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Do You Resemble the Sign Language Interpreter in Your Head?

Do You Resemble the Interpreter in Your Head?

When reviewing our day, our month or our career, it can be tempting to play back the highlights and fast-forward past the less-comfortable scenes. In this article, Brandon Arthur explores the importance of fact-checking our own narratives and embracing the whole story.

Its part of the human experience to tell ourselves a story about the kind of person we are and why we choose to do what we do. This innate storytelling tendency extends to the professional personas we build as sign language interpreters. Have you ever paused to question if you actually resemble the sign language interpreter that you narrate you are in your head?

The Slant

While it’s not a stretch to believe that most of the stories washing over us are being told in support of a particular point of view, it is far more challenging to consider the presence of a slant in the very story we tell ourselves. Particularly, when it may result in a mental throwdown over what we believe the caliber and impact of our work is and what it may actually be. Aaron Brace’s article, The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter, explores this epic internal struggle.

With that said, I think most would acknowledge that a slant, likely more than one, exists in the story we narrate to ourselves as sign language interpreters. I’m not suggesting that we deliberately weave untrue stories about our work to our consumers and ourselves. Rather, that presence of the slant drives us to only narrate the highlights, even the flattering, and leave the rest in the “not news worthy” pile.

Clearly, with the discretion and autonomy, as highlighted by Anna Witter-Merithew in her article, Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadow of Invisibility, we have as sign language interpreters, to believe we are the sum our highlight reel is problematic.

Impaired Self-Awareness

In my mind, the most problematic aspect of the presence of a slant in our professional narrative is its ability to impair self-awareness. As any seasoned interpreter can attest, an appropriate level of self-awareness is critical to finding success in the sign language interpreting profession. If we operate while suffering from an impaired awareness of self, we risk exposing our consumers and colleagues to deficits in our ability to:

1)    Appropriately acknowledge our weaknesses and limitations.

You’ve seen it. Damage done. Enough said.

2)    Remain conscious of our biases.

It is easy, when lacking an appropriate level of self-awareness, to allow our preconceptions to infiltrate our interpretation and skew the meaning and intent of an intended communication.

3)    Earn social currency.

Operating without an appropriate level of self-awareness challenges even the best of us to authentically connect with consumers and meeting participants. This prevents us from efficiently navigating unfamiliar environments in order to effectively to our work.

If as sign language interpreters we are operating with these deficits, we position ourselves to make mistakes in our work and ultimately erode the trust needed to successfully deliver an experience worthy of our consumer’s confidence.

Embrace the Slant to Succeed

It occurs to me that in order for us to successfully overcome the slant, we need to embrace it. By embracing it, I am suggesting that we use what we know about it to our advantage.

What do we know? We know the slant enjoys opining on accomplishment. We know if mistakes must be mentioned, it likes them minimized. We know the slant views vulnerability as a public relation nightmare. How do we harness its incessant narcissism to our advantage?

Reframe. Reframe. Reframe.

We need to reframe our failures, shortcomings, and moments of vulnerability so they are “news worthy.” We can do this by viewing:

1)    Daily failures as learning opportunities.

After all, the hero in every story learns important lessons along the way. Let’s recognize the value of these lessons, be honest about needing them, and acknowledge they are to our betterment.

2)    Vulnerability as strength training.

By using moments of vulnerability as an opportunity to genuinely engage our consumers and colleagues to draw on their experience and expertise, we will find sage advice and a connection to something much greater than ourselves—the forward progress of the profession.

3)    Revision as an opportunity.

As the narrator, each of us has the ability and opportunity to rewrite the narrative in our heads—in whole or in part. We should always remind ourselves that we may not have the ability to control the outcome, but we can control how we respond to it.

By choosing to reframe our failures, shortcomings and vulnerabilities we expand the series of “news worthy” events used to define who we are and why we do what we do. In a profession that requires a high level of self-awareness, this is definitely to our advantage.

BTW, the slant finds all of this “news worthy.”

Authenticity Matters

In the end, the type of story we narrate to ourselves as sign language interpreters has a significant impact on the work that we do. While it is not likely that we will ever resemble the sign language interpreter we narrate we are in our heads, we should aspire to resemble an interpreter that is not the measure of their highlight reel, but one who can authentically connect with their consumers and colleagues and deliver an experience worthy of their confidence.

Suggestions on how to keep the slant in check?

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Sign Language Interpreters: A Big StreetLeverage Thank You!

On the first anniversary of StreetLeverage, Brandon Arthur reflects on the past 12 months and takes a moment to thank all who make StreetLeverage possible.

It is surreal to me that this month marks the 12th month that StreetLeverage has been working to amplify the voice of the sign language interpreter. As my mind races in review of the last year, I find myself incredibly grateful for the many people who have encouraged, supported, and contributed to this labor of love.

Readers & Subscribers

To the thousands of you who visit the site each month, thank you. Remaining worthy of your continued attention is the driving force behind the effort to curate and publish quality pieces each week. Your engagement and interest in republishing pieces to your personal networks is amazing. Again, thank you. You are the reason the site exists.

I am keenly interested in your feedback on how to improve the StreetLeverage effort. If you have suggestions on topics, authors, posts and/or how the site can be improved, please send along your feedback. You can do that now by clicking here.

Authors

To you courageous souls who have shared your perspectives and insights, thank you. Your 40+ contributions have created a flashpoint of opportunity for readers to be introspective about the important work that they do and the profession and industry to which they belong. It is in your personal accomplishment and a willingness to share that places StreetLeverage among the most visited blogs on sign language interpreting.

Again, thank you for your remarkable contributions.

For those interested in contributing, I welcome the opportunity to discuss possibilities. If you would consider contributing, please contact me by clicking here.

My Family

To my best friend and life partner, Tara, thank you. Without your encouragement StreetLeverage would still be just a concept rolling around in my head. Your unwavering support makes it all possible. Thank you for sacrificing countless hours over the past year as I have attended to the work of sourcing, editing, publishing, and promoting pieces each week. You are far more than I deserve.

Lessons Learned

In a world where the competition for attention is fierce, I am truly grateful for the many people who have taken an interest in StreetLeverage over the past 12 months. Curating the site has been filled with significant learning, the most important of which is that the attention of subscribers and readers is earned. I have also learned that providence will step in to assist if you take the first step.

I look forward to continuing to curate a discussion worthy of your attention.

Again, to everyone who has contributed to the success of StreetLeverage to date, thank you.

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The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter

Interpreters live with a constant internal struggle between intent and impact, perception and reality, Jekyll and Hyde. Aaron Brace confronts some of these pitfalls and realizations while taking stock of interpreters’ relationships to whom we serve.

Before I can even consider being an ally to Deaf people in the face of societal audism, as a sign language interpreter I must address another overlooked and, at times, more pernicious enemy—the sign language interpreting profession itself.

Enemy is, perhaps, too strong a word for the darker side of my role in Deaf people’s lives, but as it stands in counterpoint to the term ally, I find it opens a useful a window into the duality of my role. I’d like to share some traces of this shadowy figure that I’ve spotted in the mirror over the last thirty years in both my interpreting process and my doing business as an interpreter. I learned to manage parts of this enemy long ago, while in other ways he will always challenge me.

The Enemy Lurks in My Interpreting Process

Inspiring trust and delight in my customers happens, rather paradoxically, more easily when they feel I understand that there’s no real reason they should trust me, and that the reason for my presence, at all, is something less than delightful. They need me to be aware that I come with potentially harmful side effects.

Put another way, I sometimes feel I’m like Dr. Jekyll, keeping Mr. Hyde on a strong, short leash.  As did Dr. Jekyll, I have to keep this lurking enemy to heel, because he:

Tends to Monopolize Deaf People’s Time, Attention, and Space.

I’ve come to understand that my habit of making a bee-line to a Deaf person’s cubicle and cheerily plopping myself down in the guest chair to start establishing our working relationship is often, well … annoying. The first time I took it upon myself to acknowledge he might be busy and offered to wait elsewhere, the Deaf person’s sense of surprise and relief was palpable. This has led me to look for other instances where my presence or my good intentions get in my customers’ way and can be managed less obtrusively.

This tendency also manifests itself in how I approach prep. My insistence on time to prepare with a speaker may prioritize my need for confidence in the quality of my product over the speaker’s need for confidence in hers. Insistence on advance prep can also have the effect of implying either that I’m not confident in my comprehension of the source language or that I suspect that the speaker won’t express herself well. Also, I may over-estimate how much my product improves as a result of the preparation I demand.

Overestimates His Centrality to the Relationships Between Deaf and Hearing People.

I think he must have had a hand in writing the RID Philosophy Statement:

The philosophy of RID is that excellence in the delivery of interpretation and transliteration services between people who are deaf or hard of hearing and people who are hearing, will ensure effective communication.” 

On some level I truly want to believe in this. If I don’t, how do I have the nerve to interpret at all?  But my customers are not well served by a quasi-messianic philosophy that valorizes my role far above theirs. It’s also simply inaccurate; customers often communicate effectively despite my excellent service rather than because of it. They also, due to forces beyond the reach of my service, can end up not communicating effectively.

Is a Fundamentalist in His Adherence to Interpreting Models.Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter

I am tempted to embrace new wisdom on effective practice in a way that stigmatizes older wisdom as outdated and oppressive. I believe that fully empowered customers may still request that I perform more like what we’d call a machine or a conduit. Even as I understand that some customers express such a preference because that’s all they think sign language interpreters can do, or they think they’re doing me a favor in making my job “easier.” My Mr. Hyde and I go ’round and ’round over whether it’s more oppressive to comply with requests that might stem from internalized oppression or an incomplete understanding of one’s options, or to presume that it’s even my place to try to “diagnose” such things.

Is Wired to Privilege Auditory Input Over Visual Input.

I realized at one point that my default strategy for managing turn-taking was to always finish what the hearing person said before attempting to get the floor for the Deaf person. On one hand, it merely revealed my auditory bias.  On the other, it perpetuated the notion that the hearing person was the holder of knowledge, and the Deaf person was the needy receptacle. Once I realized this input bias and its implication, I over-compensated by stridently talking over hearing people the second a Deaf person raised her hands. While I’ve since greatly improved the equitability of my turn-taking management, I’ve only very recently learned that I maintain eye-contact in a way that doesn’t accurately convey the availability of the floor in ASL-discourse, depriving Deaf people of cues that would help them manage graciously taking the floor for themselves.

The upshot:  The choices I make in the name of effective practice almost always come with potentially dangerous side-effects that I must predict and be prepared to mitigate.

The Enemy Lurks in the Business of Interpreting

For several decades, interpreting has been a viable profession for me due to my having appropriate education, skills, and credentials. Because it has been viable for so long, I’ve never been forced to think much about this Mr. Hyde-like enemy and his conception of what I do as a profession, a career, and a business. There is a need to confront this enemy because he:

Expects His Degree and Professional Credential to Command Respect. 

I wonder if it was necessary, in order to put forth the immense effort needed to earn a degree and professional certification, to believe that these things say more about my ability than they really do. Hearing people, including my family members and the people who are usually responsible for hiring me, typically consider me an expert because I have a degree and a certification after my name. It’s tempting for me to do the same. It’s tempting to resent having to prove myself anew to each customer and each colleague I meet. It’s tempting to feel betrayed by the institutions that authorized my entry to practice, knowing that savvy customers consider me competent in spite of my paper qualifications, not because of them.

Is Rigid About Best Practices and Industry Standards.

There’s a fine line between what I need in order to do my work well and what I want in order to make it easier. I often lose sight of that line. I insist on industry standards like going rates, cancellation policies, two-hour minimums, and best practices like requiring a teammate and prep materials as if these were all cast in stone, even at times when there might be a good reason to waive or modify them. I also don’t want to legitimize disreputable agencies that don’t follow standards, even when this may cause customers whose are stuck with those agencies to suffer. This is another issue on which this Mr. Hyde like character and I go ’round and ’round.

Maintains Faulty Expectations of a Profession, a Career and a Business.

I was raised to expect that a profession would provide all of my material comfort, and that at some point I would cease having to defend or prove my expertise. I expected I could pursue a career ladder in my own best interests, and that there would always be a higher rung to reach for. I expected that as a businessman I would be expected to prioritize maximizing profit, at least slightly, ahead of all other considerations.

These unexamined expectations clash with my reality even during flush times, but significantly more so in the current economic climate, with an ever-expanding roster of gatekeepers to the work. The situation has become dire for some colleagues, and the volume of my work is trending in same direction. What happens when my profession can no longer provide the same income? How do I continue to provide customer-centered service while dealing with the financial hardship, the blow to my professional ego, and the feeling of betrayal by my industry?

I think that understanding and seriously altering my expectations, learning to live with less to the extent that I can, is the best thing I can do to avoid having to make choices out of desperation while I work with my community to make things better. I also wonder whether it’s viable to continue bringing new practitioners into the field, or into specific markets, expecting that we will all continue to be able to support ourselves solely as sign language interpreters.

The upshot:  A schema roughly bounded by concepts like profession, career, and business fosters expectations of the rewards for my work- expectations of which I’m mostly unaware, yet which can thwart the interests of my customers.

Living With Duality

One last observation about this enemy in the mirror: he resists thinking about issues like these because he thinks they entail a life of constant apology.

I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand my duality as both ally and enemy in the lives of Deaf people without some measure of guilt. Like many members of privileged groups, I hope to learn the right way to behave toward an oppressed group—once— and never again have to feel unsure of myself or guilty about my privilege. I seek constant validation as “one of the good ones.”  I believe this takes a psychic toll on Deaf people, though—even those who know me well and truly value what I have to offer—when I deny there’s a shadow cast by even my worthiest efforts.

I can only hope to be an effective ally against an enemy opposing Deaf people’s interests when I understand how “he is us,” and in some ways always will be.  When I demonstrate a fuller understanding of both what I give and what I take, it is returned by Deaf people, not with a sneering pleasure at my knowing my place, but with greater trust, friendship, and welcome.

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