Power Dynamics: Are Sign Language Interpreters Getting it Right?

June 10, 2014

The relationship between a deaf professional and a sign language interpreter is as complex and unique as the individuals themselves. Darlene Zangara examines four central relational issues and suggests actions for strengthening this relationship at its core.

I was attending a community fund development event. An unfamiliar interpreter was scheduled to work with me. Unfortunately, I don’t always have the luxury of deciding or learning the identity of my interpreters before events. Nor do I have designated interpreters. However, the interpreter worked diligently at my side as I made my rounds of strategic conversations with attendees. A break was announced. I excused myself to the restroom. I returned to find the interpreter giggling and talking with a gentleman. I tried to nonchalantly assimilate myself into this lively discussion but the interpreter abruptly tells the gentleman, “I have to go back to work.” A very brief awkward moment, the gentleman quickly departs. I asked her who he was and what had transpired. She replied, “Oh, he was just asking about deaf people and sign language.” I wanted to go find a wall and bang my head. I prayed that I didn’t lose out on an opportunity.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Relational Dynamics

Today, designated relationships between deaf professionals and sign language interpreters are being scrutinized on the basis of the interpreters’ linguistic skills and the extent to which their “heart” is culturally deaf. At the same time, deaf professionals are drawing lines against oppressive attitudes and marginalization from the dominant communities. However, many deaf professionals and interpreters feel that the debates have been disheartening, provoking misunderstood divides between the two.

There is limited training regarding relational dynamics between the interpreter and the deaf professional and little is written on the topic. How do we manage the peripheral challenges and values of the dominant culture as a team?  How do we as individuals assimilate the awareness of oppression in our work? Many sign language interpreters and deaf professionals feel that this exclusive relationship requires much more than impartiality, savvy and recognizing imbalanced belief systems. This dilemma has definitely opened doors for endless debates with regard to whose Voice does it really belong? In the eyes of the interpreters, we know that the Voice belongs to the deaf person. Unfortunately, in the eyes of dominant community, it does not always appear that way.

The Fundamentals of Voice

Voice is the vehicle in communicating cultural identity, recognition and justice. Reclaiming or sustaining one’s Voice is to stand up for what one believes, or to preserve one’s identity and place in society. Deaf individuals are expected to proceed through a series of deliberations to determine favorable actions that will be persuasive, with the goal of embracing the voice of their cultural values. The deaf individual’s Voice or meaningful intentions will need to be effectively interpreted into mainstream American society’s language and paradigms. This requires reconstruction of the meanings and mediation of the facts and historical stories through a cultural lens into a language that mainstream society is accustomed to hearing and experiencing. This is a daunting challenge and a burden for those who do not mediate multiple cultures and languages effectively.

Although, the effective leadership of a deaf professional lies in their eloquence and eclecticism of skill in building relationships and influence, developing mutuality and effecting change, and the strategic positioning of themselves in the dominant culture. This also includes their ability to effectively mediate two languages; ASL and the Spoken English language; and two cultures, the mainstream culture and deaf culture with the assistance of the sign language interpreter. The deaf professional also relies on the quality of the language register and cultural fluency; signing skills; content knowledge; physical/mental stamina; and ability to support the leader’s traversing and positioning tactics.

For this piece, I am focusing on interpreters’ challenges. However, I do recognize that the divergence of relationships can easily be attributed to the deaf professional’s failure to lead. The fundamentals of Voice are moot if we do not comprehend the core issues for the divergences between the deaf professional and the interpreter. Looking at the four areas of challenges for interpreters, I will review:  Can’t Decide: An Extension or An Individual; Power Structure: Guilty by Association; Boundaries: Infinite Rubber Band and Total Congruence: Synchronicity.

Can’t Decide: An Extension or Individual?

The first core issue asks the questions, “Do sign language interpreters see themselves as an extension of the deaf professional or a separate individual where their own identity is evident?” Speaking for myself, I utilize the interpreter as an extension of myself. Now, keep in mind, most deaf professionals do not have the luxury of designated interpreters (Hauser, Finch & Hauser, 2008). Designated interpreters and deaf professional partnerships can provide opportunities to strategize and position due to having ongoing working relationship. However, there are times when designated partnerships are not feasible.  This personal incident gives me pause to ponder the potential unconscious paternalism and/or competitive nature.

I had a routine check-up with my primary doctor whom I have seen for a number of years. Initially, I was very purposeful in my communications with the nurse. As we progressed into the appointment, I noticed that the interpreter was increasingly uncomfortable with my positioning tactics. Prior to the physical examination, I instructed the interpreter to wait in the waiting area. She became flustered and insisted on staying until she interpreted the directions from the nurse. At this point, I was perplexed and decided to shrug it off. After the physical examination was completed, a meeting would take place in the doctor’s office. I instructed the nurse to bring the interpreter back. As I was waiting, the doctor and I had a casual chat. The attention shifted abruptly to the door as the interpreter made her entrance with urgency. She announced, “Hello Doctor.  I am the interpreter. We have met previously. I have worked with you.” She sought eye contact, smiled and stood behind the seated doctor in a very close proximity.  I was immediately caught off guard and felt like I was thrown into a popularity contest.

Granted, this is a subjective interpretation. However, my sense of vulnerability amplified as well as feeling underestimated. There are some interpreters who have difficulty embracing this concept – being an extension. In today’s society, individualism and competition are celebrated. Individuals are encouraged to compete and assert their own story. Everyone comes with a personal story and emblematically, a story is meant to be told. This is a value of the dominant culture. My question for this relationship is whose story is it?

Power Structure: Guilty by Association

The second core issue is sign language interpreters do have power. My interpreters are hearing, thus are representatives of the dominant culture. There is no way around it or denying it. Deaf professionals consistently experience unique challenges that are difficult to perceive by the dominant culture—including interpreters. The dominant culture is defined as having various forms of dominance or privilege; including race and ethnicity, gender, socio economic status, sexual orientation, disability, values, worldviews and life experiences. These privilege challenges are pervasive.

Individuals from the deaf community are not perceived as equal members of the dominant culture. The stereotypical perceptions are embedded in the language and social climate in which we live. Even though the deaf community works hard to mainstream within the dominant culture, the cultural and linguistic conflicts create a hierarchical dominance and privilege by the dominant culture—mainstream America. The deaf professional integrates the interpreter as a tool to gain access and position within the dominant culture. As Alex Jackson Nelson shared in his previous article, Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege, having self-awareness and an intimate understanding of marginalization and oppression is fundamental. Sign language interpreters who recognize privilege and power can begin to dismantle oppression. Ultimately, knowing that the relationships will instinctively have power disequilibrium is critical. Scientifically and naturally, biology and human nature wants to respond to disequilibrium with equilibrium—homeostasis.

Boundaries: The Infinite Rubber Band?

Boundaries and ethical dilemmas are extremely difficult to address and represent the third core issue. It is a continuous grey area. In the world of sign language interpreting, ideally one will consciously stretch the bounds ethically to produce optimal outcomes. A boundary is an invisible circle enclosing the individual. While the role of a sign language interpreter is to maintain professional distance, mediate information and remain focused on the consumer; the interpreter must also realize the “cloak of power and privilege” worn also influences her role. The interpreter’s cloak carries the power of information, dominant culture’s values, and provides the means of bridging communication and cultures. A worn rubber band may lose its elasticity; overuse of stretching the bounds may unconsciously seep in the dominance of the interpreter in the relationship. The interpreter must continuously perform a deliberate assessment of her boundaries both visible and invisible.

Total Congruence:  Synchronicity

The fourth issue is total congruence. When I am dancing with my interpreter, figuratively, we are synchronous. The deaf professional artfully collaborates with the interpreter to interpret messages accurately as well as matching the spirit of the message conveyed. The interpreter maintains appropriate language register, variation and synchronicity with discourse strategies. In addition, they must be able to understand all the cultural nuances and systems motivations of the dominant community. It is truly a joyous feeling knowing my Voice has been heard and I was in charge of the relationship. While this emotion is personal, the observation from the dominant community is that the interpreter did not dominate the dialogue. The focus remains with the deaf professional.

My Thoughts About “Leaning In”

As I approached the closing of this piece, I pondered the assumption of futility in these relationships. I am asserting that futility is perpetuated by ignorance and ego. Not everyone is ignorant or ego-driven nor do they want to be. First, I am not aware of what I am not aware of. Our greatest personal growth challenge is being aware of our own power and privilege. Second, borrowing a popular concept from described by Sheryl Sandberg in her book by the same title, “Lean In”. Sandberg’s book caught the attention of men, women and colleagues around the world, created tremendous social media attention, led to development of Lean In circles, coaching and resources to heighten awareness and support for women in the workplace. Lean In is a multifaceted, interpretative concept of pushing and/or backing off to support opportunities for an individual to succeed. While this concept is not entirely new, we have seen it utilized by many pioneers of the deaf and interpreting communities. Ways for “leaning in”include embracing the four core relational issues between the deaf professional and the sign language interpreter; an interpreter is an extension of the deaf professional; being aware s own privilege and power; being aware of her boundaries; and to dance with total congruence. It is a step towards respecting Voice and definitely a better ending for this scenario.

…I returned to find the interpreter giggling and talking with a gentleman. I tried to nonchalantly assimilate myself into this lively discussion. The interpreter introduces the gentleman to me, “This is John Smith from XYZ. He was just asking me about deaf people.” I smiled at the interpreter and gave her a nod. “Hi I am Darlene…”

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20 Comments on "Power Dynamics: Are Sign Language Interpreters Getting it Right?"

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dveith
Member
Hi, Darlene, Thank you for this thought-provoking and powerful article. As I read, I squirmed with discomfort – a clear sign I need to read this article a few more times and really assimilate it. I would love to say I have never made these errors, but I am sure it has happened. Raising my awareness will help stop this from happening again. I want to thank you for raising my awareness with passion and sincerity, and without accusation or blame. There are so many layers involved with being an interpreter and I thank you for addressing this area. It… Read more »
dzangara
Member
Darlene Zangara

Hi Dora,

Thank you for your kind comments. The two most important things that I remind myself daily is that I am human and I am a committed student. This gives me an opportunity to be kind to myself, to be open to new learning and to apply new knowledge. Keep learning about yourself!

Darlene

Member
Laura Holcomb

Quite a gift. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I would like to see spoken language community interpreters sit up and pay attention to your wisdom and contemplate what it means for each of us as humans and professionals.

dzangara
Member
Darlene Zangara

Thank you!
Darlene

Member
James Johnson
I have had the exact same experience you had with the interpreter talking with a hearing person. What do I actually think of this scenario? The interpreter is actually childish or egoistic. He/she is there to be my voice and ear. I really do not give a hoot if the interpreter knows or have interpreted for this hearing person (e.g. doctor) – just jump in and interpret. That’s what you are hired to do! Here’s a scenario for interpreters to consider: A 911 call is made and EMTs are sent to help a potential heart attack victim. One EMT shows… Read more »
dzangara
Member
Darlene Zangara

Thank you for your feedback! I hope this article creates opportunities for rich dialogues.
Darlene

Member

I can see this also being a “lean in” experience where if you had time for just a few seconds with your co-interpreter you could easily have said to the other interpreter “I’ve worked with this client before. Would you like a few insights into the Deaf person’s communication style or process?” Bringing in the other interpreter into the process instead of blocking him/her is the better way.

dzangara
Member

I like your thoughts! The philosophy of lean in can benefit anyone. I think we all struggle with “confidence” and being comfortable to share our feedback without fear. I just noticed a new, wonderful article addressing confidence.
Thanks!
Darlene

Member
Dear Darlene, After reading your wonderful article on “Power Dynamics: Are sign Language Interpreters Getting it Right?” it was a huge relief to read meaningful ideas on this subject. I’ve read many articles and opinions on this subject but this is the first time I have felt inspired and safe enough to share my thoughts on it. So thank you for opening a sincere dialogue. I think there are minimally three important areas that contribute to this continuing disconnect between interpreters and consumers: 1. Sub-standard Training/Education 2. Unsuitable trainees 3. Lack of life experience Sub-standard Training/Education: The field of interpreting… Read more »
dzangara
Member
Darlene Zangara
Jan, Wow! I learned a lot from your response. You’ve hit it right on the nail in so many places. We need more of these dialogues. The field of interpreting is a tough and noble profession. Like for any new parent, no one seems to be able to come up with an ideal “instruction book.” Nonetheless, most kids generally turned out just fine (I hope). But I do know that the best books comes from a team of people who lived, experienced, studied, and tested the knowledge. What that means to me …deaf individuals and interpreters commit to talking and… Read more »
Member
Hi Jan~ Thanks for your thoughtful response! Those were great insights and while I don’t always know if I am a bicultural-bilingual mediator or ally, and whether I am appropriately using language to effectuate communication, I continue, like many of my colleagues to work daily to provide access to services, information, relationships and opportunities. I have gotten burned by Deaf people who do not see me as working for both the Deaf and Hearing individuals and see my role as solely for the D/HH person. I can choose to plow forward when misunderstood and continue to work as a professional.… Read more »
Member
Shelly and Darleen, My Experience: I have to say that many issues have presented when the deaf consumer does not understand that, as an agency professional, I serve two masters: the deaf and the hearing. Most hearing consumers do understand this duality of work. Also, I do not feel that I am an extension of anyone or anything while I work. Nor am I an Individual. I am a professional, contracted by an agency, working for various and unknown personalities in a convergence of cultures, providing interpreted communication to accomplish both of their perceived goals. Food for thought- If the… Read more »
Member
Hi Darlene~ Thanks for posting! I was just thinking about the “extension” idea lately when a hearing Spanish interpreter at a legal conference said “I have come to see myself as just a machine. I am to do my job as if I am a machine.” For ASL interpreters there is a need for rapport and collaboration for an effective interpreting relationship and dynamic. ASL interpreters are an extension of the parties because of the hearing disability and cannot effectively do their job without recognizing the value of being a gracious extension in this temporary setting of an interpreting encounter.… Read more »
dzangara
Member
Darlene Zangara
Hi Shelly Whoa… a machine? I don’t think I could communicate effectively through a machine (smile). I need a human being. This seems to be a response from one extreme end of a continuum. I strongly believe that we need to find our “middle.” This is where you have your dialogues with your client when it is possible. However, when a dialogue is not possible, be completely PRESENT. Presence is a crucial tool to help you assess yourself, your clients and the social climate…. it is being in the moment. Hopefully, this awareness will help guide you towards a “middle”… Read more »
Member
I would like to comment on your “extension vs individual” stance. I honestly don’t see any reason an interpreter should just be an extension of you when he/she is working. I have been interpreting for thirty five years and try to pattern my actions on each job according to what I see other professionals doing at the job site. I do not believe my briefly introducing myself , briefly chatting with a person (especially if the deaf person has gone to the bathroom…. Of course I do NOT suddenly become an expert on deafness either during this time) in any… Read more »
Member
Lauraca, I think you may have misunderstood. I don’t believe Darlene wanted to silence the interpreter as you say, rather the interpreter should have saw the conversation as an opportunity to empower Darlene, since she is a Deaf professional, to talk about Deaf people, interpreters, sign language etc. After all, it is her world and her expertise, not ours. I have learned that simple conversations such as that, where the Deaf person is empowered to lead in the discussion, leads to valuable dialogue and learning opportunities for those involved. We can never predict where that conversation could have gone had… Read more »
dzangara
Member
Hi Lauraca, One of the dangers of writing a short article is editing a piece to meet the maximum number allowed for publication. However, I do become concerned if my readers are not capturing a real glimpse or a complete scenario where in this particular interpreting situation… I was disempowered by the interpreter’s need to be visible. I enjoy working with interpreters who are personable, real, and have real emotions. I do not enjoy working with interpreters where their egos interfere with doing their job and not respecting the voice of a deaf person. It happens more often than you… Read more »
Member
From LauraCA You are so right. .. It is very hard to discuss a scenario without actually being there and having a full understanding of all the dynamics. I just see myself as part of a team; all creating a successful communication. I know this sounds paternalistic, but I finally learned that I can help make the situation go more smoothly if I smile a lot, laugh a little and maybe even make a comment like, “Wow what a nice pair of shoes”. Of course I sign anything I am saying and I only do it if there is down… Read more »
Member
Hi, I am currently working on becoming a sign language interpreter, and this article has enlightened me in being aware of making sure that the person I am interpreting for always feel empowered. From the article the topic of boundaries and the infinite rubber band is somthing that stood out to me. I feel it is important to not overstep my boundaries with my client but at the same time make sure that I don’t make the client feel left out of any conversation or miss out on information. What my challenge will be is figuring a medium between being… Read more »

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