Stepping Out of the Shadows of Invisibility: Toward a Deeper Conceptualization of the Role of Sign Language Interpreters

April 1, 2014

Anna Witter Merithew examines how interpreters tend to approach role conception, definition and implementation from an interpreter-centric perspective and how this approach to our work is the result of role conceptions that foster the ideal of “interpreter as invisible” and/or non-involved.

You can find the PPT deck for the presentation by clicking here.

What We Believe

I want to talk about our conception of our work as interpreters—what we do and why we do it.  What we believe about Deaf people, interpreting and ourselves—and how our beliefs influence our behavior and decisions. Ultimately, this discussion is about how we define professional boundaries, which for this discussion is defined as the space between the practitioner’s power and the consumer’s vulnerability.  As we continue to conceptualize our role as interpreters, what do we believe is possible, and what do we know is not.

My Family

My own conception of what interpreting is and can be is rooted in my family.  Let me tell you a bit about them. My maternal grandmother had seven children—three of whom were Deaf, two sons and my mother.  My mother had three daughters—I am the middle one.  My father was born in 1907—the only Deaf person in his family.  My mother was born in 1918. Imagine the Deaf World they lived in as contrasted with the Deaf World of today!

They married later in life.  My father was in his mid 40’s when I was born.  He was a furniture maker and a part-time pastor to a small Deaf congregation. In rural communities, it was customary for Deaf churches to meet in the basement of a mainstream church building—due to their small size and somewhat symbolic of their second-class standing in society.  Mom was a homemaker who stayed at home and took care of our family.  Both of my parents were deeply involved in the Deaf-World.   Our home was located in the middle of a small very rural Mennonite farm community in southern Ohio.

Interpreting—A Valued Position

My earliest conception of what interpreting for people who are Deaf meant might be a bit different from other CODAs due to the very strong religious beliefs held by my parents.  My sisters and I were rarely asked to interpret or facilitate communication. My parents were older and relied often on written communication, and it was their belief that women really should not interpret—particularly in matters of the church where it was not appropriate for women to take a visible or leadership role.  And so, because they had no sons, they grew their own interpreters, with assistance from other members of the Deaf World.  They recruited young men from the church who showed an interest in ASL and Deaf people and invested many, many hours guiding them into the appropriate use of ASL, how to navigate the Deaf World and how to accomplish the work of an interpreter.  I often looked upon this process with great interest—the idea of spending time within the Deaf World in this important role was very attractive.

As my father would be involved in church events—such as pastoral meetings—or the Deaf congregation would visit other churches, one of these home grown interpreters would interpret.  And, as my parents would engage in business transactions within the broader society, one of these male interpreters would accompany them.  I recall three—two who later became pastors to Deaf churches and one who became a certified interpreter.

So, my early conception was that interpreting was a valued position within the Deaf World.  It was a position for which you had to be invited/selected and groomed for by Deaf people. This was my conception on the Day Before that Dennis Cokely talked about.

My First “Day After”

One of the leadership roles my father had in the Deaf World was as the President of the Alumni Association of the Ohio School for the Deaf.  He held this position for fourteen years.  The association was responsible for the management of a facility that was at that time called the Ohio Home for the Aged and Infirmed Deaf.  It eventually expanded into what is now the Columbus Colony.  In this oversight role the alumni board met monthly at the Ohio School for the Deaf.  I was able to frequently accompany my father to these meetings where I would visit with my dear friend Elizabeth Kelly—now Elizabeth Beldon (mother of Jimmy Beldon) –and enjoy the opportunity to meet and flirt with her male classmates.  A definite treat!

My first Day After (and there have been several more since) came when I was about ten years old.  My father was scheduled to speak at a fundraising rally at the Home.  A variety of public officials and local business people were invited, in hopes that they would donate to the building fund.  Now, seeing my father speak was a common occurrence for me.  I saw my father pray with our family everyday, teach others about the Bible, preach on Sunday, and speak in other settings. I was always captivated by the powerful way he communicated, the expressiveness of his language.  He was my hero! However, until this particular day—in front of the large crowd assembled–I had never heard someone put my father’s beautiful ASL into spoken English.

The interpreter that day was a woman named Margarette Moore, a CODA who was one of the first certified interpreters in Ohio.  My father began his speech, and at first when she began speaking simultaneously, I was taken aback—thinking it so rude of her to speak out loud while he was signing.  He was talking about the Deaf experience, the important contributions of Deaf people to society, the importance of the Home in caring for those Deaf individuals who were elderly, or Deaf with disabilities.   Slowly, I began to realize that she was putting into spoken English what my father was so eloquently signing.

I watched her in a state of disbelief and wonder—she was totally engaged.  Her body leaned forward slightly, her affect in concert with her vocal inflection as she focused so diligently to convey his emotion and intention.  She was completely attuned to him and his message. In a state of amazement, I looked around at the audience members and saw the respect they were extending to him as they listened intently to his remarks.  I was simply awe struck.

That experience impacted my core so deeply, it became one of my life defining moments.

I do not remember the specific details of what my father said that day, but I will always remember the way I felt—proud, humbled, surprised and inspired.  It was that day that I came to more fully appreciate that Deaf people have important things to say to the world and when they rely on interpreters to do that, interpreters have to be fully engaged.

A Professional Interpreter

Years passed and in 1972, when I was in my early 20’s, I became involved in interpreting through several family friends who were Deaf and encouraged me to step forward. This invitation was always accompanied with the rationale that my signing was “clear”—a seemingly simple word that I came to learn means much more from the Deaf perspective.  I was excited about the prospect of becoming an interpreter and shared with my parents that I had been extended the invitation.  They cautioned me that it was a career that might not suit me well due to my emotional and sensitive disposition.  They reminded me that Deaf people suffered many injustices and seeing that everyday could take a toll.  Although I appreciated their wise counsel and carried it with me, the desire for this level of engagement within the Deaf World exceeded their expressed concern.

The Deaf Community, through a state Association of the Deaf, sponsored me through a 10-week, intense interpreting program offered during the summer at Delgado Community College in New Orleans.  At the time, ten-weeks was longer than the majority of intense programs.  It was there that I was introduced to the prevailing conception of what it meant to be a professional interpreter.  Some of what was taught fit my existing conception of the work of interpreters—much did not.

For example, I was taught we were to function as if a machine or telephone—someone who simply took what they heard and expressed it in sign and took what they saw and expressed it in spoken English.  And there was great pressure to generate interpretations simultaneously.  We were taught that a good interpreter was one who ensured that Deaf people in an audience laughed at the precise moment as the rest of the audience.  This is what marked equality.

My desire for entry into the profession was great and so I worked hard to find ways to make the teachings “fit”.  Over time, the pressure to express the volume of information conveyed versus the meaning of the message took a toll on my language use.  My use of ASL diminished and was replaced with a more English-based approach to signing—transliteration versus interpretation.  I worked to be the best transliterator I could, believing that what I was doing was in the best interest of Deaf people.  And with this shift my early conception of what it meant to be an interpreter suffered.

Inaccurate Assumptions

It took me nearly a decade of practice to realize that much of what I was taught was simply faulty—based on inaccurate assumptions that fostered an unrealistic and inauthentic approach to our work.  What I was taught was based on two premises.  The first was that it was important that Deaf people learn to live in the hearing world and since English was the dominant language of that world, they needed to learn it.  To learn it, interpreters should use it.

The second premise was that interpreting was about creating equal footing—which is a standard often applied to spoken language interpreting and found in the language of the courts.  The intent of the standard is that the non-English speaking person should receive an interpretation that results in them being on equal-footing with their hearing counterpart—no more and no less.  It sounds like a reasonable premise.  However, in application, it is often used to promote a literal representation from one language to another.  And from this perspective there is heighted concern that anything other than a literal representation gives “more” to the non-English speaker than is fair or appropriate.

This standard seemed to work in limited situations.  Many of the Deaf leaders of that time were individuals who had become deaf after their acquisition of spoken English due to the meningitis or other cause.  They represented that portion of the Deaf World who most closely resembled the majority society.  This conception of the work of an interpreter—to generate an interpretation that was literalseemed to fit their needs, because they understood the hearing way of being. However, it was inherently faulty when applied to many of Deaf people I encountered in my everyday life. 

Equal Footing

This standard of equal footing is faulty because it assumes that other than having ears that do not hear, Deaf and hearing people have the same starting place. In reality, the starting place for the majority of Deaf people is significantly different than their hearing counterparts—even those who grow up speaking a language other than English.  Typically, Deaf people do not grow up in a family context where they acquire natural language.  In fact, most people who are Deaf begin school with significant language delays and strive to catch-up for many years.  Many experience information and language gaps for their entire life. Therefore, how could they be given “more” if they don’t have the “same” to begin with?

Our reality as interpreters is that we are often working with individuals whose starting place is so vastly different than their hearing counterparts that it is not possible to achieve equal footing within the moments of interpreting. Therefore, to be concerned about giving “more” is unnecessary.  The more accurate concern is whether we are giving enough to create meaningful access.

Another consequence of this conception of the work of professional interpreters is how we have applied the standard of impartiality or neutrality—it is expressed in the notion that we are like machines or should behave as if invisible.  This application has resulted in interpreters detaching from their work and from the consumers with whom they work. It has resulted in our assuming less and less responsibility and accountability for the interpretations we generate. This signals our lack of a deeper appreciation for what being neutral or impartial really means.

Fair Mindedness

To be objective or neutral means to be fair minded—to approach our work with the maturity necessary to have an open mind and to address the circumstances that are before us in a fair minded manner.  This means we are not invested in a specific outcome, but rather in creating the greatest degree of equality in the communication event as possible.  To achieve this fair mindedness, we must be attentive, engaged and fully dedicated to creating meaningful access.  Anything less would not be fair minded.

That instead our application of these concepts has resulted in our detachment from our work and consumers is unfortunate because my assumption is we all became involved in interpreting to make a positive contribution.   But, when our conception of our work and our practices and actions are in opposition to that intention, or promote self-interest and protection over consumer well-being, or lead to indifference, detachment, fear or complacency, we are out of integrity.  In these instances, our behavior and actions are oppressive.

Invisibility Paradigm

The faulty conception of interpreter as machine or interpreter as invisible inhibits authentic interactions that are based on more natural ways of human interaction.  It also limits Deaf people from having meaningful access in the broader society.  And the roots of the interpreter as invisible run deep.  Even interpreters who have come to appreciate that this model is an ineffective conception of our work still struggle to change their behavior and actions when interpreting.

Sometimes we work so hard to preserve the boundary of neutrality and objectivity by functioning in a detached and disinterested manner that we expend all of our energy, leaving nothing for the task of creating the authentic and natural connections necessary for linguistic access.  It is as if preserving detachment is our goal, rather than meaningful linguistic assess. Such applications of role are inherently faulty—it is simply not possible to be fully present, engaged and contributing to the creation of linguistic access and behave as if invisible.  It is counter-intuitive.  Thus, one of the reasons we often feel conflicted.

Part of the current discourse in the Deaf and interpreting communities relates to the fact that many individuals entering the field lack Deaf-heart, a state of awareness, respect and commitment that comes from being in authentic relationship with Deaf people.  We cannot put all the blame on these practitioners when the field’s conception of our work remains stuck in the invisibility/neutrality paradigm.  We collectively need to more fully conceptualize the work of interpreters!

And, in doing so, the bottom line is this—without authentic engagement, there is no commitment.  Let me emphasize this again.  If there is no engagement, there is no commitment.  We have to conceptualize our work in a way that ensures practitioners are fully engaged in what they are doing—that their focus, attention and energy are invested in being present and accountable for what they do.


We remain concerned with practitioners being overly involved in the interpreting interaction, fearing they will diminish the Deaf person’s power in the situation.  And although this is worthy of our attention, it should not over shadow the consequence of fostering detachment.  By over emphasizing concerns for possible over-involvement in interpreted interactions we have fostered under-involvement!  Practitioners fail to act in situations where they need to act.  This is where I see serious issues—particularly in my work as an expert in legal interpreting.

When analyzing the performance of interpreters—primarily during custodial interrogations—I have encountered too many instances where interpreters failed to apply a best practice.  For example, failing to use consecutive interpretation when it is the appropriate action, failing to inform consumers when the process is not working, failing to ask for clarification when they don’t understand.  It is common for interpreters to pass on information they do not fully understand by fingerspelling or generating some signed representation of the English expecting that the Deaf consumer should ask for clarification if needed.  But, we know that it is the interpreter who has the duty to understand.  If the interpreter is not willing to ask for clarification, why would the Deaf person?  These are just some of the ways that as interpreters we are under-involved in owning our work.

Social Construction

An authentic role conception must be based in the reality that our role is socially constructed—it occurs in the midst of human communication, within the particular social relationships and power struggles that exist in human interactions.  Although it is important that we continue to collaborate with spoken language interpreters, we cannot fully adopt their orientation to their work because it fails to recognize the inherent differences that exist when interpreting for people who are Deaf.  Our fuller conception of our role must take into account the life experiences of Deaf people.  Achieving this requires an appreciation that our role boundaries are contextual and must adjust depending on a variety of factors–including who are the specific individuals involved in the interaction.  One narrow application of boundary doesn’t fit all.  But, we are not yet at this point of role conception.

We must continue the exploration so that we more fully understand the intersection between what we know, what to do, how to do it and the WHY we do it.  It is authentic relationship with Deaf people that will inspire the desire part of this continued exploration. Our work is not yet done.  Thank you. 

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