Deaf Interpreters: The Value of Formative Experience

April 12, 2017

Jimmy Beldon presented Deaf Interpreters: The Value of Formative Experience at StreetLeverage – Live 2016 | Fremont. His presentation examines how leveraging Deaf Interpreters and their formative experiences can enhance communication equity in interpreted situations.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Jimmy’s StreetLeverage – Live 2016 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Jimmy’s original presentation directly.]

If you enjoy this presentation and accompanying article, consider going to StreetLeverage – Live.

Deaf Interpreters: The Value of Formative Experience

To begin let us consider the meaning of the word “formative”. One dictionary’s definition of the term is “serving to form something, especially having a profound and lasting influence on a person’s development.” “Formative” experience is the accumulation of experiences, which results in the formation of one’s identity. This can include the development of a person’s skills, thoughts, and beliefs among other things.

I would like to share a little bit of my formative journey. I was raised in a Deaf family. I am the third generation of Deaf people in my family, and my children are the fourth generation. I have seen a multitude of interpreters throughout my life. I had the chance to compare my grandparents’ experiences of interpreters, my parents’ experiences, my own experiences and now my children’s experience. Across these generations, I have observed a shift in the field of sign language interpreting.

Now the question that remains is has the profession changed for the better? And if so, what is that positive change? This is a topic that is yet to be discussed. Yes, some changes are apparent throughout the profession, but how have these changes manifested in actual interpreted situations? The power dynamics and life experience varies in any given situation, but I will focus on what the interpreter can do to put the Deaf consumer at ease and equalize communication. In the past, interpreters have at times been unable to alleviate the inequality between hearing and deaf parties and become a barrier to cohesive communication.

Looking at the history of Deaf interpreters, this change in the profession is apparent as well. A Reverse Skill Certificate or RSC was the original terminology for the certification granted to Deaf Interpreters. What we now know as CDIs were originally known as individuals who held RSCs. My mother obtained this certification. After learning about her experience in the field, I soon became involved in the world of interpreting, as well. I began my career as an interpreter in 1993 before formal certification was available. Then in 2001, when certification was finally implemented, I obtained my certification, and my interpreting career progressed from that point. I realized, however, that my experience and my mother’s experience within the profession were vastly different. Now I have trained in a multitude of arenas; I have developed curriculum for the education of Deaf interpreters through the National Consortium Interpreter Education Center (NCIEC), and I continue to observe these changes within the profession. These changes include the provision of the RID certification examination, which is now a bit different. The individuals who make up the pool of interpreters has changed. RID’s CDI Standard Practice Paper (SPP) is outdated and in need of revision. The document has not been revised, however,  because the work of CDIs has changed and is still being determined. There are incongruencies and differing perspectives about what it means to be a Certified Deaf Interpreter.

Now let us revisit this term “formative” and it’s relation to interpreting. The ultimate objective of interpreting is communication equity. This is essential, but what does communication equity actually mean? I will explore this crucial concept and how it relates to formative experience. Then further along in my presentation, I will share with you the formula to an ideal interpretation in any given situation. To begin, I would like to help you imagine what it might be like for a deaf person to walk into an interpreted situation. You are already accustomed to American society; so let me instead draw an example outside the United States that parallels the experience of a deaf person.

Imagine you are visiting an unfamiliar country for the first time. You plan to vacation there, but when you arrive disaster strikes and you end up in the court system, a juvenile court or an emergency room.

These are all very high-risk situations. A low-risk situation is one in which you are able to take care of quickly with any interpreter. In these three situations, the risk is higher. While dealing with the government, the stakes are high and therefore these situations will typically require the use of a qualified interpreter, someone to interpret the native language of that particular country. At this point, you might consider who this interpreter will be. You would hope this individual is not only proficient in the country’s native language and culture, but your own language and culture, as well. Thus, as you are American, your interpreter should be knowledgeable about American culture and all that entails. They should be able to put you at ease, to clarify intricate cultural differences that you are unfamiliar with so that you may connect with the professionals around you. On the other hand, if this individual had minimal English skills and was unfamiliar with American culture, communication would be problematic. You may be unable to get your point across, or worse; you could be imprisoned for life. You may not even understand the punishment you are being given. You could be fined, put on death row, beheaded, any number of things. Or decisions regarding your medical care could be miscommunicated. You may not want surgery or would prefer to return to your home country for treatment and this is misinterpreted. Even a single sentence interpreted incorrectly may influence the final outcome.

American vs. Deaf American Formative Experience

Next, I will explain a little bit about the American formative experience. This is essentially the acquisition of experiences throughout your life. Last night, Aaron Brace discussed enculturation, the process of learning American culture because you grew up here. Over time, people naturally become knowledgeable about common values, present systems, language, and cultural norms, among other things. They are competent in legal, medical and educational systems because they navigate through them in their daily life and these daily experiences result in competence.  

With this in mind, what do the formative experiences of Deaf individuals look like? Deaf people’s lives, at home, at work, and in public places include oppression, lack of understanding systems, communication barriers, lack of access to current events, language deprivations, and lack of empowerment in their own culture.

I am sure many of you are aware of the obstacles deaf people face and by no means would I imply otherwise. But consider for a moment, the multitude of people who experience these obstacles. My grandparents, my parents and so many others did not have the same privileges that you now have. Their lives were quite different. Growing up in a Deaf family, as I did, was ideal because communication was readily available. Those who are raised in hearing families often lack full communication access.  If an individual works in manufacturing or agriculture in a rural area, it is rare they will ever be able to meet and interact with other deaf people. In total, these communication obstacles make life extraordinarily difficult. These individuals experience oppression every day of their lives. Upon entering the workforce, they are often the only deaf employee and make do with very little communication. They go to work simply to make ends meet and with few interactions with their coworkers. When they go to the grocery store or out to eat, they once again have to muddle through conversations with minimal gestures and written communication. In the end, it is deaf people who suffer in these subpar interactions. This is their everyday reality.

Then, when a Deaf person enters an interpreted situation, for any number of reasons, they find themselves surrounded by a room full of hearing people and an interpreter who is hearing as well. At this point, all they can do is desperately hope that this interpreter is competent. This competency is not simply a skill set, it encompasses the attitude an interpreter brings. The same attitude you would hope for if you required the use of interpreter while abroad. It is how the interpreter navigates the interaction; clarifying cultural differences for the deaf individual and supporting communication equity in the exchange so that the Deaf person can understand and be understood.  

An interpreter’s ability to equalize communication is paramount. Although Deaf people may always hope for an interpreter who brings this attitude, there are days when they will not be so lucky. They simply have to make do with the interpreter who shows up; however, in doing so, they compromise their personal opinions, ideas, and needs. Once again they are forced to revert to survival mode, as they do at home and their place of employment. They scrape by with the information they can gather and try to fit the pieces together, all the while holding back all the questions they wanted to ask. In the end, they just abandon the hope of understanding and conform. This is not what interpreting is meant to be; this system is desperately in need of revision.  In short, interpreters’ formative experiences become relevant at this point.

Some interpreters do not have the necessary formative experience to equalize communication. CDIs can be utilized at these times.The use of CDIs across the nation is increasing, and this is an exciting time for us. But as our field grows, it is important that we determine how and when a CDI’s services should be implemented.

[See “How can an interpreter ensure everyone in the room is at the same playing field?” in video presentation at 10:01]

Leveling the Playing Field

In yesterday’s and this morning’s sessions, we have discussed interpreter’s accountability, boundaries, feedback and unwritten rules. An interpreter who brings all of this to their work can level the playing field for all parties. Through the interpreter’s work, the Deaf individual can feel at ease in their communication. The interpreter is able to manage the equilibrium of communication. Throughout my work, I often hear, “Well, you’re a Deaf interpreters, so you have more flexibility in the work you do. You can stretch the boundaries, hearing interpreters can’t do that.” There is no separate, secret RID Code of Professional Conduct for Deaf interpreters; CDIs adhere to the same code of professional conduct as all other interpreters. CDIs do not stretch the boundaries; however, due to their formative experience, they do have a unique relationship with the Deaf consumers. CDIs can accommodate the needs of someone with a different dialect, language challenges, minimal language skills, cultural differences, or a lack of understanding about hearing world systems. It’s a common misconception that a Deaf person with a graduate degree will not need a CDI. But imagine you are appearing in court for the first time, you may appreciate this accommodation. A CDI could relieve the linguistic and cultural pressures, enabling a Deaf individual to focus on their case and defense. It is these small components, which equalize communication, that make up Deaf Space.  

Deaf Space

You may have heard this term Deaf Space before. It is typically associated with the actual architectural design of a building, an open floor plan with easy visibility and mobility. This is not specifically what I am speaking of, but rather, a similar principle, the open exchange of communication through interpreters. How interpreters ensure open communication parallel this concept. This could mean including a CDI in the interpretation process or it could mean assessing the interpretation for possible modifications. Formative learning is an ongoing process and an interpreter can continue to add to their repertoire through extensive practice and experience or acculturation.

Enculturation, as previously mentioned, is the way by which you acquired American culture; acculturation, on the other hand, is the acquisition of a novel culture. Acculturation is how you develop skills as an interpreter. If you have not yet acquired these skills, you can use a CDI to support your interpretation. I will further describe this concept using a model by a good friend, Trenton Marsh. After seeing him present this model, I adopted the idea and tweaked it. However, the model was originally his and the idea remains the same. You can see it here.

The Acculturation Gap        

As indicated on the power point slide, there are two sets of arrows pointing toward one another. We will discuss the bottom set later on. For now, let us focus on the top. The left side represents the Deaf world and the use of American Sign Language; and the right side, the hearing world and use of English. For example, a deaf individual with no formal language would fall outside this spectrum on the left side. They would be further distanced from the English side of the model than someone with ASL skills. The same would hold true for a hearing person who does not speak English; they would fall outside the ASL-English spectrum on the right side, farthest from the ASL side. In regards to culture, a Deaf individual who has acquired more linguistic and cultural knowledge will be better able to evaluate their own culture. They can differentiate and recognize their own culture from others. Therefore this individual will be capable of covering a larger portion of the cultural spectrum, starting from the Deaf side (the left) towards the center. Furthermore, a deaf person who lacks this knowledge will remain closer to the left side of the spectrum. This could include a lack of knowledge about particular settings, such as the court system or juvenile court. It could be an individual’s first time experiencing heart surgery and they are unsure of what heart surgery entails. This lack of knowledge will decrease their freedom to swing towards the hearing side of the continuum. Although they are fully fluent in ASL and Deaf culture, the lack of competency in a particular setting will influence their flexibility on the continuum.

Now, an interpreter, who has learned ASL as a second language, despite significant proficiency in the language will never fully reach the Deaf side of the continuum. As they continually develop their skills, they will move progressively from the right towards the center. This is the process of formative learning. Cultural competency is an additional component to this process; interpreters develop this skill through socialization in the Deaf community. As MJ Bienvenu has said, only 20 percent of interpreters actually socialize within the community. That leaves 80% of interpreters who may end up interpreting high-risk cases, but do not engage in the Deaf community. Nonetheless, these interpreters can still interpret effectively. I will explain this solution using the bottom portion of the Acculturated Gap model.

First, Deaf interpreters, due to specialized training, are more knowledgeable of ASL and English, Deaf culture and necessary systems. These skills allow them the flexibility to swing closer to the English side of the continuum. Then, when paired with a skilled hearing interpreter, who has had formative experiences within the Deaf and hearing communities, the two interpreters’ competencies will overlap, bridging the communication gap between the two worlds. You can see this represented again on the slide.

Now, you can see on the bottom of the slide, the hearing and Deaf interpreters spectrums’ of competency overlap. You can imagine how this might make a difference in an actual interpreted situation; hence, the reason people find utilizing a Deaf interpreter to be so beneficial. By pairing the receptive formative experience of both interpreters and through a trusting relationship, a bridge of communication is built between the two communities. Often, upon realizing that one of their interpreters is deaf, you will see, as I have seen many times myself, the d/Deaf consumer’s eyes light up and their body relax. They become more articulate.  They become more willing to ask questions and Deaf people tend to be highly inquisitive. American culture discourages questions because questions are an admittance of ignorance and should be kept to a minimum. But with an interpreter who shares the same formative experiences and culture, Deaf people can feel more confident and take advantage of the opportunity to freely ask their questions without feeling out of place in a foreign culture. With these benefits in mind, we must think about how to infuse more CDIs into the interpreting profession.

Effective Interpreter Formula

I was involved in one particular research project which addressed this topic. The project was lead by Dr. Leah Subak and topic was of cultural acquisition among interpreters. This research resulted in a five-part formula on how to become an effective interpreter. The formula uses the abbreviation EI to mean “effective interpreter;” to clear up any confusion, it does not refer to the more common abbreviation for emotional intelligence.  

[See “Effective Interpreter Formula”, 17:56.]

CDI – Deaf Formative Formula: L1/L2 + C1/C2 + ELK = EI (Effective Interpreter)

L1/L2 means fluency in both languages. C1/C2, or proficiency in both cultures, is where many interpreters are lacking; they do not possess the ability to effectively communicate within Deaf culture. This draws us back to the statistics that I mentioned earlier: only twenty percent of interpreters are actively involved in the Deaf community and experience the necessary level of enculturation. The other eighty percent are only proficient in their own American culture and are not familiar with Deaf norms. Finally, ELK refers to “extra-linguistic knowledge,” which researcher, Daniel Gile, describes as the familiarity with and understanding of a particular situation. Interpreters who have experienced the same situation in the past have greater knowledge of things like specific terminology and what a normal interaction in that setting looks like. The interpreter who accomplishes all three of these aspects is considered an effective interpreter, and the response by deaf consumers is generally one of relief and confidence because they know that they can communicate across barriers while on an even playing field.

The Value of Formative Experience

In summary, I will show you one final slide on the value of formative experience. (speaker indicates slide.)

Let me explain. I have previously attended several presentations by Nigel Howard and he introduced to me the concept of “co-” or co-communicating. Often interpreters become tied up in the limitations of their role and forget to act naturally. They treat their work like a formalized process in which everyone must follow a rigid, stipulated set of guidelines, instead of treating it like a direct and free-flowing interaction. Interpreters whose work allows for that freedom of interaction are rare. But if an interpreter can come into a situation with the necessary mindset, they can “co-”communicate. For example, in a courtroom setting, an effective interpreter will be fully prepared to take on the very persona of the prosecution or defense in their commentary and arguments. The interpreter who does this is co-communicating or communicating the message as if they were the lawyer. This skill requires formative experience.This interpreter should be able to explain the finer points of the content with the expertise of those lawyers. Many interpreters don’t have that kind of skill. Moreover, they must have the ability to express that message with high-academic ASL to match the environment and the characters involved.

I’ll give you another example. A medical appointment during which the doctor is explaining some medical information;  a substandard interpretation will pass on the jargon while trying to figure out the meaning on the fly. An effective interpreter will have the formative experience to understand medical jargon and will have a discussion with the doctor prior to the visit to ensure that all of the information is prepared and correct so that the interpreter can, in essence, become the doctor and provide an equivalent message in ASL. The interpreter will put aside his or her own persona and become the doctor to provide that even playing field and encourage a d/Deaf consumer to pursue more information. That is the concept of co-communicating.

Breaking Away from the Status Quo

For the rest of this afternoon, we will be discussing how interpreters can achieve this “co-communication”, and the formative experiences required to make an effective interpretation. I propose that there is a different way, and I challenge us to break away from the current status quo. Now, if we want to make the change, we need to think long-term. How do we implement these changes in the long run, and how do we instill the new status quo in the next generation of interpreters?

We need to stop forgetting about the importance of Deaf Space, and instead, make it a standard. Earlier, Pamela Collins spoke about operating procedures in interpreting agencies; she mentioned that requests for CDIs are rare and that interpreters carry on without ever thinking about the need for one. We need to be more responsible, and determine in advance whether an interpreting situation is conducive to Deaf space; if it is not, then the request for a CDI to bridge that gap should be an automatic and smooth process. There are some places across the country that are prepared to call in CDIs at the drop of a hat and feel comfortable doing so even if it is later determined that the CDI is not necessary and can be dismissed.

I would much rather have a CDI be called in initially, and have that CDI excused when not needed than be called in last minute, which causes scheduling conflicts and postponements at the d/Deaf consumer’s expense. The current conditions in the field of interpreting do not allow for last-minute requests, even for urgent situations. That is the unfortunate reality, and we need to change our approach. For now, I will leave it at that and we can discuss more this afternoon.

Thank you.

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