Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The World of ASL Interpreters by Austin Kocher

I am an interpreter. I show up to doctors appointments, high school graduations, business meetings, and college classrooms to interpret between American Sign Language and English. I often get the sense from onlookers and oglers that interpreting seems like a sexy, high-visibility high-stakes career for multilinguals. And it can be. I've interpreted for a professional mixed martial arts fight, and for one of the preeminent theoretical physicists who studies dark matter. But being an interpreter is more than flash. It's about riding the everyday Tilt-A-Whirl of language and trying to come out with your equilibrium in balance.

What is the interpreting field like? According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, there are currently about 50,000 – 58,000 interpreters and translators working in the United States. There are likely around 20,000 ASL interpreters, if we consider that the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf has 16,000 members, and certainly not all working interpreters are RID members. The field is expected to grow 43% by 2020 and with a purported average salary of $43,000, you might think this is a great place to make a living. What the statistics overlook, however, is that many interpreters – most that I know, anyway – don't work full time. Many interpreters are providing a second or supplementary income to a home with a higher-earning partner. Most interpreters also earn additional income by teaching or working in a complimentary field. Staff positions are desirable but rare, with most positions going to successful agencies, K-12 classrooms with main-streamed students, or housed within a disability services department at a college or university.

As for me, I have been interpreting since 2006 both full time and part time as graduate school has allowed. My associates degree was in interpreting, and I am currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography at the Ohio State University. My current research is on immigration to the U.S., but my passion for language and culture has led to productive relationships with other interpreters and deaf individuals in graduate schools around the world. Like many service-oriented professions, a Ph.D. doesn't necessarily make me more qualified as an interpreter. But like other interpreters, I find myself trying to stay in good practice by interpreting part time. I also try to give back to the interpreting field by presenting workshops at conferences and writing as much as possible for working interpreters.

The economic portrait of interpreting doesn't do justice to the daily excitement and disappointments of interpreting. If linguists are the architects of language, then interpreters are the construction site managers, hammer and nails in hand trying to keep the structure from collapsing in the real-world environment. Roland Barthes' announcement in 1968 that the author is dead is no less true when the author is alive in front of you.

As an interpreter, I am faced with the constant challenge of trying to tell person B what person A said, even though half the time person A isn't really sure what they said, nor are they clear in their own mind what they want to say! On the one hand, formal equivalence between ASL and English is important. But on the other hand, I am always aware that such equivalence is impossible, or at least indeterminate. There are exciting moments when the people I'm interpreting for develop a relationship through my work, like the time I interpreted a bunch of jokes from a Deaf ASL teacher and her students. I left that assignment at the height of professional satisfaction. On the other hand, there are moments that are emotionally devastating, like the time I interpreted between deaf staff members at a school and construction workers. The two groups were clearly at odds with each other, and I doubt they would have resolved their differences even if they spoke (or signed) the same language. But that's what language is like in the world: it's messy, unpredictably unnerving, and unexpectedly gratifying.

And for all us who love language, that's what makes interpreting such a neat field and one worthy of our curiosity.

Austin Kocher is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography at Ohio State University. He has been involved with the deaf community since 2002 and has worked as an interpreter since 2006. He blogs at

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