Interpreting in community and education: do the two go hand-in-hand?

By Bonnie Bellenzier

I began my interpreting career in 2005 in a school. I spent the first two and a half years of my interpreting career working in lower primary education, and in more recent years I have predominantly worked in a secondary school or university settings. However, I don’t only work in education. I currently work in both education and community settings. Working in both domains of work has encouraged a cross fertilisation and diversification of my skill set, my attitude, my values, and my interpreting experiences, and I highly recommend it.

Looking back to my early years in the field of interpreting, I realise I was initially scared to test the waters in community interpreting, but there is no doubt that by challenging myself to broaden my experiences outside of education I have actually enriched and improved my interpreting in the classroom. For me, in the early years, being in the classroom felt ‘safe’. It was consistent, predictable, and comfortable. I knew what I was doing in this setting and I thought I had the necessary skills.

This is of course a potentially dangerous way of thinking as a professional, and can lead to unconscious incompetence. Indeed, in hindsight, I can see my interpreting skills were fossilising and it was critical that I branch out. Fortunately, my timely decision to take the plunge into community interpreting was in an effort to not only expand my professional experiences and skills, but to see interpreting through a different lens that was not solely education-focused.

Community interpreting has allowed me to work in tandem with some amazing interpreters, including Deaf interpreters, and as most of my work in education was solo, in community settings I learned the intricacies of working with another person and how to work in tandem effectively. I have had the privilege of frequently working with Deaf professionals, diversifying my language choices and register from those used in education settings. I have been able to gain experience in high profile public assignments, formal settings, conferences, and interpreting academic presentations into English, as well as gaining experience in working with deafblind consumers.

Community interpreting has also provided me opportunities to work with complex clients in complex situations which has not only helped my interpreting skills but has given me greater perspective to a plethora of social issues we are confronted by as interpreters. Interestingly, this spurred me on to undertake a now nearly completed degree in social work. 

Community interpreting has given me a larger tool bag to take into the classroom to use when I am working with students who are still acquiring Auslan (which is far too frequent, sadly, even in secondary school). I am now able to draw upon a variety of linguistic experiences and skills from Deaf people and interpreters that I just didn’t have before branching out into community interpreting.

Educational interpreting is not without its distinct advantages too. It certainly does not deserve its (fortunately slowly changing) reputation as the poor cousin of community interpreting. It is where I learned how important it is to be free in my interpretations; to interpret the meaning and be as visual as possible.

Deaf students taught me the importance of this. This is not easy to do, and whilst I knew how important it was, in those first years of my career I didn’t always have the skills to execute it. My early years in educational interpreting also gave me valuable skills in preparing for assignments, with fortnightly assemblies, excursions and incursions, and thanks to educational interpreting the second verse of the national anthem will forever be etched onto my brain!

Today I continue to work in education, and I am still learning things that I carry into my work in community interpreting all the time. I am particularly fortunate to often work with highly skilled Deaf staff in the classroom, from whom I am always learning, and then integrating my observations of them into my interpreting. I truly believe that in working in education and community settings that I have the best of both worlds!

Bonnie gained NAATI paraprofessional interpreter accreditation in 2006. Prior to achieving this, she completed a Diploma of Auslan in 2004. She has worked as an interpreter in educational settings since that time, and in 2010 she received the ASLIA Western Australia Educational Interpreter of the Year Award for her efforts. In 2013, she was nominated once again for her work. Bonnie now works predominately in community settings in a variety of environments. Bonnie has near completed a Bachelor of Social Work at Curtin University. She intends to tie her experience as an Auslan interpreter to a role in community social work in the future. This article was originally published in the ASLIA e-update and is reproduced with permission.  

Published: 17/05/2017