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Your Co-Interpreter Has Fallen and Can’t Get Up

Brandon Arthur reflects on a team interpreting experience and shares some insights for sign language interpreters to consider in acting as the colleague they’d like to have.

While interpreting a short pro bono assignment over the weekend, I found myself working with an emerging interpreter.  As the meeting progressed—discussions grew more intense and participants became more interactive—I noted that both her confidence and effectiveness as an interpreter began to unravel.

I was as supportive of this young interpreter as the environment would allow; fortunately the outcome of the meeting was not negatively impacted. Since the experience, I have wondered what I could have done in the moment to reinforce the confidence of this budding interpreter.

It occurs to me that there are some “do’s” and “don’ts” when attempting to reinforce your team interpreter’s confidence while on assignment. At the end of the day the “do’s” and “don’ts” offered here are anecdotal, but I hope they give you something to consider in the event you find yourself in a similar situation.

When you see your team’s confidence begin to unravel,

Definitely Do

  • Actively work to anticipate your team’s need for support
  • Provide support in an unobtrusive, non-demoralizing way
  • Positively reinforce your team’s good decisions and choices
  • Model strategies for navigating the information from the “on-chair”
  • Maintain a positive, personable, and professional demeanor
  • Remember you’re still accountable for a complete work product

Definitely Don’t

  • Escalate your engagement to further differentiate your skills from your fellow interpreter
  • Disengage when your team is actively working in the “on-chair”
  • Dismiss your personal accountability for the outcome of the meeting
  • Be critical of your colleague to meeting participants
  • Give in to one of the three temptations of a sign language interpreter
  • Patronize your team when discussing the assignment on breaks

As every interpreter inherently understands, one’s confidence is critical to effectively doing their job.  Consequently, we have an obligation to support our team when they begin to feel defeated and no longer believe in their ability to meet the demands of the assignment.

Let’s Remember

We have all found ourselves in at least one situation where we have questioned our ability to do the job we were hired to do. Further, we can recall with great appreciation the colleague that picked us up, dusted us off, and helped us get back on that horse.

Let’s be that colleague.

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Should the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf Sue?

As the professional organization representing sign language interpreters in the United States, RID is in a unique position to champion working conditions and legislation impacting the industry. Brandon Arthur considers how litigation might impact RID and its members.

Is there any merit to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) litigating to advance the rights of sign language interpreters to reasonable working conditions and employment practices, and laws that defend their eligibility to work? Clearly, litigating has both a financial and a political cost and these costs should not be underestimated.

As it occurs to me, the pros and cons of RID taking a more offensive position in advocating for our rights are:

Pros of Litigation

  • Cases will lead to a body of information related to appropriate working conditions and practices when employing interpreters.
  • Publicly exposes organizations for interpreter abuse.
  • Creates an opportunity for industry stakeholders to work together to seek accountability for business practices and working conditions.
  • Imposes a financial hardship on offending organizations/individuals.
  • Uncovers the facts, which assists in identifying the people that can legitimately deliver solutions.
  • A demonstration that RID has a no non-sense approach to fulfilling its charge to protect and promote the interests of sign language interpreters.

Cons of Litigation

  • Establishes an adversarial relationship with the private businesses and government entities that employ interpreters.
  • The financial cost.
  • A lost case can create a damaging precedent, which makes it more difficult to defend our interests.
  • Increased scrutiny of interpreter conduct and practices.
  • Heightened conflict within the industry.
  • Strains collaboration between RID, private business and government entities on shared interests.
  • May have to pay court costs for the other side.

Which Situations?

Endeavoring to hold individuals and/or organizations accountable for unsatisfactory working conditions is—and has been—a difficult proposition. While I am not—and I don’t believe many would be—in favor of the concept of litigating for the sake of litigating, I do believe that there are situations where we would greatly benefit should RID take a more offensive position. You may be thinking, “Well, what situations exactly, Brandon!?”

To name a couple, I believe RID should evaluate the merits of any case where an interpreter is being tried in a court of law related to their role, work product and/or or ethical practices, and get involved based on the merits of each particular case. Further, it is my view that RID should take a more offensive role when legislation is being crafted that will adversely impact an interpreter’s ability to perform their work and earn a livable wage.

In the End

RID occupies an important role, representing the voice of the sign language interpreter, and if necessary should throw a little weight around to ensure we are heard. It is one thing to inherently understand that poor working conditions or deflationary practices render an interpreter unable to deliver their art and quite another to do something about it.  As interpreters, we should leverage all the resources we have to ensure we are able to do our work effectively.  RID is one of those resources.

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The Three Temptations of a Sign Language Interpreter

Working sign language interpreters are autonomous decision-makers who often work for unseen employers. Brandon Arthur exposes three temptations interpreters face and how to avoid them to maintain professional accountability.

The dynamics of working as a sign language interpreter are complex and require that a person be comfortable operating in the unknown with limited information. As a result of navigating these complexities, we are accustom to owning the decisions—or choosing not to own them—that influence the value and outcome of our work. Unfortunately, with this ownership comes the temptation to give in to one of what I will  refer to as the Three Temptations of a Sign Language Interpreter (note, I borrowed the temptation concept from Patrick Lencioni’s, The Five Temptations of a CEO – A Leadership Fable).

When giving in to one of these temptations, even the most skilled interpreter reduces the value of their service and calls into question the label we have advocated for years to achieve, a professional.

T1:  Dismiss that our actions reflect on the Deaf participant.

As interpreters, we give into this temptation in order to reconcile in our minds that our choices couldn’t possibly be the deciding factor in whether a qualified candidate gets the job, which ultimately supports their ability to fund their child’s college education.

It’s more comfortable to believe that our actions are conveniently invisible.

When confronted with this temptation, let’s remember that from poor interactions with meeting participants or not adhering to our Code-of-Professional-Conduct to tardiness or disheveled attire, the impression we make is lasting and inseparable from how the Deaf participant is perceived.

T2:  Avoid ownership of the errors in our work.

Interpreters give in to this temptation because we are fearful. We fear losing the confidence of meeting participants. We fear being viewed to possess an inferior skill-set. Ultimately, we fear not being invited back.

The damage, when an interpreter gives in to this temptation, is significant. For individuals to part an interaction believing they have an understanding of the other person’s position, only to find their understanding—and the work done since—is incorrect challenges the trust needed for the interpreting process to be successful.

Being indifferent to the errors in our work, may appear as validation of the view that we are part of an industry that is past feeling.

T3:  Misrepresent the amount of time on assignment.

Interpreters regularly work outside the view of those who hire them. Consequently, we may be tempted to misrepresent the amount of time we are on an assignment. This usually takes on a shape similar to, “I was only 10 minutes late and the meeting hadn’t started anyway” or “I was teaming with the regular interpreter and they would have started the assignment anyway.”

In either case, giving in to this temptation erodes the very nature of our being called a professional.  If those that hired us can’t trust that we will ethically represent our time, can they trust us to effectively represent them and/or own our errors?

Accountability

While resisting these three temptations can be a challenge, it is important that we never lose sight of our accountability for the outcome of our work. It’s my view that if we truly consider the impact of giving in to these temptations, its far easier to overcome them.

If one, or more, of these temptations make you feel uncomfortable, consider the reason and adjust accordingly. As interpreters, let’s be confident in our abilities, welcoming of the accountability for our decisions, and remain focused on contributing to positive outcomes.