be clear. Being a professional is about power (p. 8).

Additionally, there is a schism in the field of spoken language interpreting between conference interpreting and community interpreting, with the latter being viewed as a less desirable career path. Perhaps we might have a positive effect on our spoken language colleagues by embracing this terminology?

Of course, the language we use to define ourselves and our work is only one piece of the puzzle. Interpreters, in all settings, need to get past the idea that we are either (a) not really present or (b) don’t have an affect on the interaction. Unfortunately, these very ideas have been reinforced in this publication in the “Encounters With Reality” monthly segment (RID VIEWS, September, 2006; RID VIEWS, October 2006).

In the conference anecdote above, it was not only the verbiage the interpreters used to introduce themselves, but also the fact that they chose to introduce themselves and the manner in which they did it that raised their status from that of well-meaning volunteers to professional service providers (for more insight on the issue of introductions, see Lightfoot, 2004).

In the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Minnesota Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf’s Freelance Committee (MRIDFLIC) is discussing a possible name change. Some of the options we are considering include Community-Based Interpreter Committee (CBIC) and Committee for Community Interpreting (CCI). The latter seems more flexible as to allow people to join who work full-time in a staff setting, i.e. educational, but who also do some work in the community.

I propose that we begin to think about referring to our profession differently. I believe this can positively impact perceptions of ASL-English Interpreters as a profession versus a trade, and potentially improve perceptions of the signing community. I welcome ongoing discussion and feedback on this topic. Please feel free to contact me at david@cofda.com or 612-229-8377.


Articles and Books

Brunson, J. (2006). Commentary on the Status of Professional Status of Sign Language Interpreters: An Alternative Perspective. In Journal of Interpretation. D. Watson, ed. Alexandria, VA: RID Press.

Cartwright, B. (Ed.). (2006). Encounters With Reality. RID VIEWS, 23 (8), p. 30.

Cartwright, B. (Ed.). (2006). Encounters With Reality. RID VIEWS, 23 (9), p. 26.

Dean, R., Pollard, R. (2001). Application of Demand-Control Theory to Sign Language Interpreting: Implications for Stress and Interpreter Training. In Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 6 (1).

Dean, R., Pollard, R. (2004). Consumers and Service Effectiveness in Interpreting Work: A Practice Profession Perspective. In Sign Language Interpreting and Interpreter Education.

Lawrence, S. (1998). The Effect of Sign Language Interpreters on Audience Perception of Deaf Speaker’s Credibility. In The Keys to Highly Effective Interpreter Training. Conference of Interpreter Trainers 12th National Convention, November 4-7, 1998.

Lightfoot, J. (2004). Introducing a Grander Purpose. RID VIEWS, 21 (2), p. 25.

Lightfoot, J. (2005). personal communication.

McIntire, M., Sanderson, G. (1999). “Look Who’s Talking: Perceptions and Credibility.” Workshop handout. RID Conference, 1999.

Metzger, M. (1999). Sign Language Interpreting: Deconstructing the Myth of Neutrality. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Nygren, P. (2006). personal communication.

Quigley, S., Youngs, J. (Eds.). (1965). Interpreting for Deaf People. Washington, DC: US Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Online Dictionaries



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