Who Do Sign Language Interpreters Think They Are?

August 4, 2021

Aaron Brace presented Who Do Sign Language Interpreters Think They Are? at StreetLeverage – Live 2019 | Austin. In his presentation, Aaron describes his re:Education and evolution by returning to this critical question again and again.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: This is an English version of the information Aaron presented at StreetLeverage – Live 2019. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access his original presentation directly.]

Who Do Sign Language Interpreters Think They Are?

It’s true that I’ve resisted Brandon’s offer to present at StreetLeverage for quite some time.  I think it has to do with my being so comfortable interpreting the presentations of others and being relatively inexperienced at presenting my own thoughts to an audience. Please bear with me as I attempt to “interpret” my thoughts to you today.

So, are you ready to be psychoanalyzed? Ready for me to tell you what your self-image is?  The truth is, I don’t know. Thank you for coming, you’ve been a great audience.

But seriously- while the question in my title may seem like an indictment, it takes on a genuinely inquisitive tone when you ask it of yourself: Who do I think I am? Not an easy question to answer in general, and one that I don’t believe our profession encourages us to grapple with in our identities as interpreters. In fact, there are many forces within the profession that discourage it.

When you give it a go, you might first have a hard time coming up with anything. Maybe you’ll feel like you’re staring into that black hole we just saw the first picture of. I’ve found it helpful to start out with smaller, peripheral questions that taken together give me something of an answer to the larger question. You might also find it difficult to consider that there’s a difference between what you think about yourself and what’s true. If nothing else, treat it as a thought exercise that you take with a grain of salt and see where it leads you. For today’s presentation, I’ll select 3 of the questions you just saw on the screen.

Who Do I Say I Am?

Let’s start with, “Who do I say I am?” Who I say I am indicates who I want others to think I am, so it’s a good place to start. I realized recently that the title I selected reveals something I want to correct in myself. My presentation is about hearing sign language interpreters, but I just assumed you’d know that- as if all interpreters are hearing. That’s a mistake I don’t intend to repeat, and I apologize to my Deaf colleagues.

I say who I am in various ways. The most obvious is how I refer to my work. Am I a “sign language interpreter”, an “ASL interpreter”, an “ASL/English interpreter”? An “interpreter for the Deaf”? I haven’t used the last one for a long time, which itself has been a part of this journey of working through who I think I am to get closer to who I am.

I can also say who I am by referencing where I work. I might be an “educational interpreter”, a “K-12 interpreter”, a “community interpreter”, a “VI”, or others. That also contributes to the bigger picture.

Who I say I am also influences the relationships I can have with the people I work for and with.  I may say that I’m a “freelance interpreter.” I find that I use that term less and less, preferring to use “community interpreter.” The term “freelance” focuses on how I get paid, how I pay my taxes, and the expenses I incur as part of my work. Those things mean something to me, and the word still has its place, but if I want to be intentional about the relationships I build, particularly in the Deaf community, I find that “community interpreter” is more helpful. These relationships are also influenced by how I refer to the work I do when I don’t accept payment. The most common term is “pro bono”, which in Latin means, literally, “for the good”. But at least here in the U.S., the term has come to be used by professionals like lawyers and doctors in situations where they should be paid but are choosing to waive their fee. I do still use that term in a purely business context, but when I’m asked to work at Deaf community events, or when a Deaf individual asks me to interpret a wedding or a funeral I prefer the word “volunteer.” That word has gotten a bad rap over the years, but in these situations, I’m not “waiving” anything because nothing is due, so it’s the most appropriate word I have.

I also realize that in the rush to be called a “professional,” I forgot the value of continuing to be an “amateur,” i.e. doing what I do for the love of it. Keeping that front and center serves Deaf people better than relying solely on being a “professional.” Some may feel that these distinctions in terminology are merely academic, but my work and my sense of “who I think I am” have been profoundly changed by considering them.

Who Do I Let Others Think I Am?

Another question that helps me fill in who I think I am is, “Who do I let others think I am?” On a visit to one of my sisters, it came up in conversation that I was about to interpret a play. She didn’t know how that worked, so I told her I would be one of three hearing interpreters and we’d be coached by a Deaf Sign Master. She looked at me, puzzled, and said, “After over 35 years as an interpreter, I’d think that you’re the sign master!” In that moment, I realized that I had never articulated to my family anything about my limited fluency as a late learner of ASL and the influence of its being in a modality different from my native language; nothing about cultural competence or the politics of Deaf people’s authority over their language. The conversation we then had was long overdue.

On another occasion, I was honored to be invited to a college to interpret for a famous hearing author. The IPP there liked to arrange for sign language interpreters with national-level experience to come in to interpret such talks, then debrief with the IPP students over lunch. After the talk, and after the fishbowl-style debrief in which members of the audience could watch our discussion, we opened the floor to questions from the audience. The speaker, himself, stood up and commented on how impressed he was with our work because the laughs came at all the right moments he was accustomed to. I knew the truth: that at least half of his audience was hearing and responded directly to his delivery, not ours. But an odd thing happened- I felt the entire interpreting profession looking down at me in that moment and telling me to just say, “Thank you.” I should let him believe I had done something that I hadn’t. Fortunately, my better angels prevailed and I did thank him, but explained the makeup of his audience and said that if laughter came at the right time it had nothing to do with us; if it came 5 to 10 seconds later it might have been due, in some part, to our work.

The third, and still current example of what others think I am, really troubles me. It happens, for example, when an interpreting agency says they need 4 interpreters:  2 ASL and 2 CDI. CDIs are ASL interpreters, more so than I am. It was working with talented CDIs that helped me start to see the flaws in calling myself an “ASL interpreter” in general, preferring now to say “sign language interpreter.” I don’t yet have better terminology to identify my role when I team with a CDI, but I’ll keep looking. The search never ends.

Part of that search involves deconstructing what my education told me interpreting is, and what the Deaf community wants. I wasn’t prepared for the Deaf community to be anything but a monolithic, unchanging group. I wasn’t prepared to question the fundamentals of my education, much less replace them with newer learning. But doing just that is the most important part of my growth, as it is the only way to get closer to working collaboratively with Deaf people and to provide service that they see as useful in achieving their aims.

This all gives you a glimpse into what a wild and wooly place my mind can be. I hope I’m reining it in enough to make some sense.

Who Do I Hope Deaf People Think I Am?

Thirdly, I’d like to discuss “Who Do I Hope Deaf People Think I Am”.  About 25 years ago, the term “ally” took off like wildfire, leading to lively conversations across the nation and a string of conferences. Maybe it’s the baby boomer in me, but my first association with the term was World War II. The Allies collaborated to achieve common goals and to fight against a common foe. Do Deaf people and I have those things in common?

Do we have common goals? Allowing for the diversity of life goals of Deaf people, certainly, one goal they have in common is language access as a means to equal opportunity. As an interpreter, I’ve been taught that “language access” centers on hearing interpreters, when Deaf people may prefer other means to achieve it, depending on a number of factors. In that regard, our goals may actually be at odds with each other in some instances.

Do we share a common foe? It helps me to come up with a visual for what this foe may look like, so maybe we can go with the big green talking head from the “Wizard of Oz”. It kind of works, right? Full of himself with a literal “big head,” ordering people around with lips that are impossible to read- he’s got to be hearing, right? How can he be any help when he remains so distant and aloof. There’s something familiar about that face, though, and it took me a while to realize who it was.

It’s me. The enemy I have in common with Deaf people is me. Before even learning my first sign I had been enculturated into what it means to be a good person, what it means to help people, and what one gets as a reward for work and for being a professional. It was all there before I ever met Deaf people, and never in my training or early career as a sign language interpreter were those hardwired concepts revisited, let alone greatly revised. So I let them guide me, encouraging me to see myself as “the professional” and Deaf people as the beneficiaries of my work.

The forces that helped to create my initial identity as an interpreter resist my questioning of my role in the status quo. Hearing people who seek services don’t want me to make things more complex and expensive by requiring a CDI as a team for a particular job.

My family doesn’t want to hear that my interpreter education needs to be subverted in order for me to stand with Deaf people to follow their lead. My family wants me to be a proper professional, actively pursuing and accepting the rewards of being educated in my field and of having been in it as long as I have.

Some interpreting agencies really don’t like it when I strain the provisions of their contracts by requiring a CDI as a team; there’s always some other hearing interpreter who’ll have no qualms about taking the job alone. (I hasten to add that there are interpreting agencies that are diligent in assigning CDIs. But it’s never done as often as it should be.)

Unpacking Privilege: Life-Long Learning 

Since no one part of the interpreting profession is going to incentivize me to do the work of unlearning what my upbringing and interpreter training taught me, it is my responsibility to do it, even in the face of resistance. Neither the process nor the resistance ever ends, it seems.

Just to go back to “ally” for a moment – the term often seems to be used by hearing interpreters as a sort of protective shield. But it didn’t start with that term; I remember feeling a sense of pride when Deaf people would say I was “a good one”, or I had a “good attitude” or “good heart.”  These things became like an internal resume for me. Not one that I ever showed others, but one that I maintained in a self-comforting way. Putting too much stock in things like that has the ironic effect of distancing oneself from Deaf people. They become things to defend, and roadblocks to further learning.

A side-effect of this internal resume is to think that I’ve learned all there is to know about other privileges I enjoy in this society. While Deaf people have certainly taught me a lot about my privilege as a hearing person (and I still have a lot more to learn about that), other privileges challenge other parts of me and require me to change other behaviors by actively learning about them.

People use a variety of signs for the concept of “privilege.” One that I don’t see often enough is one that might be roughly translated as “no worries”. It applies in the sense that privilege allows one not to be bothered by, or even notice, the oppression of non-privileged people. My identities allow me that kind of privilege, making it that much more crucial that I learn about how my privilege affects others.

This position of questioning what I do and who I think I am is only possible because I’ve had Deaf people in my life. There’s no telling what kind of person I would have been without you all, hopefully not a bad one but certainly less aware that the leadership of Deaf people teaches me more than training that’s strictly “professional.” For that, I am eternally grateful.

These thoughts built up to a point that I could no longer justify saying, “No”, to Brandon and that’s why I’m here, sharing them with you.

The Man Behind The Curtain

Behind that big, green, talking head was a real man. He worked frantically behind the curtain, managing all the controls to maintain a false image. I catch glimpses of that man in myself, operating out of fear, every day. I wasn’t going to use the word “controls” as it may seem loaded, but it’s a fair word for the gizmos he operated behind that curtain. There is a pressure to apply the controls we have in order to live up to an image of what a professional interpreter is; it’s something that I believe the vast majority of us hearing interpreters just can’t do. In attempting it, we place demands on the Deaf people we serve. Perhaps one of you out there, in future years, will come to StreetLeverage Live to present “A Demand-Control Schema for Deaf People” when it comes to working with interpreters.

One last thing about the Wizard. Remember how he got to Oz? He was giving his hot air balloon show at a fair in Kansas, I think, when a twister yanked his balloon high into the stratosphere and dropped him down in Oz. The people from the Emerald City found him and decided he must be a wizard to have survived such a fall, and the pressure began for him to keep up the ruse of being a wizard. I felt that pressure as a young interpreter. When you think you’re fooling others, you’re really fooling yourself. You build up a wall around yourself to avoid exposure, and eventually, I saw the hurt that caused me. As others have said, StreetLeverage is the right place to come together, come out from behind our walls, get other perspectives, and actually see each other. My goal today was to offer some ways to do that.

When a friend of mine, who is a CDI, asked me what my talk would be about, I threw out some of the things I was considering, which included the idea of aligning who I think I am, who I say I am, with who I am. He seemed really struck by that and replied, “If interpreters could do that, it would be revolutionary”. Let’s get started. Let’s not think just about “continuing education”, but also about discontinuing those parts of our education that don’t really serve Deaf people or ourselves. Isn’t taking a few steps back worth it if we can then move forward more authentically? I hope you’ll join me this afternoon to go more into that.


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