Why it might not be a good idea to volunteer

For basically all of my one-year career as an interpreter, I have been doing regular volunteering in the field. A friend of mine recently said, though, that she will not volunteer those services. And her explanation made me rethink things.

Me interpreting for a friend because I was asked to

Me interpreting for a friend because I was asked to

A mentor of mine in interpreting once said, “As interpreter, you are an advocate for the Deaf client.” That doesn’t mean that the Deaf person is an invalid and needs a helper to survive day-to-day living.

No, what it means to me is that Deaf people are a minority voice, and it is up to the interpreter to make sure that voice is heard, that the interests of the Deaf as an individual and a culture are respected.

Interpreting, especially sign language interpreting, is, in a sense, a new concept to Jamaica. There have been interpreters for a long time, of course; but they have been mostly been people supporting their Deaf family members, or people who may or may not be able to sign very well picking up themselves to interpret.

No professionalism. No standard of behaviour. And certainly no pay.

And that’s the problem. In their budgets and planning, those who serve Deaf (which, potentially, would be just about everyone) often don’t consider interpreters until the last minute. We are called sometimes the day before for jobs. Or, they don’t think we should get paid at all.

What that means is, by volunteering, I inadvertently perpetuate the habit of not planning for and paying for interpreters, and undervaluing of interpreting services. (Believe me when I say it’s not easy work.) That means fewer people will see interpreting as a viable career. And with fewer interpreters, the Deaf are the ones who suffer.

But if we don’t volunteer now, Deaf suffer in the short term from lack of communication access in the services they require. So, a decision has to be made. Help Help Hopefully, with this new disability law passed here in Jamaica, land we love, things will steadily improve. But it won’t unless people make deliberate changes. What to do?

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4 Responses to Why it might not be a good idea to volunteer

  1. Robyn says:

    Tough to strike a balance. Maybe approach the offers you get with a higher standard of professionalism. And educate the people who ask you to translate about the fact that you expect remuneration.

    Soft careers (can I call them that? Dance, interpreting etc) are usually things people are passionate about and it leaves employers going “Well if you love it, then you should just be glad I’m asking you to do it.” Maybe telling them you expect pay might help, or it might not. Best of luck though.

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  2. Matt Brown says:

    Consider the exact opposite situation, in which no interpreter ever volunteers for anything, ever. In the State and in the UK, we tried to move away from a “helper” model which characterised the Deaf community as vulnerable recipients of charity into a relentlessly “professional” system that was ruled by so-called “neutrality” and conceptions of interpreters as robots or “conduits”. Was that better? I would argue not. For myself I would never volunteer for a service that has public funding or a healthy published profit and loss account; any other situation in the community is a possibility.

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