Being A Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence. By Jonathan Downie. Routledge; 102 pages
In the early 2000’s, while Yahoo executives slept soundly in their beds each night, Google got us using a service that would eventually doom the incumbent position. Interpreters look at what Search did there, and they wonder, could real-time Translate do the same to their industry?
And so there’s been a lot of speak about how the industry should counter. Jonathan Downie, an accomplished new-generation interpreter, based in the UK, makes an argument in his new book Being a Successful Interpreter. The idea is simple: Interpreters should take off the white veil of neutrality and put on the sexy red dress that is value-added service.
Over 102 pages, he approaches this argument from different angles. Training, professional development, branding, organizing, academia, the body, and the soul. The umbrella seems solid enough, but some arguments are better than others. The best is about the need to adopt a value added perspective, and that’s why we are writing this review.
This book knows what it wants to be – a call and motivation for change in how interpreters go about seeing their professional roles. It’s a manifesto-lite, but hides itself under the false guise of knowing what the consequences are of its suggested actions. It doesn’t. Here is a selection of those. Broadly, Downie claims that the interpreting professionals/profession should focus on two areas:
The argument is this… Interpreters that grew up in a Kodak world haven’t recognized the values inherent in how the modern economy works. The modern world is more decentralized, and so interpreters cannot rely on coming out of an Interpreting MA program with a cushy institutional job that takes care of things like salary, branding, etc. This difference has created a need for a change in the way interpreters see their market role and responsibilities. And that change means that interpreters need to take charge of a whole host of things that past generations have taken for granted.
Adding value then means that we need to understand more. More about negotiations, our client’s needs and wants, professionalism, diet, our industry’s associations, and so much more. That we need to take an engaged and holistic view in developing our profession and professional career path.
This is super cool, so we recommend the book. And Downie’s got a lot of other support. Each chapter has a follow-up interview with some very respected industry professionals, and references are used well.
Where things break down is in the application of some of these ideas. For starters, the arguments made in this book are mostly Brit/Euro-centric. It’s only a few times that organizations, languages, or even geographies outside of this area are even mentioned, let alone dealt with in how they support or falsify any given claim.
The other major issue is the constant shift in who is being spoken to and who Downie sees as responsible for what. Are interpreters the “elite…groups of professionals” described in the introduction, or the hapless traditionalists described in Chapter 3 – “Can professionals develop?” Further on, in Chapter 5, Downie veers off message in speaking directly to established interpreting associations, and implicitly supports their continued top-down structure. Such moves are self-defeating in suggesting that interpreters should personally take on the task of rebranding the profession by “rebranding our own individual work”, but then claiming that “…the future of interpreting associations will involve finding ways to encourage their members to add value to clients” (emphasis added). This lead this reader to question our own position as a new-to-market LSP – “Is the charge of creating value for clients upon the shoulders of the individual or institutions?”
All this being said, read this book. These are arguments that need discussing now, and Downie moves the discussion away from the entitlement paradigm trap. Some sort of updated organization is certainly called for in the industry, and it’s apparent that there’s no clear consensus on how that’s supposed to develop.
The ideas presented in these pages are challenging for the reader, because they expose warts that have been long hidden by that white veil. If we want to put on that new sexy red dress, we’re going to have to consider in very real ways just what we are perceived as being by our clients. Without understanding the respective differences in each client's situation, we are probably better off keeping that veil on. And that's a shame, because we really do have a lot of value to offer, if we can just understand the client.
Author: Michael Grez
Intran Solutions' Director. Chinese/English Interpretation. Contact us at (610) 701-1345 or firstname.lastname@example.org