Specializations vs. special skills: An interpreter’s scope and abilities

Confused (Photo credit: CollegeDegrees360)

Having shared my first essay about settings vs. specializations with an Introduction to Interpreting class, I now realize I wasn’t clear enough the first time I wrote on the topic. One confusing aspect is that I called oral transliteration and tactile interpreting “specializations,” which doesn’t quite jibe with the way the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) defines “specialist” and “generalist” certificates. Let me break it down:

Oral transliteration and the Oral Transliteration Certificate (OTC)

Oral transliteration is what I would call a specialization — or at least I would have called it so last week. Not everyone can mouth clearly for people who read lips (or, more accurately, “speechread”). Certainly not every spoken/signed language interpreter knows how to mouth spoken language and use natural gestures without signing or mouthing the mouth morphemes that go with signs. Nevertheless, now that I have read and thought about “specialization” the last few days, I have to call oral transliteration a “special skill.”

…special skills, specializations, and settings are three different things.

I am coming to understand that “specialization” has more do with focusing one’s scope of practice in certain settings such as educational, medical, performing arts, religious, mental health, or legal interpreting. Yes, oral transliteration for oral deaf people and tactile and close-vision interpreting for Deaf-Blind people are special skills. And, yes, having those skills may lead one into specialized settings such as Deaf-Blind conferences and social events, but it is debatable whether Deaf-Blind interpreting is a “specialization” since one can interpret for Deaf-Blind people anywhere — at the doctor’s office, in a classroom, in a courtroom, at a conference of mostly hearing people, etc. In short, interpreters may “specialize” to work in certain settings, and special skills may lead you or equip you to work in certain settings, but special skills, specialization, and settings are three different things.

The OTC is a “Generalist” certificate

However “special” the skill of oral transliteration is, RID’s OTC is a “generalist” certification. RID’s Generalist Certification pagedefines “generalist” thus:

Generalist certifications recognize professional interpreters who have met or exceeded a nationally recognized standard of minimum competence in interpreting and/or transliterating.

Yet how does a certified oral transliterator to gain entry into legal interpreting? RID goes on to say:

Individual certifications vary in their scope, so it is important to know what each credential means.

So what is the “scope” of the oral transliterator? That page on the RID website does not say. To find out how oral transliterators specialize in legal interpreting, I Googled ‘”oral transliteration” legal interpreting’ and found an Oral Transliteration Certificate (OTC) Examination Information Bulletin that simply says in 1988, RID concurrently worked on developing certification for legal interpreters and (separately) oral transliteration. There is no mention of oral transliteration in legal settings (p. 4). It also mentions that one of the benefits of membership in the Alexander Graham Bell Association (AGB) is Volta Voices, a publication that has medical and legal columns (p. 5). I suppose an oral transliterator could specialize in legal interpreting by studying legal protocol and terminology. Unlike ASL-English (and/or Spanish) interpreters, they don’t have to learn how to talk about law in any language other than English.

Oral Transliterators licensed to do legal interpreting in Arizona

How can an oral transliterator get a license to do legal interpreting in the state of Arizona? (And when I say “legal interpreting,” I don’t mean “lawful interpreting” or “interpreting legally.” I mean interpreting in judicial and law enforcement settings.) I searched the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (ACDHH) website for “legal interpreting” and found the Initial General or Legal License Application. The section for legal interpreting shows that someone who holds an OTC can only apply for a Class D license, not a class A, B, or C. That is okay, though, because according to this video on  interpreting licensure (which has both captioning and voiceover) Class D is only for oral transliterators and Deaf interpreters (“relay” or “intermediary” interpreters who work between hearing interpreters and deaf consumers who do not communicate effectively with the hearing interpreter and vice versa). Interestingly, according to the application form, applicants for classes A, B, and C all have to sign an affidavit stating they have worked over 10,000 hours since first becoming certified, while Deaf interpreters and oral transliterators only have to have 25 hours experience of any kind past certification.

The significantly lower requirements for deaf interpreters and oral transliterators in legal settings makes me wonder why legal interpreting requires a specialist certificate of some interpreters but not of all. If it is because of the specialized vocabulary and protocols, then those would apply to deaf and oral interpreters as well. I suppose the difference is a) the rarity of deaf and oral interpreters and b) the softer language barrier between sign varieties for deaf interpreters and diction for oral interpreters than there is for interpreters who have to know how to “interpret” legalese into and from two different languages. Given what can reasonably be expected of special interpreters serving special populations, and given the lack of motivation one might have to specialize in law, I guess it is sort of “sink or swim” for these practitioners. Their incentive to acquire the skills necessary to succeed as legal specialists probably stems from a desire to do good work for others or at least a desire to make it easier on themselves. Luckily, there are law classes people can take, and there are legal interpreting workshops offered by ASL-English-Spanish interpreters that are accessible to both Deaf interpreters and oral transliterators.

Specialization — when does it end?

Why do legal interpreters need a specialist certificate when medical interpreters do not? Is not medical interpreting a specialization? Yes, it is, but RID does not have a specialist certificate for it. Is performing arts interpreting a specialization? Yes, it is, and RID used to award a specialist certificate for it (the SC:PA), but it doesn’t anymore. How about political interpreting? Religious interpreting? Academic interpreting? Mental health interpreting? Sports interpreting? Should all specializations require specialist certificates? Once we start certifying interpreters for specializations, where does it end? So far it has stopped at legal, but there is something on the horizon called the Certified Medical Interpreter (CMI) and that, my friends, is “beyond the scope of this article.

Psst! Stay tuned. I’ve already started a draft.






4 responses to “Specializations vs. special skills: An interpreter’s scope and abilities”

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