Interpreting Students: Work Before Graduation?

With the cost of tuition rising as rapidly as ever, higher education is becoming less and less accessible to even the most meritorious scholars. To combat this, some B.A. of Interpreting students at Gallaudet have turned to professional work within the field prior to graduation. The faculty of the Department of Interpreting (DOI), however, highly discourage student involvement in the profession… at least for the time being.

Just as any other profession, there is a wide array of knowledge one must learn before fully delving into the interpreting career. From ethical tenants to billing procedures and proper technique, there are surely many aspects of the job that call for proper education. “We don’t want students to start working until they are ready,” explains Dr. Valerie Dively, former Department chair and current interpreting professor.

Some students argue that interpreting is a career of practice, and that these lessons can be learned with a more hands-on approach. Third-year B.A. of Interpreting (BAI) student Abdiel Davila-Cruz agrees that students should not accept high-stakes assignments such as government meetings, mental health appointments, and legal situations, as they are not appropriate platforms for practice. He argues, however, that “students from this program should be allowed to work as long as they are advanced enough to understand their limits.” He goes on to explain: “Low-risk assignments such as small informal gatherings or basic-level classes are an excellent arena for honing one’s skills.”

The fear is the propensity of novice interpreters to overestimate their respective abilities and experience levels. They may be far less prudent in the assignments they accept. It is the responsibility of the interpreter to understand the ins and outs of our field before attempting to work in it. If beginners bite off more than they can chew, it will be apparent and their clients will notice. Because the Deaf community is relatively small in size, word of mouth is very much capable of make or breaking one’s interpreting career. Ultimately, if ill-prepared students choose to start working before they are ready and give provide underwhelming services throughout their debut year, it will likely make it difficult for themselves in the long run.

On the same token, however, there are some exceptions to this standard. There are a handful of students who have worked extensively prior to enrolling at Gallaudet. There are students who have raw skills with respect to the task of interpreting. As these students are learning about the theories processes involved in the job, some argue, they should be proactively applying the knowledge to the practice, rather than putting it in the back of their minds to hopefully one day emerge from their distant memories.

All that being said, the DOI faculty at Gallaudet who are hesitant to encourage students to work as interpreters while still enrolled in the BAI program have concerns that are not entirely unfounded. Those on both sides of the issue, however, share one common goal: to provide the world with better, smarter, more qualified interpreters.

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6 Responses to “Interpreting Students: Work Before Graduation?”

  1. Álvaro Degives-Mas
    May 5, 2014 at 12:46 AM #

    Great post touching on major issues worth pondering and exploring. I thought I’d cross-post here some quick comments I added in response to a reference to this article, as follows:

    Let’s not forget the importance of teachers and didactics staying true to the profession. Unlike e.g. theoretical physicists – who have no worthy career to speak of, other than working for financial institutions to develop even more outlandish investment schemes – interpreters and translators are on the applied side of academics. So, a BA or MA consisting of a bunch of theory stuck together with some flavor of ideology and professional ethics is a useless one, from a pragmatic (pun intended) point of view. On the other hand, I would also counsel against embracing a practicum as applied in the case of US colleges, where unpaid work is a one way traffic of not cheap but free labor, and hardly (if any) valuable experience for the students. So, look to Europe where practicums have actually stringent requirements attached, where the company’s contact person is beholden to much more counseling, coaching and hands-on teaching than just handing over the next pile of free labor chores to do. We’re talking about more than a bottom line, the future generation of professionals so we’d better make sure they’re well prepared, and not merely well-used / well-worn. The other harsh example in the US, of abuse of interns / residents getting into the medical field, should be a cautionary tale for interpreters, as well. Caveat emptor!

  2. Sarah
    May 5, 2014 at 7:13 PM #

    At RIT, students are required to do a practicum, which requires hours of observation of professional interpreters AND hours of actual interpretation. And practicum 1 and 2 are both required to graduate. Just FYI.

    • Bryan
      May 5, 2014 at 11:47 PM #

      Students majoring in Interpretation have the same types of requirements here at Gallaudet. In the Discourse/Field Observations I course, students are assigned a mentor, must shadow them, and observe several interpreted interactions. Then in Discourse/Field Observations II course, mentor/shadowing, observation, and pro-bono hours are all required. Then, in their final semester, a lengthy internship is required for graduation.

      I think the standard is the same for most programs — at least from what I have heard from peers enrolled at other schools. Alvaro, I disagree with you about internships/practicum classes being a way to get free services. Though true in part, there is much to learn from that lens. Having a mentor with you each step of the way is invaluable; because, lets face it, the opportunity to get that type of feedback from a mentor will never happen again.

      I think University’s do a good job at beating students up, and make them burn out well before they even begin their professional work. I know first hand that what the “real world” is like is much different than what they tell me it is in the classroom.

      Christine — very well written. I think its something that needs to be discussed in our department. Good job. 🙂

  3. Vanessa Long
    May 6, 2014 at 1:23 AM #

    You’re English and your article are excellent wow! Way to speak up!

  4. Bonnie Gracer
    May 8, 2014 at 12:59 PM #

    I have seen situations where Gallaudet interpreting students were sent to interpret for deaf people with cancer meeting with their oncologists. This is unacceptable. Find a less critical venue for practice hours.

    • Christine McQuaid
      May 8, 2014 at 1:43 PM #

      Hi, Ms. Gracer.

      The quote from BAI student Abdiel Davila-Cruz reads:
      “…students should not accept high-stakes assignments such as government meetings, mental health appointments, and legal situations, as they are not appropriate platforms for practice.”

      I agree that it is inappropriate for inexperienced interpreters to accept any potentially jeopardous work- one paramount subcategory of this, of course, being medical appointments.

      Thank you for reading!

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