What Are We Really Saying? Perceptions of Sign Language Interpreting

September 7, 2016

Kelly Decker examines common ways sign language interpreters frame the task of interpreting and peels back some of the implications and impact on the field and the larger communities served.

 

Sign language interpreters are taught that meaning is conveyed through accurate word choice. Do we give the same considerations to word choice when we label and describe interpreting itself? How do our words and actions frame our work?

As a professional sign language interpreter, I would like to address some of the language used when conversing with colleagues, training new interpreters, and depicting the profession to the mainstream media. The frames we use, as a profession, have the power to devalue the work we do, and by extension, the communities we serve. Continued reinforcement of these frames impacts public perception of sign language interpreting.

[Click to view post in ASL.]

It takes years of intentional practice, reflection, and dedication to develop competence as a sign language interpreter. Platforms such as Street Leverage allow us to continually highlight and examine the ways we have yet to grow. MJ Bienvenu’s Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilingual and Carol Padden’s Do Sign Language Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension? illustrate two fundamental problems we face in the field.

While we have begun to address the language we use to talk about our work, there is more work to do. I have selected four examples which demonstrate various ways interpreters contribute to current understandings of our work. There are many other examples that could be analyzed. I encourage you to contribute to this conversation online and with your colleagues to further examine how our use of language can contribute to a misperception of our profession and the disenfranchisement of the Deaf community. These types of conversations lead to greater awareness, which can be a catalyst for change.

The Labels We Use: “Terp”

It is not clear to me where this abbreviation came from. A cursory search on the internet found that it is cited as slang for “interpreter” and paired with the word ‘deaf’. We work with marginalized communities who are continuously disenfranchised regardless of the abundance of evidence and research regarding language, intelligence, and Deaf Gain [1]. We deflate our profession and the work we do for the sake of a few saved keystrokes.

This word “terp” (and I call it a word since it has become commonplace nomenclature and somewhat of a phenomenon within our field [i.e. TERPexpo],) is used primarily in written English when interpreters communicate with and refer to each other, and when interpreting agencies make requests for “terps”. The use of the term “Terp” does not stop within sign language interpreting circles. Since it has become somewhat the norm internally, it has spilled out into the larger community as the preferred label for what many interpreters want to be called. I feel this does a disservice to the field. I am an interpreter.

Misleading Terminology

“Hands-up”

As I understand it, in most instances, this phrase refers to actual interpreting. I come across it when dialoguing with ASL/English interpreting students. This term is used in practicum to indicate a requirement that is different from observation hours – the need for “hands-up” hours.

When sign language interpreters in the field and educators in interpreter education programs use this term to talk about the work we do, it implies that interpreters only interpret in one direction, into American Sign Language. It implies that Deaf people have nothing to say nor contribute. In reality, our work is working between – at least – two languages. This misguided idea is further bolstered by how our national organization frames the act of interpreting. The interpreter certification exam tests interpreting capabilities and decision-making. Yet ASL vlogs, created by RID, refer to the performance portion of the interpreting exam using a gloss that gives the literal impression that the exam is a “signing test”[2].

As explained above, “hands-up” addresses only half of the work we do. Or does it? When colleagues say “I prefer to work into ASL, it’s easier” or “I don’t do any ASL to spoken English work,” is it because interpreters, too, believe that interpreting is only done in one direction?

Additionally, the term “hands-up” perpetuates the erroneous notion that sign language interpreters, most of whom are second language learners of ASL, prefer to work into ASL because they are “comfortable”, “have more experience working into ASL,” or “feel they are clear”.  Substantial evidence is to the contrary [3].

Interpreting, and more broadly, signed languages, have little to do with the hands. While sign language is expressed in a visual modality, the hands are but one element of that mode. Language is rich and complex. It conveys thoughts, emotions, and abstract ideas and it results in human connections. Language is influenced by and interwoven with culture. It is impacted by generational, intersectional and regional influences. Reducing an entire language to its modality is a prime example of how the dominant language and culture exerts power over and diminishes a linguistic and cultural minority.

“Voicing”

This term “voicing” has become commonplace within our field as a descriptor for the spoken language work we do as interpreters. It is a descriptor that oversimplifies the nature of the work, as if it requires no cognitive decision-making by the interpreter, nor cultural brokering between the two languages, and that the interpreter functions simply as a sign-by-sign voice over.  In Jessica Bentley-Sassaman’s article, Taking Ownership: Defining Our Work As Sign Language Interpreters, she states “voicing” does not appropriately state what we do, what does is naming what we are actually doing when interpreting.

As the profession continues to use the term “voicing”, I believe that we perpetuate a medical perspective on deafness. It bolsters the idea, that when deaf people use sign language they need to be fixed somehow, given a voice, and that’s what interpreters are doing.

This portrayal of the work reinforces a view held by the majority culture that  the language used by the Deaf community is somehow deficient. This misconception is propagated by the Alexander Graham Bell Association, whose position was made public [4] after the televised accomplishments of Nyle DiMarco, that desirable language development and outcomes for deaf children are only possible when focusing on listening and speaking, both of which are deeply rooted in the deficit-based medical model of what it means to be deaf.

As sign language interpreters, I believe we ought to unpack the implications and impacts of how we frame our work.

Perceptions of Professional Interpreters: Shake It Off [Interpreter Version] [5]

This video was so popular on social media after its release in December 2014, that the video’s participants were a part of the entertainment during RID’s 2015 national conference in New Orleans, LA. I have cited this piece not based on its participants but as an example of how we portray who we are, what our work entails, and how we approach the task of interpreting.

From what I gather, this video was made as a parody, a day-in-the-life of a sign language interpreter. All joking aside, what I cannot shake off while watching this video without audio input, is that it clearly represents misconceptions about the work we do:

(1) we only work into sign language, as the tired arms, hands and fingers portray;

(2) we only do this work for the money, as the interpreter runs off screen following the dollar bills;

(3) we self-medicate, as the abundance of pills clearly shows; and

(4) we can brush off the significance of the task of interpreting, as the title of the song conveys.

This day-in-the-life video makes no mention of the substantial cognitive work we do, which is the foundation of the product we produce. The sole focus is the self-aggrandizement of the interpreter. We must consider how this can contribute to the  mainstream media’s abundance of misleading and demeaning pieces about sign language interpreters while #DeafTalent continues to go unnoticed.

Holding Ourselves Accountable

These examples are both subtle and not so subtle. As these flawed representations proliferate, we, as practitioners, as educators, and as a professional organization, become complacent and immune to the deleterious effect they have on our profession. We may dismiss it, saying, “This is the way we’ve always talked about the work,” “This how my interpreter training program said it,” or “I never really thought about it.”

We need to think about it. We need to talk about it. We need to question and remind each other when we use language that trivializes our work.

Mastery of interpreting is no easy feat. It is a labor of love, a demanding cognitive endeavor, and a dedication to craft. Above all, we are collectively accountable to representing our work with the utmost respect for the Deaf community.

How will you model talking about the work we do?

Questions for Consideration:

  1. The ways in which we, as a profession, talk about the work we do is anchored upon our understanding of what interpreting means. Are the ways we portray the work, the profession, and the communities we serve accurate?
  2. How do you think the ways that we talk about the work impact the profession?
  3. Do you have examples of times when dialoguing with colleagues where how they were talking about the work just did not sit right?
  4. With those examples in mind, how can you further explore what it is that did not sit right?

References:

[1] Bauman, H-Dirksen and Murray, Joseph. Editors. Deaf Gain Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity. University of Minnesota Press. October 2014.

[2] Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. RID Announces Moratorium on Credentialing You Tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6PM4a1tR7E Posted 9 Aug 2015.

[3] Nicodemus, Brenda and Emmorey, Karen. Directionality in ASL-English interpreting Accuracy and articulation quality in L1 and L2. Interpreting. Vol 17:2. 2015. p. 145-166.

[4] Sugar, Meredith. Dispelling myths about deafness. Online: http://www.agbell.org/inthe-news/response-nyle-dimarco/ Posted 1 April 2016

[5] Ott, Stephanie. Shake It Off [Interpreter Version] You Tube https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=DS2UdoXS3xA Posted 13 Dec 2014.

 

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31 Comments on "What Are We Really Saying? Perceptions of Sign Language Interpreting"

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Member
Terri Hayes
disclaimer: I have no investment in the “shake it off” video (and have never seen it) and I do not know the people who produced it and there are many points in this article that I agree with… Its a good article – however – the irony is striking. I find it very interesting that this piece is a very clear example of how interpreters (spitefully? unintentionally? unconsciously?) hurt each other in the name of “trying to make things better”. On one hand – we have the “no one can talk about it” dynamic – based on a Code of… Read more »
Member
Colleen Geier
Terri, well said! There has to be civil ways and spaces to talk about problems. The CPC also tells us to confront others – just do it in private. And we are KNOWN for being a tough and critical group of people (interpreters) so let’s work on what we have a right to talk about – like problems not personalities or preferences. And let’s work on how to talk about issues in a civil and constructive way, to the people who should be in the conversation. As opposed to behind their back to everyone else. One more comment, I love… Read more »
Member
Terri Hayes
Colleen – I appreciate your enthusiasm – and righteousness… but I do not agree with you. I think that one of the biggest problems our profession faces is the fact that we are told, all through our respective programs – that we are doing fine – we are good enough – we can do this… and.. AND – that WE in Ourselves must judge our readiness to take jobs… and I believe That is just irresponsible. No One KNOWS what they are capable of… we only know what we are brave enough to try…. the people who have a clue… Read more »
kdecker
Member
Kelly Decker
Colleen, You bring to light that are ways professionals talk about the work within that profession, and the ways these same professions describe who they are and what they do to the general public. Both ways of talking about the work impact said profession, its practitioners, and the communities they work with. As interpreters how often are we taking the time to consider the impact of our choices, actions, and words? In these considerations are we including diverse perspectives (i.e. Deaf interpreters, interpreters of color, Deaf-parented interpreters)? Thank you for taking the time to comment and add to this rich… Read more »
Member
I’ve actually never heard the word “Terp” used in spoken language. I believe it’s an abbreviation that came from people not wanting to type out the full word “interpreter” when sending texts or emails from their phones. I have zero problem with it in those contexts. It’s much better than “finger language lady”, “signer”, or even “translator”. I appreciate some of the points made in the article but I wish that the tone was more of encouragement to do what the author is asserting to be the right thing, rather than pointing out the errors of our colleagues, regardless of… Read more »
Member
I believe I had heard that long long ago and it is very vague memory in my head. All I recognize this word which I remember as “temporary worker” which means the job position doesn’t last very long. It is not only apply to interpreter job, it also apply like clerk or packer or secretary jobs where the company contact the other company that provide temporary workers. (as I write here, my mind say the word that I’m thinking is “temp” is what I’m thinking, maybe my brain is right) Anyway, I remember when the idea of hiring “Terp/Temp” workers,… Read more »
kdecker
Member
Kelly Decker

Robert,

This additional information is interesting, something that is new to me. Thank you for sharing it here.

I am curious as to when the word “terp” first became commonplace within our field. Perhaps some readers can help us?

~Kelly

kdecker
Member
Kelly Decker

Elizabeth,

I appreciate your comments and adding to the conversation regarding “terp”. I agree with you that it has become an abbreviation for the word interpreter. It also has become commonplace in referring to interpreters as whole (i.e. TERPexpo and Terp Talks by NCIEC), aside from the intent of being an abbreviation.

My question is, as a profession is this what we prefer to be called?

When we begin and/or continue to use this label to describe who we are, what impact does its initial intent of an abbreviation create?

~Kelly

Member
In Australia we abbreviate many words including many professions – e.g. an electrician is a ‘sparky’ ; a carpenter is a ‘chippie’; an ambulance officer is an ‘ambo’; a politician is a ‘pollie’ ‘ an IT worker is a ‘techie’ so its no surprise to us that an interpreter was abbreviated to a ‘terp’. However, i note that ‘terp’ it is primarily used informally in text based communication and less likely in spoken language, unlike the former examples which are common in spoken language in Oz. I would be very surprised if anyone was perturbed by its use down here.
kdecker
Member
Kelly Decker
Terri, Thank you for taking the time to comment. I value your additional perspective in the ways in which we talk about the work. The example, to which you reference, is a text analysis of the lyrics and the ways such texts impact the work we do and the communities we work with. I believe we agree that healthy discussions are based around ideas rather than individuals. How we navigate these types of discussions is what needs further unpacking. It goes without saying, our field is comprised of practitioners of a variety of cultural backgrounds. What I may believe is… Read more »
Member
Caity Snyder
This is a great article by Kelly Decker. She brings up an important point about how we represent (rather misrepresent) the Deaf community and ourselves as interpreters with the vocabulary we use to describe our work. This is something that I have been thinking about for quite some time and talking about with colleagues. I am thrilled to now have this discussion brought up publicly on a larger scale. The article mentions a few examples but there are obviously many more that were not discussed that are worth re-evaluation. The term that has come up for me recently is when… Read more »
kdecker
Member
Kelly Decker

Caity,

Thank you for adding further examples to this discussion. The more we can take a moment to step back and think about why we frame things we way we do, the more we can see its impact on us as a profession and the communities we serve.

~Kelly

Member
Lianne Moccia

Caity: I always cringe when I hear this term. And, I think that we interpreters are in large part to blame. We use a sign that is often glossed as “PREFERRED” and Deaf people have appropriated it. When we see that sign, we need to interpret it accurately– in this context it means what you have described in your comments. Thanks for bringing this up.

Member
Liz Beauregard
Kelly, thank you for helping shine a light on how we frame ourselves and our work. Without this type of article calling it to my attention, I potentially run the risk of my ideas and my choices being made on auto-pilot which is not the type of interpreter I strive to be. Since, like it or not, the way we label and describe interpreting itself gives weight to these concepts and since self-awareness and self-management are skills that can be honed, I appreciate this opportunity you’ve provided for us here to foster a better understanding of how to begin to… Read more »
kdecker
Member
Kelly Decker

Liz,

Thank you for articulating so clearly the importance seeing the complexities of the work we do and the value of looking more closely at what it is we do and say.

~Kelly

Member
Lianne Moccia

I appreciate this close examination of some examples of how we talk about and represent the work we do. This language and these labels are important and tell a story about how we think about ASL/English interpretation. It is imperative that we dig deeper, as you have done, to uncover conscious or unconscious beliefs, understandings, values. Thank you for bringing forward the ideas in a open way which invites dialogue.

Member

Another phrase I hear often that makes me cringe: when an interpreter is asked to do something inappropriate and the interpreter’s way of dealing with it on the fly is to say: “I’m just the interpreter.” It just tumbles out because no one likes to have to think on their feet, so few people are good at that. So over the years I have developed a few pat phrases that I can plug into a situation that are short, but informative, respectful and courteous so as not to embarrass anyone. Win-Win.

Member
Jan, I am curious as to what phrases you DO use when in such a given situation. I, too, cringe when hearing the phrase “I’m just the interpreter.” Or, heaven forbid, feel such thoughts or words being framed in my own conscious brain as a response. I do take exception to parts of this article, not so much as to the points being presented, but more so at the fact that there are no possible solutions being presented. To say the least, it is very thought provoking but also leaves me with a sense of contentiousness, and a desire for… Read more »
kdecker
Member
Kelly Decker
Lori, I appreciate and understand your want for further guidance on the ways we represent the work we do. After reading this article do you have thoughts as to in what other ways we can accurately describe the work we do? For example – the ASL to spoken language work we do (which could be ASL to English, ASL to Spanish, ASL to French, etc…) that is framed as “voicing” in our field, what are other ways we can represent that? In the instance of an ASL/English interpreter would “spoken English interpreting” and/or “working into English” more clearly describe the… Read more »
Member
Hi Lori, One example: When working in a hospital, (they are usually so short handed,) a staff member/nurse asked me to help her turn a patient over and also help her make the bed etc. I totally get how frustrated they are to see an extra person and some “spare hands not doing anything,” but I always find the win-win way of handling it. So in this instance I kindly said, “I know you are really busy and could use the help but I’m not trained in any of what you do and if I helped you Risk Management would… Read more »
Member
Kelly, The “voicing” conundrum does have me stumped. I just can’t think of a concise and professional sounding way to put it. But you are right, in a way using the term “voicing for” seems to be taking some of the power away from the person we are actually interpreting for. I know the old term used to be “reverse Interpreting” but that just seems so vague. Hopefully, we can come to some sort of concensus on how to describe the work we do. Thanks Jan, I appreciate your response. I, too, feel there is no “pat” answer and our… Read more »
Member
well hello everyone, Jay Reno here, I have never went through an ITP and as such only have my personal experience in the field to go by. 1.)The ways in which we, as a profession, talk about the work we do is anchored upon our understanding of what interpreting means. Are the ways we portray the work, the profession, and the communities we serve accurate? As to Kelly’s comments on “hand-up” I personally only use the phrase when referring to or talking with an intern, I do not feel it is an over simplification of our job because I don’t… Read more »
kdecker
Member
Kelly Decker

Jay,

Thank you for contributing to the conversation. I agree with you that our profession has a number of contributing factors and systems that influence how we think and frame the work we do.

These examples here are just that, examples. Examples that are prevalent and have become somewhat standard in how we talk about and portray the work we do.

The more that we are able to identify and uncover the ways we frame our work (i.e. examples), the more we can look deeper into the ways of the impact it has.

~Kelly

Member
Jan, Thanks for your ideas. Something I didn’t consider until more recently is that helping turn a patient may be a HIPAA violation. The nursing staff may not realize this so all the more reason to gain more knowledge on HIPAA laws. Giving a patient water at a medical appointment is also a HIPAA violation, as simple and kind as it sounds. Instead of saying “I’m just the interpreter”, there are reasons we were taught not to do certain things, some of which are illegal, but we are not always taught the whys behind this. (HIPAA is not just about… Read more »
xwoods
Member
Kelly, Oddly enough, I’m not going to comment on your views about the word terp. That would seem like a no-brainer, considering I’m the owner of TerpSavvy. But that’s not my main concern here. Perhaps we can discuss that another time – why I chose that name for my company. I’m actually here to discuss the term “voicing.” I believe I have some relevant input on why I continue to use this term. I’m an interpreter educator with 20 years of interpreting experience, and while I often use the term “interpreting” to describe what we do when going from ASL… Read more »
kdecker
Member
Kelly Decker
Xenia, Thank you for taking the time to comment and delve deeper into the unpacking of the label we use for the work we do (“voicing”). Your perspective is relevant and important. Your comment makes me think about the end product of working into a language other than a signed language. You’ve mentioned a number of instances that would effect our cognitive process as interpreters (i.e. teamed settings, sight translations, depth of processing) with those in mind is the end product of working into a spoken language and how we describe that be more precise if we said “working into… Read more »
bcolonomos
Member
Thank you Kelly for your stimulating article. I am glad that there are responses that help to illustrate some of the thinking in our filed that keeps us from growing as a profession. In case it is not obvious to readers, I want to expand on this point. Why is someone who points out issues and challenges to our field something to be avoided and feared? If I present my perspective on something, give examples and rationale, why am I accused of “hurting” other people when they take things personally? We live and thrive in a society where professional debate… Read more »
kdecker
Member
Kelly Decker

Betty,

Your words are my thoughts exactly.

As you’ve mentioned, the ways we continue to grow as a profession come from continual dialogue and and engagement with each other. I truly embrace differing views and learn from those who are able to bring things to my attention that I do not readily see.

Appreciating your contribution to this conversation.

~Kelly

Member
http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2015/06/10/sign_language_let_s_talk_or_sign_about_the_deaf_not_hearing_interpreters.html I came across this Slate blog post today Kelly and I immediately remembered your SL article. I have a bit of a hard time here because I would have preferred to see this article as a VLOG. Posted by a Deaf linguist. But it’s out there. What do you think? I thought a lot about your article and the responses posted. One thought I had was about voicing. I am longing to see an ASL concept, similar to the one I’ve seen for audism. Instead of ‘box shape at the ear’, something like ‘box shape at the throat’. I… Read more »

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