Lifestyle: Tourist — Citizenship: Global

If you are a Punjabi/English community, liaison or public service interpreter living in Lucerne, Switzerland, you might consider moving to Vancouver, Canada, to improve your job opportunities. And if that does not work out, you might consider living in Toronto, Canada, or any number of other cities where there is a significant population that speaks Punjabi as a minority language. Community interpreting, “bidirectional interpreting that takes place in communicative settings among speakers of different languages for the purpose of accessing community services,” (ISO13611) is an ebb and flow occupation that tends to parallel global immigration and refugee migration trends. This means that a community interpreter can experience both an economic drought and a fiscal feast.

So what if interpreters, instead of waiting for markets to come to them, went to their markets? Or as Silver Keskküla says, “change your coordinates and you might just find yourself out of an employment dislocation situation.” Keskküla is one of the founders of Teleport, a young tech startup that aims to ease the pain of relocating to a new city, into a new job and a new social network; a pain that Keskküla and his cofounders had experienced six times before Teleport was born in 2013. Keskküla says, “most people that [move frequently] keep doing it because they see the upside. So we decided to start building software to help people move.” While being a language professional holds a promise of a life of travel, it can also allow you to turn that life of travel  into a lifestyle. In a postmodern world, professionals live episodically rather than in a fixed state — “to keep the game short” means fitting into a postmodern world where the job-for-life no longer exists. You need to keep moving. And in moving, professionals grow their international networks of contacts, employment opportunities and their profile.

Of course, technology supports interpreting through phone and video platforms, but onsite, face-to-face interpreting is still the preference when it comes to community or public service interpreting, especially in those sectors highest in need — health care and social services. While unemployment is simply a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the increased mobility of people to countries outside of the traditional immigrant-receiving countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States affords interpreters even more opportunities for travel. But moving and relocating can be hard and painful. That’s where Teleport comes in, by removing the friction and pain involved in relocating and adjusting to a new city; professionals can adopt the tourist-like lifestyle of the global citizen. Go to the Teleport site, plug in your criteria and see what countries meet your needs. You can then connect to a network of Teleport members who are there to help, answer questions and generally ease your transition.

While Teleport does not currently list any of the language industry categories as an employment option, it has a vast array of options that one can review. And they are committed to meeting needs. “We’re not done and language skills are a natural fit for the Teleport community. That list has already grown and we will continue our efforts to include the broadest range of careers possible. Give us some time to get it right,” I was told by Jeff from the Teleport customer service office when I asked about adding interpreter and translator as occupations. 

Interpreting, language and identity

As Zygmunt Bauman stated in the 1996 Questions of Cultural Identity, the “postmodern ‘problem of identity’ is primarily how to avoid fixation and keep the options open.” Keeping the options open is the essence of the entrepreneurial soul and, as solopreneurs, community interpreters need to think in terms of economic units, cities of possibilities and teleporting to work. The new conceptualization of identity is one in which identity is considered a costume change, discarded and replaced as needed. This new identity paradigm moves outside of arbitrary lines drawn to enclose a group within a false border and suits the new global mobility. Keskküla comments that “a country is an artificial group of people — because you do not interact with all of them, just a select group, maybe those you are closest to physically, so you can ask ‘which artificial group do you want to take your identity from?’”

But how connected are community interpreters to their linguistic and cultural identities? How would a renegotiation of that identity affect their work, or would it? Homi K. Bhabha’s 2012 The Location of Culture portrays identity as complex, connected to political histories and agency. National identity has been described as a discursive process that engages all parties, and is not fixated in a historical past, but rather is a negotiated performance that produces a definition. How critical is a national identity to a community interpreter?

As a Canadian, I have always been very comfortable with an ambiguous characterization of culture or cultural identity. After all, as Marshall McLuhan once stated, “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.” I am a citizen of a country that defines its identity as, to further quote McLuhan, “a culture that is many cultures, many stories, in a place that stretches across a continent and is richly occupied” and have always welcomed the narrative exchanges of travelers that had either chosen Canada as a destination or that had somehow found their way here and were just passing through. These stories of migration and changing identities are neither a foreign nor a disagreeable concept. In fact, I often wondered if indeed my immigrant status itself directly contributes to my comfort with fluid boundaries of national identity. And while the world is experiencing an increase in protectionist policies and xenophobic protests in many nations, it is countries like Canada that are experiencing an economic boom due to increased migration.

In a recent post promoting a business case for migration, the World Economic Forum supported the opinion that migration stimulates economic growth and innovation in business: “In the short term migration may cost; in the long term it will pay dividends.” Not only does migration benefit the countries receiving newcomers, but also the newcomers themselves, and the countries and families left behind. In fact, as stated by the World Economic Forum, “migration can generate significant economic gains for migrants, origin countries, and destination countries — but migration also can have important political and social consequences.” Migration then becomes the weaver of an international web of connected economies, individuals and identities. Whatever your position, if you want to win the game, you need to be quick on your feet — as the World Economic Forum report on World Economic Trends to Look Out For in 2016 states, “the global war for talent will intensify.”

In the 1980s I worked with a Turkish interpreter who had lived outside of Turkey for many years well before the turmoil of the early 1980s. She had traveled from Turkey to Italy, where she lived for a period, and then on to Germany. From Germany she immigrated to Canada. Not only was she a member of the Turkish diaspora pre-coup, she was also a lesbian, a single mom, completely eccentric in dress and attitude and intellectually brilliant. She fit no preconceived scripted identity and therefore clients were unable to position her within an identity that they could understand. Ultimately, she was the best Turkish interpreter we had due to the very fact that she had no identity within the Turkish community. She was an invisible, culturally and linguistically connected conduit that was both present and not — it is the role community interpreters endeavor to realize. So, perhaps a little loss of national identity, a frequent change of city and connection to a migratory diaspora is exactly what community interpreters should attempt. And, in the meantime, they get to see the world while finding an employment location.

I asked Keskküla how he identifies culturally, and he tells me that he has lived in nine countries, “so the lines for me are blurrier than for most people that stay in one place. I easily identify myself as an Estonian, because that is where I spent most of my life, my childhood, and that has shaped who I am more than any other place, yet I do see that there is a big trend toward nationality being less and less of a thing.” Will allegiance to a place no longer exist? “Borders are a random coincidence of conflicts and political histories. The coincidence of being born someplace doesn’t mean you owe anything to that place.”

Mobility, the new world

order and the global citizen

A 2016 GlobeScan poll conducted for the BBC found that “among all 18 countries where this question was asked in 2016, the poll suggests more than half (51%) see themselves more as global citizens than citizens of their country, against 43 percent who identify nationally.”

What does a world of global citizens look like? From within a crisis of change we are typically unable to describe the new concept with the old words, but that does not stop the evolution toward a different way of being. “Globalization provides the context for just such a crisis since it has increased the range of sources and resources available for identity construction,” according to Chris Barker and Emma A. Jane in their 2016 Cultural Studies. For community interpreters this evolution may provide them with the agency of which they have been deprived. “A world in which every government is having to compete for citizens” is the vision of Teleport — a complete reversal of the current state where citizens have to vie for place and entry. Instead citizens, or residents, can vote with their feet and the economic units they represent. 

Keskküla tells me that both he and his cofounder, Sten Tamkivi, “were born in Estonia, which was occupied by the Soviet Union at the time. If our choices in life were defined by [the birth] coincidence, it would have been quite sad.” Born on a small island that was closed off from the mainland, for people to either come or leave the island required a permit. During Keskküla’s lifetime, this has completely changed: “now I can walk without going through any customs from Estonia to the end of Spain — just a step away from Africa,” and the change is quite remarkable indeed. But Keskküla believes that the competing units will not be countries, but cities or distilled even further, economic zones within those cities. “Cities will want to have more control over their growth and their attractiveness.” Attractiveness as a city will be where resources and programs are linguistically accessible, and service provided by professional interpreters is a strong economic feature.

Keskküla sees a future where “cities will lose the tax dollars because people will vote with their feet.” In this new world people can shift political landscapes rather than politics defining identities. Community interpreting has always been a challenge to put on the political agenda as in many cases it is seen as an expense rather than a benefit. Mobility and connection can aid in increasing the professional profile of the interpreter. Keskküla says that there is no one typical profession or geographic location in the Teleport demographics, although the lifestyle is well suited to those in the IT sector, “We are seeing everybody — we are seeing many different types of professions including nurses, bankers and architects. All types of people want to move and there are different demands. The biggest group is definitely North Americans — probably about 30% to 40% — but the rest of world is represented as well. Which is an interesting problem in the sense that there is no clear winning corridor, winning scenario or winning city. Every place in the world has people who want to move, who want to discover the world.”

This mobility and new world field of practice may just be the frame that better fits community or public service interpreters — a world of mobility resulting in infinite opportunities to be both the migrant and the tourist.