A few months ago, the JNCL-NCLIS (Joint National Committee for Languages) met in Washington DC to discuss the interpreter-as-employee or interpreter-as-contractor debate currently ongoing at the state and federal levels of government. Attended by mostly companies that act as agents of interpreting services, the organization takes the stance that interpreters are knowledge workers, and should be considered independent agents. It would seem that if we are to consider interpreters as agents, that we would likewise look to interpreters as being professionals.
There’s lots of ways to look at professionalization. Here, we consider the interpreter in a way that JNCL assumes… The interpreter as its own business entity, or firm.
Much of the research on Professional Service Firms (PSFs) has related to the incumbents – legal and accounting firms – yet there’s clearly more that should be on the list. Andrew von Nordenflycht developed a new way to think about What is a Professional Service Firm? by building a taxonomy of PSFs… made up of firms claiming the PSF title, such as management consulting, advertising, architecture, university, and even social work.
The taxonomy breaks down PSF firms into categories, according to how they meet three characteristics:
Is interpreting done by Professional Service Firms?
The interpreting industry fits of one of the types, called ‘Neo-PSF’. Firms of this strain have a high degree of knowledge intensity, low level of capital, and an unprofessionalized workforce. Other examples in this category are management consultancies and ad agencies. And there are implications if this categorization is true, according to the model.
First, let us deal with the newly unearthed elephant in the room – are we really thinking that interpreters are ‘unprofessionalized’? Here’s why it makes sense to think in this way according to the model.
A professionalized workforce means that a professional occupation has ‘strong control over the practice of the occupation.’ And that we could see this on display through two qualities – ideology and self-regulation.
In terms of ideology, we can think of how a code of ethics signals norms of behavior for professionals, and how this affects the training leading to a newly minted professional. This is an imperfect-at-best quality in the interpreting profession. Codes of ethics exist, yet there is no central professional association engaged with all the diverse parts of the interpreting market. Interpreter training programs follow no single regulation in curriculum, and not all interpreters are required to train and certify.
Self-regulation is the second aspect of a professionalized workforce. Here, we suggest looking at relative-ness instead of binary-ness… Asking the question: “To what degree is the interpreting industry self-regulated by interpreters?” And, prior to answering that, we consider “How autonomous is this interpreter?”
Interpreters act autonomously, but in varying degrees. Many choose which clients to work with, at what prices, how to use their linguistic skills in doing their work, and so on. But again, there are huge differences throughout the interpreting market – community vs. conference – wage earner vs. contractor...
Autonomy can also be seen in how ‘firms’ are structured. Many interpreters, in acting as sole proprietor/LLC/S Corporation (in the US), are not typically owned and operated by outsiders, such as shareholders or investment companies.
Self-regulated professionals also have the ability to mute competition. This is done in two ways, and only imperfectly applies to the interpreting industry. First, certification acts as a barrier to entry into a professionalized workforce. Second, inter-professional competition is often limited, so that the trustworthiness of professionals is not threatened in the eyes of clients. This is done in many industries through agreed limitations on soliciting competitors’ clients, and limitations on competition based on price.
It makes sense to think that interpreters are both meeting and not meeting these qualities. Nordenflycht suggests that PSFs fit somewhere on a range – from least to most autonomous. So, if we are to consider interpreting firms to be made up of autonomous professionals, we do this in the knowledge that industries with more professionalization exhibit entirely different features, such as professional certification being backed by the state – think of lawyers and the bar exam.
Professionalization is one area where mediocrity is intentionally not celebrated, so not everyone gets an award for effort. When we relate the items listed above to the interpreting industry, at least from the viewpoint of the actual service providers (interpreters), there can only be a partial claim to ideology and self-regulation – So, only a partial claim to the broader industry having a ‘professionalized workforce’. It’s as if interpreters really want to be considered professionalized, but there are too many holes in the tarp.
Interpreters have designed their firms in ways that associate well with the model's recommendations. For example, the industry should understand and manage the ‘cat herding’ phenomenon – where workers have ‘strong preferences for autonomy and a consequent distaste for direction, supervision and formal organizational processes’. Sound familiar?
The model also recommends ways in which these types of firms should organize. Neo-PSF firms should develop ‘alternative compensation’ plans, where worker income relates to dollars produced, for example, rather than a static wage. Second, that workers act autonomously and informally with the firm. Third, that there is no ‘outside ownership’. It seems that most independent interpreters already meet these suggestions.
Since interpreters seem to naturally design their businesses in ways predicted by this model, we should think about what's next... The model seems to indicate that professionalization is the main issue on the table, and that ideology and autonomy are how we must focus going forward.
You can access the Wiki page for PSFs here.
This post created by Michael Grez and Tian Huang of Intran Solutions.
Image: 'Minute Man National Park', by Leopold, C., licensed by CC 2.0
Read about the authors