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The retention of Auslan interpreters

By Dr Angela Dillon

The discussion ‘Are there sufficient Auslan/English interpreters to furnish our community?’ resurfaces repeatedly within our industry. Regular interpreter users are acutely aware of difficulties in accessing interpreters when needed. Undoubtedly, solutions to this issue are multifaceted, but I believe that the retention of interpreters, and fostering career longevity are a big part of the solution.

I have seen numerous accomplished colleagues come and go over the years. Career attrition is normal, particularly considering the nature of the job and its inherent strains, but I suspect that something may be happening in the field that is exacerbating this attrition.

Having observed this situation from several angles: as consumer, interpreter practitioner, and interpreter trainer, I sense a mismatch between what I see, experience, and hear anecdotally from colleagues. It surprises me when colleagues tell me that they are exhausted and overloaded with work, while others report insufficient work and require adjunct employment to supplement their incomes.

I conducted a very small scale (and unscientific) straw-poll to glean some people’s experiences and views, and factors that might contribute to interpreters leaving, or remaining in, the field. Nine people (a mixture of experienced still-working interpreters; early-career interpreters, and people who had left their interpreting careers) were invited to complete a simple, anonymous Survey Monkey.

Seven people responded. The survey comprised three open questions:

  1. If you have continued working as an interpreter, what three main things have made you continue working as an interpreter?
  2. If you have stopped working as an interpreter, or thought about stopping, what three main things have made you leave or consider leaving you interpreting career?
  3. Do you want to make any comments about factors that may support or hinder interpreters’ decisions to remain in their career, or about the apparent shortage of interpreters?

Respecting word limitations, I will only discuss the two most consistently reported reasons for people considering leaving or leaving, the profession: the “lack of permanent jobs”, and “[o]ther Interpreters [sic]...lack of support and or team work”.

A “lack of regular bookings each week”, and beliefs that there is an imbalance of work distribution featured heavily. Asserting that “[a]gencies definitely seem to favour interpreters”, one interpreter went on to say that “…sometimes I feel like just throwing in the towel when I hear of yet another job that I was capable of but was not offered”.

Questioning the notion of there being “…a shortage of interpreters as such”, the respondent perceives “…a monopoly on many jobs by a small group of interpreters, and agencies who don't explore all options or put feelers out widely enough…The hierarchy of interpreters often means job opportunities and offers are limited”.

Of the six people who responded to questions regarding why they have either left, or considered leaving their career, all mentioned adverse relationships with colleagues as a factor. Reasons cited related to “[b]ullying”, and “politics amongst the interpreting fraternity”. Comments included:

  • “…disconcerting when other interpreters you are
  • working with are either negative or confrontational”;
  • “…nonconstructive criticism…”;
  • “…negative feedback from interpreters in power positions”, and
  • “Lack of support from colleagues who feel threatened by people who are more skilled or who are potential 'threats' to their own income…who…are unable to reflect on their own practice and behaviours and the effect these have on their colleagues”.

This survey yielded invaluable positive data, on which I would like to have expanded, but space does not allow. Respondents’ views were strongly (and vehemently) expressed, and thus warrant our listening, because these feelings are affecting career longevity and fulfilment. As an interpreter trainer, I am privileged to share the joy and excitement that students bring when embarking on their interpreting careers.

It is my dearest wish that we nurture this positivity, and that these newcomers experience career longevity, buoyed by those supportive, generous and kind colleagues that I know. After all, as one respondent said “Mutual teamwork makes for the best outcome for the deaf client”.

Dr. Angela Dillon has been an accredited Auslan/English interpreter since 1987, during which time she has worked within a wide range of contexts. She currently works as an interpreter trainer in TAFE SA’s Diploma of Interpreting, with both hearing and Deaf interpreting students, and also continues to work in the field. Angela’s PhD focusses on South Australian print media discourse and debates about sign language use and deaf education from the 1970s-2000s. This article was originally published in the ASLIA e-update and is reproduced with permission.