Demand for professional signed language interpreters is high in Kenya and the continent of Africa. This demand for quality has no borders, it is multi-ethnic, multilingual, multicultural and multidisciplinary. On the other hand there is hardly any leading university in the country training professionals for high level quality work output. We have individual crusaders demanding respect for the profession, defending professional practice and gaining recognition in their own small way. Many new and beginners are ruthlessly competing for job and space to grow, the ecosystem does not provide for them the platform to thrive. At this crossroads there is a clamor often misplaced in my opinion for standardization, harmonized remuneration, pay scales and grades.
The myths associated with these voices are numerous, they range from over reliance on government to provide jobs to unfounded fears of competition and self-preservation of the interpreter.
Myth number one: We must involve government in all our efforts to organize our profession.
Many people from the villages especially those coming from the agricultural zones often come with the mentality of government subsidies, permanent jobs and government controls how you work mentality. The argument is often that the government is the largest employer and for them to work with any profession, they must be organized, harmonized and follow some standard. There is place of government and I do respect that, public service interpreting within government should be organized and planned well.
Myth number two: there are too few jobs, grab, grab, grab and charge less than the competition.
Newly qualified or experienced interpreters have the tendency to undercut their competition by charging less, grabbing anything that comes to them. They believe the jobs are too few and the more you grab the less you charge the more you will have.
Myth number three: interpreting is easy, I know sign language at least the basics I can interpret
There is a breed of individuals who having seen interpreters on TV, saw an interpreter at their church or read about the wonderful job the interpreters do. They are ill-advised to attend a two or three months course and jump to want to interpret at a news bulletin, high level government meeting. Some have uncles and aunties working in corporations and they are able to get connections to contracts, they fumble through the assignments and offer poor services to the clients.
Myth number four: if only we had policies, we will be fine
Most noise I hear about rules, policies or standardization are disjointed, un-researched and unfounded, hearsay. There is confusion on what laws is needed, is it a guideline? Could it be policies? A legislation perhaps? None of the voices can really tell you for a fact what is needed, there is a mixture of legalese being hurled right left and center…..
Myth number five: the field is too small we can’t specialize
Perhaps the most profound of all the myths is this one. For some reason all interpreters you will meet will tell you how the field is too small, you have to do everything. You cannot just interpret songs in church you need to do something serious like meetings, conferences, medical, legal and media – actually the news – current affairs, business, sports news and finish with the panel discussions to earn that money…..no one will pay you to interpret sports alone, the employers will not hear of it….we can’t specialize, we have not reached that level like the US or Europe they are quick to point out.
The reality is jobs by the governments are shrinking, they are privatizing most of their corporations and adopting non-governmental structures to run their businesses. Europe and US have robust private sectors that and operated efficiently. Government jobs are available in some areas – we can say the government in Kenya will employ some interpreters in some parastatals, in some state owned corporations BUT how many are they? How many interpreters will be absorbed in these jobs? Considering all the other issues surrounding corrupt officials, nepotism and bribery? Will the est and qualified interpreter have the best odds to go into government jobs?
What is the track record of government in successfully creating and sustaining a profession? Business opportunity? Look at the maize, sugar, milk industries…let me not go into coffee and tea we need to ask ourselves what are the things we can guide government to help us achieve, how far do we involve the officers in our profession – for overall legal framework and enforcement of the same yes definitely however if we are innovative we will realize that government is always a step or two behind any new emerging innovation – we have witnessed the same with m-pesa, e-commerce and medical setting – you have to invent, operate then government comes to learn and see how to regulate you by introducing laws and squeezing out tax from your profits.
The reality is we need government – not all of it. We have to create ur own mechanisms that are frame worked and based on laws existing or we create the laws to support our work.
The cake is too big and enough for everyone. I repeat, the cake is too big and enough for everyone. There is no need to hoard, fight, squabble and clique your way to hedge jobs, clients or fields. There are approximately 2 million Deaf Kenyans, there are roughly 2,000 interpreters with another 5,000 persons who know Kenyan Sign Language. Are the service providers enough to warrant panic? Can we say that at any one moment all the interpreters are engaged? Lets just remember that we have a big enough country for all of us, we all can get our corner and be able to survive, earn a living – competition is good and healthy as long as it create a better you, improves your service and propel you to innovate. If it is to blow out the other persons candle or stifle their growth, we miss the point.
Interpreting is not rocket science and it is not kids play either. There is a level of learning, practice and competency that one has to attain to be able to interpret accordingly. There are no perfect interpretations – 80-90% near accuracy can be realized when there is a lot of interplay between fluency, cultural relevance and skills to provide equivalence for the languages involved. My friends from KISE and River Road training services it is unfortunate you passed through the wrong service lane, it s never too late – join the correct language school and learn, it will pay off. There are many who followed that long path and today they are able to communicate with the clients. The secret to improved performance is having the correct disposition, teachable attitude and readiness to learn. Practice….make interpreting your number one, add al the other things to it not the other way round
Rules are good. They give order and offer the framework to peace and harmony. In the absence of a framework chaos prevail. However looking at the Matatu industry, agriculture specifically dairy, maize sub sectors, sports industry – football, rugby, athletics subsectors and how the government has messed up the industries with substandard frameworks. In an economy where the public service is seen as a vehicle to get rich and private entities provide alternative services it is difficult to have essential services that are uniform and
The future belongs to specialized individuals not the generalists. The employer is looking for high level skills – the days of I know word processing I need a job are over nearly all graduates know office packages, how many can code, design a website, create a game for the phone? Specialization in the broadest term is what we are to aim for. Know the foundation stuff, interpret for the chief, the hospital visit or at the police station BUT go ahead and be a public administration specialist interpreter able to work with local county government, a medical interpreter able to work with the hospitals during emergencies and epidemics, legal interpreter able to work with all the courts system.
Jack Owiti, firstname.lastname@example.org, +254723343516 @owitie theDancingInterpreter
Institute of Sign Language (ISL), Nairobi, Kenya