The Peter Principle says that a university, agency, or VRS provider will evaluate an employee (or, an interpreter) based on their ability to excel in their current position. Great engineers at Google would become managers of engineers, and rise the corporate ladder until they fail-- until Google changed their approach. Google realized that a good engineer often should remain an engineer and simply earn a better salary as they gain experience and skill. The natural progression for many engineers is not from an engineer to a supervisor, to middle-management, to upper-management. The skillset needed in engineering as compared to the skillset needed in leadership are two barely overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. Many business sectors have identified the Peter Principle in their field, but not in interpreting.

As a thought exercise, consider these questions:

  1. How many interpreting agencies are run by former or current interpreters?
  2. How many interpreting services coordinators are interpreters?
  3. Do you see interpreters work in the field until retirement?
  4. How many interpreters do you know that have moved into teaching, practicing law, or psychology?

While I think that all interpreters need leadership experience and training, it's still true that good interpreters are good interpreters, not necessarily good leaders. But, since earning potential caps out so early in an interpreter's career, it's only natural for an interpreter to identify other potential professional opportunities that take them out of the field and into the classroom to teach at an Interpreter Training Program or behind a desk. Lastly, as interpreters feel devalued as commodification increases, it seems reasonable to expect the mass exodus to continue for interpreters in their forties and fifties.

The unforeseen negative outcome of this is that if a person is promoted into leadership that is not a good fit, that business or agency lost a good interpreter and the leadership position that they wanted to fill.

What can the community of practice of interpreting do to improve the career path for interpreters?

Emory David Dively

Emory is an NIC: Master ASL interpreter, has operated small and large agencies, and consulted with agencies across the US. He has an MA in Communication & Leadership from Gonzaga University.