Self-Talk: A Sign Language Interpreter’s Inner Warning System?

July 9, 2012

As a sign language interpreter, how do you know when something isn’t quite right? Anna Mindess discusses the importance of heeding our inner dialogue both on and off-the-job.

As my team interpreter and I stood outside the courtroom, red-faced, sputtering and hissing at each other like a pair of angry snakes, it was clear that I could have handled this situation more effectively.

A confluence of factors led to this stressful scene. Our RID Regional Conference had taken many of the legal sign language interpreters with SC:L’s out of town for the week. As one of the few remaining interpreters with legal certification, I was overbooked and had to arrive late to the court proceeding that afternoon: a jury trial with a Deaf defendant. This county’s court interpreter coordinator knew about and accepted my tardiness, as she was desperately trying to find SC:L’s to cover cases and had turned to an outside agency to fill the gaps.

Better Judgment

Thus, as I entered the courtroom, my teammate was already in the midst of interpreting the proceedings. I sat down quietly in the chair behind the defense table. The District Attorney was questioning a witness on the stand. The members of the jury were focused on the testimony. At that point, I did not have time to confer with the other interpreter, whom I had never even met before. Probably, if I had, I might have approached the judge with my concerns prior to the start of the afternoon’s proceedings. Inwardly, I knew that it was not the best idea to go ahead without context or preparation, but given the inconvenience of my entrance, I pushed aside my better judgment and tried to assess the situation at hand.

My attention was immediately drawn to my teammate, first for wearing extremely casual clothes (a T-shirt and khakis) in a formal legal setting and second for their obvious unfamiliarity with basic legal terms such as objection, sustained, overruled, and stipulation which they chose to fingerspell.

“It’s Only Jury Selection”

During a short break in the proceedings, I asked my team interpreter whether they had legal certification or legal training and when they answered in the negative, I asked why they accepted this assignment. The reply, “The agency told me it was only jury selection,” did not assuage my concerns. Ironically, the agency that hired this interpreter specializes in sign language and should have known better than to send an unqualified person to a legal assignment. So I followed up, “Once you arrived and found out that it was the actual trial, why did you continue?” The answer was, “If I didn’t go ahead, they would have had to stop the whole trial.” (As I learned long ago in my legal training, sometimes that is actually the most appropriate option.)

What Are My Options

My team interpreter did not seem to grasp the gravity of a trial and the potential life-altering consequences for the defendant given their lack of legal training and legal certification (one of my state’s laws requires an SC:L for legal proceedings.) Before I arrived in the courtroom, the interpreter had self-identified as “RID certified” because they possess a CI/CT. Most judges are not aware of the difference, unless directed to the specific statute.

At this point, our ten-minute break was coming to an end and the jury was filing in. My mind was racing as I considered my options: write a note and ask to speak with the judge, ask for the other sign language interpreter’s legal credentials (or lack thereof) to be put on the record, slip outside to call the interpreter coordinator? The responsibility to decide on the best course of action in a few seconds had me frozen, until my window of opportunity was gone. Testimony resumed and the other sign language interpreter and I continued trading off tensely.

I decided the best I could do in that moment was closely monitor my teammate and feed signs for legal terms so that the Deaf defendant would have the best chance at accessing the proceedings. I’m sure this only made the situation more stressful for my teammate.

Who Do You Respect in RID?

During our hissing and sputtering encounter at the end of the day, the interpreter accused me of lack of respect, taking the entire matter as a personal insult. I insisted my concern was totally about their lack of legal training. I don’t usually confront my colleagues in this manner, but when the interpreter didn’t seem to get my point, I stated that an SC:L requires hundreds of hours of training and passing a very hard test. “Did you think you could come into a courtroom and improvise?” I asked. No response. Then I inquired, “As an RID certified interpreter, who do you respect in RID, Sharon Neumann Solow? Anna Witter-Merithew? Do you think they would approve of your choices?” The interpreter refused to continue the dialogue and stormed off. Stalemate.

 It Can’t Be that Hard, I’ll Figure it Out

On the drive home, I tried to fathom how this sign language interpreter could have thought it was okay to proceed in a situation with potentially grave consequences, without the qualifications to do the job? After all, the second tenet of the CPC specifies that interpreters should “possess the professional skills and knowledge required for the specific interpreting situation.”

I tried to imagine what thoughts went through their head. Perhaps first, the thrill of being in a new situation, the desire to learn about it, coupled with a sense of confidence from interpreting for 20+ years. Maybe they quieted any inner doubts with thoughts like, “I can handle this, I’m an intelligent person, a skilled interpreter, if there are new vocabulary terms, I can pick them up.” “I like challenges.” “It can’t be that hard, I’ll figure it out.” “They can’t find anyone else, so I’ll just have to do my best.” “I wouldn’t want to stop the whole proceedings and admit any lack on my part. That would be embarrassing.”

Or maybe it was as simple as, “I need the work.”

Examining this hypothetical inner monologue, I noticed there was no mention of the Deaf client’s needs at all. “Ahh,” I thought, “That’s a red flag right there. It’s all about the sign language interpreter.”

A Litany of Excuses

And then, with a start, I realized, there was a reason that I could so easily imagine the rationalizations from that inner voice. In all honesty, I probably have conjured up a similar litany of excuses myself. And in all likelihood, most interpreters have also done so at one time or another–in legal or non-legal settings–if they are willing to admit it. In my case, this occurred–and hopefully it does so much less now–in situations where the Deaf party requires the services of a CDI.

Turn Down the Volume

My current strategy is to be extremely sensitive to the onset of this inner dialogue, so that it acts as a warning system alerting me to stop, assess the entire situation, and consider what is needed to give the Deaf client complete access to vital communication. Yes, it’s true that calling a halt to a meeting or legal proceeding is awkward and may provoke the ire of the lawyers, the judge and the other people involved. But when I cannot, in good conscience, convince myself that the present configuration best serves the needs of the Deaf person, I turn down the volume on that inner emotional voice, so that I can speak up and take action to do the ethically appropriate thing.

Call a Time Out

As a sign language interpreter how do you increase your sensitivity to that inner warning system?

– Monitor your physical responses to the situation. Breathing faster? Stomach tightening up? Your body may be telling you something.

– Are you not comprehending the signs? Resorting to fingerspelling to cope with unfamiliar vocabulary? Do your clients keep repeating themselves?

– Getting distracted by thoughts of how you are being perceived, instead of just focusing on the work?

It’s too hard to think objectively, and plan how to handle a situation that is not working while you are in the middle of interpreting. Call a time out. Breathe. Assess. This will give you a moment to collect yourself and ask the important question, “Should I continue?” Equally important, it will give you an opportunity to consider how to best proceed should the responsible and ethical decision be to stop.

Lets Share Our Collective Wisdom

What strategies do you use to remain sensitive to the alerts of your inner warning system? When have you taken the courageous step to stop the interpretation when you knew something was not working?

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33 Comments on "Self-Talk: A Sign Language Interpreter’s Inner Warning System?"

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Member
karen kingrey

I am aware that many issues like this arise. Some court administration have lack of knowledge and even do not create a policy. I recalled former Deaf assistant district attorney, law professor, and I gave our presentations to the judges, lawyers, and court adm staff at Deaf & Court workshop which was sponsored by New York State Court Commission in Rochester, NY.

amindess
Member

I think you are right, Karen. Educating court staff is the key. We have several counties in this area and each has their own policies. In one county, we, the legally certified interpreters, convinced them – and showed them the applicable statute -and now they only hire SC:Ls and CDIs, even if they have to fly people in from other cities. Another “tries SC:Ls first” and others, like the one I mentioned, seem to have a “warm body” approach. More education is definitely needed.

Member
Linda Hawthorne
I am a pre-certified interpreter (state QA test taken at a advanced level) , and one of my pet peeves is not getting correct info when accepting a job. (I have a tendency to question any job where I am not familiar with subject matter -(“upper level math” can mean anything from geometry to statistics class)-when I arrive at the job I try to give as much to assessing the situation and if it is not what I “signed up for” I have no problem “upsetting the apple cart” and letting the agency know I am unable to do the… Read more »
Member
Kitty LaFountain

@Linda: BRAVO! well said, keep on turning that apple cart over until the agency gets the point.
@Anna, enjoyed your article, still thinking of a response, maybe will post later. I know you are biting your nails waiting.
And “OMGG” that’s my substitute for OMG, mine stands for “Oh My Goodness Gracious”, concerning your recent experience. My friends really hated me saying OMG all the time, you know, using God’s name in vain, thingy.

amindess
Member

Linda, I ditto that “Bravo!” Seems like you’ve got your priorities straight. And your ego is staying out of the way. Point is right set of skills and experience for the job. Wishing you a long and fulfilling career.

Member

“Pre-certified?”

ssmith
Member
Sherry Smith

Thank you for writing this article. It emphasizes the impact of legal interpreting and the qualifications needed. I truly appreciate how this article also helps interpreters see the need for modesty and humility in assessing personal limitations.

amindess
Member
Thank you Sherry, I think “modesty and humility” are key concepts. I hope that readers also see the non-legal interpreting applications of this dilemma. I was just thinking about VRS interpreting, for example. In that environment we are, in essence, “accepting” 50+ jobs a day from an “agency” that gives us no context or information with which to assess our fit. For myself, at least, it is much easier to realize, “I need a team.” No shame or embarrassment involved. If it’s too hard to see/hear, the subject matter is extremely serious, the Deaf person’s signing varies from standard ASL,… Read more »
Member

One nice thing about VRS is we are allowed to transfer the call out to another almost immediately available interpreter is we realize that effective communication is not happening.

Member
Kitty LaFountain
@ Brian, since you brought up VRS, can I tell ya a story? Well here goes: My profoundly Deaf sister calls me often through Sorenson Relay, and from what I’m gathering she is difficult to understand (she’s a speed demon) by the interpreters. On one such call the interpreter voiced for my sister, “I want to know about the auto”. I was perplexed, her car was just serviced and in good running condition. I asked, “What about your auto, what do you mean?” The interpreter voiced, “You know the auto!” I again asked what she meant and then I heard… Read more »
Member
Anna, I promise I’m not trying to hijack your discussion board here. Kitty, I know we have all had those client who we just don’t match…especially in VRS. It has it’s own list of variables which separate it from the rest of interpreting. As far when do we decide we are in over our heads? Well, that’s definitely up to the individual in that hot seat. What do we do about it once we do? Sadly, that’s (most of the time) up to the same individual. Specifically for VRS, that depends a lot on what the VRS company has set… Read more »
Member
Kitty LaFountain
@Hijacker: AMEN! My sister’s story is just one of many, sadly for some of my deaf consumers there have been dreadful endings. For example: Deaf consumer was not understood by the VRS interpreter and only later found out that their complaint was dropped because he/she said, “oh forget about it”. NOT! And YES I have veered away from the specific topic of “…Inner Warning System” in the legal setting,and jumped on the VRS setting (still an inner warning system needed)as I’m really having a difficult time relating to Anna’s article and her experience. I have, however, been on the other… Read more »
goliva
Member

Thanks for sharing this awful story. I hope that the guilty parties (and I refer to the other interpreter and the agency who sent her) read this story and if that Deaf Defendent is in jail or was otherwise found guilty, this interpreter and her agency ought to come forward and confess!!! I don’t know enough about legal matters to know how this would work but if I knew who these people were (the terp and her agency), I would be hounding them until they do some fessing up and fix their policies!!

Member

I am not an interpreter, just an interested third party. All I can say is, Wow wow WOOOOOOOW! GOD BLESS you interpreters for your commitment and professionalism!

Member
Colette Phippard
Hi, I am NRCPD registered interpreter in the UK and this article has been posted on the ENewsli forum. I also chair a working group for the Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI) called ‘Future Professionals’ which is aimed at tackling just this problem of sign language qualification holders assuming that these qualifications give them some credentials that would make working as an interpreter acceptable regardless of their motivation. This is a great article and dilemma to think about and I will be using it in the pack that will be given to people that come to the Future Professionals… Read more »
amindess
Member

Hello Colette,

Thank you so much for your very thoughtful comments and for sharing this with your colleagues in the UK. I agree that the issue of being honest with oneself in evaluating whether one has the necessary training to do a good job in a specific assignment cuts across national boundaries. As you you alluded to, just possessing a legal or other certification does not guarantee that an interpreter would be a good fit for every assignment. We need to consider each assignment as a new set of circumstances and players.

Member
Colette Phippard
Hi Anna, On reflection I really do think that this is a great real life situation to get people thinking and applying reflection to their own practice. I’ve had a couple of awkward incidents recently where I managed at the time but the reflection afterwards and a discussion in peer supervision really enhanced my understanding of the situation and what would be appropriate next time/whether my actions were the right ones. It’s where you mention the ‘window of opportunity’ that interests me because as the reader I am given the chance to reflect on what I might do were I… Read more »
amindess
Member
I was just thinking that what we are talking about here is a skill that interpreters need to practice, just like so many others. I recently attended a legal interpreting conference where Linda Lamitola led an excellent session on how to talk with the judge about the need for a CDI and many other issues. It really lessened the intimidation factor to share ideas and role play possible approaches. I wonder if any ITP students or instructors can chime in here? Do you ever practice how to gracefully and professionally inform clients in the middle of an assignment that the… Read more »
Member
Terri Manning

I can see the value to train in IPP how to recognize that one is ill-matched for an assignment and how to not continue interpreting and advocate for qualified services. Thank you, Anna, for pointing out the physiological clues and intrapersonal dialogue that are the initial red flags.

Member
Anna Great topic! While I don’t do any legal interpreting (because I know it’s not my strongest area and I realize the risk associated for all parties), I recognize that this applies to all areas of interpreting. I was lucky enough to have instructors in my ITP who emphasized the importance of only accepting jobs for which we are qualified. Even still, after arriving to a job and realizing that it is not what was described, being able to excuse ourselves from the assignment if needed. Unfortunately, not all of my classmates took all the information to heart. I have… Read more »
amindess
Member
Thank you for sharing your experiences, Brian. It reminded me of the irony that just a few weeks before the incident I describe, our community had a large meeting with interpreters, Deaf individuals and representatives from some local (sign language interpreting) agencies. The purpose was to discuss the problem of spoken language agencies who are getting awarded bids for jobs in our state and know nothing about our field. Various remedies were discussed, including some extreme proposals of refusing to work for any non-sign language agency. In my own experience, I have found that some spoken language agencies are willing… Read more »
Member
Anna I wasn’t even referring to the spoken language agencies…that’s a whole different ball game. It’s gotten to the point where we have too many spoken language agencies trying their hand at sign language just because they see the dollar signs. We even have some from out of state bidding on (and winning) state contracts who have no experience with it. This only leads to more detrimental situations because they have undercut everyone else and now need to fill the assignment with anyone who is willing to take it so they don’t lose the contract. (Hold on while my head… Read more »
Member
Sherrie Donaville-Sims
Hi Anna, I’m currently an IPP student at American River College (ARC), in Sacramento, CA. (Graduation, Spring, 2013.) This evening I walked into an establishment where I spoke with an ASL student about legal interpreting. During that discussion I took the liberty of limiting the conversation, because the student refused to understand (my impression) how vital it is that before accepting an assignment for legal interpreting one must be qualified to do so. At ARC I’m proud to say each of my professor’s have continued to ensure that we understand the Code of Professional Conduct and to follow it at… Read more »
amindess
Member

Hi Sherrie,

Good for you and glad to hear of the excellent job done by the instructors at ARC. I’m sure they are not the only ones. Best of luck with your interpreting career.

Member
Andrea K Smith
Anna – I commend you on a very interesting article! Indeed, our bodies will alert us when there is a “disturbance in the Force”. I do not envy you the difficulty of this situation and I applaud your efforts to confront the interpreter directly. At the risk of playing Monday Night Quarterback, however, I would like to offer some thoughts on how you proceeded. I think the single biggest challenge of legal interpreting work is being willing to stand up in open court and throw our team interpreter under the bus. You clearly saw that the team interpreter was unprepared… Read more »
amindess
Member
Hello Andrea, Thanks for your comments and the reminder of how uniquely demanding our job as legal interpreters is. I applaud your quick thinking and taking appropriate action in the story you relate above. I’ve written before, in a different context, about how important it is to be able to predict the kind of challenges, cultural or otherwise, we may face in a given interpreting situation so we can internally strategize and prepare ourselves to deal with them before we even lift up our hands. I have noticed in my own work on several occasions that it’s one thing to… Read more »
Member
Thank you, Anna, for taking the risk of sharing your experience and your thoughts about the process, outcomes and future directions, a great opportunity to dialogue has been presented. I agree with Colette that this is a very apt case to use in mentoring and interpreter education. As IPP faculty, we do practice case studies where the demands may lead to a decision to self-select out of a situation. This is primarily handled in the level II Ethics class. Cases are presented, a dialogic analysis done, role plays practiced, and post discussions held. I approach it as I do supervision… Read more »
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[…] Street Leverage posts on the impact of working for agencies with questionable standards are Self-Talk: A Sign Language Interpreter’s Inner Warning System by Anna Mindess and The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter by Aaron […]

Member
I experience that often. I have been told that my area of content is not an interest for the interpreter and yet they accept the assignment. I often feel awkward knowing that they are not comfortable or interested in my work but yet they are the voice of my words. That creates a distrust in the interpreting process. I often have to wonder if my messages are being interpreted correctly, to carry the conviction and the passion that I put in my message to the hearing person. Often it doesn’t happen. When I try to rectify the situation, the interpreters… Read more »
Member
Hi Anna…I agree wholeheartedly with your article in getting a qualified interpreters, especially in court, and if someone isn’t qualified and realizes this, this interpreter would do us all a big favor by being honest and tell their agency that he/she isn’t qualified. Since you’ve had experience with the court proceedings…I’d like to ask you if this is a fact in many court situations…I will explain my situation below and would like your feedback on this. Last Spring, I went to court with my lawyer, my lawyer has no knowledge about interpreters. The court provided 2 interpreters…we all came early… Read more »
amindess
Member
Hi Roberta, Thank you so much for your comments and questions. As Dani mentioned below, it is now commonly accepted “best practice” that consecutive interpreting leads to interpretations that are more accurate, especially in the legal setting. A lot of research has been done on this topic – most notably by Debra Russell of Canada. I am including a couple of links to for you to read more, if you are interested, at the end of this comment. But that doesn’t mean that the 2 interpreters in your proceeding could not have handled the situation better. First, I think it… Read more »
Member
Hi Roberta W, I live in Australia where our accreditation system is different. For example, we don’t have specific legal accreditation, but we do have levels of generalist accreditation. You’re supposed to be at the top level of accreditation before you set foot in a courtroom. I hold the top level of accreditation but don’t do much court work (mainly because I don’t want to work for the main agency that offers this kind of work). nonetheless, i believe that in many situations which are absolutely criticial (eg court, medical) it is MUCH better to have consecutive interpreting (where the… Read more »
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