Mentorship: Sign Language Interpreters Embrace Your Elders

June 26, 2013

Pairing newer interpreters with seasoned mentors – selected based on wisdom, rather than credentials – encourages mutual learning and true growth in the sign language interpreting profession.

I was talking with a fellow sign language interpreter and she mentioned another colleague of ours who had just received her national certification. I commented that it was a good thing and that I had been mentored by this particular person. This fellow interpreter I was speaking with looked at me in horror and asked, “Why would you mentor with her?! She is way too ‘old-school’ to provide good mentoring.”

Value Experience

Unfortunately, this is not the first time I have heard that comment about some of my mentors. I came into the field from another career that was developed based on hands-on experience and learning from a professional with more years in the field. I brought that philosophy with me to sign language interpreting and I have never regretted that decision. Some of the most valuable lessons I have learned are from interpreters who have lived and breathed this field for 30+ years. Most of these people did not go through interpreter training programs, were interpreting before RID even existed, and helped establish the first RID certification exams. These are the sign language interpreters that have been tested by life and work and have a wealth of knowledge because of that experience. As shared by Stacey Webb in her post, The Value of Networking for the Developing Sign Language Interpreter: to be successful, young interpreters need to develop a relationship with both the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community (DHHC) and current-working professionals.

Yet in this field, we do not seem to value those experiences unless the interpreter has the right letters behind his/her name.

Credential-Obsessed

For the life of me I cannot figure out why we, as a field, have become so credential-obsessed. In focusing so much on certification, we ignore what truly makes a good interpreter: experience, language skills, and wisdom. Wisdom is defined as: “the quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action.” A person can only gain such a quality by working in a profession for an extended length of time. This is not a skill that can be taught, read about, or tested. Our obsession with credentialing causes us to push aside our founders, original teachers, and valuable living resources of these experienced and wise interpreters. These are the people that have worked to establish this field as a profession and, in turn, have allowed many of us to interpret for a living. With all the uncertainty and anger surrounding certification, why do we seek out mentors that are specifically certified? Why do we rely on certification standards that are in question to improve our own skills when we have a plethora of seasoned interpreters still working in our field?

The drive to seek out a mentor who has received national credentials could be motivated by fear and desire to  “pass” the test.  The testing process is expensive and time-consuming. Many states do not have a permanent testing site, so candidates have to take time off of work and accrue travel expenses in order to sit for the exam.  With the inconsistent results seen from the test??, interpreters are frustrated and angry at being stuck in a circle of uncertainty that affects their ability to work.

I am concerned about this newly-established testing system that does not value the experience and knowledge of the seasoned working interpreter.

Newer interpreters have to prioritize passing the test over actually gaining critical knowledge, experience, and the people skills required to be a truly competent interpreter in the field. The shifting of priorities is causing a split within the field that is affecting not only sign language interpreters but our consumers, as well.

Pairing Professionals

If interpreting is considered a practice profession, why do we not follow the lead set in other practicing professions of our time? Lawyers, Doctors, and skilled craftsmen learn from the most experienced members of their field, not the newest professionals that have just passed a certification test. Each of the professions mentioned have standard certifications that are well-known and respected inside and outside their field. Learning in a practice profession comes from those who have “practiced.” In his post, New Lamps for Old Apprenticeship in Sign Language Interpreting, Rico Peterson argues that exposure to real work in real settings is fundamental to mixing and refining the palette of skills that sign language interpreting requires.

Mentorships and skill development are based in the pairing of a newer professional with a seasoned one and allowing them to learn from each other. No one ever said you have to agree with your mentor 100% of the time. The key is to observe, question, and discuss in hopes to gain insight into decisions. Only then can we truly grow as a profession.

The Value of New

This does not mean that newer interpreters have nothing to offer the profession– far from it. The newest research and interpreting theories are being taught in the ITPs. Interpreters who are working in the field every day can greatly benefit from working with someone who has just learned that information. Also, newer interpreters are hungry for knowledge, language, and experiences. Those of us who have worked in this profession for several years get tired and can sometimes lose the passion we had for the field when we first arrived. Being around newer interpreters can rekindle our desire to learn and further develop. I often find working with an intern causes me to analyze my work in a deeper way and that benefits me greatly. The partnership of newer and seasoned interpreters can be a win-win for all of us and the profession as a whole.

Mentor Qualifications

Our ITPs have a limited time with new interpreters and can’t teach them everything. Further, there is a limit to what one can learn in a classroom and from a book. At a certain point, new sign language interpreters have to get out in the field and do the work with an experienced mentor that can help them navigate the bumps along the way. Mentors do not need to pass a specific exam to prove they are qualified to interpret or mentor. Their qualifications are proven in the stories they share, the horrors and joys they carry, the language skills they have developed and the wisdom they can pass on to those growing in this field. These interpreters are our teachers and deserve our respect for what they have accomplished.

Obligations

Seasoned interpreters also have an obligation. They have an obligation to remain present in the field, to keep learning and growing and striving, and to join the younger generation in continued research and development of the field. Stating “I am too old school for that” is not acceptable, but is a cop-out for striving for what is best for both the sign language interpreting community and the Deaf community. Learn alongside newer interpreters and add your wisdom and experience. Offer to mentor a new professional in the field, audit a class at your local ITP, or just make yourself available to newer interpreters for questions and discussion. Your skills and knowledge are valuable; the current teachings and research are a benefit as well– for each of us.

Some Wisdom

A Mentor is “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher; an influential senior sponsor or supporter.” Let us not forget this definition as we continue to progress the profession of sign language interpreting forward.

We must learn from our past, which includes the people who lived it. Because an interpreter does not have the perfect certification letters behind their name does not make them insignificant to our community. Our predecessors have much to teach us about language, community, and culture, and we must not forget to include their wisdom in our daily practice.

How has a seasoned professional helped your work?

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43 Comments on "Mentorship: Sign Language Interpreters Embrace Your Elders"

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Member
Danielle Filip
Kate – thank you for this! What a great article. A few points I’d like to emphasize are below: I’m at a loss too and glad someone else can’t figure it out! You state, “For the life of me I cannot figure out why we, as a field, have become so credential obsessed. In focusing so much on certification, we ignore what truly makes a good interpreter: experience, language skills and wisdom.” <– I LOVE THIS! We are swimming in an alphabet soup anymore. But why? Do our letters even mean anything anymore? Perhaps to the outside world who sees… Read more »
kblock
Member

Thank you for the kind response Danielle.
I will not be at National this year…

dmacdougall
Member
Diana MacDougall
Yes! Finally! Everything you said was BANG ON! Thank you for writing this article. While “old school” interpreters do need to keep current, I see again and again where the newer generation of hot shot interpreters dismiss our seasoned veterans in the field. (Disclaimer: of course not ALL newer interpreters are like this. Unfortunately, those who are leave a nasty impression for the rest of their peers to clean up the damage left behind.) But it is also not a new phenomenon to our profession; it is happening all across the working world, where hot shots coming in think the… Read more »
kblock
Member

You are correct Diana, this kind of thing does happen in other professions. I think if we are consious of it we can maybe prevent it or at least recognize when it is occurring and respond appropriately…

Member
Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am a 30+ year seasoned interpreter and it is nice to have SOME respect. In the beginning of my career, interpreters stuck together. We helped, supported and mentored each other (at no charge mind you). Today, I meet new interpreters at conferences or when working as a team, and I am amazed at the pompous attitudes of these “Professional” interpreters. Frankly, I have no desire to be a part of this “professional group”. Even the word “PROFESSIONAL” leaves a sour taste in my mouth. And for this reason, I purposely introduce myself as… Read more »
kblock
Member
“It is hard for me to have respect for the RID when they have to keep changing the test every few years and quite framkly see no difference than 30 years ago. The issues are still the same. There are interpreters who are certified at a MASTER level and you wonder HOW?? And there are amazing interpreters who fail or barely pass. It’s still the same issues, just a new day”. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Suzie– These are the same issues I see out there. The struggle is how to deal with them and lessen the divisions when… Read more »
Member
Hannah Pahl
You are enlightened indeed! We need to create an environment that avoids what I call “Rookies leading Rookies” in the field. Let us allow ourselves the humility to be taught and to teach when it is our time. My best mentors & teachers were a mix of certified and not certified. There is value in them both when they are seasoned. Elephant in the room: No one is willing to admit that they are made to feel inadequate by RID, IPP’s and certified interpreters. Many also avoid admitting that certified doesn’t always equal great quality in interpreting skills. Many times… Read more »
Member
Karen Sorrentino
Terrific article! I believe that we can all learn from the wisdom of our seasoned colleagues (more years in the field) as well as from the knowledge of our juniors (those coming out of ITP). I’ve been an interpreter for about 40 years, but only certified for about 12 -only out of necessity. In my locale, my Deaf contemporaries were the ones to recommend one for interpreting and word of mouth was the agency for work. It wasn’t until younger Deaf individuals started questioning paper qualification (before I even started a given job) rather than experience that I pursued certification.… Read more »
kblock
Member

Thank you Karen!!

kblock
Member
“Many also avoid admitting that certified doesn’t always equal great quality in interpreting skills. Many times it does not. Many feel they have no “voice” or leg to stand on when they are not certified and see a certified interpreter needs further mentoring”. Exactly!! I am a firm believer “Certified does not equal Qualified, and Qualified does not equal Certified.” It is on a case by case basis and we have to analyse all parts of the situation before we can even begin to look at what is a “qualified”. I know what you mean about having “no voice”. I… Read more »
Member
Bethany Batson

PREACH!!!

Thank you for writing this insightful and poignant article, Kate. You are spot on.

Member
Tabatha King
This is such an amazing article and couldn’t have been worded any better. I am a recent graduate of an ITP and couldn’t see myself where I am today without all of the mentors that have helped me along the way. Looking back at the beginning stages of my journey, the improvement in skill alone is great. I still struggle with confidence, partially because I have a tendency to want to obtain perfection, but with the guidance of so many working interpreters in the field I have stopped beating myself up so much. My ITP required alot of mentoring/freelance hours… Read more »
Member
Catherine Heckel
I would love to be mentored by an “old school” mentor. What I have been finding at websites like LinkedIn is that mentors are charging per hour for their time. Unfortunately, I cannot,as a beginning interpreter, afford $25.00 an hour for a mentor and locally there is a dearth of mentors available. Do you have any suggestions? I so love your article. Seems as one gets older, one is shunted aside just when at the peak of wisdom, experience and knowledge. Give me an “old-timer” anytime to learn from although the book learning is valuable too. I found the ITP… Read more »
kblock
Member

Hello Catherine-
I know it can be tough to find a mentor you can trust and afford. I would recommend asking your ITP instructor and see if he/she knows someone.
Also, if you see an interpreter work that you like, or end up teaming with someone you connect with, use that as an opportunity to build a mentoring relationship. Some of my best mentoring relationships developed from working together and my asking for the feedback and support.
Good Luck

sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne
Thanks Kate. Just a reminder – mentoring doesn’t have to be formal. Mentoring can happen anywhere. I am an old-school interpreter. I like the idea of “drive by” mentoring. Work with someone and allow that interpreter to share a thought, a comment, an observation. That is mentoring. Sit with a seasoned interpreter at an event and let that interpreter share what makes the observed interpreting so good. A few comments like that can change your perspective. I mentor very informally – if I see someone with a really great attitude and good skills I like to offer support, teaming, etc.… Read more »
rpeterson
Member
Rico Peterson
Kate Block, I appreciate what you are saying here about mentoring and experience. As far as I can tell, mentoring is pretty much hard-wired into learning to interpret. Long before we had programs, certifications, and degrees we had mentors. Before there were classrooms and curriculums there were mentors, and there were communities. If we’ve learned anything in the last 30 years of interpreter education, it’s that community is an indispensable component, an essential ingredient in becoming an interpreter. Mentors and communities were there before degrees, and will be there long after whatever happens next after everything goes digital/virtual. We haven’t… Read more »
kblock
Member
Hello Rico- Thank you for your post. You are right on several points. “By teaching, we learn”. It always amazes me how much I learn while mentoring newer interpreters. They bring a passion and hunger to the field that re-kindles my desire to be a better interpreter. “Unless you mean that wisdom is unlikely to derive from classroom teaching-and-learning alone?” You are correct and I apologize for being unclear. We cannot learn “wisdom” from classroom teaching alone. At a certain point we have to get out in the field and learn from the world. We can learn the rules, structure… Read more »
Member
Patti Childers
As a recent graduate from an ITP, I would LOVE to have a mentor. However, I happen to find willing mentors hard to come by. In a mock interview recently I asked about mentors and was told that people don’t like to use the term “mentor” because it implies giving up a lot of time to work with an individual. I was told that the seasoned interpreters don’t mind being teamed with new interpreters on some assignments, but not to work as mentors. Until then, I will just work, volunteer and involve myself in the deaf, deaf-blind and hard of… Read more »
kblock
Member

Wow, I am stunned by that.
Yes, mentoring takes time and energy but it is something that can improve skills for all involved.
This profession was developed with mentoring, I would hate to see that go away in the name of money…

Member
Hello! I wholeheartedly agree with this article, and the comments above. As a recent grad of an ITP, it was always emphasized (even during agency work) to “GET A MENTOR.” That being said, in this area, requests for mentors by me were completely ignored for months. I was at a complete loss for how to become a “professional;” I graduated from an ITP, am very involved in the local community, but I was astonished to find out that the reason my requests were ignored was because I did not include a price quote. Apparently in my area, seasoned interpreters (5+… Read more »
kblock
Member
Hello RecentGrad- My apologies for the delay in response, I have been in Northern MI where electricity and running water are a luxury 🙂 Here are a couple of ideas for you. I do not know your local area so take or leave these ideas as you see fit… Your internship site. Being a recent grad I am assuming you had an internship to round out your program. Did you have a contact person/mentor from that site? Could you continue that relationship and build you skills from there? I have a former mentee who still sends me videos of her… Read more »
Member
I seem to run into two types of people (on the extreme ends of the spectrum)…those who love to learn, who voraciously want to improve their interpreting skills, branding, soft skills, marketing techniques, pedagogical framework, teaming, innovations in giving back, reaching higher, further..they give honest feedback, they give well placed compliments and encouragement…then there are the extremely competitive, petty minded people who compare certifications, engage in agism and other “isms”, nose in the air, ever ready with the snotty put down as they turn on their heels and walk away. The ever changing certifications, the unwillingness to mentor or to… Read more »
kblock
Member
“When I recognize in someone a genuine willingness to collaborate and achieve… then I reach out to mentor or be mentored. Unfortunately it’s like finding a needle in a haystack…but it’s worth it” I agree Meg! When you I am on the love learning side of your spectrum. I am constantly taking classes, workshops, reading, etc.. When you find a like minded individual that has a love for the professional and improvement it is a gift. The key is to develop that relationship so that it benefits all involved. I do see the other side of the spectrum as well–I… Read more »
Member
Rachel Kohn

THANK YOU,KATE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I’m entering year 30……and totally appreciate everything you wrote!!

Member
You have written a beautiful tribute to a segment of the community, often marginalized and left to become ghosts, whose gentle wisdom is exploited and mis-credited. I am tremendously grateful for this gracious, bold and very perceptive article. Thank you! That being said, I don’t think anyone argues that credentials are a vital and necessary factor for the profession and it’s practitioners to maintain respect, validity and longevity. As an interpreter who was certified under two separate processes and then, due to outrage and disgust with the mechanism and the politics of the day (this is going back years–it would… Read more »
kblock
Member
“I know your article was not promoting a ‘credentialess’ environment, and certainly as one of those old timers who have mentored and taught, I am beyond grateful for the love. But, I have some similarly non-credentialed colleagues who might see this as license (if-you-will) to further celebrate that status and I just want to be sure that’s not where we are going with this.” I 100% agree with you Alan and thank you for your thoughtful response. I by no means am endorsing working without credentials but we have to strike a balance between the value of testing and honoring… Read more »
Member
Kate-your comment on the certification alphabet soup hits home with me. I believe credentialing is important to any profession and yet it seems RID perpetuated the devaluation of the past in the flurry of letters created each time the test was changed. As a CSC holder, I recall the discussions around naming the ”new” test when deciding on what to call what is now the ‘CI/CT’. The insistence on changing the nomenclature seemed to be based on the theory that people who already held certification weren’t ‘good enough’. Hence many already certified interpreters re tested to prove their worth. Again… Read more »
kblock
Member

I agree 100% Karen– The changing of certification names devalues our past, causes us to constantly re-test and confuses our consumers (Deaf and Hearing).

Member
Terri Hayes
I believe there is a bit of a problem with how intepreters use and have come to understand the word “mentor”… I am a mentor *and* I am a teacher. These are two very different concepts. A mentor is not a Teacher. A mentor is not a Tutor. A mentor is not a Language coach. While a mentor can and often does do all of these things – that is not the purpose or the reality of mentoring. And importantly – a mentor is not someone you – as a young and upcoming interpreter SEEK OUT and Apply for. I… Read more »
kblock
Member
Your points are well taken Terry. Semantics aside, we need coaches, teachers, mentors and tutors if we are going to continue to grow this field in a positive direction. These people come in all age groups, experiences and areas of the field. One of my best confidants for ethical struggles is not an interpreter at all but does work closely with the Deaf community and understands what interpreters do. I have had formal and informal mentors in my career. Some did focus on language development with me and others helped me in other ways– (billing, moral support, ethics, etc…). I… Read more »
Member
Sandi Smith
Kate, What can I say? I’m so proud to have you as a part of our little corner of the interpreting world. What a great article. Allow me to ramble a bit: I’m nearing my the silver anniversary in this profession and my have things changed! Like you, I am stumped by newer interpreters who ask me what I charge to mentor. (I have never charged anything.) In fact, when you and I recently worked on a project offered at the university, a project that gave us a small stipend for mentoring, I found the process less pleasurable. I had… Read more »
Member

Kate —

Thank you.

Member
Janice Gorenflo
Thank you for this article. I am a seasoned interpreter practicing for over 30 years. While my primary job is in k-12, I also do a large amount of community work. A few years ago, I worked in a county program with a number of deaf students and interpreters. We mentored a large number of interpreters who went on to become very successful. They were highly motivated and did an excellent job. We all learned from each other and everyone benefited. I have wanted to mentor again, but it seems that it does not work out. My current position is… Read more »
Member
Toni Padilla
Great article and discussion! People in my area are probably tired of hearing me say “we don’t sit at the feet of our elders anymore”. This is true of the younger deaf community learning from their elders as well as the younger interpreting community sitting at the feet of their elders. I treasure all the incidental mentoring I received through the years (none of it was formal), grieve that many of my mentors have passed and some of them might not have realized how I valued their teaching, wisdom and experiences they imparted, and am hoping that I can pass… Read more »
kblock
Member

Thank you Toni!
I think “sitting at the feet” is important, particularly when we are starting out but learning to work together and blending our styles is also important. Our field has changed so much over the last years but I still think there are valuable lessons to be learned from the elders in our field…

Member
Elsa Svensson
This article couldn’t have come at a more timely moment for me. I just found out that a friend in a distant city will be starting her ITP this fall, and I can’t WAIT to mentor her. I want to remember what it was like just starting out, all of those feelings of “how will I ever do this?”, which she will bring to my attention. I’ve had a lot of experience in many settings and I think I can share wisdom after 20 years in the field. As far as charging, um, HELLO?! Not even something that would cross… Read more »
kblock
Member
Thank you Elsa!! I have to agree with you about charging but I can only speak about my experience and what I have observed in my area. I was not charged by my mentors and am eternally grateful for that. I did pay tuition fees for my advanced training as I prepared for my SC:L and that did include mentorship so I guess that was sort of paying. I do not charge my mentees. I view mentoring as a way of ‘giving back’ to the Deaf community and the interpreter community. I was given a great gift by my mentors… Read more »
Member
Mary Larson
What a breath of fresh air. I have been interpreting at churches specifically for over 30 years. That is very looked down on, I know. I have been involved in the deaf community and keep up with new signs. The church I am now attending has decided to use only certified Interpreters, which is their choice. However I was called upon once to fill in for their certified interpreters that were all sick or gone. They then told me, at aged 60, to go back to college for 4 years and get my degree and become certified because I was… Read more »
kblock
Member
Hello Mary- Please do not misunderstand, I am an advocate for certification. It is critical for us to be considered a practice profession to have a skill examination and certification along with a maintenance program (CEUs). My concern is the inconsistencies we are seeing with the certification testing, the neutrality of our testing body, the constant changing of letters and what that is doing to our community as a whole. I am going to agree with the people in your area– why not get certified? RID, at one point, was honoring “life experience” as a way to qualify to sit… Read more »
Member
I am so glad to hear another interpreter say something about the certification process. I coordinate interpreters where I work, and when people request interpreters who are not certified, and ask that other interpreters never come back (that are certified) I have to wonder the value of that piece of paper. Here in Florida we have a test all children in K-12 must take and pass, called the FCAT. As I tell my children, this test does not define who you are, nor does it reflect all the knowledge you have. It is one test, one day. In my opinion,… Read more »
Member
I keep finding myself coming back to this article because it always fills me hope. I am a recent ITP graduate and am finally finding confidence on where and how to properly continue my training and educaiton. Upon exiting my ITP, I was so focused on the goal of ‘certification’. What can I do now so I can be ‘certified’ in the future. Regardless of my quality of education, or even the quality of my abilites, I felt inadequate without AT LEAST knowing “soon, I’ll have NIC following my name”. It’s also very comforting to know how willing the community… Read more »
kblock
Member

Thank you for the kind words Drew. It was not long ago I was in your position so I know exactly how you are feeling. The most important thing I can tell you is focus on being a good interpreter– grow your skills, experiences and connections… the certification will come from that naturally.

Be Well…

Member
Renee Carlson
Wow Kate- Kudos to you for touching such a “hot topic” among interpreters. Looking at the sheer number of comments following the article proves that this is definitely a topic worth further consideration and discussion within our profession. I have been mentoring other interpreters for the past 11 years, and I still find myself sort of aplogizing for “only” having an Associates Degree. Why? Does it make me less of an interpreter? Do my almost 16 years of interpreting experience count for less because I went to Northcentral Technical College, rather than UWM? To some?… definitely. To me?…NO! I have… Read more »

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