How Do Sign Language Interpreters Avoid Mentoring’s Dodgy Undertow?

January 14, 2014

Can mentoring relationships among interpreters avoid common pitfalls? Lynne Wiesman describes ideal traits of mentoring partnerships to result in success for both experienced and novice interpreter.

We have all had someone who “took us under their wing” at some point in our careers. These people that we say changed the trajectory of our careers and pulled us up by allowing us to stand on their shoulders. These people, whose quiet grace, wanted nothing more for their trouble than for us to become the best sign language interpreters, professionals, and humans we could become.

Unfortunately, some of us have also had the type of mentor, who had goals that were not transparent and altruistic; where we sensed that the goal was to push us down. Those mentoring relationships sought to further intrinsic, selfish agendas.

Although the latter may have inherently negative connotations, it is not automatically unscrupulous for a mentor to want a mutual benefit from the relationship. Quite the contrary, agencies have a need to cultivate more interpreters. Veteran interpreters, for whom the work has lost some of its original appeal, may long for a burst of energy and enthusiasm. Interpreters want to model for a newer interpreter. Mentoring is an excellent way to bring a fresh, new perspective, while providing a way to give back and pay it forward.  All are necessary and vital for the preservation of our field!

Unchecked Assumptions

These aforementioned scenarios could be detrimental if they contain a motivation or element of conscious or unconscious deception or inauthenticity. If the primary goal for entering into a mentoring relationship is anything other than supporting mentees (students or working interpreters) to realize their goals of becoming an effective sign language interpreter, it may still be a successful relationship, but may not be a mentoring relationship. The chief objective for all stakeholders of mentoring is for newer interpreters to be pulled up, not pushed down.

If either in the relationship has motives other than to pull up or based on unchecked assumptions, the relationship exists with a dodgy undertow.  Assumptions can occur on both sides of the relationship. Newer interpreters must “pay their dues”, “can’t possibly have Deaf heart”, “can never possess the foundations of what it takes to be a good interpreter from mere classroom learning”, or “are just in it for the money”.  Veteran interpreters “owe me”, “can’t possibly know as much as me since they never attended an ITP”, or “have been in the field so long, they can’t be up to date on current research.”

It is not my intent to insinuate that either have ulterior motives or agendas to push down. It is my intent to raise awareness of an effective and powerful approach to mentoring that pulls up all stakeholders of a mentoring relationship.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Members of professions (e.g., nursing, teaching, and interpreting) receiving mentoring, report that mentoring is a formidable and effective intervention for induction into an industry. For years, as Lynette Taylor in Modern Questor: Connecting the Past to the Future of the Field reminds us, interpreters with more experience have been paired with those will less experience as a way to “navigate new waters.” We are where we are today, in part, due to mentoring by the Deaf community, agencies, and veteran sign language interpreters.

Unfortunately though, some also report being mentored in ways and by people who were untrained and unclear on the purpose and goal of mentoring. There are those who have never received formal training because it was not available or it was deemed unnecessary. A percentage of those may also believe that formal training is not an effective path to becoming an interpreter (or mentor.) This belief can permeate the mentoring relationship. Those who, perhaps, sought to mentor to further a gatekeeper role. Whether or not there exists a need for interpreters to become gatekeepers beyond those who truly own the keys and who live beyond the gates, this should not be done under the guise and pretense of mentoring.

Using ones personal or professional power to leverage control of someone’s dreams and goals can cause harm and ultimately does not result in any gains for society. Having the position power and exercising that ability to prevent access and advancement under the guise of mentoring is deceitful, defies the goal of mentoring, and is tantamount to abuse.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Not all mentoring should be altruistic but all mentoring relationships should be driven by an agenda that is co-created and negotiated, transparent, and authentic.

The foundations of quality mentoring hold a premise that a mentoring relationship is ultimately forged and maintained by open and honest communication. It would follow then, the lack of quality communication, communication conflicts, or even deceptive communication can set the stage for a dysfunctional mentoring relationship. Ott (2012) characterizes communication problems in mentoring as having an origin in intergenerational communication conflict, which may result in horizontal violence. Horizontal or “lateral violence occurs within marginalized groups where members strike out at each other as a result of being oppressed. The oppressed become the oppressors of themselves and each other” (Findlay, 2013). While interpreters are not, as a group, considered a marginalized group; many individual members are. Considering also that a large percentage of veteran interpreters have roots that are deep in the Deaf community either by familial, religious or other types of alliances, they have born witness to the impacts of others’ experiences and collaterally been harmed by their marginalization.

Ott sets the line of demarcation between generations of sign language interpreters at those who pre-date the requirement by RID to require a Bachelor’s in interpretation. Others have posited that line lies at the enactment of the ADA in 1990 or the establishment of ITPs as a turning point forever changing the landscape of interpreting. Where the line is that distinguishes generations of interpreters is open to debate and not the point of this article.  The reality is that the interpreting landscape has changed dramatically since those first days of family members providing volunteer services. There exists now an “interpreting space” (Taylor, 2013) shared by those who learned via the “school of hard knocks” and those who learned in a formal classroom. This is progress, right?

The paradox of progress is that to move toward one thing (pulling us toward a new understanding of professionalism), we move, or are pushed away, from another (our alliances with the Deaf community).

Unconsciously Competent

In the case of interpreting, progress pushed us away from the fledgling industry comprised of people with rich cultural experiences, knowledge of ASL, and values that were not formally or academically taught. Many of these early entrants into the field provided interpreting and are now the “veterans” who learned by association with members of the Deaf community who pulled up each and every person willing to facilitate communication. The learning was largely informal and by trial and error. Many mistakes were made; people were often put unwillingly and unknowingly in situations where irreparable harm could have been done (and may have been). Learning occurred as a result of these mistakes, not from an interpreter educator’s red pen or feedback on homework but during and after the work in discussions with consumers and team members. Learning occurred from those mistakes and veterans grew into the professional roles without ever stepping foot into a college classroom to study interpreting. Veterans could (and still can) culturally mediate and produce an effective product but can not explain how they did it. In a sense, veterans are, as Maslow (1940) would describe, “unconsciously competent.” Someone having so much experience producing interpretations, to the point of it becoming an innate task, characterizes this stage of learning. However, because they are unconsciously competent, they may also not be able to describe the discrete and multi-layered processes or decisions made leading up to the production of the task.

Consciously Competent

Herein lies a peek into what may be part of the communication conflict. Veterans are now being asked to mentor newer entrants into the field. Entrants who are afforded this opportunity based on that very same progress that pulled the field away from its cultural and linguistic roots. That progress that moved us toward professionalization of sign language interpreters was a result of ever-increasing academic and certification requirements. These newer interpreters lie somewhere on the continuum near unconsciously incompetent to consciously competent. These newer entrants to the profession have acquired a set of tools & processes, vocabulary, and research-based approaches & theories to be able to articulate the decisions made completing an interpreting task and analyze their work. They do this with a level of academic sophistication that can, as frequently reported, leave veterans feeling less competent or intimidated.

Mentors have frequently commented that “students can’t have Deaf heart” as if there is a formula or some secret membership card that they don’t yet possess. I challenge that assumption! In my experience as a mentor and educator, students in the program and just having graduated, may not have all of the cultural experiences that veterans do, but they definitely are passionate about the work, excited, enjoy socializing with Deaf people, and are still very interested and hungry for feedback from consumers. They are closer to having Deaf heart than many interpreters who have been in the field 5 years. It is then when we need to seize the window of opportunity, give them exposure to the community and culture that also paved the way for our induction into the field, and pull them up, as we were pulled up.  In my experience, that bright light dims after roughly 5 years in the field and seems to be replaced with the reality of the work, competing demands for time, or exposure to others whose light has dimmed or who may never had have a “Deaf heart”.

Finding Commonalities

Yes, our interpreting space and the landscape has changed. Let’s use this newer space and maximize the synergistic benefits for all. Veteran interpreters possess a different, and valid, perspective and ownership of the work. At the same time, newer interpreters possess a different motivation for having entered the field with a justifiable deep sense of pride in their educational accomplishments. The intersection of the two, provided by the mentoring relationship, can reap some very positive and mutually beneficial opportunities to unpack and discuss each other’s paradigms and to learn from and with each other. Find the commonalities!

As StreetLeverage’s mission is to effect positive change, my challenge for all is to leverage the powerful potential in the strengths and challenges of each group. What one set possesses, the other lacks. One set of interpreters possesses cultural and linguistic knowledge, experiences, and competencies. The other set possesses the academic knowledge, new experience, energy and enthusiasm.


Both veteran and novice interpreters have the same goal of wanting to provide effective interpreting. The best path to competency does not have to be recreating traumatic experiences for the mentees. Just as doctors used to give people a shot of whisky to pull out a bullet and saw off a leg, we too moved away from archaic methods and have made progress and created better tools to educate and mentor new interpreters. Pushing away the future of our industry does not benefit the community.  For all, incorporate approaches that pull new interpreters up and not push them down.

Pulling Up

Pushing Down Behaviors

Welcoming, open and authentic sharing of knowledge, information, and resources Withholding access (assignment, or consumer-related info)
Open and authentic communication throughout the process. Co-creating and negotiating motivations and agendas. Non-verbal & verbal behaviors (facial expressions, audible displays of displeasure, use of sarcasm and teasing, aggressive statements, etc.)
Sincerity & involvement in all opportunities. Accountability to the agenda. Undermining & sabotaging activities that make oneself unavailable for team support or deliberately setting up negative situations
Direct, authentic, and transparent communication. Posturing (infighting, deliberate betrayal, rumors, bickering, and unhealthy approaches to conflict management, not speaking directly to a person but speaking about them.)
Team accountability and discussion. Censuring (attributing the product of the teamed effort to the work of one person)
Respecting relationships and boundaries established as a result. Boundary violations (disclosing private or confidential information)
Inclusive behaviors Exclusive behaviors
Acceptance of a newer interpreter’s skill or knowledge deficits Intolerance for a newer interpreter’s skill or knowledge deficits
Embracing Intimidation
Supporting toward competence Blaming for incompetence
Validating experiences that got us both to this place Imposing one’s own experiences as the best or only route to competence

Adapted from Corgan, J. “Lateral Violence in Nursing”.

Extending a Challenge

My challenge to all –  PULL UP:

  • students, recent graduates, and new interpreters: pull them in early, while they are still so eager, willing, impressionable, and will benefit from your attention!
  • veteran interpreters: they have a wealth of experience, establish those invaluable relationships as early as possible and will benefit from your knowledge!
  • the entire community: we are only as strong as our weakest link!

As in the words of J.F.K., “A rising tide lifts all boats.”  Are you on board and willing to change the tide? Commit this year to entering into at least one mentoring relationship and pull up our profession!



Findlay, D. (2013). Kweykway Consulting.

Original Maslow, A (1940) replicated Broadwell, M. (1969). Unconscious Competence. Teaching for Learning (XVI). V 20 February 20, 1969 – NUMBER 41, (PAGE 1-3a).

Ott, Emily K., “Do We Eat Our Young and One Another? Horizontal Violence Among Signed Language Interpreters” (2012). Master’s Theses. Paper 1. 

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27 Comments on "How Do Sign Language Interpreters Avoid Mentoring’s Dodgy Undertow?"

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Dear Lynne, Thank you for your thoughtful and encouraging piece. Your description of the continuum of unconsciously incompetent to consciously competent is very helpful in describing the different generations of interpreters and the communication conflict that could happen given the different experiences that formed interpreters of yesterday and those of today. Given that newer interpreters enter the field initially with less ties to the Deaf community than veteran interpreters, it is all the more important that through mentorship they are pulled up because they are the future. And, for this reason, I also believe that formal mentorship programs must include… Read more »
Kevin Lowery

To label everyone that come through the ITP as “not having any connection to Deaf community than veteran interpreters” is not exactly accurate. In my classes (within the past few years) we had CODAs, people who had Deaf spouses as well as those with close friends who are Deaf. Yes, there were some who didn’t have a connection to the Deaf community originally BUT I noticed that those were the ones that were HUNGRY, even desperate for a connection. Let’s not deprive them of that access into Deaf Culture.


Thanks Anna and like Kevin, I have to say that even with students moving further away from having Deaf family connections, they still are very eager and have drive to be involved than many who I see out there working a number of years! I think the pulling up also needs/can happen with newer interpreters providing access to articles, research, and theories that the veterans perhaps don’t have!!

Sue Sanders


Thank you for the insightful article and forthright discussion about a topic that is vital to the future of our profession.

I would like to add my voice of support for the challenge to “pull up,” in 2014 and beyond!


Yes, please do add your voice and pull up interpreters!!! It is vital to our profession and to the communities we serve!!

Lynne, this is a wonderful article! My wife and I have been actively mentoring interpreters for the last 3 years. We approach each and every one or our apprentices with a heart of sharing and growing a relationship that is based on their own individual needs. During our initial interview with prospective apprentices we tell them about our individual journeys and then invite them to share with us theirs. We do not judge. We do offer to walk along with them in ways that will maximize the potential for growth (personal, professional and emotional). The number of ITP graduates that… Read more »

Will, thanks to you and your wife for your paying it backward and forward!! True, we (some of us) may have a role of gatekeeper and I agree, it’s not clearly defined. For me, the Deaf community – those who life beyond the gates, own the keys to that and when I am mentoring – I am solely responsible for ensuring that the goals and objectives of those who have asked (or been required) to mentor them are met (not my own agenda!) Thanks for your response and support!!!


Kevin Lowery
Lynne, I thank you for bringing up this subject but alas a lot of this I do not find applies to the real world of interpreting. At a recent workshop an “experienced” interpreter admitted “we are a profession that eats our young.” And I am inclined to agree because I have been in mentorships situations where the mentor was less than honorable and relished giving negative comments without any positivity whatsoever. Obviously, IT WAS ALL ABOUT THEM! So let me give some advice from all that I have seen and experienced personally. Mentors You need to be honest with yourself.… Read more »

Thanks Kevin and good to see you chiming in here!!! I also appreciate your bringing up the shared responsibility which is something I tried elucidate with this piece! Mentees can also have an agenda or an “attitude” and both sides need to be responsible about their relationship and their communication – thanks for bringing that forward!!!

As a Deaf ASL Master Tutor/Mentor/VRI Evaluator of 19 years – I totally agree that it takes two to tango to make a successful professional improvement in the ASL interpreting field. Unfortunately, I’ve met far too many both sides of other mentors and mentees abusing the code of ethics and more emotional harm has been inflicted creating discord. Happily, few ASL interpreters have shared fantastic mentors they’ve worked with – sadly, so many retired, or died or moved on to other careers. Having moved to many different states in America, it shocked me to see out of 80% of ASL… Read more »

Thanks for sharing your comments!!! Unfortunately, many have the belief that only new interpreters or students coming into the field need mentoring – though we all can use mentoring. Some of us have very informal mentors as well as more formal relationships!

You can check out NCIEC, they do have a listing of mentors so get in touch with them!

My best to you!

Jenny Miller

Great article Lynne!

I love your list of pulling up and pushing down behaviors. That chart and the whole article in general has given us concrete, ‘doable’ actions that we can implement not only in our Mentor and Mentored relationships, but also in our daily teamed assignments.



Thanks Jenny and honestly, it was VERY difficult for me to put those behaviors/characteristics in writing. I was/am saddened that some are treated that way but I hear the stories daily. Of course, I have to give props to the Master Mentor Program – without that, I may not have really understood the meaning of mentoring – it has changed my life (sounds cheesy but it’s true!!!)

Dear Lynne, Thank you so much for your article. I have been interpreting for more than 15 years and searching all of that time for a “qualified” mentor to bridge the gap between graduation from my ITP and RID Certification. I have had countless experiences with untrained, unprofessional, uncaring, biased people who claim to want to mentor me. Finding a mentor who fills the qualifications mentioned in your article sounds like a dream. My daughter and I both graduated from an ITP in 1998, and have not yet become RID Certified! We are now on our way to Florida in… Read more »

It hurts to know that some people are still disguising mentoring as a way to “tell people what they are doing wrong” and end up making them feel worse than when they started! So you know, mentoring should be about helping you know how to find your effective patterns and a couple of challenging ones, not a laundry list and surely not to make you feel defeated. Let me know where you are and maybe I know someone in that area who can provide some mentoring.


[…] Lynne Wiesman suggests mentorship in the field of sign language interpreting has a dodgy undertow and she offers suggestions for practitioners on how to avoid it.  […]

Adrienne Leonard
Thank you, Ms. Weisman, for your eye-opening article. I currently have a high school daughter who is very interested in pursuing a career in sign language interpretation. She is much as the newer generation of interpreters are described–not having a direct tie to the deaf community through family, but having grown up with a friend who was born deaf but had cochlear implants when young and has had much to overcome. She was able to take a sign language class in high school and picked up signs very quickly and learned a lot about the deaf community and their struggles.… Read more »
If you’ll let me know the area in which you live, I can hook you up with a Deaf community member and an interpreter who would probably be very interested in supporting her to make some solid connections. You are wise to vet programs! You may want to request graduation to certification rates of the programs – how much time it is taking for people to become certified? That would be an easy measure of whether they are providing sufficient ASL exposure and foundation prior to and during interpreting courses. I’m happy to also correspond with you privately if you… Read more »
Samuel SERNA
Thanks Lynne Lynne , a timely and pointed article. You have managed to increase my awareness and shine light on an issue that seems to be lacking magnanimously in professionalism. I don’t believe my head is stuck in the sand. Or that I can point my finger away from all the havoc that I have caused in the over 25 plus years as a working interpreter. Who can honestly say NOT ME,? But as I reflect on this article, I dare to say I am for a new kind of “pull ’em up” mentoring. The article truly helps foster and… Read more »
Sam, thanks for sharing your thoughts and I appreciate the authenticity in admitting some of the harm we may have done prior to obtaining training in how to mentor effectively (which you have!) and the goal of pulling them all up!! I also believe that the responsibility lies with all parties – but when there is a power difference, mentees may not step into the power they have. Perhaps we have to provide them that opportunity and articulate the responsibility of theirs! Onward to mentor some of the students I have worked with who are now preparing to go out… Read more »
Adrienne Leonard

Thank you so much! We would truly appreciate any guidance you could give. We live in Oklahoma, which does not currently offer any bachelors programs in sign language interpretation. She does not want to attend a large university, so we are looking at programs at small to mid-sized colleges in the midwest. You can contact me privately at the email I registered under if you have access to that information.


I don’t see the emails so just email me at!!!

Whitney Plummer
Dear Lynne, As a new interpreter in this field, I am VERY thankful for your comments. This article is so important in highlighting what WE as new interpreters need/should look for when pursuing mentors. I can say that I would not be where I am or even CLOSE to where I am if it wasn’t for more seasoned/experiences interpreters ‘taking me under their wings’ and investing time into my growth. After reflecting on your post, the most effective tool in my own experiences is clarifying goals and expectations. This has led me to having different mentors for different skill sets… Read more »

Whitney, that is so true! We, as people, all have such varying strengths and challenges that to think we could get everything is unrealistic and we, hopefully, are seeking out many mentors with a variety of tools to share!

As you put it, it is an incredible responsibility and honor to be able to work with those coming up. It is also incumbent upon the interpreting being mentored to reciprocate, show appreciation, and also not to think that one person can provide everything!

Take what you can use, leave the rest but be grateful for all of it!

Terry Spoor Wynne
Thank you so much for this article. As a graduate of an ITP who is preparing to take the NIC exam, I have been working and socializing in the Deaf community. All of this has brought great opportunities to develop deep friendships and to improve my ASL, but it has been through my mentors, both formal and friendly, that I have gown the most as an interpreter. Fortunately I have had mentors who have been very successful at pulling up. Each one has encouraged, challenged and supported me and I can only hope that I have contributed to them in… Read more »

That’s fabulous and great to hear!! Use the info and the positive experiences as you go forth and eventually prepare to mentor as well!! Pay it forward!


[…] How Do Sign Language Interpreters Avoid Mentoring’s Dodgy Undertow by Lynne Wiesman […]

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