The profession of Sign Language interpreter, caught between discourses
This article discusses the profession of Sign Language interpreter in Norway today, and in doing so identifies the discourses that are competing to define the profession.
From a sociological perspective, any profession – a term that is taken here as meaning an occupational group that meets some specific criterion – is a social construction. No such criterion is absolute, but must be understood in a temporal and geographical context. A trait common to all the professions in our welfare state is that they are founded on the basis of trust from the society that they exist to serve.
This is why it is important for any profession to demarcate itself from other professions, thereby clarifying – both for its own members and, even more so, for the public – what its clients are entitled to expect. What kind of expertise does the profession possess? And regarding professional conduct, what are its members permitted – and not permitted – to do?
A key consideration is professional ethics or standards. These are communicated to the public so that members of the public will be aware what they can ask for, and what they are entitled to receive, when booking the services of, for example, an interpreter.
In Norway it is Tolkeforbundet, the Association of Sign Language interpreters, which establishes guidelines for the interpreters’ professional conduct. However, both the profession’s ethics and the profession as such are subject to constant change.
The aim of my analyses is to investigate the nature of the discourses that are currently engaged in this process. First we need to identify the social actors that are in a position to influence the construction of the profession that is Sign Language Interpreter. Given the way that this special interpreter service is organised, Nav (the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration) is in a powerful position, along with educational institutions and the profession itself.
The Norwegian Association of the Deaf (NDF) is also an institution of particular interest here. There would be no Sign Language interpreters, let alone professional Sign Language interpreters, without the political struggle initiated by this association. Today Sign Language is recognised as one of Norway’s official languages. This is a result of the language discourse that has materialized in governmental papers.
However, it is not the acceptance of Deaf culture and language that entitles deaf people to use the services of interpreters, but rather the notion of deaf people as ‘handicapped’. Hence these competing discourses of language and handicap, which form part of the social construction of deafness, may also be identified as defining the interpreter. The former discourse (language) emphasizes the languages in use, while the latter (handicap) defines the interpreter as an aspect of the rehabilitation of people whose hearing is impaired.
Here I focus on a text recently issued by Nav, in so far as it relates to the interpreter’s role. I analyse the text to identify how this role is articulated within the Nav discourse, particularly in relation to the way the profession defines this role in its code of ethics.
I will argue that some of the changes in the interpreter’s role that are suggested in the Nav report are quite radical. Given the institutional power of Nav, this leaves the profession in a dilemma. In which direction will it move, and what will the consequences be?