Interpreting as Public Service

Interpreting is fundamentally people work – not language work. And when we get that backwards, or focus too heavily on the language piece- people suffer. Please know that I in no way mean that language is unimportant or an afterthought. Language is critical to the work we do and teach. Language has the power to create realities, inner narratives, understanding or misunderstanding of the world around you. It has the power to destroy people’s sense of self, limit our sense of self and others, and imprison us in lies. It is not to be taken lightly. And it is not ultimately what the work is about – it is a tool for the work.

The work of interpreting is connecting humans. Connecting them to each other, to ideas, knowledge, resources, patterns of thinking. Connecting them to opportunities, support, training, and advancement. Connecting them to loved ones, professional services, and communities of shared interest.
A colleague of mine who teaches in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Education graduate program at WOU, Kathleen Kenyon, she was sharing some of her brilliance with me the other day. How she starts off her classes with new students, and her lens of teaching as a public service. I’ll share it below and link it back to interpreting as well.

First, a public service is defined as, “a service rendered in the public interest” [according to Merriam dictionary]. This would include teaching, particularly public school teaching, of course- it is a value of our society to educate and thus it is in the public interest to ensure an educated constituency. So, Kenyon, was talking about her response to students who want to know the strategies and tools on day one. Her responses is often, “Can you love them (the students)?” Can you see them? Get them? Work for them? If the answer is “no” -no amount of strategies or tools will help compensate. If the answer is “yes,” – great, let’s start talking tools and strategies, because with love, even in the absence of tools, you’ll figure out how to reach that kid.

Likewise, interpreting students inevitably want to know, “what’s the sign for…” I’m tempted to begin using this strategy with them now as well. “Can you love the person in front of you – see their humanity, investing in understanding the need, use your own humanity to read them, and engage in connecting?” If the answer is “no” – no amount of sophisticated or pretty language will help. If the answer is “yes,” – lets go, let’s have the discussion – because no matter how limited your language, you will figure out how to connect people.


When we get the understanding of the job wrong – and think it is about language, versus language being a tool – we miss out on connecting people meaningfully and loving people well in society.

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