Interpreting: Qualified vs. Unqualified

BY CHRISTINA PAYNE

Who determines whether an interpreter is qualified? Is holding an interpreting certification sufficient or should we focus on interpreter’s aptitude and experiences as outlined in Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? These questions were always up for debate among my Deaf family members and answer never came more clearly to me until the night I went to watch the play, The Busybody, by Susanna Centlivre.

The play script was tough to understand. Even with 6 years of experiences in theater, it took me weeks to read and understand the Shakespearean-equivalent language aspects and historical context so richly packed into this script. I was understandably alarmed when a red haired certified interpreter introduced herself to me and flippantly admitted that she did not read a script.

With only a few minutes left until the play begin, I offered her my script as a source of reference during the play. She quickly declined. The lights darkened, and after her stunned silence upon hearing the first a few lines, the interpreter frantically stood up: “I can’t understand what they’re saying! I can’t do this!” She fled to the back of the theater, leaving her team interpreter alone to interpret for the remaining two hours. I remember spending the rest of the play feeling sorry for the lone team interpreter and wishing that the red haired interpreter would at least give it a try. Indeed, I felt no animosity against the red haired interpreter; I could empathize with her panic. It was a learning experience for all of us.

From the experience, I realized that while interpreting certification is a great tool in indicating whether an interpreter can utilize even the smallest nuances of ASL, it still is not sufficient in preparing an interpreter for just any assignment. Perhaps recognizing more depth to qualifications than simply certification, Title II of ADA takes a stance on which steps should be taken to ensure that communications between a Deaf person and a hearing person should be as effective, clear, and understandable as those among hearing people. Furthermore, a “qualified interpreter” is loosely described as someone able to sign and convey important concepts between Deaf and hearing people. With that requirement entails an unconditional expectation for accurate, objective, and unbiased interpretation, and utilization of knowledge of specialized vocabulary.[¹] Certification is not used to define qualification, nor is it required by ADA for those pursuing an interpreting career.

Should certification be required? That is still up for debate. From my standpoint, to be a qualified interpreter means a combination of certification, vital spirit, positive attitude, skills, adherence of Code of Professional Conduct, and continuous education. When I say education, I mean attending training and workshops, applying constructive feedback, researching new terminologies, and understanding concepts. A successful accomplishment takes experiences and training.

No one can better determine whether an interpreter is qualified than the interpreter him/herself. With honest self-assessment, only the interpreter can identify his/her area of strengths and weaknesses. Only the interpreter can apply the tools learned in CEUs and training. It is up to the interpreter to ensure efficient communication by determining whether he/she is qualified for any given assignment.

And hey, life still happens. If you have carefully chosen an assignment believing that you were qualified and end up finding otherwise, that’s okay. Give it a shot, and hang on for your dear life. Get your team to help you facilitate communication, and if you can, ask for clarification on concepts and terminologies. The experience may not be fun at the moment, but it will be a priceless learning experience.

[¹] 28 C.F.R. § 35.104.
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