It's about agency for interpreters - and I don't mean interpreting agencies

Post date: Oct 13, 2015 3:21:56 PM

In the social sciences, agency means the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. In some interpreting situations, "agency" is precisely what interpreters don't have. Constrained by their working conditions and environment, and by others' perception of their role and status, they act as "dumb terminals", only speaking when directly called upon, and consequently appearing unable to act other than at others' beck and call. This can lead to a feeling of inferiority, and to statements like "I'm only the interpreter". It can also cause interpreters to be continuously in "child" mode, unable to take decisions for themselves, and uncomfortable when asked to do so, even as part of a team.

This is not a problem in some sectors, where interpreters feel fully empowered, and there is absolutely no need to talk about "agency" (some tend to get irate at that word in any case). It's not a problem with some individual interpreters, either.

In some environments, however, interpreters need to think seriously about whether a greater focus on their own "agency" might make for more effective interpreting, whether as part of a team or not. I don't mean that they should suddenly start giving out orders left, right and centre (there's a scene in a Woody Allen film where the main character, after receiving assertiveness training, attacks somebody with a pitchfork over a disagreement about the weather - I'm not advocating that kind of approach). But interpreters should think seriously about whether exerting more influence over issues such as their own safety, comfort breaks, working hours or the need to attend team meetings would ultimately make their lives - and their colleagues' lives - easier, and make for more effective interpreting right across the board. A happy interpreter - with full "agency" - will surely perform more effectively than an unhappy one, with no sense of "agency" whatsoever.