Fortunately, this past semester, a very supportive husband meant that I didn’t have to work to put a roof over my head and mangoes in my belly. As a result, I was able to dedicate nearly all of my waking hours to my five Master’s in Conference Interpreting (MCI) courses. Even so, I was finding myself unable to keep up with all the assignments. Doing the bare minimum had become par and skipping many fascinating-looking readings commonplace.
I began to rebel. What if I want to dive deep into legal terminology or spend two extra hours practicing consecutive without notes from a Cervantes Institute speech about women in film? What if I do acquiesce to a half-day rabbit hole of interviews with Julio Cortázar for a literary translation assignment, when really, a 45-minute spurt would have been enough to get the job done?
To deal with this difficult situation, my initial course of action was to shift my personal standards. I decided that, because the conditions didn’t seem to allow for meeting the standards that would earn me the higher marks to which I was accustomed, I would accept merely passing grades in order to heed my intellectual and spiritual curiosity.
However, even with this concession, as the semester unfolded I realized that my work pace was unsustainable. I was working through the weekends but falling behind in my courses and facing assignments that were increasingly time intensive. Without some sort of intervention, failing a class or a panic attack was in the cards, and I wasn’t very keen on either of those outcomes. As my mother-in-law might say: something had to give.
It was at this juncture that I realized that the approach to interpreter ethics that we had been discussing in class had very relevant applications to my particular brand of academic strife.
I had come to the program with a sort deontological (rules-based) approach to the academic environment, taking the curriculum to be a sort of Code of Ethics similar to the ones we are to adhere to as practicing professional interpreters. “These are the things you must do to succeed in this program,” it seemed to declare in a booming baritone, “Now do it or perish.” But what happens when the “Standards,” or in this case, the curriculum put forth seem impossible to adhere to in practice?
If we overlay this situation with Dean and Pollard’s Demand-Control Schema that comes to us from our good friends in the ASL world, we have the opportunity to enter into a decision-making cycle. An ethical “demand” or quandary had arisen towards the beginning of the semester; I had subconsciously considered “controls” or options; and subsequently opted for the conservative one of shifting my personal standards in order to accept a paltry passing grade. However, from this arose new demands, which forced me to reevaluate my options.
Confronted with a situation I had never been in before, the established rules and norms being of little use to me, I sought counsel. In our personal lives, we do this quite frequently. I fear, however, that in our professional lives we do this all too little for fear that our shortcomings should be found out, or because of the erroneous notion that confidentiality requirements preclude consultation with our colleagues. But receiving feedback from others can be invaluable—as it most certainly was in this case. But it takes being willing to say, “I don’t know” or “this situation is beyond my capacity.”
As a result of my consultation, on this loop through the Demand-Control Schema’s wild world, I opted for a more liberal or interventionist approach: withdrawing from the course with the heaviest workload. Once I came to this resolution, I could feel my creative energies resurge almost immediately. The gap between what we are asked to do and what we are able to do had taken an immense toll that I was not fully aware of until that moment.
Interpreting is a creative act. Fear is the number one squelcher of creative energy. As such, it is urgent that we abandon the vertigo-inducing runaway train that is the deontological approach to ethics in favor of a more teleological approach that puts interpreters back behind the wheel.
At this intersection between mandate and how life plays out, something much more complex and subtle than the brute application of directives is at stake: the development of professional judgment. Fortunately, the MCI program at Glendon is designed with this in mind. The faculty recognizes that it’s about what we do in the gray. As interpreters we stand knee-deep in the gray all day long. But I suppose that if I were interested in clear-cut, I would have gotten out of dodge a long time ago.