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Getting Organized: The Evolution of Community Interpreting


Based on a broad definition of the concept of community interpreting, the paper gives an overview of the development of community-based interpreting as a profession since the 1960s. Reviewing both the field of sign language interpreting and spoken-language community interpreting in the context of migration, major elements in the process of professionalization are described with reference to selected examples. The overall picture is one of great diversity of approaches, constraints and responses to the challenge of intra-social interpreting needs throughout the world, shaped by the variable interplay of factors like the existence of legal provisions, institutional arrangements for interpreter service delivery, an authority-driven or profession-based system of accreditation or certification more or less specifying standards of practice and professional ethics, training programs within (or outside) the established public system of higher education, and a professional organization more or less inclusive of various types of interpreting activity. Typically, interpreting services get organized (by institutions or community agencies) before practitioners get organized to shape their professional terms of reference, and much progress in the evolution of community interpreting is still to be made.

Introduction Community interpreting only became established as a topic in Interpreting Studies in the early 1990s. The first international conference on Interpreters in the Community held at Geneva Park near Toronto, Canada, in 1995, represents the most important landmark in this respect, and it is also significant that Interpreting, the international journal of the discipline, mentions community interpreting in the description of its scope and published a paper

Interpreting Vol. 4(1), 1999. 125140 John Benjamins Publishing Co.



on community interpreting as an emerging profession (Mikkelson 1996) in its first issue. In earlier years, community interpreting had been dealt with, if at all, only in the context of some professional organizations. The actual practice of interpreting in the community is of course much older than its recognition among professional bodies or even scholars of interpreting. However, any indication of when the history of community interpreting began, is essentially a matter of definition. The present contribution therefore begins with a discussion of conceptual issues surrounding the activity of community interpreting and its professionalization. Based on my attempt at terminological clarification, I will give a historical overview of the development of community interpreting as a profession with reference to selected examples. The picture of professionalization that emerges will serve as a basis for a concluding discussion of problems and prospects for the evolution of professional interpreting in the community.

A Matter of Definition According to Chesher (1997: 278), the term community interpreting came into use in Australia around 1970 alongside expressions like ethnic communities or community health. In Europe, the term gained currency in the early 1980s in Great Britain (cf. Longley 1984; Shackman 1984), where it has since been replaced by public service interpreting. Elsewhere in the Englishspeaking world as well as in the predominantly English literature on interpreting, community interpreting rather than ad-hoc interpreting or cultural interpreting (cf. Roberts 1997: 8) has become the most widely accepted label. In the most general sense, community interpreting refers to interpreting in institutional settings of a given society in which public service providers and individual clients do not speak the same language. The fact that one of the parties involved is an individual acting on his or her own behalf (Fletcher 1989: 129) vis--vis the representative of an institution is an essential feature of the concept and implies that the community interpreter is responsible for enabling professional and client, with very different backgrounds and perceptions and in an unequal relationship of power and knowledge, to communicate to their mutual satisfaction. (Shackman 1984: 18) In contrast to interpreting for international contacts in conference-like



situations or negotiations between interacting parties of (more or less) equal standing, community interpreting facilitates communication within a social entity (society) that includes culturally different sub-groups. Hence, the qualifier community refers to both the (mainstream) society as such and its constituent sub-community (ethnic or indigenous community, linguistic minority, etc.), which may be one reason why the expression is difficult to render into other languages. In this broad sense, interpreting in intra-social language contact settings is limited neither to particular institutions nor to particular language or cultural groups. The representatives of a societys legal, healthcare, social service, educational or religious institutions, to name the most common generic fields, may need to interact with deaf persons, with members of indigenous communities or with various kinds of migrants, and vice versa. It is this great diversity of institutional settings and cultural backgrounds which makes for the tremendous complexity of community interpreting as a concept and renders it very difficult to describe. Attempts at accounting for the actual practice of community interpreting therefore tend to be specified for particular settings and their specific institutional (e.g. legal) constraints. More often than not, interpreting in legal settings (court interpreting) is viewed as a separate specialty, distinct from community interpreting, which, in this narrower sense, is then linked prototypically with healthcare and social service settings. With healthcare or medical interpreting rapidly establishing itself as a professional specialization in its own right (cf. Roberts 1997: 10), it is becoming even more difficult to maintain unity in diversity for the field as a whole.

Professional or Not? A major issue underlying the balkanization of the conceptual and professional terrain of community interpreting is professional status. Thus, Gonzlez, Vsquez, and Mikkelson (1991), in their Fundamentals of Court Interpretation, state that Community interpreting refers to any interpretation provided by non-professional interpreters. (1991: 29) This clear-cut distinction between professional (conference, court, escort, business and medical) interpreters on the one hand and amateur (community) interpreters on the other may be inspired by the semantic analogy with (volunteer) community service or (unpaid) community work (cf. Bowen 1998: 319). Apart from



that connotation, however, there is little, if any, factual basis for the claim that certain forms of interpreting in the community are inherently more (or less) professional than others. Like the notion of community interpreting itself, the professional status of the activity is a matter of definition and of degree. Among the various criteria that can be used to define a professional activity, the principle of fee for service and the existence of certain standards of practice stand out as the most important. Judging by the former, there certainly is and always will be interpreting activity in the community sector which is performed on a non-professional basis, i.e. without remuneration, by relatives, friends or other volunteers. By the same token, it is not inconceivable to have bilinguals trained to certain standards who still render their services for free (cf. Gehrke 1989; Greaves 1988). Thus, there may be unpaid interpreting performed by people with training just as there may be community interpreting on a fee-for-service basis by untrained practitioners. What standards, then, how much training, and what level of pay will make community interpreters professional? These questions are subject to the complex interdependence of numerous variables, including user expectations and service quality, variously defined, if defined at all. In a professional field, of course, the answers would not be imposed from above but determined by the collective efforts of like-minded practitioners, provided that they manage to get organized. As we shall see, however, progress on the road to professionalization has not been uniform for the field as a whole, hence the need to look in more detail at a number of the roads taken and some of the milestones along the way.

Pioneer and Paragon: Interpreting for the Deaf Interpreting in the community could be traced back to Antiquity (e.g. the use of interpreters for Aramaic-speaking Jews after the Babylonian exile or the role of interpreters in the provinces of the far-flung Roman Empire), and community interpreters would have been found at work in systems of colonial domination over the centuries (e.g. court interpreters in 16th century New Spain). Nevertheless, community interpreting is most closely associated with the provision of and access to public services in the welfare state of the late 20th century. One of the social groups for which the issue of access received increas-



ing attention in the 1960s was the deaf community. In line with a growing awareness of the need to support the full participation of disabled (handicapped) persons in society, U.S. government authorities promoted the rehabilitation of hearing-impaired and deaf individuals for (re)integration into the workforce on the basis of legal provisions such as the Vocational Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1965 (which authorized the use and remuneration of interpreters for the vocational rehabilitation of hearing-impaired clients) and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. Within this favorable regulatory environment, a historic workshop held in 1964 for service providers (rehabilitation personnel and educators) and interpreters stressed the need for professional interpreting and laid the foundations for the creation of a national organization of interpreters. A follow-up meeting in early 1965 adopted the constitution of that organization, called the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), and a third workshop held the same year resulted in a manual compiled by Quigley and Youngs (1965), the first normative and training-oriented publication on sign language interpreting (cf. Frishberg 1990: 11ff). Thanks to consistent U.S. government support, the RID, incorporated in 1972, became a success story which very well stands comparison with the achievements of AIIC in the international interpreting arena. With a view to its mission of maintaining a registry of qualified interpreters, the RID developed an evaluation and certification system in the early 1970s and has since certified about half of its more than 5,000 members as interpreters and/or transliterators. In its efforts to establish and enforce professional standards for sign language interpreters, the RID also issued a code of ethics, including such principles as confidentiality and fidelity, which was to prove highly influential for the drafting of similar documents on community interpreting in spoken languages. Significantly, the RID Code of Ethics includes a provision for further training, which is enforced by a Certificate Maintenance Program, i.e. certified members are required to engage in further training on a regular basis in order to keep their certificate valid (cf. Isham 1998: 234). Concerted efforts to meet the need for interpreter education were made early on by the National Interpreter Training Consortium, originally consisting of six institutions of higher education throughout the country (cf. Frishberg 1990: 13f). The number of training programs for sign language interpreting has since increased significantly, although there are still few courses which lead to higher-level degrees (cf. Isham 1998: 234). In 1979, the



Conference of Interpreter Trainers was founded as an association of educators in the field of interpreter training and has been actively promoting the professional development of interpreter trainers through conferences and publications (cf. Frishberg 1990: 13f, 88, 93). Speaking of conferences, it needs to be stressed that the practice of sign language interpreting is not limited to community settings. Where deaf children have the right and the necessary interpreting services to receive a full education, a rising number of deaf individuals will make professional careers requiring participation in conferences and meetings at a national as well as international level. Interestingly, then, the market for sign language interpreting in conference settings (cf. Nilsson 1997: 554; Sro-Guillaume 1997) is largely conditioned by educational interpreting in the community, which is one of the most important sub-fields or specializations of interpreters for the deaf (cf. Seal 1998). Apart from the pioneering achievements of U.S. sign language interpreters, impressive progress towards professionalization has been made also in a few other countries, most notably Sweden, where a liberal view of nonSwedish-speaking persons right to an interpreter was enshrined early on in legal provisions. From the mid-1970s, full-time interpreters have been employed by local authorities throughout the country for work in medical, legal, public-service, religious and, not least, educational settings (cf. Nilsson 1997: 552f). While in Sweden the emergence of interpreting as a profession is largely driven by institutionalized service provision rather than the efforts of a professional body, it is remarkable that, in contrast to most other countries (and similar to Australia) there is considerable linkage between community interpreters for signed and spoken languages. (The Institute for Interpretation and Translation Studies at Stockholm University is solely responsible for though of course not providing all interpreter training in the country, and both spoken language and sign language interpreting services are made available on a centralized basis by a number of municipal authorities.) Another interesting example of the relationship between institutional forces and interpreters collective efforts is the United Kingdom, where there is an Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI) which does not control either the register of qualified interpreters or the code of ethics. Unlike the RID, ASLI has to look to a body called the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People (CACDP) for crucial decisions affecting standards of practice and registration under a multi-level system of National



Vocational Qualifications (cf. Heaton & Fowler 1997). In Germany, moves toward professionalization have largely been spearheaded by the Institute of German Sign Language and Communication of the Deaf at the University of Hamburg. Following makeshift examination and training measures since the early 1980s, the first full (two to three-year) training course leading to a university diploma in sign language interpreting was established in Hamburg in the mid-1990s (cf. Schulz 1997). At around the same time, continuing education-type courses for practicing sign language interpreters were launched at the (conference) interpreter training schools of the universities of Geneva (Switzerland) and Graz (Austria). For an account of the situation in France, see Fournier (1997). The picture which has emerged above regarding the professionalization of interpreting with signed languages is necessarily sketchy. Nevertheless, it exhibits the main features which come into play in various constellations: legal provisions, institutional (and not least financial) arrangements for interpreting service delivery, a certification authority, a professional organization, a code of ethics and standards of practice, and university-level training. These factors are at work in community interpreting for signed as well as spoken languages, though their overall effect may vary greatly, as will be seen below.

Migration and Access: The Spoken Language Paradigm The flagship country and continent in the development of community interpreting is Australia, where the massive intake of migrants of non-Englishspeaking backgrounds after World War II, much more so than the significant presence of Aborigines, turned a staunchly monolingual nation into an ethnically diverse society which gradually came to accept and find responses to the communication needs of the new Australians. The shift of government policy toward multilingualism and multiculturalism in the 1970s, associated with the growing political lobbying power of immigrant communities, led to innovative moves in the area of language services (cf. Chesher 1997: 282ff). After decades of ad hoc arrangements, the Department of Immigration in 1973 established a Telephone Interpreter Service (TIS), and a number of initiatives on the state level followed later that decade: In Victoria, a specialist interpreter service was created to meet the communication needs of schools, and New South Wales organized a mobile force of 27 interpreters to serve 17 Sydney



hospitals. Out of this Hospital Interpreter Program grew the NSW Health Care Interpreter Service, the largest language service in Australia after TIS, employing more than one hundred full-time staff interpreters (cf. Chesher 1997: 286). Apart from the complex system of interpreting service provision, described in full by Ozolins (1998), Australia has been renowned for its initiative in creating national standards and a system of accreditation for interpreters. A National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) was established in 1977 and implemented a five-level system of proficiency standards. Following a revision in 1993, accreditation is now given at four different levels to Paraprofessional Interpreters, Interpreters, Conference Interpreters and Senior Conference Interpreters. The category of Interpreter represents the basic level of competence for (community) interpreting and may be regarded as the Australian professional standard (cf. Bell 1997). The fact that the accreditation scheme was developed in the absence of a professional organization (AUSIT, the association of interpreters and translators, was founded only in 1987) testifies to the institution-driven rather than profession-driven nature of standard-setting for interpreting in Australia. The Australian accreditation system is unique, in particular because it comprises all types of interpreting (and translating) activity and includes spoken as well as signed languages. Approaches to authorization and certification of interpreters in other countries are much less comprehensive and tend to focus on a specific type of interpreting or language modality. In the area of community interpreting, the landmark example is again Sweden, where a system of state authorization dates back to 1976 (cf. Niska 1990, 1998). Managed initially by the Board of Commerce and now by the National Agency for Lands and Funds, the scheme provides for accreditation at a basic level and at a specialization level (in court and/or medical interpreting). The same government agency also publishes a code of good practice for interpreters, drawn up much earlier than the Australian (AUSIT) Code of Ethics. Sweden was also a pioneer in providing training for community interpreters, mostly in the form of short courses at adult education centers and voluntary educational associations, with curricular guidance now provided by the Institute for Interpretation and Translation Studies at the University of Stockholm (cf. Niska 1998). The difficulty of offering (community) interpreter training at university level is highlighted by the situation in Australia, where an initial burgeoning of NAATI-approved courses for the paraprofessional and professional (Interpreter) levels was followed by a decline in the late 1980s. By the



mid-1990s, there were only two professional-level courses left at the University of Western Sydney (formerly Macarthur) and Deakin University, the latter of which has meanwhile been shut down. The variable interplay of interpreter service provision, training, and authorization can also be observed in the evolution of community interpreting in Great Britain, where concerted efforts by the Institute of Linguists Educational Trust and the Nuffield Foundation early in the 1980s gave rise to both a system of college-level training for community interpreters (leading to a Diploma in Public Service Interpreting) and extensive efforts at awareness raising and user education among public service institutions (cf. Corsellis 1997). In 1994 the Institute of Linguists established the Register of Public Service Interpreters, which lists free-lance interpreters accredited by the Institute of Linguists (upon completion of a Diploma course or passing the corresponding test) for a specialization in legal and/or healthcare and/or local government settings (cf. Ostarhild 1996). In contrast to the British system of a uniform standard for various community interpreting specializations, the situation in the United States exhibits considerable diversity and is largely driven by legal(istic) constraints. The U.S. Court Interpreters Act of 1978, which mandated a judicial certification system for the federal level and paved the way for similar measures in individual states, boosted professional development in the field of court interpreting, not least by requiring certified interpreters to engage in further education as offered by professional bodies (such as the California Court Interpreters Association) or colleges and universities (cf. Mikkelson & Mintz 1997). In the area of healthcare, progress toward ensuring and extending interpreter service provision was founded on anti-discriminatory legislation, chiefly the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (cf. Puebla Fortier 1997). With few exceptions, such as the certification system introduced by the Washington State Department of Social Services, medical interpreters cannot rely on an authority-driven performance standard. This has given professional organizations such as the Massachusetts Medical Interpreters Association (MMIA) and the California Healthcare Interpreters Association a more integral part in shaping the process of professionalization, with the MMIA Medical Interpreting Standards of Practice (1996) standing out as a particularly noteworthy achievement. Provision for training varies greatly, though; in a survey of some two dozen programs in the United States and Canada (Roat & Okahara 1998), most of the courses were found to last only between 6 and 60 hours.



Canada, which shares many of the political, social and linguistic features of Australia, has generated significant momentum in the evolution of community interpreting in the 1990s. Nevertheless, community (or cultural) interpreting in Canada has largely been characterized by grass-roots service provision and initiatives at the level of individual Provinces rather than an overarching national policy. Special attention has been given to the creation of legal and medical interpreting services for indigenous languages (e.g. RoyNicklen 1988; Penney & Sammons 1997), and major healthcare interpreter projects (involving the definition of performance standards, the development and implementation of training courses and arrangements for professional service provision) have been undertaken by coalitions of healthcare providers, interpreters, training institutions and government authorities in a number of places, including Toronto and Vancouver (cf. Carr 1997). Whereas most of the developments outlined in this section are set in the context of (im)migration, the experiences of countries like Australia and Canada also point to the importance of community interpreting in societies with indigenous multilingualism. Apart from countries like Malaysia (cf. Wong 1990), the most striking example is certainly post-Apartheid South Africa, where community interpreting services are crucial to the vision of an egalitarian multi-ethnic society with eleven official languages. One of the prime movers there has been the National Language Project, which sponsored a pioneering study on interpreting needs in healthcare settings (Crawford 1994) and launched a Community Health Interpreter Training and Employment Programme. (For details on many other facets of community interpreting in South Africa, see Erasmus 1999, forthcoming). In contrast to the South African situation, the challenges of establishing community interpreting on the European continent seem rather pale. Nevertheless, a number of countries are lagging behind in many, if not all of the aspects of professionalization touched upon in the overview presented above. While countries like France and the Netherlands at least have a history of organized service provision for their migrant communities, others, like Germany and Austria but also Spain, are only beginning to realize the need for action to ensure equal access not only in the courtroom but also in medical and social service settings. Much like their neighbors to the West, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are concerned mainly, if quite appropriately, with (international) multilingualism in a growing European Union, and interest in community interpreting has been focused on professional(izing) court interpreting.

THE EVOLUTION OF COMMUNITY INTERPRETING Professionalization: Problems and Prospects


If there is a single overriding theme that can be identified from the necessarily sketchy overview above, it is the tremendous diversity of approaches, constraints and responses to the challenge of intra-social interpreting needs throughout the world. This heterogeneity, while hampering my attempt at providing a compact and coherent historical account, should come as no surprise, since it is a defining characteristic of community interpreting. Embedded in its sociocultural (political, social, economic, legal, etc.) environment and constrained by the norms of (inter)action in specific social and professional settings, community-based interpreting, to use a very fitting alternative term, appears in an intrinsically local perspective. The plurality and variability of the forces shaping its practice in a given national and institutional context often stand in the way of efforts to achieve a uniform standard of professionalization for interpreters in the community. Since communication and interpreting needs arise in a broad range of situations in the personal lives of migrants or deaf persons, it is practically unavoidable that natural interpreting by family members or friends will persist at least in a number of less formal circumstances, thus complicating the emergence of a uniform perception of the interpreting function on either side of the interaction. Where economic considerations prevail over (underdefined) legal provisions and integrationist policies, the fuzzy boundary between professional and amateur interpreting is likely to shift in favor of the latter. Aside from the economics of interpreter service provision as an issue of overriding concern, the extent to which community interpreting can emerge as a profession in a given society is determined by a number of higher-order variables such as the extent of multilingualism and the legal and social status and lobbying power of residents from other language and cultural backgrounds, the philosophical attitudes toward social change through state, legalistic or grass-roots initiatives, and the political climate for turning constitutional guarantees of equal access and non-discrimination into practical policies for integration. Even where these systemic constraints favor acceptance of the need for professional community interpreting services, it is still uncertain which path the process of professionalization is to take. As evident from the survey of selected highlights in the previous sections, the evolution of community interpreting from an occupation to a profession can be driven by a variable



combination and sequence of factors: publicly funded service provision, often through centralized agencies; an authority-driven or profession-based system of accreditation or certification more or less specifying standards of practice and professional ethics; training programs within (or outside) the established public system of higher education, and a professional organization with enough power to shape working conditions and professional standards. While an in-depth analysis of the various pathways towards professionalization is beyond the scope of this paper, one might conclude that, typically, interpreting services get organized (by institutions or community agencies) before practitioners themselves get organized, if at all, to actively and collectively shape their professional terms of reference. One of the key issues in this process is the community interpreters role in various settings (cf. Roy 1993; Mikkelson 1998; Pchhacker, forthcoming), and as the tasks demands are specific to particular institutional contexts, they tend to draw practitioners apart rather than bring them together in a professional association large enough to find strength in numbers. However, the record of sign language interpreters, who work in a very broad range of community settings, would suggest that a uniform code of practice and ethics can be drawn up even in the face of very diverse institution-specific needs and constraints. By the same token, training for community interpreters can be designed in such a way as to achieve both a uniform core competence in liaison interpreting (cf. Gentile et al. 1996) and a setting-based specialization, as recommended by a working group within a EU-funded project of the European Language Council (cf. Hertog 1999: 28ff). Given its rather uneven development over the past decades, the field of community interpreting has only recently become a focus of cooperation and exchange beyond national boundaries. On the European level, the European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters was formed in 1993; a series of meetings of court interpreters associations culminated in the Fourth International Forum and First European Congress on Court Interpreting and Legal Translation in Graz in 1998 (Katschinka & Springer 1999), and the first meeting of European community interpreting agencies, organized in 1995 in Strasbourg with support from the European institutions, led to the founding of BABELEA, a European association representing the interests of community interpreting organizations in the EU, which held its first international conference in Vienna in late 1999. On a world-wide level, the growing importance of this branch of the



interpreting profession has received increasing recognition within FIT, which held its 1996 World Congress in Australia and in 1999 elected a champion of community-based interpreting, Adolfo Gentile, to serve as its President. AIIC has also been taking a keen interest in court interpreting and has made efforts to extend its professional standards to that field of activity. Beyond though very much in support of professional concerns, the Critical Link conference series in Canada (Toronto 1995, Vancouver 1998, Montreal 2001) has been vital in promoting research and cooperation in the field of community interpreting on an international scale. In his preface to the proceedings volume of the 1995 Critical Link Conference (Carr et al. 1997), Harris (1997: 1f) reviews the evolution of the interpreting profession as a whole and finds medical and social service interpreters, i.e. community interpreters in the narrower sense, at its forefront in the 1990s. Given their persistently uncertain status, relatively low rates of pay and the lack of university-level professional training, there should be ample room for the evolution of this profession to continue in the 21st century. University of Vienna

I am grateful to two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on a previous draft of this paper.

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