Online Guest Lecture by Deborah Giustini: ‘The Invisible Labour of the Embedded Strangers: Towards a Sociology of Interpreting’

Dr. Deborah Giustini (National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow / KU Leuven)

Lecture organized by KU Leuven, Arts Faculty, Japanese Studies on Wednesday, 25 November 2020, Zoom (details below)

This lecture highlights contemporary understandings of invisible work by exploring the illustrative case study of the interpreting industry in Japan. Interpreting is a distinctive translational profession, entailing the mainly freelance provision of multi-language oral communication services in high-stakes settings, such as institutions, businesses, organisations, to stakeholders who do not share the same language and culture.

The interpreter’s ambiguous role has often been defined in Interpreting Studies research as that of a ‘central outsider’, necessary for parties to pursue their enterprises, but at the same time supposed to behave as unobtrusively – and thus as invisibly – as possible in the interactions they facilitate. Nevertheless, previous research has not problematized the invisibility of interpreters beyond the communicative event, neglecting to understand the motivations inherent in being an invisible presence in one’s own profession, and its consequences for a largely freelance workforce. Particularly, extant studies have ignored influential sociological conceptualisations of invisibility as a mechanism that obscures the function and value of work, which can better explain the experiences of interpreters as a workforce.

This lecture examines the varied ways in which Japanese interpreters experience ‘invisibility’ in their working life, and how they understand, negotiate, and reject their role as invisible in-betweeners to achieve professional and economic security in a precarious labour environment. It also illustrates the competitive nature of their work and the strategies they use to adverse one another, in order to gain public visibility and recognition with clientele and service providers.

Drawing upon a multi-method study of interpreters in the Japanese market for language services, the lecture problematizes invisible work from a sociology of labour and a practice theory perspective, to understand how invisibility and precariousness of work are produced pragmatically in the actions and meanings of these professionals. The study argues that interpreters’ work is a form of invisible work, that is, highly skilled work which is subject to mechanisms obscuring its socio-cultural, legal, and economic appreciation.

The study finds that interpreters constitute a community of highly skilled individuals, forming a significant component of Japan’s knowledge economy. However, ingrained professional norms about acceptable behaviour with clients and colleagues, lack of specific employment protection, the spread of digitalisation, as well as the rising instability of freelancing (and now the impact of COVID-19 over the industry) make of interpreting a profession that is not fully visible in policy and in society. This means that interpreters’ expertise often remains ‘hidden’ from public knowledge, with dangerous repercussions in their negotiations and relationships with clients, colleagues, and the labour market more widely.


Dr. Deborah Giustini is a sociologist and alumna of the University of Manchester (PhD). She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Sociology at the Laboratory for Economics of Innovation of the National Research University Higher School of Economics – Institute for Statistical Studies and Economies of Knowledge (Moscow), where she investigates the impact of labour flexibilisation, digitalisation, and COVID-19 over science-intensive work sectors. She is also a research collaborator in Japanese Studies at KU Leuven. Her research interests comprise forms of precarious work, skilled labour, as well as forms of inequality and competition in the workplace in trans-national settings. She collaborates with private and non-profit organisations such as Economic Change Unit and Women’s Budget Group, to build the capacity for a more gender equal and economically-fair society.

Guest lecturer: Dr. Giustini Deborah (National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow / KU Leuven)
Title: “The Invisible Labour of the Embedded Strangers: Towards a Sociology of Interpreting”
Language: English
Time: 4PM – 6PM CET
Meeting ID: 917 0986 6293
Passcode: i50Day

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