Down from the Mountain
An interpreter’s perspective on the book – Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us
Seth Godin, in his newish book on Tribes, takes on a challenging task – prompting us to consider how we see our role as workers in our modern, social world.
We’ve looked at tribes from the point of view of our own profession – conference interpretation. Here, we break down the basics – what tribes are and how they work, and how interpreters might see what they do from the perspective of the tribe.
What are Tribes?
Tribes happen when people are connected to each other, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. Tribalism isn’t new, and has taken on a slight tinge – traditionally connected with concepts such as ethnicity or labor, for example. Tribes live together in valleys, having relieved themselves of the day-to-day drudgery of rugged mountain-man individualism. When people enter into a tribe, they enter into a community that moves in a common direction. They have shared interests, ways of communicating, and a leader to direct traffic. Most importantly, tribes happen because the community wants change, and have faith that the change they seek is desired and actionable.
So, there are leaders and followers. Godin evokes the specter of Steve Jobs and others in the tech lineage as examples of tribal leaders. Leaders design iProducts. iConsumers buy them, and crucially, build communities that recognize a common allegiance, thereby building momentum for iProfit. Followers, as it stands, should be respected in fulfilling their role, yet Godin leaves us feeling that anybody who’s anybody really would want to be the leader.
The conference interpreter’s perspective:
Interpreters traditionally don’t, but can fit the model. Interpreters embody the rugged individual. They speak your language, but they also speak that other language too. Jobs are typically by contract, not employment. Even the tools of the trade, like the notes they take to remember your 15 minutes of speech, are custom made for that interpreter – no two sets of notes are alike.
Interpreters act with other interpreters as a crowd, rather than a tribe. They are the mountain goats of linguists, their bonds made through an association of geography or language. At the end of the day, most self-employed interpreters know that crowd-level success is great, but individual success is necessary.
Is there a way off the mountain for interpreters?
Tribes need a way for people to commune with one another. In Godin’s modernist view of the tribal world, community is shifting away from old notions of manufacture, ethnicity, and nationality – towards new conceptualizations of ideas and services. Social media doesn’t make a tribe in and of it’s own merits. Members create tribes when leaders leverage a medium to facilitate communal ownership of the platform.
Such facilitation seems to be exactly what interpreters do for clients. Moving away from the A/B-language view of the interpreter, could it be that the interpreter acts as tribal leader, utilizing a medium (interpreting) that facilitates tribal qualities in the community of clients they serve? Going back to Godin’s Tribal concept, let’s situate that with the interpreter. Tribes happen when:
The challenge of application rests on the idea of faith. Currently, interpreter codes of ethics mandate that the interpreter take on a neutral stance. The interpreter should take on their role as if they do not exist – where meaning is the sole province of the speaker. For interpreters to take on a role as leader, they would require a new mandate. Wittgenstein famously said that meaning is a two-sided coin… negotiated between people, rather than dictated by individuals. Are interpreters arbitrators of meaning, or are they simply translators of meaning?
We think that the value prospect of the entrepreneurial interpreter lies in their capacity as tribal leaders.
This blog written by:
Michael Grez and Tian Huang of Intran Solutions LLC, provider of authentic conference interpreting service between Chinese and English - based in Washington, DC.