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Treachery: Why Sign Language Interpreters Don’t Correct Each Other’s Work

An Act of Treachery for Sign Language Interpreters

Many sign language interpreters follow an “unwritten rule” that prevents us from intervening when a colleague’s interpretation is insufficient. Our silence contributes to Deaf oppression – it’s time to speak up.

As I submit this, some time has passed since the incident of the “fake interpreter” at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. While this was an event of historic proportions, it was not an event where the life, liberty, or future prospects of the participants were placed at particular risk. Do not misunderstand me – what happened was fundamentally wrong. Deaf people were excluded from sharing in the memory of a person who has had a profound impact upon the world that we all share, as highlighted by Brandon Arthur in his post, Nelson Mandela: Have Sign Language Interpreters Disappointed the World? It was a major injustice and it is upsetting to witness access being denied in such a way.

There are no two ways about it: the events at the memorial were appalling, yet, in some ways, the level of attention that this single incident has received is nothing short of amazing. On a daily basis, Deaf communities put great energy into the fight for equality, yet this particular incident seems to have captured the imaginations of many people. Here in Ireland, Deaf people and sign language interpreters took to social media to express their condemnation. Judging by the reactions of the more traditional media (in the English speaking world at least), there appeared to be some understanding of why this was wrong. It was a positive thing to see such an outcry about the inequalities that are faced by Deaf people, and hopefully this will become a turning point.

Having said that, something is not quite right.

The Unwritten Rule

Someone pretended to be an interpreter, and Deaf communities reacted – as did sign language interpreters and society at large – and so they should have. An emphasis has been placed on using a qualified interpreter, and the situation has highlighted the importance of access. The arguments for using qualified interpreters are certainly supported in light of the events in South Africa.

Yet we should not allow the discussion to stop there. There is another issue that is arguably as disturbing: there are numerous anecdotal examples of qualified interpreters providing suboptimal interpretation, but the profession handles those events differently. The responses are often more subdued or fragmented than we have seen in the case of the memorial service.

Many of us are held back by the “unwritten rule” telling us not to get involved, not to draw attention to an interpretation that is not working. We have not been explicitly taught this during training – it is something that we learn. We learn it by watching Deaf people complain about sign language interpreters who do not understand them, or whom they cannot understand; we learn it by seeing how easily those complaints are deflected because the interpreter is qualified; we learn it when complaints are turned into issues about the personal preferences of Deaf people, rather than issues about the performances of the qualified interpreters.

Use of Credentials to Control

What we are actually learning is the power of credentials, and this is not something that is unique to the sign language interpreting profession. Charles Tilly, amongst others, has discussed how professionals use credentials to control entry into professions and, more importantly, to control and silence debate. The status of being qualified can supersede all other considerations, even taking away the right to ask questions of the professional. Indeed, at times, being qualified can even take the place of being competent.

In addition to raising awareness of the importance of qualified interpreters, the memorial service should also give interpreters something more to reflect on. If we step away from the fact that this person was unqualified, we can ask a more meaningful question: “what is the difference between someone who stands there making a series of gestures and a qualified interpreter whose interpretation Deaf people struggle to understand?”

For someone to purport to provide access when he or she is not an interpreter is foolhardy, disrespectful, and a gross insult to Deaf people – not to mention dangerous. When qualified sign language interpreters are involved and Deaf people struggle to understand the interpretation or make themselves understood, then we are in similar circumstances to those of the memorial service for Nelson Mandela; yet it is far easier for us to discuss the issue of the “fake interpreter,” as we are discussing an outsider.

There is one significant difference. The Deaf community has not invested in the “fake interpreter” and has not allowed him into their space. The betrayal is all the worse when qualified interpreters are involved.

Equality Framework

In Ireland we are fortunate to have a Centre for Equality Studies, where an Equality Framework has been developed [Baker, Lynch, Cantillon and Walsh (2009) Equality: From Theory to Action]. The framework has five dimensions of equality:

•           Power

•           Respect and Recognition

•           Resources

•           Love, Care and Solidarity

•           Work and Learning

The application of this framework to our work as sign language interpreters is far greater than can be discussed here, but just choosing some aspects of the framework can certainly give insight into our thinking. We can use it to analyze situations, and I intend to do this by sharing some reflections from personal experience.

Treachery Against Colleagues

I once attended an interpreted event with around ten off-duty interpreters present. Throughout the event, there were numerous instances in which the interpretation was not working well, with inputs from Deaf participants incorrectly or poorly translated into English.

At these times, there was discomfort, but no intervention: not from the other members of the interpreting team, not from the organizers, not from the audience. My discomfort came as a result of my position as a hearing person and as an interpreter. I was fully aware of what was happening, yet I chose not to act. I sat in uncomfortable silence hoping that the problem would be resolved.

At one point, I stood to make a comment. I chose to sign rather than speak. Afterwards, I realized that I had done something that I did not like: I had listened to the interpreter voicing my input, and I had modified my comment on the fly to correct the interpretation.

Even though I believe in equality, this was unegalitarian. I benefited from being a hearing person who could make sure that my message got across, even though the interpretation was not always working. Yet I was silent when it came to the other breakdowns.

Later at the event, another breakdown happened. A Deaf member of the audience stood to ask a question and the interpretation did not work well. The Deaf person asked the interpreter if she had signed clearly and the interpreter shrugged.

In a room with almost 15% of the sign language interpreters in our country present, this was unfolding before our eyes – and we were letting it happen.

We were sitting back. I was sitting back. It went against everything I believe in, yet I was listening to the voice in my head saying, “Don’t say anything. Just be quiet. You’re not working here. It’s none of your business”. I decided to ignore that little voice and say something. It had happened too many times already without intervention. I clarified with the hearing presenter by standing and sharing my understanding of the question. I was left with a bigger question to deal with: “Why was it such a big deal to intervene?”

I appreciate that it is easier to be an observer than to be actively interpreting. We can analyze the decision-making processes of the working interpreters and try to understand what happened for them, but to do that is to miss the point. The focus should be on the rest of us and what was happening for us that led us to be complicit in those inequalities as we sat back and allowed them to occur.

I have asked myself why it took me so long to say something and I have rationalized it in any number of ways: “The interpreters will correct the issue themselves;” “The organizers will  intervene soon;” “Someone else will say something before me.” All of those explanations fail to get to the crux of the issue: why was I hoping that something would happen without having to act myself? The real reason is that I know the rules as well as anyone else. I am aware that speaking up is seen as an act of treachery against colleagues, and even as undermining the profession.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

The power dimension of the Equality Framework is especially interesting here, at least for me. When witnessing the injustice of an incorrect interpretation, I allowed the power placed in an idea to hold me back from speaking up. This idea that has come from somewhere – it is an idea that serves some interests, just not the interests of equality or Deaf communities. Indeed, it doesn’t even serve the sign language interpreting profession, as it makes us question whether we should intervene when something blatantly wrong is happening. It confuses us into thinking that, by addressing a problem, we are causing a problem; yet these problems already exist. A wiser person than I refers to this type of situation as a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes: sign language interpreters can be in their “altogether” and be totally exposed. We can see it, but we cannot say anything for fear of how we will be perceived – after all, it is only a fool or a crank who does not recognize the credentials that we wear.

Distortion

The love, care and solidarity dimension is also interesting as it is frequently misused to protect the status quo. In the example above, I had Deaf friends and colleagues who were having their ideas misrepresented and I was weighing what to do. While it is true that everyone deserves the benefit of love, care and solidarity, the unwritten rule is a distortion of what this should be. We are instilled with the idea of protecting and fostering a “safe space” for interpreters, but the safety of interpreters should lie in our competencies, not in the fear fellow interpreters have of speaking up. Perhaps there are interpreters who consider my intervention as oppressive of the interpreters working at the event. Well, my answer to that is simple: look at where the power lies and you will see where the oppression is coming from. Correcting an interpretation is not an oppressive act. The marginalization and misrepresentation of Deaf people is oppressive, and our complicity in situations like that makes oppressors of us all.

The Takeaway

If there is one thing that we should take from the incident at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, it is that real access is more than the appearance of access – qualified or not, the interpretation must be working. If we are equality-minded, “they are trying their best” is not good enough. The voices in our heads should be telling us to fix the situation, not stopping us from standing up. It is time to “rewrite” the unwritten rule.

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Nelson Mandela: Have Sign Language Interpreters Disappointed the World?

Thamsanqa Jantjie, the sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela's funeral

The news of the “fake sign language interpreter” traveled the globe. But what of the everyday failings of systems that leave access by the wayside through lack of scrutiny? Brandon Arthur calls for specific action by sign language interpreters to monitor and ethically deploy qualified interpreters.

The terrible cocktail of “schizophrenia,” unethical business leadership, and uninformed government decision-makers that lead to the sign language interpreting debacle at Mandela’s memorial service is a tragedy.

As a sign language interpreter, I cringe at the thought that as a field, we are responsible for the world’s distraction from the celebration of one of the planet’s most widely recognized human rights leaders and for yet another injustice served up to the Deaf Community.

The question that continues to roll around in my head is after the tsunami of sensationalism, swarming armchair quarterbacks, and CYA puffery blows over is, what will change?

While Thamsanqa Jantjie is the current face of the issue, unqualified sign language interpreters deploying or being deployed into local communities around the globe is a longstanding and widespread problem. A problem that necessitates the cooperation of a multiplicity of industry stakeholders willing to put down their nursing agenda and be accountable for the breakdowns in the system that continue to allow this problem to persist.

Are we courageous enough as field, both practitioner and organization, to make the hard decisions necessary to truly eradicate the problem?

If we come away from this debacle truly resolved to create meaningful resolution to the issue of unqualified sign language interpreters infringing on the human rights of Deaf people, perhaps we should consider taking action on the following:

  1. Insist that industry stakeholders publicly and actively subscribe to upholding the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
  2. Incorporate the applicable aspects of the UNCRPD as part of the ethical practices system for working sign language interpreters. Further, to insist on more aggressive and timely actions for violations.
  3. Found a national organization to create, uphold and promote standards of practice for businesses deploying sign language interpreters.
  4. Establish a coalition responsible for a partnership between national associations serving the Deaf community, national organizations serving sign language interpreters, and organizations responsible for the public awareness of the rights of Deaf people and the roles and responsibility of sign language interpreters.
  5. Insist on local partnerships between Deaf and sign language interpreting organizations that result in the perpetuation of native perspectives among practicing sign language interpreters.

Care to add?

Thanks to Mandela for doing in death what he did in life, using his existence to raise awareness of the atrocities, injustices, and disadvantages suffered at the hand of privilege while working to make the world a more inhabitable place.

Let’s not allow the memory of Mandela’s memorial service to be one where the field of sign language interpreting disappointed the world. Let it be one where we honor Mandela’s life by rising from the ashes galvanized to end the rampant problem of unqualified practitioners infringing upon the human rights of Deaf people.

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Has An Identity Crisis Immobilized The Field of Sign Language Interpreting?

Sign Language Interpreter Immobilized Due to Conflict

As the demographics of sign language interpreters change, rifts develop as products of privilege and cultural identity. Stacey Storme uses the lens of war for insight into linguicism and the need for peace through meaningful dialogue.

During my attendance at the 2012 Region IV RID Conference in Denver and the 2013 National RID Conference in Indianapolis I found myself in tears more than once. While it is not uncommon for me to become emotional when I am with colleagues discussing the very serious, real and important issues that impact our work as interpreters, the tears I felt at these conferences were different. It was not until a moment of clarity during the business meeting in Indianapolis that I realized the difference.

It was not long after the start of the Business meeting in Indianapolis when I experienced a shift in my awareness about my emotional response during both conferences. It occurred as I was witnessing discussion and decisions regarding the use of spoken English via open microphone. As I was sitting there, feeling helpless, looking around the room feeling the heavy and volatile energy – I realized I felt as if I was witnessing a war. A battle waged between two perspectives, the deaf and hearing world, both fighting for recognition.

As a person who has grown up in both worlds, I have struggled with my own identity and place in each world since I can remember. Sitting there, I found myself relating with perspectives from both “sides.” As I type this, it strikes me that it may not seem such a powerful realization. After all, this struggle between the two worlds has been going on for years.

By framing this struggle through the lens of war and making the connection between my internal struggle and the mirror reflecting around me I found clarity that I have not yet experienced.

Lens of War

War is not something I want to perpetuate or contribute to.

When I consider ways to end war, three immediately come to mind: surrender, truce, and victory. At first thought, none of these sound too appealing. Truce suggests compromising or simply putting the “war” on hold for a short time. Surrender implies giving something up and the opposite of victory is defeat – so, depending on which side of the war you are on it could be very destructive. However, upon deeper reflection, and some reframing – I see these three approaches turning out to be possible strategies that can work in tandem to move the field to a more constructive and healthy space.

A Truce

Calling a truce seems a good first step. Putting “the fight” on hold for a while in lieu of some time to reflect and take note of our own journey. Hindsight is indeed 20/20. When I reflect on my past struggles and active times of ‘war’ I see with clarity that it is only when I stop reacting that I am able to move past the fight. I think one of the biggest reasons people are able to move past the “fight,” is when they give themselves the opportunity to look within they become more centered on their own beliefs and perspectives. Thus equipping themselves more readily for healthy interactions when faced with situations where their beliefs and perspectives are challenged. So rather than reacting in an attempt to protect their own beliefs and perspectives they can more confidently listen to another and engage in productive discussion rather than destructive war.

Surrender

Upon consciously calling a truce and engaging in self-reflection next can come surrender. In this context I think especially of surrendering judgment. Rather than judging emotions, reactions, behaviors – simply acknowledging them and accepting them as what is. The act of acceptance can be the step needed to move one from reaction to action. Rather than judging whether or not a colleague is using ASL in a shared space made up of Deaf and hearing people; first recognizing it as fact can slow down a likely knee-jerk reaction based on judgment of another’s actions purely based on assumptions. Instead of feeding the anger or resentment that resides within, attention could be focused on constructive approaches to addressing the incongruity of the person’s choice within this shared space. By surrendering judgment, we are more likely to be committed to sincerely sharing our own perspectives and receiving others perspectives, no matter how different they may be. From there we can move forward and hold each other accountable as we explore the issue at hand.

Victory

So, you may be thinking, ok Pollyanna, it would be nice if everyone came to the table being centered in self, and equipped for healthy, constructive dialogue; but that is not the case. I am aware that after reading this it can appear that my view of moving forward is one through rose colored glasses: that if we all just play nice the present state of affairs within the field will magically improve. I do not take this perspective in any way. This is where I see victory coming into play as a way to end war. When I consider what it means to be victorious in my own inner war, it is when I reach those moments of balancing all parts of myself that identify with both the Deaf and hearing part of me. It is when I have fully succeeded in enough self-reflection and enough surrendering of judgment that I feel fully acknowledged and accepted. It is also when I allow these parts of me to co-exist in ways that are fluid and evolving based on my interactions in the world around me.

So, ultimately, victory comes in acknowledging there will always be different views, therefore there will always be ample opportunities for war. It is up to us to choose how we enter each war. We can enter in full-fire, taking out everyone who crosses our path. Or, we can stay committed to our own truth, knowing it is fully ours until we decide to change it. Therefore, there is nothing to defend. There is only opportunity to fully be who we choose to be in each moment – to embody the change we wish to see.

The Costs of War?

War hurts. War scars. War kills. As I witness the wars taking place in our field today I see many costs. We are hurting ourselves, each other and immobilizing meaningful forward progress.

One of the biggest costs, perhaps is that sometimes we are in war and don’t even realize it. I think this is especially true for those of us who hear and experience the many privileges of living in a society where we take much for granted. Sometimes this unintentional war occurs as we perpetuate audism by defending and/or exercising our right to our own native language, or at least the majority language, by not considering ways that our hearing privilege colors our views of our work, therefore silencing people of the marginalized minority with whom we work.

A tangible example can be given by exploring sometimes buried assumption of one’s right to choose spoken English when engaging in professional development. When attending interpreting conferences, I sometimes sense a vibe in the air. At StreetLeverage – Live in Atlanta, Nancy Bloch referred to this vibe as “Hearing Interpreters Only.” This vibe manifests in a few different ways. Sometimes it is sensed as a mild irritation in the air due to having Deaf people in attendance. Other times it is disappointment at having to use ASL. Yet other times it feels as if Deaf people are being appeased – as if they don’t really understand our work but need to be placated.

I am in no way asserting that these things happen all the time, or that all hearing interpreters feel this way. Rather, I am attempting to articulate something that I merely sense; something that has the potential to shed light on one aspect of active war occurring in our field today. It is this type of exploration I hope will bring us closer to unpacking the baggage that underlies the tension and pain I both feel and witness all around me. This baggage that hurts us by way of limiting us to majority perspective; that hurts others by way of devaluing and ostracizing them; that perpetuates our false belief that we are the only ones who “get” our work; that there is something special to the work of interpreting that Deaf people don’t and can’t understand.

If we do not work together to explore areas of opposition surrounding areas of language use, oppression, privilege, assumptions, power and the like, we lose the opportunity to fully understand the existing struggles rampant in our field and professional organization. We also run the risk of our view being colored only by our likely colonized perspective of what it means to be a sign language interpreter.  We lose out on the opportunity to fully realize that while we, as hearing interpreters, may always be the face of oppression, we do have the opportunity to change that face so that instead of being the face of that which we are against, we are instead the face of change, respect and acceptance.

The Lesson

“A man or a woman who has peace inside has everything. A man or a woman who is pulled apart by the war inside him or her has nothing. How you choose to interact with the opposing forces within you will determine your life. Starve one or the other or guide them both.”

– Cherokee Story

We must take a hard look at our own wars. If you feel like you are not engaged in or aware of any wars, either internally or externally in our field and with regards to the field of interpreting, I encourage you to explore more deeply. Some wars may be hidden – sometimes when we feel too much pain, or experience too much resistance to our views, we become desensitized and ignore signs of war. The exploration of the opposing forces within and around us becomes more critical when we consider the power we hold by way of the privilege we hold as hearing members of a society who are granted entry into both worlds – the hearing world and Deaf world. It is our responsibility to dive deeply into the issues surrounding us. The fact that we have the choice whether or not to dive deeply and choose not to have complete access to the world around us limited attests to the importance of this responsibility. This is the heart of privilege held by hearing interpreters.

We always have a choice.

If things get too overwhelming, too scary, too sticky, too “fill-in-the-blank,” we have choices that include access to both worlds. If we become too uncomfortable with our role in the deaf world, there is another world we can go and have unlimited communication access. Perhaps we can play the “neutral” card and be “just the interpreter” or simply detach and only show up in the Deaf world when actively interpreting. We must remain conscious of these choices.

I know important conversations addressing tough issues are happening within our field. Especially in response to the recent vote about the DPMAL position on the RID Board. I recently watched a video posted by Sarah Hafer sharing some of her thoughts in response to the vote and her discussions with colleagues in her graduate program. Locally, in Kansas, we are engaging in important, sometimes painful, dialogue regarding certification standards, our state commission and the varying perspectives that exist. So, the hard work is happening. People are showing up. People are unpacking. This work must continue and catch fire.

Conclusion

War hurts relationships. War scars hearts. War kills trust. The field of ASL/English interpreting is one rampant with opportunities for war. However, if we reframe the lens in which we look out into our field and communities, I believe those same opportunities are also ripe for growth, learning and healing.

Let’s unpack our own privilege, hold ourselves accountable, and be willing to share our own perspectives while remaining open to others. As scary as it may be, it can take us a long way toward peaceful, healthy dialogue and respectful, balanced co-existence.

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The Five Step Path to Resiliency for Sign Language Interpreters

Resiliency Among Sign Language Interpreters

How can sign language interpreters recognize our differences yet move toward positive change in our field? Stephanie Criner highlights the importance of mindfulness in listening to spur connection and engagement for change.

One of the strengths of our community of practice is our diversity of thought, background, and belief systems – it is also is what poses the greatest challenge when we come together to create positive change. The potential outcome in deepening our abilities and our commitment to dialogue is that while alone we don’t have the ‘answers’, together we can create them. I believe we’ve taken some first steps toward a true dialogic exchange, and we still have some challenges to overcome in understanding what dialogue is, how we must create the space to really have honest exchanges of perspectives, and talk to each other instead of talking past each other.

The Goal of Understanding

Dialogue is both the act of expressing ones thoughts and, equally importantly, the act of listening with the goal of understanding what’s at the heart of the discussion. The hazard of not placing an emphasis on understanding is that we get closer to debate than dialogue. Debate is zero sum—one right answer/one winner, either/or, pro/con—this isn’t to say there isn’t a place for debate but is it our ‘default’? If the goal is to transcend diverse perspectives and include a myriad of ‘voices’, we need a way to expand our conversations not to restrict them.

Creating ‘Other’

What can complicate our ability to understand is the creation of the ‘other.’ It prevents us from suspending judgment and ‘hearing’ perspectives or values that we perceive as negative. It is easy to fall into creating ‘stories’ that allow us to alienate and separate – they are certified/they aren’t certified; they have a degree/they don’t have a degree; they have deaf parents/they don’t have deaf parents—the ‘vilified other’ makes it easier to marginalize and discount those views that clash with our own. Perhaps we’ve had a bad experience with a member of ‘the other’, how is it we can stop reacting to our ‘ghosts’ and spring back as individuals and as a community of practice and move upstream?

People Not Villains

In the weeks after 9/11, I was involved in a series of resiliency dialogues to bring together members of our very diverse community in a safe space to share feelings, values, and perspectives. In a time of national pain and violence, I was struck by the power of listening to, what was at that time, ‘the other’. During one of these dialogues, several Muslim women shared their experiences–their dread in hearing that Muslims were involved, their experience of being verbally insulted, and their fear for their personal safety, because they wore a ḥijāb. Those exchanges didn’t erase the differences between us–it did, however, serve as a powerful antidote to the ‘poison’ of the time—a reminder that there were people behind those differences, not villains.

5 Steps to Beyond Otherness

One: Ask Real Questions

How do we get past this ‘otherness’? One of the most powerful tools in dialogue are questions–real, curious, inquiring questions—the kind that lead to deeper understanding of the ‘heart’ of an issue, why it is important to that person, and gets to the values underpinning their dialogue. Questions that come from a place of curiosity and discovery allow for movement in what might have been considered an irreconcilable difference. What do they believe to be true to have that view of the issue? Being curious also frees us from our debate ‘default’ where we have the tendency to listen for points of disagreement, where the person’s logic is faulty, or have an ad hominem type of thinking where we disagree with ‘who’ the person is and then are unable to process what they are saying. The result is we end up talking past each other and not to each other.

Two: Re-make the Map

Kuhn in this book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, suggested that ‘revolutions’ and leaps forward in progress are created when new questions are asked of previously-held beliefs and the result is a totally different ‘map’ for future directions—a true paradigm shift (he actually coined the phrase). The potential for ‘remapping’ exists for our professional organization in the motion that was recently passed to establish an ad hoc committee to ‘review the RID philosophy, Mission, Goals, Diversity Statement, and Strategic Priorities.’ This group will make recommendations to the membership and Board. How can we ensure that we engage the largest number stakeholders in these reviews and recommendations? How can we create an organizational culture of dialogue around this effort? The larger the number of voices that contribute to re-making the map, the more powerful the buy-in, and the more indelible the progress.

Three: Contribute More Than Criticize

The challenge then becomes how to include large numbers of individuals in the dialogue and how do we create a space that is engaging and safe for this multitude of ‘voices’? While most of us would agree that it is an RID members’ personal responsibility to be engaged, there is also the reality that without a safe space within which to offer those views, it won’t happen.

Volunteering your opinion is an act of courageous engagement.

Brené Brown who presented a Ted talk on vulnerability and listening to shame said this, ‘I don’t think engagement can happen without vulnerability, and I definitely don’t think it can happen in the midst of shame.’ How is it that we, as a collective,’ can take responsibility for the creation of safe dialogue spaces?’ Brené may also have the answer when she said her goal, ‘at the end of every day, and at the end of every week, and at the end of my life, I want to be able to say I contributed more than I criticized.’

Four: Allow for Difference

As Laura Wickless mentioned in her article, Vulnerability: A Collaboration Killer, ‘so many of us fear being mocked, criticized, and torn to shreds by fellow practitioners that we avoid taking worthwhile risks.’ If we want positive change and to make engagement less risky, we must find ways to value experience and personal narrative and the expression of those experiences in ways that are not critical or attacking. It will be a space that allows for difference and actively seeks perspectives from those that may feel disenfranchised—interpreters with deaf parents, faith-based interpreters, interpreters of color, educational interpreters, and others.

Five: Create a Space

It will be important that the space that’s created, whether virtual or physical, be one that can absorb multiple views and ways of engagement. Not all of us are comfortable with external processing and formulating thoughts ‘on the fly’. There are personality types who process internally and need a moment before they are ready to share their views. Can we purposefully create some silence in our dialogue space that allows for everyone to feel confident in participating? Not all of us feel confident in our public speaking or writing abilities, which may chill our level of participation. Can we create spaces that are inviting and patient that allow for everyone regardless of linguistic aptitude to share their ideas?

Mini-Mindfulness

Ultimately, we can each make small, every day contributions to larger, system-wide transformations. The nuggets that I receive from colleagues and friends—some from an in-person conversation, some through an IM, or a Facebook post—all create bits of mini-mindfulness that ultimately help make me resilient, open to dialogue with others, and growth. True, often we work in physical isolation, how is it we can ask new questions of old paradigms and overcome that isolation? Many of us work in settings where there are numerous colleagues; do we make the most of those interactions or miss opportunities to participate in dialogue that can move us all forward?

Revolutions of Thought and Practice

It is safe to say that most of us have no desire, either individually or as a professional organization, to mirror the current political environment of debate and polarization. It is destructive, the opposite of engaging, and disheartening. Dialogue that creates conversations that respect and appreciate a multitude of contributions, that are inquisitive and curious, and that allow for revolutions of thought and practice is the path forward.

Perhaps we can’t change the world, but we can certainly change our footprint.

 

References

Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Asking new questions of old data on pages 139, 159. Moving beyond “puzzle-solving” on pages 37, 144. Change in rule sets on pages 40, 41, 52, 175. Change in the direction or “map” of research on pages 109, 111.

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Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart

Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart

“Deaf-Heart” has been a hotly debated but ambiguous topic for many sign language interpreters. Betty Colonomos poses critical questions and provides hope that sign language interpreters can begin to embody this elusive quality.

A recurrent phrase that has been appearing in frequent discussions is “Deaf heart.”  Our national interpreter organization, RID, has long been characterized as needing a Deaf heart.  Recently, changes have been made to move RID to a more Deaf-centered perspective on the field of interpretation. The most recent evidence of this is the addition of Shane Feldman, who is Deaf, as the new Executive Director.  Although institutional shifts are possible with changes in policies and practices, there is much misunderstanding of the concept as it applies to practicing interpreters.

Early Discovery

In the 1990’s there were many efforts to address this concern.  New England states held a series of Ally Conferences that focused on the Deaf view of interpreters and their behaviors.  This resulted in many discussions and workshops to clarify the meaning of an interpreter-as-ally. There was–and still is—debate about the fine line between ethical practices and ally responses.  Today, it is considered acceptable and even desirable to provide information to hearing and Deaf consumers regarding accommodations, cultural differences, and resources. The emergence of Deaf Interpreters in our profession has contributed  to the dissemination of information about accessibility and Deaf people, and has helped to educate the Deaf Community about their own power.

Deaf Activists & Social Dynamics

In the 21st century we looked to models from minority groups that view societal privilege and oppression to explain and understand the relationship between interpreters and the Deaf Community. Deaf activists are helping the community of interpreters and Deaf people to understand the social dynamics that create marginalization, audism, and racial/ethnic prejudices.

These robust and healthy discussions about privilege are paving the way for a change in the way we think about minority communities and cultures that goes beyond the medical and pathological view of Deaf people.

Internalization of Deaf Heart

But what about ‘Deaf heart’?  In my travels and conversations with many interpreters, codas, and members of the Deaf Community it has become clearer that we still are not adequately capturing the qualities and behaviors of Deaf-heart interpreters. It is not about laws, services, ethics (at least from majority/privilege perspective), or training.  It is something that can’t be taught. It is difficult to explain, yet palpably absent.

The internalization of a Deaf heart must come from the interpreter’s own sense of justice and morality.  

A number of contributors to StreetLeverage have expressed this quality in different ways.

Dennis Cokely, in his article, Sign Language Interpreters: Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain?, provides a historical context that demonstrates the shift from earlier times when having ‘Deaf heart’ was intrinsic for interpreters to the indicators that this has significantly diminished. He explains:

How do we justify learning their language and profiting from it without giving back? In becoming a “profession” have we simply become parasites?”

and

What are we willing to do as individuals to become reconnected with Deaf people? Are we willing to adjust our work choices to accommodate the rhythm of Deaf people’s lives?”

Trudy Suggs illustrates this clearly in, A Deaf Perspective: Cultural Respect in Sign Language Interpreting

This type of knowledge (schools for the deaf) is an important element of Deaf culture for many people. Not recognizing its importance, or dismissing it when someone shares this information speaks volumes to cultural (il) literacy.

A participant from that group suddenly said with an incredulous look, “I don’t understand why you’re so upset that video interpreters don’t know city names? That’s really ridiculous. It’s such a small thing.” I was momentarily caught off-guard by her flippant response. I quickly clarified that I wasn’t upset, saying, “Quite the contrary. It’s just one of those things that Deaf people have to live with. It does become cumbersome if you have to make several calls a day and each video interpreter you encounter doesn’t know a city sign or town where a deaf school is.”

In Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadow of Invisibility, Anna Witter-Merithew asks us to examine the human side of the interpreter.

Do we think of ourselves as bystanders—present from a distance, and therefore, not involved?  Have we internalized the neutrality we are to bring to our task as non-involvement and disinterest [versus objectivity and emotional maturity]?  

What do we believe about ourselves, our work and our contribution to the good of the Deaf society? As we explore the answer to this and other hard questions, we must consider the implications of our history of behaving as if invisible and its potential contribution to the diffusion of responsibility.”

Overcoming Inertia

Part of having a Deaf heart is caring enough about the well being of Deaf people and their communities to put them above ego, pride, and unwillingness to fight for what is right.  For example, I have interpreted in Juvenile Court many times and have come across several instances when parents/guardians should have the services of Deaf interpreters.  It is obvious at the first meeting that the consumers have limited education, cognitive deficits, idiosyncratic language, or some combination of these. I inform their attorneys of this and find out that this case has been ongoing (sometimes up to three years) and the attorneys had no idea about this. Often these lawyers and social service personnel indicate that they “felt that something was not right” about their interactions with clients.  Numerous interpreters have been working on these cases. They are deemed qualified to work in court; they are certified; all have had some degree of legal training. Why didn’t they recognize this? Intervene? Advocate for Deaf Interpreters?

Absence of Context

My professional experiences are replete with markers of the lack of  “Deaf heart.” I have heard English interpretations of texts where Deaf people are proudly sharing their generational Deafness (e.g. fifth generation Deaf) conveyed as a matter-of-fact piece of information about having deaf children in each generation.  The critical meaning of Deaf “royalty” is absent, leaving the possibility that the non-deaf audience might see this as a genetic flaw or “problem.”

In workshops I see many interpreters–student and experienced alike—who do not recognize ASL discourse that is representing a community’s point of view. For example, Deaf people often convey narrative that on the surface seems to be about them (an “I” Deaf text) when in fact the message is about the “We” Deaf story. The consequence is that the Deaf person appears to be discussing an isolated event, when the issue is really about a community with shared experiences. Which do you think has a greater impact on the audience?  Being around Deaf people often allows interpreters to know how to distinguish “I” from “We” Deaf texts.

Interpreters who have no interactions with Deaf people outside of work miss much of the collective history and current burning issues that show up in interpreted interactions and collegial discussions. How can interpreters who hide behind their interpretation of the Code of Professional Conduct–instead of taking responsibility to intervene–employ strategies that are culturally appropriate to solve problems?

Accountability is the Beginning

Interpreters who demonstrate the qualities of Deaf heart are those who reflect on how their choices and decisions affect the Deaf Community; they question their practices that seem to be oppressive or damaging to the lives of Deaf people; they own their mistakes and share them with others. Most importantly, they seek input and advice from Deaf people and are not afraid to be uncomfortable with Deaf people’s responses and viewpoint.

A number of authors on Street Leverage have also shared what it is to have a Deaf heart. In Aaron Brace’s piece, The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter, he digs deep and exposes some of the demons we face.

“…my customers are not well served by a quasi-messianic philosophy that valorizes my role far above theirs. It’s also simply inaccurate; customers often communicate effectively despite my excellent service rather than because of it.”

 “I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand my duality as both ally and enemy in the lives of Deaf people without some measure of guilt. Like many members of privileged groups, I hope to learn the right way to behave toward an oppressed group—once— and never again have to feel unsure of myself or guilty about my privilege. 

When I demonstrate a fuller understanding of both what I give and what I take, it is returned by Deaf people, not with a sneering pleasure at my knowing my place, but with greater trust, friendship, and welcome.”

Gina Oliva, in her challenge to us in, Sign Language Interpreters in Mainstream Classrooms: Heartbroken and Gagged, boldly brings forth the role played by sign language interpreters in mainstream education and the significant impact this has on future generations of Deaf people. We have remained silent for too long about our part in harming deaf children and their potential for successful lives. We have allowed interpreters to present themselves as adequate language models and carriers of negative views of Deaf people. We have done little to admit to this injustice and have put our needs for employment above the lives of innocent children.

There are things we can do to correct this major injustice in our field. Anna Witter-Merithew in, Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice, emphasizes the need for us to look inside and seek guidance from our consumers:

“ It is important to find opportunities to talk with Deaf consumers about our work as sign language interpreters and to ask them to help us consider the implications of role implementation for their experiences.”

And in Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter by Trudy Suggs, we see a Deaf view on how we can move forward.

“…remember that if a deaf person expresses frustration at disempowerment, it doesn’t necessarily mean she or he is angry, divisive or separatist. Rather, take a look at the situation, and figure out how, if at all, you or other interpreters might have contributed to the situation. “

Important Enough to Act?

The only question that remains is whether or not the practitioners in our field care enough about this to want to do something about it.  Do we need to bring these discussions to the forefront of our public professional discourse?  Should we insist that our programs for training interpreters address this issue and involve Deaf people much more in educating future interpreters?  When will we uphold the integrity of our profession by supporting novices and by renouncing those who cast a pall over us?

When will we appreciate the valuable insights of codas to help us nurture the Deaf heart in us? Why do we vigorously debate whether a permanent seat on RID’s Board for an IDP (interpreter with Deaf Parents) is necessary when we know how much it will enhance the Deaf heart perspective in the organization?   When will we acknowledge that Deaf Studies courses and programs are helpful in understanding, but they do not replace the need for feeling the stories?

We have a wonderful opportunity before us. Deaf people and codas are more aware of their own Deaf hearts and they are willing to talk about it and to help others recognize their own unconscious anti-Deaf heart actions. Why aren’t we eagerly seeking their input and guidance?  Why aren’t we thankful for how they enrich us?

It is hard to walk in another’s shoes, but our work depends on the ability to see the world through the lenses of our consumers and clients. Without this, how can we become the noble profession we envision?

There is always room for a Deaf Heart…you are invited.

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4 Obsessions of a Qualified Sign Language Interpreter

Sign Language Interpreter Considering Their Obsessions About the Work

While no two sign language interpreters are identical, there are certain elements of the profession that consume our minds. Brandon Arthur explores four of these preoccupations.

Sign language interpreters come to the profession from a variety of avenues; each possessing a range of life experience that makes their daily work distinct. Though the work from interpreter to interpreter is unique, it occurs to me that there are 4 primary preoccupations shared by qualified practitioners.

Some might consider them obsessions, the non-clinical type of course.

Whether obsessions or preoccupations, qualified sign language interpreters are driven to excellence in their work by 4 dominating thoughts:

1)   Cohesion: It is the role of a sign language interpreter to unite the parties participating in the communication by proactively considering and responding to the specific needs of their consumers, team interpreters, and meeting/event participants and organizers.

The qualified practitioner has fervor for cohesion because they fundamentally understand that a stellar individual performance does not necessarily equate to a job well done. Further, that it is the success of all parties to the communication that ultimately determines if an interpreter has been effective.

2)   Professionalism: It is the duty of a sign language interpreter to ensure they are familiar with both current developments and best practices within the field.

The qualified interpreter is passionate about professionalism because they understand that it is more than a state of mind or verbal declaration. They understand that it is the active pursuit of excellence; one that requires an interpreter to be informed and engaged within the profession and to uphold the social agreements that allow them to do their best work.

3)   Accountability:  It is the ethical obligation of a sign language interpreter to own, in real-time where possible, the inaccuracies found in their work.

The qualified practitioner is resolute in their view that the fear of being viewed to possess an inferior skill-set or to not be invited back to an assignment is insufficient reason to compromise the trust needed to do their work. They summarily avoid this temptation and accept that their best work is not error free and compensate accordingly.

4)    Connectedness: It is the responsibility of a sign language interpreter to recognize that they are part of a larger system of stakeholders.

The qualified interpreter is highly conscious that their actions have an impact on the interpreter that was there both before and after them, and that their actions do have an impact on the broader system of industry stakeholders. Further, they utilize this connectedness to better position themselves to partner with stakeholders to achieve excellence in their work.

A Framework

These obsessions create a framework for an approach to the work that allows a sign language interpreter to cope with the anxiety of confronting new environments, circumstances, and information day in and day out.

Further, it increases the capacity of an interpreter to earn the social currency needed to make adjustments in work environments and achieve consensus among consumers and meeting participants. This is key to their delivering truly remarkable work.

Achieving Excellence

Over the years I have heard interpreters share that a healthy dose of narcissism is necessary to be successful in the field. While I would agree to a point, I do think that a heightened awareness of the dynamics of their working relationships, the level of accountability taken/accepted for their work, and how they connect to the whole of our profession creates an approach to the work that makes certain sign language interpreters more likely to achieve excellence.

After all, and I believe you would agree, people who have achieved something impressive or have made a significant contribution to anything have done so because of a certain level of obsessiveness. I don’t believe achieving success in the sign language interpreting profession to be any different.

What obsessions makeup your framework for success?

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Self-Talk: A Sign Language Interpreter’s Inner Warning System?

Sign Language Interpreter - Scales of Justice

As a sign language interpreter, how do you know when something isn’t quite right? Anna Mindess discusses the importance of heeding our inner dialogue both on and off-the-job.

As my team interpreter and I stood outside the courtroom, red-faced, sputtering and hissing at each other like a pair of angry snakes, it was clear that I could have handled this situation more effectively.

A confluence of factors led to this stressful scene. Our RID Regional Conference had taken many of the legal sign language interpreters with SC:L’s out of town for the week. As one of the few remaining interpreters with legal certification, I was overbooked and had to arrive late to the court proceeding that afternoon: a jury trial with a Deaf defendant. This county’s court interpreter coordinator knew about and accepted my tardiness, as she was desperately trying to find SC:L’s to cover cases and had turned to an outside agency to fill the gaps.

Better Judgment

Thus, as I entered the courtroom, my teammate was already in the midst of interpreting the proceedings. I sat down quietly in the chair behind the defense table. The District Attorney was questioning a witness on the stand. The members of the jury were focused on the testimony. At that point, I did not have time to confer with the other interpreter, whom I had never even met before. Probably, if I had, I might have approached the judge with my concerns prior to the start of the afternoon’s proceedings. Inwardly, I knew that it was not the best idea to go ahead without context or preparation, but given the inconvenience of my entrance, I pushed aside my better judgment and tried to assess the situation at hand.

My attention was immediately drawn to my teammate, first for wearing extremely casual clothes (a T-shirt and khakis) in a formal legal setting and second for their obvious unfamiliarity with basic legal terms such as objection, sustained, overruled, and stipulation which they chose to fingerspell.

“It’s Only Jury Selection”

During a short break in the proceedings, I asked my team interpreter whether they had legal certification or legal training and when they answered in the negative, I asked why they accepted this assignment. The reply, “The agency told me it was only jury selection,” did not assuage my concerns. Ironically, the agency that hired this interpreter specializes in sign language and should have known better than to send an unqualified person to a legal assignment. So I followed up, “Once you arrived and found out that it was the actual trial, why did you continue?” The answer was, “If I didn’t go ahead, they would have had to stop the whole trial.” (As I learned long ago in my legal training, sometimes that is actually the most appropriate option.)

What Are My Options

My team interpreter did not seem to grasp the gravity of a trial and the potential life-altering consequences for the defendant given their lack of legal training and legal certification (one of my state’s laws requires an SC:L for legal proceedings.) Before I arrived in the courtroom, the interpreter had self-identified as “RID certified” because they possess a CI/CT. Most judges are not aware of the difference, unless directed to the specific statute.

At this point, our ten-minute break was coming to an end and the jury was filing in. My mind was racing as I considered my options: write a note and ask to speak with the judge, ask for the other sign language interpreter’s legal credentials (or lack thereof) to be put on the record, slip outside to call the interpreter coordinator? The responsibility to decide on the best course of action in a few seconds had me frozen, until my window of opportunity was gone. Testimony resumed and the other sign language interpreter and I continued trading off tensely.

I decided the best I could do in that moment was closely monitor my teammate and feed signs for legal terms so that the Deaf defendant would have the best chance at accessing the proceedings. I’m sure this only made the situation more stressful for my teammate.

Who Do You Respect in RID?

During our hissing and sputtering encounter at the end of the day, the interpreter accused me of lack of respect, taking the entire matter as a personal insult. I insisted my concern was totally about their lack of legal training. I don’t usually confront my colleagues in this manner, but when the interpreter didn’t seem to get my point, I stated that an SC:L requires hundreds of hours of training and passing a very hard test. “Did you think you could come into a courtroom and improvise?” I asked. No response. Then I inquired, “As an RID certified interpreter, who do you respect in RID, Sharon Neumann Solow? Anna Witter-Merithew? Do you think they would approve of your choices?” The interpreter refused to continue the dialogue and stormed off. Stalemate.

 It Can’t Be that Hard, I’ll Figure it Out

On the drive home, I tried to fathom how this sign language interpreter could have thought it was okay to proceed in a situation with potentially grave consequences, without the qualifications to do the job? After all, the second tenet of the CPC specifies that interpreters should “possess the professional skills and knowledge required for the specific interpreting situation.”

I tried to imagine what thoughts went through their head. Perhaps first, the thrill of being in a new situation, the desire to learn about it, coupled with a sense of confidence from interpreting for 20+ years. Maybe they quieted any inner doubts with thoughts like, “I can handle this, I’m an intelligent person, a skilled interpreter, if there are new vocabulary terms, I can pick them up.” “I like challenges.” “It can’t be that hard, I’ll figure it out.” “They can’t find anyone else, so I’ll just have to do my best.” “I wouldn’t want to stop the whole proceedings and admit any lack on my part. That would be embarrassing.”

Or maybe it was as simple as, “I need the work.”

Examining this hypothetical inner monologue, I noticed there was no mention of the Deaf client’s needs at all. “Ahh,” I thought, “That’s a red flag right there. It’s all about the sign language interpreter.”

A Litany of Excuses

And then, with a start, I realized, there was a reason that I could so easily imagine the rationalizations from that inner voice. In all honesty, I probably have conjured up a similar litany of excuses myself. And in all likelihood, most interpreters have also done so at one time or another–in legal or non-legal settings–if they are willing to admit it. In my case, this occurred–and hopefully it does so much less now–in situations where the Deaf party requires the services of a CDI.

Turn Down the Volume

My current strategy is to be extremely sensitive to the onset of this inner dialogue, so that it acts as a warning system alerting me to stop, assess the entire situation, and consider what is needed to give the Deaf client complete access to vital communication. Yes, it’s true that calling a halt to a meeting or legal proceeding is awkward and may provoke the ire of the lawyers, the judge and the other people involved. But when I cannot, in good conscience, convince myself that the present configuration best serves the needs of the Deaf person, I turn down the volume on that inner emotional voice, so that I can speak up and take action to do the ethically appropriate thing.

Call a Time Out

As a sign language interpreter how do you increase your sensitivity to that inner warning system?

– Monitor your physical responses to the situation. Breathing faster? Stomach tightening up? Your body may be telling you something.

– Are you not comprehending the signs? Resorting to fingerspelling to cope with unfamiliar vocabulary? Do your clients keep repeating themselves?

– Getting distracted by thoughts of how you are being perceived, instead of just focusing on the work?

It’s too hard to think objectively, and plan how to handle a situation that is not working while you are in the middle of interpreting. Call a time out. Breathe. Assess. This will give you a moment to collect yourself and ask the important question, “Should I continue?” Equally important, it will give you an opportunity to consider how to best proceed should the responsible and ethical decision be to stop.

Lets Share Our Collective Wisdom

What strategies do you use to remain sensitive to the alerts of your inner warning system? When have you taken the courageous step to stop the interpretation when you knew something was not working?

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Sign Language Interpreters: Are Acts of Omission a Failure of Duty?

 

The consequences of inaction can be high for sign language interpreters. Anna Witter-Merithew contextualizes our reluctance to intervene appropriately with thoughts on a history of opting for “invisibility” instead of action.

Often, when discussing breaches of ethical conduct, the focus is on a sign language interpreter’s commission of some act.  Examples might include a breach of confidentiality, accepting assignments beyond one’s capacity, demonstrating a lack of respect for consumers and/or colleagues.  Equally concerning, although discussed less often, are acts of omission.  Acts of omission refer to instances where a practitioner doesn’t follow expected or best practice in performing their duties.

Examples might include failing to advise consumers when there are barriers to an effective interpretation, failure to clarify information the interpreter does not understand or misinterprets, or failure to use consecutive interpreting when the circumstances necessitate, among many others. Both acts of commission and omission can cause harm to consumers, practitioners and the profession.  However, the focus of this article is on acts of omission and their potential relationship to the persona of invisibility that is deeply rooted in our field.  If you haven’t read my previous post, Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadows of Invisibility, consider it a prequel to this article.

Why Do We Fail to Intervene?

Granted, there may be many reasons that a sign language interpreter fails to act when some type of intervention is needed and within their realm of responsibility. After all, interpreting is a complex process. We all come to the work at different levels of readiness for all that is required of us, as eluded by Dennis Cokely in his article, Vanquished Native Voices—A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis. However, it is worth exploring the degree to which lingering shadows of invisibility impact our inaction.   Is it possible that our long history of encouraging practitioners to behave “as if not really there” and allowing things to proceed “as if the consumers were communicating directly” has created a diffusion of responsibility?  As a result, do interpreters perceive themselves as less responsible for the outcome of the exchange, even when it is the interpreting process or the interpreter’s presence that is creating the need for an intervention?

This concept of diffusion of responsibility has been discussed by sociologists studying examples of bystanders who do nothing in an emergency situation. Findings show that the larger the bystander group, the less likely one of the bystanders will intervene. According to social experiments, an individuals’ failure to assist others in emergencies is not due to apathy or indifference, but rather to the presence of other people. Bystanders perceive that their individual responsibility is diffused because it is unclear who is responsible in a group situation.  When responsibility is not specifically assigned, bystanders respond with ambiguity.

Is it possible a similar phenomenon occurs with sign language interpreters?  Do we think of ourselves as bystanders—present from a distance, and therefore, not involved?  Have we internalized the neutrality we are to bring to our task as non-involvement and disinterest [versus objectivity and emotional maturity]?  Are we unconsciously promoting the tendency to diffuse our responsibility to act when action is warranted?  Do we believe that if we are to behave as invisible, then any kind of intervention is inappropriate? Do we experience feelings of ambivalence when confronted with the need for an interpreter-related intervention? If so, there may be serious implications for our ability to fulfill our professional duty and there is merit in exploring this concept of intervention further.

Practicing Due Diligence

Like all practice professionals, sign language interpreters have the obligation to engage in due diligence when carrying out their duties.  Due diligence refers to the level of attention and care that a competent professional exercises to avoid harm to consumers of their services. It is a customary process applied by professionals to assess the risks and consequences associated with professional acts and behaviors.  Applying due diligence during our work as interpreters can help us to anticipate potential issues that may arise and/or validate concerns that we are sensing during our work.  Here are some steps that can guide us in the process.

1.  Recognize that there may be a need for an intervention.  There are many potential instances where such a need could arise.  This step requires us to assess the cues within the situation that signal that something is not working and taking the time to examine such cues more fully.  For example, the interpreter may not know what is meant by what a speaker is saying.  Or, it may become clear that consecutive interpreting will produce a more accurate interpretation and/or allow for fuller understanding and participation by one or more consumers.  Or, perhaps a cultural misunderstanding has arisen that was not addressed within the interpretation. By paying attention to the cues that signal the potential need for an intervention, we begin the process of applying due diligence.

2.  Take responsibility.  The next step in the due diligence cycle involves assessing whether we have a professional responsibility to act.  Part of this step requires the sign language interpreter to quickly assess who ultimately holds the duty to resolve whatever risk or potential consequence exists.  For example, consider instances where an interpreter doesn’t understand the source language message.  Since the interpreter holds the duty to accurately interpret the message, it is the interpreter who holds the responsibility to intervene and seek understanding. Passing on the lack of understanding to the consumer (by glossing or fingerspelling for example), expecting that they ask for the clarification, is avoidance that is reminiscent of  that period in our history where we promoted the view of the interpreter as a conduit or machine.  It is an example of diffused responsibility.  As well, expecting consumers to seek understanding when we do not understand may be unrealistic.  If the interpreter does not feel comfortable intervening, it stands to reason the consumer may not either.  This doesn’t mean that the need doesn’t exist, just that there is a reluctance to acknowledge it in a transparent manner.  So, the test is to assess who holds the duty to generate the accurate interpretation. Clearly, it is the sign language interpreter, not the consumer.

3.  Plan a course of action. Deciding how to intervene is as important as deciding that an intervention is necessary.  There are certainly ways of intervening that are disruptive and can alienate consumers.  So, thinking the process through (even practicing and role playing possible approaches) with colleagues can help to identify specific and successful strategies for intervening. It is important to learn to intervene in a way that builds trust and confidence.  Practitioners who are diligent in taking responsibility for the quality and accuracy of their work comment that when they are proactive in creating effective working conditions, or address errors and misunderstandings in an open and authentic manner, it promotes trust and confidence by consumers.  Diminished trust and confidence seems to arise when sign language interpreters attempt to act as if all is well, when it may not be or simply isn’t.

4.  Take action.  Initiating the intervention is the next step in the due diligence cycle.  This is the step that requires the courage and confidence to act. Again, given our historic roots, many of us find ourselves fearful of taking action perceiving it will be viewed as interjecting of ourselves into the situation.  In reality, we are already part of the interaction, and offering an intervention when it is warranted is not interjection of self, but rather carrying out our professional duty.  This difference is significant.  One is about potentially crossing professional boundaries and the other about maintaining the integrity of our work and profession.

The consequence of failing to act when it is our duty to act can be very serious.  In the case of a police interrogation, failure to apply best practices can lead to challenges being raised as to the admissibility of a deaf suspect’s statements.  In the case of an IEP team meeting, failure to articulate observations in a professional manner can lead to an IEP that doesn’t address the real needs of the deaf child.  In the case of a job interview, failure to accurately convey details can mean the difference between a person getting a job or not.

Stepping Out of the Shadows

Part of our process of stepping out of the shadows of invisibility is acknowledging that it feels safer and easier if we just remain conduits.  We then do not have to address the on-going and complex ethical issues associated with role definition and conflicts.  But without grappling with these very issues, we remain merely technicians, not professionals. We cannot insist on professional standing when we do not perform in the customary ways that professionals perform. As well, we cannot achieve a collective discretion without tackling the hard questions and finding ways to make our work more transparent.

Likewise, as sign language interpreters, we must always assess whether the consequence of intervention outweighs the contribution it makes.  Timing and manner of an intervention are critical considerations.  Sometimes we can’t assess this piece until we can reflect on the assignment afterwards.  Thus, learning to be reflective practitioners is an essential part of the due diligence cycle.  A future post will address this topic.

The Hard Question

What do we believe about ourselves, our work and our contribution to the good of the Deaf society? As we explore the answer to this and other hard questions, we must consider the implications of our history of behaving as if invisible and its potential contribution to the diffusion of responsibility.  In determining our answer, let’s hold fast to that which we value—communication access, equality, integrity and our relationship to the Deaf Community and one another.  It is these values that help us continue our journey of career-long growth and development…and are the source of the courage we need to continue our commitment to keep asking ourselves the hard questions.

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Your Co-Interpreter Has Fallen and Can’t Get Up

Brandon Arthur reflects on a team interpreting experience and shares some insights for sign language interpreters to consider in acting as the colleague they’d like to have.

While interpreting a short pro bono assignment over the weekend, I found myself working with an emerging interpreter.  As the meeting progressed—discussions grew more intense and participants became more interactive—I noted that both her confidence and effectiveness as an interpreter began to unravel.

I was as supportive of this young interpreter as the environment would allow; fortunately the outcome of the meeting was not negatively impacted. Since the experience, I have wondered what I could have done in the moment to reinforce the confidence of this budding interpreter.

It occurs to me that there are some “do’s” and “don’ts” when attempting to reinforce your team interpreter’s confidence while on assignment. At the end of the day the “do’s” and “don’ts” offered here are anecdotal, but I hope they give you something to consider in the event you find yourself in a similar situation.

When you see your team’s confidence begin to unravel,

Definitely Do

  • Actively work to anticipate your team’s need for support
  • Provide support in an unobtrusive, non-demoralizing way
  • Positively reinforce your team’s good decisions and choices
  • Model strategies for navigating the information from the “on-chair”
  • Maintain a positive, personable, and professional demeanor
  • Remember you’re still accountable for a complete work product

Definitely Don’t

  • Escalate your engagement to further differentiate your skills from your fellow interpreter
  • Disengage when your team is actively working in the “on-chair”
  • Dismiss your personal accountability for the outcome of the meeting
  • Be critical of your colleague to meeting participants
  • Give in to one of the three temptations of a sign language interpreter
  • Patronize your team when discussing the assignment on breaks

As every interpreter inherently understands, one’s confidence is critical to effectively doing their job.  Consequently, we have an obligation to support our team when they begin to feel defeated and no longer believe in their ability to meet the demands of the assignment.

Let’s Remember

We have all found ourselves in at least one situation where we have questioned our ability to do the job we were hired to do. Further, we can recall with great appreciation the colleague that picked us up, dusted us off, and helped us get back on that horse.

Let’s be that colleague.

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The Three Temptations of a Sign Language Interpreter

Working sign language interpreters are autonomous decision-makers who often work for unseen employers. Brandon Arthur exposes three temptations interpreters face and how to avoid them to maintain professional accountability.

The dynamics of working as a sign language interpreter are complex and require that a person be comfortable operating in the unknown with limited information. As a result of navigating these complexities, we are accustom to owning the decisions—or choosing not to own them—that influence the value and outcome of our work. Unfortunately, with this ownership comes the temptation to give in to one of what I will  refer to as the Three Temptations of a Sign Language Interpreter (note, I borrowed the temptation concept from Patrick Lencioni’s, The Five Temptations of a CEO – A Leadership Fable).

When giving in to one of these temptations, even the most skilled interpreter reduces the value of their service and calls into question the label we have advocated for years to achieve, a professional.

T1:  Dismiss that our actions reflect on the Deaf participant.

As interpreters, we give into this temptation in order to reconcile in our minds that our choices couldn’t possibly be the deciding factor in whether a qualified candidate gets the job, which ultimately supports their ability to fund their child’s college education.

It’s more comfortable to believe that our actions are conveniently invisible.

When confronted with this temptation, let’s remember that from poor interactions with meeting participants or not adhering to our Code-of-Professional-Conduct to tardiness or disheveled attire, the impression we make is lasting and inseparable from how the Deaf participant is perceived.

T2:  Avoid ownership of the errors in our work.

Interpreters give in to this temptation because we are fearful. We fear losing the confidence of meeting participants. We fear being viewed to possess an inferior skill-set. Ultimately, we fear not being invited back.

The damage, when an interpreter gives in to this temptation, is significant. For individuals to part an interaction believing they have an understanding of the other person’s position, only to find their understanding—and the work done since—is incorrect challenges the trust needed for the interpreting process to be successful.

Being indifferent to the errors in our work, may appear as validation of the view that we are part of an industry that is past feeling.

T3:  Misrepresent the amount of time on assignment.

Interpreters regularly work outside the view of those who hire them. Consequently, we may be tempted to misrepresent the amount of time we are on an assignment. This usually takes on a shape similar to, “I was only 10 minutes late and the meeting hadn’t started anyway” or “I was teaming with the regular interpreter and they would have started the assignment anyway.”

In either case, giving in to this temptation erodes the very nature of our being called a professional.  If those that hired us can’t trust that we will ethically represent our time, can they trust us to effectively represent them and/or own our errors?

Accountability

While resisting these three temptations can be a challenge, it is important that we never lose sight of our accountability for the outcome of our work. It’s my view that if we truly consider the impact of giving in to these temptations, its far easier to overcome them.

If one, or more, of these temptations make you feel uncomfortable, consider the reason and adjust accordingly. As interpreters, let’s be confident in our abilities, welcoming of the accountability for our decisions, and remain focused on contributing to positive outcomes.