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When I became an interpreter in 1998 there was no internet as we know it today. Google was just starting, and most people were Yahoo or Hotmail fans communicating on Microsoft Messenger (not FB Messenger, as Zuckerberg was just 14 and Facebook was not even an idea then).

Therefore, I learned from experienced interpreters like Ann Corsellis, Marjory Bancroft, and others, who had vast experience and knew how to articulate information in a logical way. In addition to being a member of the CIoL and ITI, I was also a member of associations in the US like NAJIT and ATA to receive in my post their interesting magazines.

I attended every conference I could in the US as the UK was not offering much in the early 2000s. I devoured every lecture and paper I could read, including The Linguist and The Bulletin.

And it was in one of these ATA conferences that I heard the [heated] discussion of the ‘invisible’ interpreter. Boy, did it cause a stir…

I remember that I understood it as we are invisible because we do not impact or disrupt the conversation, we are interpreting so accurately with minimal interventions that they can communicate easily and effortlessly, as if they spoke the same language, therefore I am ‘invisible’ because I am doing it right, not because I do not exist.

The discussion continued and many gave their opinions, and it was a good discussion as it helped define the role of interpreters which was very much enshrined in mystery back then.

It helped enrich the vocabulary of what was acceptable and why we needed to respect confidentiality, why we must be impartial, why we need a code of conduct and what distinguishes a professional from an untrained interpreter. There were talks and articles that had been in the making for years, yes, even back then. NAJIT had a lot to offer, and many experienced interpreters had paved the way for me.

Fast forward 20 years and we are at the other end of the spectrum with interpreters being extremely visible and vocal. An interpreter can now advertise their services on websites and different mediums and portals, show off their newly acquired qualifications and achievements and add selfies of themselves where they spent their days interpreting on various social media outlets.

It is certain that times have changed, and the internet has allowed so many things that were taboo to become normal, but I always question where all these liberties are taking us. Are they for the benefit of the profession? Are they raising awareness of interpreters as a profession or making interpreters achieve celebrity status? If so, with what intent?

And if it is an acceptable practice, why aren’t doctors doing selfies with their patients on the operating table with captions that read “another 18 hour day in the OP theatre, 3 bypasses later and I am done, off for a nice walk home along the canals.”

Or why don’t I see barristers doing selfies outside the courtroom, saying “Massive thanks to my team, we got a conviction today at the Old Bailey!”

Or a social worker taking a selfie outside the home of an elderly lady saying “After 8 visits today, my last job just received me filled with faeces, in the bed, hands, hair… had to shower her, clean the bed and room, wash everything… who is paying for the extra time on my zero-hour contract?”

Maybe because by doing so, they show where they are, they reveal the location of someone’s house, the identity of a defendant (or patient), and that leads to breach of their ethical code. So if some professions find it easy to follow a code of conduct and good practices, should we not follow suit to ensure we also achieve the same respect as professionals?

When did it become normal to have so many liberties with confidential information and where will it stop? Should we accept it as normal or are we falling into the celebrity trap?

‘There is a time and a place for everything’, we have all learned this at some point, but it seems that nowadays ‘everything can be done everywhere at any time’… when did the coin flip? And if everything is acceptable, why do we need ethics? Why do we need a code of conduct or good practice for interpreters?

I find it worth reading those interpreters that take their time to create posts or publications with information that helps others, as well as free and paid CPD that inspires us all, but do we need a celebrity profile for that?

Where I do not advocate an invisible or celebrity model, I think we should look at the issue with critical eyes and question our motivations before embarking on what can be perceived as detrimental to our reputation.

Recently, I was invited to an award ceremony taking place at an Education conference in Dubai where it seems I would receive an award. It was enough to leave me intrigued. After asking some questions, what transpired was baffling. It seems my name had been chosen at random amongst many others from an algorithm that selected individuals according to searches made of their names in LinkedIn and Google. A further call explained how alongside other 100 individuals I would receive my award on stage, and then the sales pitch started. I would need to apply, be selected if my application form was detailed enough and met their parameters and If I was successful I had to pay to attend the conference.

Now, this would be a great fit for any celebrity seeker, but I saw no benefit in pursuing this or attending this conference. My niche market is small and specialised, I have 20 years in this business, therefore I am already established and have a reputation. And, having to pay to attend my own award ceremony, looks like I am buying an award, so it made no sense to spend time convincing them of something I already do well and successfully.

I am sharing this little story because we can all fall into the stardom trap and desire to have a moment of glory. Did a say a moment? Well, it seems more like everyone is having their “15 minutes of fame” every day. But I question myself again, are we getting more work because of the celebrity status than our skills?

Yes, we do business very differently nowadays, but should we not have a balance of privacy and disclosure? Should advertising a service or marketing be a self(y)-promotion affair? And what about those interpreters who work in high-profile cases or in languages that put them at risk? Are we creating a segregated category of interpreters, those who can and those who cannot be stars on the windows of the world? And how come I do not see AIIC interpreters in this category of fame-seeking?

I have too many questions that beg an answer, perhaps the dialogue is not ready for me so I will continue as an observant and do what I preach (basically what I learned).

No, we can no longer be invisible, but maybe we can find a balance even though it seems morality is becoming relative. Maybe normative ethics need to change, maybe we should have more examples of good practice created based on a code of conduct, maybe we can still put back the pieces, maybe…

by Helena El Masri