Sign Language Interpreters: Achieving Authentic Confidence

June 24, 2014

Can sign language interpreters find equilibrium between humility and confidence? Xenia Woods examines the impact of having too much or too little of either trait, and how this delicate balance can be cultivated and maintained.

Imagine yourself in the restroom while on a break from your work as a sign language interpreter. You look into the mirror as you dry your hands. What do you see? A linguist? An ally of the Deaf community? A wordsmith? Someone who is struggling to prove him or herself?

[Click to view post in ASL]

Most sign language interpreters have dichotomous personalities. However, this split personality can actually be a good thing for us to have. Humility and confidence are the two seemingly contradictory halves of the interpreter personality. But when well-managed, they are ideal manifestations of the dualistic interpreter personality. As Brandon Arthur points out in, Do You Resemble the Sign Language Interpreter in Your Head?, “an appropriate level of self-awareness is critical to finding success in the sign language interpreting profession.”

Escaping Ego-Related Limitations

In their worst forms, humility and confidence swell into fear and arrogance. The fear stems from a lack of hard work on the part of the interpreter to continue to improve his or her skills. When a sign language interpreter is working at learning and doing her best, and only taking on work she can handle well, she has nothing to be afraid of. Those who are most fearful realize at their core that they should be doing more to improve their skills or that they are interpreting in settings that are beyond their skillset.

The key to escaping ego-related limitations, whether they are the kinds that make us too confident, or not confident enough, is an intentional and well-informed practice of reflection. Anna Witter-Merithew explains in, Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice, that this is a crucial habit for avoiding professional isolation and for achieving not only growth, but also well-being.

An intentional practice of reflection and development can consist of many possible elements:

  • Balancing Humility and Confidence is the key to professionalismobservation-supervision groups as defined by Robyn Dean
  • mentoring by a more experienced interpreter
  • peer mentoring
  • reviewing videos of one’s work with a Deaf language mentor
  • workshops and conferences in which one has defined goals and out of which one develops new practices
  • independent study in which one tackles specific skills with the help of consultants and research
  • attending intensive trainings with group discussion sessions
  • personal/life coaching
  • researching, writing, and teaching while applying what one learns to one’s own practice

Arrogance Stems From Ignorance

The more experienced a sign language interpreter is, the more he knows how much there is yet to learn. Consumers, whether Deaf or hearing, do not respond well to interpreter arrogance. But they do need interpreters who are confident. When a sign language interpreter is confident, the parties who are using the services of the interpreter trust that what they are saying is being faithfully relayed, whereas a self-conscious or insecure interpreter will cause consumers to be uncertain whether their communications are being conveyed accurately.

Many hearing consumers fan the flames of arrogance by praising interpreters for their “beautiful signing.” “It’s like a dance!” “You did such a wonderful job!” they say. While many of us are uncomfortable with this kind of attention, other interpreters are quite happy to interpret music, comedy, theatre, and the like, despite the fact that it, by definition, places one in the limelight. It has become for some an artistic expression. This is not without controversy. A recent article editorial in the Baltimore Sun by Deaf Gallaudet professor Caroline Solomon and her brother, attorney Jeffrey Archer Miller, expressed the sentiment:

“Sign language is not performance art.”

This tells us that some see highly visible examples of creative interpreting as outside the realm of what is necessary and acceptable.

Most sign language interpreters believe in humility and understand that, in general, interpreters are not performers. If you have a part of your personality that is a performer, you should express that elsewhere by being a musician, an actor, or a dancer, so that you’re not tempted to use your position as an interpreter to express that need. This issue has recently been highlighted by the Deaf Community in Seattle in their protest of the Seattle Men’s Chorus, which has, for many years, used an unqualified interpreter who openly prides himself on performing via sign language.

It is sad and embarrassing that we sometimes let our heads get too big. I will never forget the amazing characterization that Dr. Laurene Simms provided at the California State University Northridge Interpreting Symposium one year. She took on the traits and mannerisms of every know-it-all, self-absorbed, show-off interpreter she’d ever seen, and combined them into one laughably conceited character. The effect was humorous but also sobering.

In recent months, a refreshing trend has appeared in online media: the examination by both sign language interpreters and Deaf consumers of the problems that surround bringing interpreters into focus. We can all agree that interpreters deserve to be acknowledged for excellent service, but what we don’t agree on is what kinds of acknowledgement are acceptable. Negotiating this tightrope cannot be done in a vacuum, which is why all interpreters need to participate in ongoing discussions with interpreters and consumers about what professionalism looks like for our field.

Balancing Humility & Confidence

So what will help sign language interpreters achieve and maintain this balance between humility and confidence? It requires equal parts self-knowledge, education, and participation in the interpreter and Deaf communities.

1. Deaf consumers are not always prone to giving interpreters feedback. Don’t ask for it; it’s not their job to offer critiques. If a Deaf consumer provides you with useful feedback, you are fortunate. However, it is common for Deaf and hearing consumers to have no feedback for the interpreter(s). This can actually be a good thing! It may very well mean that your work was unremarkable and therefore effective.

2. The best interpreting goes mostly unnoticed. If the consumers are focused on the discussion rather than on the interpreter, then the interpreting process will be almost invisible. This is explained eloquently by Theresa Blankmeyer Burke in her editorial, The Costs Incurred: Hearing Non-Signers and Signed Language Interpreters. In this piece, Burke explains why she takes issue with what she calls “Interpreter Basking in the Spotlight Syndrome.” Bottom line: it draws undue attention away from the consumers.

3. When consumers are displeased with an interpreter, it is more likely to be about her attitude than her signing skills. A confident yet humble sign language interpreter is a good ally for any consumer.

In the End

Each of us has a unique blend of personality traits that make us who we are as sign language interpreters. This variation is good, as it allows us each to be suitable for different types of work. What’s crucial is that we are qualified for what we’re doing, and treat everyone with respect. When we remember to always focus on the message more than ourselves, we will be providing our best work. In the end, the work is not about us. It’s about the people we serve, and their communication. When interpreters have developed authentic confidence, they can allow people’s communication to flow unimpeded.

* Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox? SignUp!

Stay Current

Want to be among the first to know when we publish new content?

Are you an interpreter?

We respect your privacy.
We will never share your info.

Conversation

Leave a Reply

22 Comments on "Sign Language Interpreters: Achieving Authentic Confidence"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Member

Please refrain from using the female pronoun exclusively. There may not be many of us, but there are male interpreters.

I like your concept of being “invisible.” Just doing our job to the best of our ability without being a “show off” is how its done. Some of us have a strong passion for performing arts so if people have that background then it could be a good fit. (assuming one is willing to receive training and mentorship.)

Member

The author used both masculine and feminine pronouns (he and she) in this article in reference to interpreters. I appreciated her diverse use of the pronouns rather than defaulting to the masculine as has been historically done in our society.

xwoods
Member
Xenia Woods
Kevin, I agree that there need to be more male interpreters! The three times I used male pronouns in this piece represents that there are indeed male interpreters out there. But we would benefit a lot as a community by having more. I’m sure that you do your part to encourage skilled signers who are male to get into the field, and for that, thank you! I like your simple way of putting your take on the confidence issue: “Just doing our job to the best of our ability without being a show-off, is how it’s done.” That basically sums… Read more »
Member
Laurie Shaffer
Xenia, Your article resonates in so many ways. We as interpreters must commit every day to working the balance between confidence and humility for that balance is always a work in progress. I know there are times I achieve the balance and times when the scale tips too far in one direction or the other. Consistent self-reflection, staying open to the “tough” conversations, committing to integrity and owning the fact that the scale has tipped while at the same time forgiving ourselves for not allows staying in balance and remembering we are good at what we do. To forgive frees… Read more »
xwoods
Member
Xenia Woods

Thanks, Laurie. What a great point: “that balance is always a work in progress.”

I also love the emphasis on forgiveness. I have always taught my students the axiom “Yes, you will make mistakes. And yes, you will be forgiven.”

We should also remember we need to learn from those mistakes, and forgive ourselves – often the hardest part. Thank you.

Member
Judy Robertson
What a great discussion point. As an educator, I recognize the difficulty in this all to well. We strive to teach confidence in the work of an interpreter but often times, that confidence swells to a negative, egotisitical type attitude. It is imperative that interpreters learn what it means to be confident, not arrogant. The terms do not go hand in hand however, it seems that is often the case. I, myself, have been guilty of tipping the scale too much one way or the other. Most times, it’s the over-confidence becoming arrogance that results in a linguistical and professional… Read more »
xwoods
Member
Xenia Woods

Judy, you have mentioned a key piece – understanding our limits. There are so many reasons why we venture beyond our limits, but I suppose that’s the topic of another piece. Suffice it to say that many interpreters feel pressure from various sources, including their egos, to do more than is realistic.

As you say, opening ourselves up to others in meaningful discussion is so key. I’m convinced that one of the biggest enemies of personal and professional development is isolation. Being willing to risk vulnerability is a sign of wisdom and maturity.

Thanks for weighing in.

Member
Lori Whynot
HI Xenia, and thank you for your very timely article. I have struggled with my own annoyed feelings when witnessing colleagues with what you term, ‘spotlight syndrome’. Interpreters’ stance and how we manage our positioning in Deaf people’s life activities is a very complex topic. Laurie is good to note ‘forgiveness’. 🙂 As an interpreter educator it is truly a challenge to guide a student who arrives in class cheerily claiming they hope someday to interpret for theatre (because s/he saw some awesome interpreter on Youtube or TV or at a concert). Unfortunately we are surrounded by a culture of… Read more »
xwoods
Member
Xenia Woods
Thank you, Lori, for your astute remarks. In my experience, most interpreting students discover, over time, a more appropriate relationship to the work we do. But it does take some gentle guidance that allows them to make cultural adjustments, and still retain their own individuality. What you said above really resonates with the concept of collectivism, as taught by Anna Mindess, Tom Holcomb, et al. Interpreters who cannot accept that we are intricately connected with a collectivist Deaf society are typically the ones who rub consumers the wrong way. So true that much of this is about negotiating presence –… Read more »
Member
This is a great article Xenia. I was curious though about your comment of “Most sign language interpreters believe in humility and understand that, in general, interpreters are not performers.” Yes I believe in humility very much and try to use it every time I interpret, but aren’t we in some way performers? We take on the characteristics of the person’s signs and speech and we show emotions on our face and in our inflection. I know we are not “circus animals” even though that might be what others think when they see us interpret music or theatre, but we… Read more »
xwoods
Member
Xenia Woods
Jessica, I agree that there is a certain amount of acting in our work. The tricky part is to find the middle ground between being a machine and being a caricature. I always recommend that interpreters take improvisational theater classes as well as public speaking. While we, as sign language interpreters, generally take on more of the character of the speaker than spoken language interpreters do, there is a line we do not cross. And that line is the difference between an interpreter and performer. I recommend you talk with some interpreters who are very well-rounded and can move around… Read more »
Member
Krystin Douds
Hi Xenia, Thanks for an insightful and thought provoking article. I was particularly taken by the part of the article that mentions a Deaf consumer’s role in providing feedback: “Deaf consumers are not always prone to giving interpreters feedback. Don’t ask for it; it’s not their job to offer critiques…” I’m curious to know if and how you feel there is a difference between asking for a consumer’s direct feedback and initiating a conversation about preferences and expectations. Does a preference and expectation conversation have a place within our work without placing an undue burden on Deaf consumers? If so,… Read more »
xwoods
Member
Xenia Woods
Great question, Krystin. They are indeed two different animals. What you are referring to as a conversation about preferences and expectations is de rigueur. Most interpreters engage in this kind of negotiation whenever possible. It can be rather disconcerting to us to work when it’s not possible, such as at a large event, or at times in the context of VRS, when callers are in a hurry and can’t be bothered. What I’m talking about and urging people to avoid is the type of broad question that some interpreters ask when they feel insecure. Useless questions like, “Do you understand… Read more »
Member

Interpreting Is Not Performance Art!!! Can we get a neon sign for that one? I just want to emphasize: ” Its not about you”. If it wasn’t for our consumers we would have a job. There is too much narcassism in our profession.

Member

“In the end, the work is not about us. It’s about the people we serve, and their communication. When interpreters have developed authentic confidence, they can allow people’s communication to flow unimpeded.” Beautiful!!! You have isolated such an important aspect of our work here.
Thank you for being a beacon for so many interpreters–your level of professionalism, knowledge, and compassion is such a gift and a model to our field.

Member
I am in an interpreting program. I agree with this article because I think that your confidence depends on how much signing you do and how much time you put into being the best you can be at your job. The more signing you do, the better and more confident you become. I am the most confident while signing when I know that the other person understands my signing and I am keeping them engaged. This only happens when you have prepared yourself for this work. Also, when I know that I am signing at my best ability, my confidence… Read more »
Member
Margie Garcia
I had never though of interpreters as performers until now. I can see why someone interpreting a play would begin to feel as if they are acting out the role themselves. Although it might be somewhat acceptable in that setting, it certainly is not acceptable for other settings. Being able to take on different roles is an important skill for sign language interpreters to have because it aids the transition from consumer to consumer. Every assignment is different just like every role is different, however, interpreting should always have in mind that the attention must stay on the consumer not… Read more »
Member
Brendan Carruthers

Hello Xenia. Thank you very much for you very thoughtful article. I am a student in an ITP and have received a number of different viewpoints when I ask if it is appropriate to interpret music as a form of practice while learning. I have done it, but don’t do it with great frequency. Do you think using such venues for practice is helpful or harmful for the student?

I am in full agreement with your referencing “unremarkable and therefore effective” interpreting. Very well said.

Many thanks,

Brendan Carruthers

xwoods
Member
Xenia Woods
Brendan, Interpreting music is a sticky wicket. There are people who do it very well, people who do it terribly, and everything in between. As a student, it’s crucial that if you interpret music, you do it in private, for your own practice only. Later, when you’re a working interpreter, if you think you have a knack for it, approach an experienced and respected interpreter in your community who interprets music professionally and ask for his or her opinion on whether it’s something you should continue with, based on an example of your work that you show. Only then should… Read more »
Member
Xenia thank you so much for this article. As a Fairly new Interpreting student I can really appreciate and relate to this. I find it hard to find the balance of confidence and humility because I still have so much learning to do. There are sometimes when I am signing that I feel over confident and maybe even arrogant. I know when this happens that eventually my signing will suffer .More often than not I am on the other side of the scale lacking confidence. When this happens I come off as an incompetent signer when I feel that in… Read more »
xwoods
Member
Xenia Woods

Colleen,

Thanks for your comments. It’s great to know that you and your colleagues are having these kinds of discussions.

You’re on the right track, and I wish you well as you move along it toward becoming a working interpreter!

Forward-looking organizations committed to retelling the story of the interpreter.

(National)

(Nevada)

(New York)

(California)

(Wisconsin)

(Massachusetts)

(Pennsylvania)