Status Transactions: The “It” Factor in Sign Language Interpreting?

April 6, 2016

Wing Butler presented Status Transactions: The “It” Factor in Sign Language Interpreting? at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. Wing highlights the important role of status transactions in sign language interpreting and explores how interpreters can employ meta- and micro-behaviors to create successful dynamics.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Wing’s presentation from StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Wing’s presentation directly.]

Status Transactions: The “It” Factor in Sign Language Interpreting?

When it comes to attending a StreetLeverage-Live event, and enjoying the line-up of speakers presented throughout, StreetLeverage would do well to provide safety equipment to cushion us from the mind-blowing and stunning effects of the topics shared here.

I want to warn you that what I have to share with you may be as difficult as describing the flavor of salt. Today’s topic can also be like trying to explain the experience of a slight breeze blowing across your skin. You see, describing wind is complicated. It is one of those things that you can feel, but you can’t see. Today, the topic I have to share with you will be my attempt at describing what may seem to be the intangible “wind” (The IT factor in Sign Language Interpreting), and unless you’ve felt it before it may be an elusive discussion. To do this I’m going to need your help. As I speak today, some of you will be familiar with what I’m talking about; you will relate to your own experiences that validate your own sense of “knowing” what the subtle breezes are that make a successful interpreter. Others of you might feel like you’re attempting to grasp the concept of what I’m talking about for the first time and while you understand bits and pieces of it, the rest only touches upon you briefly before flying away (much like the wind), no matter how hard you try to hold on to it. Regardless of where you’re at, know that we will be experiencing this journey together.

The Eyes of Hope

Before I continue, I’d like to introduce my parents to you. I’ve brought a picture of them and I ask that as you look at it, you look into their eyes. My father was born and raised in California and graduated from the Riverside School for the Deaf. My mother was born in China and in their attempt to escape communism, her family moved to Hong Kong. From there, her family worked hard and finally saved enough money for them to immigrate to the United States.

It was here in the U.S. that my parents met and fell in love and had six children together. Together, my parents formed a dream. That dream was to own their own home. They purchased a five-acre piece of land nestled against the Rocky Mountains and overlooking the whole of Utah Valley, including Utah Lake, one of the largest lakes in the West. In order to accomplish their dream, they split that five-acre parcel into three pieces, selling off two of the parcels for the down payment on a new custom home. Working towards this dream was a huge endeavor, if not lofty goal, for the both of them. I watched my parent’s laborious efforts towards that dream each day. My mother worked two full-time jobs. During that time, I rarely saw her, as she only came home between eight-hour shifts. My father attempted unsuccessfully to find employment many times. As a result, his source of income came from government disability benefits. Despite their struggles, the American dream was still very much alive for them.

In high school, I remember I was often called out of my classes to report to the office. I calmly collected my things and headed to the office, just as I did week after week. When I arrived to the office, my father was there, waiting to check me out of school for the day. That alone was exciting, but I also never knew where we were going until we arrived at our destination. My weekly routine included interpreting the various appointments related to the building of their dream home. Among those appointments were visits with the city planners for the appropriate approvals for building a home, the permitting department for the many permits required, and even meeting with equipment operators and inspectors to arrange for the various tests needed, such as testing the water table and percolation factors of the soil. At the time, I was only fifteen years old.

Hope Is Found on the Top Floor

It was during this time period that I witnessed a pivotal moment, something life-changing. I remember a day when everything changed. On that day, we drove an hour north to Salt Lake City. For me, this was an exciting trip into the “big city.” We arrived and entered what seemed to me to be the biggest high-rise building in all of Utah. On top of the building, in huge letters, were the words “WELLS FARGO”. I remember entering the building and seeing immaculate marble floors that we crossed carefully so as not to leave a mark. As we entered the elevator, we saw that even the elevator was ornately decorated with rich, dark woods and mirrors on all sides.

We turned around to face the elevator doors and waited patiently as the elevator stopped at various floors, letting people on and off until we reached the top floor. As we exited the elevator, we entered a foyer with elaborate lighting sconces gilded with gold. We took it all in with amazement. A secretary waved us on toward the office with large, heavy, double doors. We passed through the foyer into a spacious office with glass windows on every side.  

In the distant corner, a man at a desk waved us over as if to give his permission to enter. The chairs we sat in were comfortable, despite their enormous size that seemed to engulf me. My father asked a single question. ”Why was my loan application denied?” Now here’s something you need to understand. I did not use sophisticated language to interpret my father’s signs. I gave a direct, word-for-word interpretation of what my father signed. I was only fifteen at the time and hadn’t been trained in the nuances of cultural mediation. My exact words were, “Why did you turn me down for the loan?” In response, the banker behind the desk began to give an explanation in banker terminology. I realized that I could not interpret what he was saying. I sat in a stupor as I tried to derive some kind of meaning. My father, impatient, tapped me on my shoulder and signed repeatedly, “What is the man saying?” I was grasping for the message; searching for words, searching for something that I could understand. Looking back now, I realize he was probably saying something about a FICO score, debt-to-income ratio, and down payments. For me at the time, this vocabulary was beyond my understanding. I knew that he was communicating “something”, perhaps a breeze that at a gut level meant “you don’t have enough money”. So that is what I signed to my father. My father looked at me for a brief moment before taking his hand and sweeping it across the man’s desk, clearing off the contents in an instant. I learned new signs, signs that my father had never before used. I sat in awe and shock. He sealed his final thoughts to the situation by slamming his boot up against the face of the desk, leaving a formidable crack upon the naked desk.

The Common Uncommon Story of Hope

Now, you should know a few things about my father. He loves reading about history. He can tell you about the beginning of different civilizations and communities, how technology emerged and changed over time, how people responded to different events, and even about how the landscape changed over time. I enjoyed it when he took a moment to share it with me. What I learned from this moment was not something he directly taught, but something that he slowly taught over time. He taught me about the multi-layered levels of oppression. We now call this “macro-oppression.”  You see…”the system” was not set up for my father’s success. There is also “meso-oppression” – Wells Fargo was not set up to help my father succeed either.  I want to let you in on a secret about that day. That was the day my father broke. Something in him broke beyond repair. He was never the same. Before that, he was a man who stood with pride, goals, and ambition.  He had dreams. He had hope. After that day, he lowered his head, sat down and let go of hope. He accepted what the world (these organizations and systems) said to him. My family changed.


The last few days have been filled with workshops with a common theme involving the topic of “status” and more specifically areas of unequal status. I witnessed my father’s journey through the meso-layers of oppression. Each layer weighed down on him until he reached a point where he could not bear the weight of it any longer.  

Community of Hope

I tell the story of my father, but in actuality, this story is about you, me, and all of us as human beings. Each of us carries a cornucopia of identity, behavioral expectations, and framed experiences. Our heritage, things we pass down from one generation to the next, we carry all of this and it makes us who we are. I share my father’s story only because as professionals, we tend to talk about people as groups. There are groups of Deaf people, hearing people, and interpreters, but this story is about all of us.  

Take a moment to imagine that we could eliminate all those experiences and weights we carry with us. If we were able to do that we would still have a problem. We are human. We will make mistakes. Even if we manage to remove all the layers of systemic oppression, science and theology agree that “man is innately selfish”, and constantly seeks ways to conquer and survive over others. So while the work of removing systemic oppression is a good one, it is the meta-level (human-to-human) interactions between us as individuals that may impact the greater change. It is in these interpersonal exchanges that we increase/decrease the status gap between us. And for the rest of this talk, I’d like to attempt to define the specific meta-behaviors that may perpetuate better equality amongst us. Do we behave in a way that allows for shared alignment of privileges? Do we believe shared status is achievable?

The ‘IT’ Formula

In my day job, I deal with complaints and compliments for VRS interpreters, as part of my duties. The number one comment in both complaints and compliments has to do with interpreter’s attitudes. I’ve come to believe that attitudes have a relationship with the meta-behaviors we have been discussing.  

Here’s an example:

A deaf person complains that they “didn’t feel connected to the interpreter,” and, therefore, consider the interpreter as a terrible interpreter. When asked, interpreters often give varied responses such as perhaps they were having a bad day, or may have made some minor missteps that were misunderstood, but never anything definitive.  Interestingly, on the compliments side of things, it was generally the same interpreters who continually received compliments month after month. I decided to go and meet those frequently complimented interpreters to see if maybe there was something they had in common. I hoped to find the DNA that made them successful. To my delight, they all seem to carry three common traits.

H2 + G x R = Status Agility

Recently, Dennis Cokely was stuck with me for four hours in heavy Los Angeles traffic. With the zeal of the ultimate fanboy, my head was full of questions that I wanted to barrage him with but I was hesitant to bother him since I knew he’d rather be relaxing in the comfort of his hotel room. Dennis was nice enough to oblige by engaging in deep conversation with me. As we discussed several topics, a common theme – the role of Humility in an interpreter’s work – kept coming up. Interpreters that seem to possess humility, “the acceptance of unseen circumstances and dynamics,” were able to consistently receive compliments in their work. They were not focused on their own perception of the world or broadcasting that perception to others. Rather, they practiced humility by understanding the constraints of another’s status (privileges) and sought to equalize the power relationship. Not less or more, but shared.  

Many years ago, I went to New York to take a workshop taught by Lynette Taylor, Candace Broecker-Penn, Alan Champion, and Stephanie Feyne. They introduced me to the Alexander Method, a theatrical approach to thinking and responding to situations. Frederick Alexander’s method was created in the 1900’s as a way to overcome ways of thinking or physical habits by awareness of one’s thinking and physical response. For example, when we drive in the fog, as a response to this stressful situation, we tighten our grip on the wheel, move closer to the window, and our eyes focus closely on the road ahead. The Alexander Method teaches us to take a step back from the situation, to look at it from outside of ourselves and ask if our behaviors are really improving the situation. If we did this, we could see that these behaviors don’t actually help us by allowing us to respond any quicker. Instead, by relaxing our primal response, we can respond to the road conditions better and recover control of the vehicle.  

The primary principles behind Alexander’s technique can be useful in interpreting. The primary driver of Alexander’s methods suggests that generosity, an attribute developed from the well-spring of humility, is the disposition we offer to ourselves and the community we serve by acceptance that one’s awareness has inaccuracies. There are two important points to the gift of Generosity. First, that we take for granted that one’s awareness of one’s own self is inaccurate. Second, a person that has been using himself wrongly for a long time could not trust himself.

Such is found in interpreters with the IT factor:

Humility – Respect for status and a willingness to negotiate between others’ realities and our own.  

Generosity – A realization and willingness to “give” to the other person.

Reciprocity – Choosing to behave in ways that decrease status gaps. Not at the organizational level, rather it is at a personal level, including at the meta-levels.  

To help you grasp this concept, I’ll give an example. Say I’m working as an interpreter in a medical setting. I first introduce myself to the Deaf client as the interpreter.  I happen to be standing and that single behavior results in me looking down on that Deaf person during our first interaction. I have unknowingly created a situation of unequal status.  

Another example is this situation. I sit several chairs away from the Deaf person because I want to “give them space.” Again, this behavior communicates status and increases the status gap. Once the doctor arrives in the room, I begin interpreting and the Deaf person’s eyes are on me. This creates a feeling of disconnect for the doctor; which also increases the status gap between the medical professional and the Deaf person. These behaviors may seem insignificant, but they are the foundation for these status transactions.

I’d like to go back to the beginning. As I look out into the audience, I see people who have a desire to learn about improving the relationship between interpreters and the Deaf community. My experience suggests that if we look at the H, G , and R qualities and ways to infuse these qualities into every single interpreter, we would succeed. Behaviors communicate a great deal. If we encourage certain behaviors, we can decrease the status gap.

When interpreters embody Humility and Generosity, they are led to culturally appropriate expressions of Reciprocity, understanding that “Every inflection and movement implies a status. No action is due to chance, or really motiveless”. So the “IT” formula is:

Humility2 + Generosity x Reciprocity = Status Agility

My father’s question, directly translated was “For, for, turn down loan?” There is a chance that my father’s response would have been the same, notwithstanding my interpreting capabilities – one of anger and frustration. Insert an interpreter with the IT factor (Humility2 + Generosity x Reciprocity) as part of their professional skill set; they would recognize that the distance between the doors to desk implies a higher status. The banker’s subtle body language served to increase that status gap further. Perhaps an interpreter could have responded at an interpersonal level that closed the status gap to the point that my father’s real question would be manifest — “Why did you treat my application differently than the others?” That discussion may have created a totally different outcome.


Are you going to StreetLeverage – Live 2016 in Fremont, CA, April 15-17th? 

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