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Deaf Interpreters in Denmark and Finland: An Illuminating Contrast

Deaf Interpreters in Denmark and Finland: An Illuminating Contrast

Denmark and Finland exemplify contrasting approaches to DIs and HIs. While roadblocks and resistance often hinder DIs in Denmark, having HIs and DIs study together in Finland leads to mutual cooperation.

 

Note: Anna Mindess, an American hearing interpreter wrote this post, incorporating interviews with Didde Nylander, a hearing Danish sign language interpreter and Markus Aro, a Finnish Deaf interpreter.

Looking through the eyes of people from other cultures, I believe, can provide a clearer perspective on our own situation. Recently, I’ve gotten a glimpse of two very different stances — regarding DIs and HIs — in Denmark and Finland. I hope sharing them will allow us to reexamine our own American struggles.

[Click to view post in ASL]

[Click to view post in International Sign Language]

Opening the Conversation

In 2008, I was invited to present several lectures in Denmark. For the last one, at the Deaf cultural center in the town of Castberggaard, before an audience of Deaf community members, I had the help of two wonderful Danish Deaf Interpreters, Bo Hårdell and Janne Niemelä. They translated my ASL into Danish SL so smoothly that I felt an effortless connection with my audience. On the train back to Copenhagen after the lecture, I thanked Bo and Janne again, adding that with their professionalism and language skills, they must surely receive many requests to work. They shook their heads and explained that in Denmark they felt their skills as DIs were not really appreciated. I was dismayed, but not that surprised, considering that many American DIs face the same challenges here.

A few months ago, I was contacted by a hearing Danish interpreter, Didde Nylander, who read my Street Leverage article Are Hearing Interpreters Responsible to Pave the Way for Deaf Interpreters?  Didde is actively involved in furthering the goals of DIs in Denmark. She recounted a familiar narrative of Danish Deaf people explaining and clarifying for each other in school and later in Deaf Clubs; and also the hurdles they currently face trying to be accepted as professional interpreters.

A “Shadow Profession”: Challenges for Deaf Interpreters in Denmark

Denmark’s first official interpreter training program was established in 1986 and now hearing graduates can earn a professional degree. “But what about Deaf interpreters?” I asked Didde.

Didde: Until recently it has mainly been a ‘shadow profession’ operating below the awareness of most hearing interpreters and even most Deaf people, themselves. Even the Deaf professionals (e.g. teachers and social workers) who act as interpreters are not always aware that is what they are doing.

While it is clear that Deaf people are serving as interpreters in Denmark, Didde tells me they have been effectively barred from enrolling in the country’s only interpreter training program (ITP).

Didde: So far, Deaf people cannot be accepted because of a clause in the program description stating that ‘the aim is to train interpreters to work between spoken Danish and Danish SL.’ When two Deaf persons applied for the program in 2011, they were accepted but asked to wait a year so the program could adapt their curriculum.  In 2012, however, the Ministry of Education rejected requests to change the curriculum for Deaf students, because they assumed that Deaf interpreting students could not complete the coursework on their own, but only if a hearing interpreter, in essence, did all the work for them. They likened it to a mute person who wanted to become an opera singer, but would need a speaking proxy to do the actual singing.

The training program finally proposed that the Deaf students could audit classes, but could not take the final exams, which meant they would not become ‘qualified interpreters’. The two DIs quit the program, then were accepted into EUMASLI instead. (European Masters in Sign Language Interpreting). 

Hearing Interpreter Reactions in Denmark

I asked Didde about the majority of Danish HIs’ reactions to the unequal opportunities offered to DIs.

Didde: When they applied, these two interpreters, Vivien Batory and Bo Hårdell, had already been working as interpreters for about ten years for foreign visitors and at international conferences. But I don’t think most HIs even knew this took place, because we did not attend those events. The HIs who did attend were not concerned because these were not jobs we would have been assigned anyhow, since we did not know SLs other than Danish.

What did catch the HIs’ attention was when Vivien and Bo joined a team of HIs who had been interpreting television news broadcasts for several years. When their work became very visible, many HIs felt threatened.

Didde: Some HIs stated that they did not see the benefit of adding DIs, as they felt they were already doing a great job. Many took the position that they could not approve of DIs because they were not ‘trained.’  Fears multiplied: ‘Will the DIs take our work?‘ ‘Will we be ‘reduced’ to positions as feeders?’

As Danish Deaf interpreters increasingly worked in diverse settings, the Deaf community started to view interpretation as a viable profession for Deaf people. In 2012, the Deaf Association established a ‘DI project,’ in which 13 Deaf persons were given a course on interpretation and employed to work as freelance interpreters. They mainly worked in community settings, which made them more visible to HIs, which led to even more resistance within the HI community and emotional debates in our national interpreters’ association (the FTT).

In 2015, the national authority paying for community interpretations offered to certify the now 10 Deaf interpreters in the project, plus Vivien and Bo. So finally, Denmark has its first group of certified DIs, but that doesn’t mean they are fully accepted and equal to HIs. Currently, although several agencies have contracts with freelance DIs, they are certified to interpret only in pre-approved situations, which means a special application has to be made for each interpretation, explaining the exceptional need for a DI. And DIs still cannot take the full ITP.

Didde told me that earlier this year, there was much debate in FTT as to whether the certified Deaf interpreters could even become members. Some HIs supported the idea, while others were strongly against it. A large group was undecided.  One concern Didde noted was, “whether we would need to use SL during our meetings. Many HIs say they are able to express themselves more freely in their first language, spoken Danish”. The issue of whether DIs can be members of FTT will be decided in a membership ballot this fall.

Didde: On an official level, we have come a long way. But has our cultural knowledge of Deaf people developed as completely? It seems to me that there is still a residue of old notions of Deaf people being inferior to the hearing majority and having limited professional options. The emergence of the DI profession has raised many attitudinal and cultural questions, which we need to examine with openness and curiosity. Our biggest challenge now is to secure a good relationship between HIs and DIs.

I told Didde I see several areas where DIs in the U.S. are ahead of those in Denmark, but at the same time, there is still resistance from certain HIs. Since I have heard similar stories regarding other countries, I hazarded a guess that this might be a worldwide phenomenon.  

A Different Story in Finland

Didde corrected my overly broad assumption based on research she did in Finland, where a different path seems to have led to a more cooperative relationship between HIs and DIs.  She suggested I interview Markus Aro, a Finnish Deaf Interpreter.

Markus shared with me that Finland has a history of using Deaf people to interpret for Deaf Blind people. In the 1980’s, there were not enough hearing interpreters to do tactile interpreting. So Deaf people were drafted. But the Deaf Blind consumers wanted their Deaf interpreters to get trained. The Finnish Association of the Deaf created a 175-hour course to train and certify a group of DIs in Deaf Blind interpreting.

Interpreter Education with HIs and DIs in Finland

Then, in 2001, when HUMAK (The University of Applied Sciences) announced that their four-year interpreter training program would welcome both Deaf and hearing students, the first six Deaf interpreters joined that program. Of the original six, four successfully completed the program, (Markus was one of them).

Besides trying to attract Deaf people into their program, HUMAK’s target group is hearing students with no experience in the Deaf community. Markus told me that most hearing students enter HUMAK at 19-20 years old, without knowing sign language. Since the HIs come in with little or no previous knowledge about Deaf people and then are thrust into a collaborative learning environment with Deaf students also studying to become interpreters, they learn “good attitudes” from the beginning and early on get used to working with Deaf interpreters. While the hearing students spend much of their first two years learning Finnish Sign Language, the Deaf students focus on written Finnish and English.

Markus:  The courses for Deaf and hearing students differ only slightly. They try to make as few adjustments as possible so all students receive the same education. Linguistics is taught separately to hearing and Deaf students, but they have many courses together, such as Interpretation Theory. The third and fourth years focus on interpreting skills for all students. There is a folk high school for Deaf immigrants, in the same location as HUMAK, where the Deaf students practice interpretation with the immigrant students.

“It was a good experience studying together with HIs, “ Markus told me. “And we figured out how to team together.”

Markus: When I studied at HUMAK, there hadn’t yet been a lot of analysis of best practices for HI and DI teams. The teachers informed us that we would just have to work it out together.  We told the HIs we didn’t just want them to be ‘mindless feeders.’ It’s all about teamwork and the need to keep checking in and seeing how to support each other.

Community Buy-In is Key

After graduating, however, the DIs found there was not much work for them.

Markus: Part of the problem was a feeling among the Deaf Community, ‘Why do we need Deaf interpreters?’ So we explained about Deaf blind, International Sign, translation from written Finnish into SL and immigrants. Gradually, the Deaf Community became more open and after a couple of years their attitude was much more positive. Most of the HIs were happy to work with DIs, but a few had some resistance.

Ironically, a shortsighted governmental policy helped some HIs appreciate DIs’ valuable skills.  In 2012, the Finnish government (who pays for the majority of interpreting services) declared that Deaf immigrants would only be entitled to DI services for one year, assuming that after a year, the immigrants would learn enough Finnish SL that HIs alone could satisfy their communication needs.  

Markus: After the one-year mark, HIs found themselves on their own with these Deaf immigrants, wishing the DIs could come help them interpret. If, however, these immigrants went to a police station or a hospital, those entities can pay for Deaf interpreters from their own funds. Then the HIs were again relieved and grateful for DIs’ help.

Markus concludes: “We need HIs! We can’t work without them. We need to work together so Deaf people get the best access.”

In Conclusion

I think there is much we can learn from these two narratives. Markus credits the fact that HIs start HUMAK with a “blank slate” of no previous knowledge of sign language or Deaf Culture as being key to their openness to learning together with Deaf colleagues. Meanwhile, in North America, we seem to be pushing for a higher bar of language and cultural competency as prerequisites for entering ITP students.

Acknowledgements

**This article and its ASL and IS translations were made possible thanks to the contributions of many people across the world: Didde Nylander, Markus Aro, Ryan Shephard, Nana Marie Søltoft, Bo Hårdell, Tegnsprogstolken.dk, the Danish Deaf Association and Damon Timm.

Questions for Consideration

1) Which do you think is the best approach?

2) Is this a generational issue? (i.e., when many of us older interpreters were trained, there were no “Deaf Interpreters” so it may seem jarring to introduce a whole new element into an established system –even though Deaf people have been “interpreting for each other” forever? Will the younger generation have an easier time accepting Deaf interpreters?

3) For readers from other countries, what is your experience in training Deaf and Hearing interpreters? Any tips for us?

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Are Hearing Interpreters Responsible to Pave the Way for Deaf Interpreters?

Hearing Sign Language Interpreters Advocating for Deaf Interpreters

Although the number of Certified Deaf interpreters continues to grow, there remains misunderstanding about their role, as well as a shortage of work. Anna Mindess discusses the unique skill set that Deaf interpreters bring to the profession and actions hearing interpreters can take further the inclusion of Deaf interpreter colleagues.

Deaf interpreters are marching up the road to take their place as equal and valued professionals alongside their hearing counterparts. As more Deaf interpreters are trained, become certified and collaborate with hearing teammates, it will inevitably alter our way of working. We can welcome this evolving development and cherish the new opportunities it brings or dig in our heels and resist.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Two Street Leverage posts have addressed the gathering momentum of this movement. In Deaf Interpreters in the Blind Spot of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession, Jennifer Kaika documents the increasing numbers of Deaf interpreters and challenges us to support Deaf interpreters as “a long-standing and lasting part [of our profession], present since the inception of RID.” In Deaf Interpreters: The State of Inclusion, Nigel Howard, a Deaf interpreter himself, urges us to truly realize a team approach by “working together toward a shared and collaborative target language interpretation that is an equivalent to the source language.”

Recently, when revising my book, Reading Between the Signs, for a new edition, I added a section on Deaf interpreters. With the book’s focus on the cultural aspects of our work, it struck me that the resistance some hearing interpreters seem to feel to this “new” development in our field, might be rooted in cultural values (more about this later). First, let’s confirm the fact that Deaf interpreters belong to a tradition with deep roots.

Long Tradition

Eileen Forestal, a Deaf interpreter who has been at the forefront of research and training, contributed a chapter to the new book, Deaf Interpreters at Work: International Insights. While awarding official certificates to Deaf interpreters may be a relatively recent development, Forestal writes that, “as long as Deaf people have existed, they have been translating and interpreting within the Deaf community.” It goes back to the residential schools, where “Deaf children, both in and out of the classroom, would frequently explain, rephrase, or clarify for each other the signed communication used by hearing teachers.” Once out of school, this supportive activity did not cease. “Deaf persons would interpret for each other to ensure full understanding of information being communicated, whether in classrooms, meetings, appointments, or letters and other written documents” (Forestal, 2014, 30).

My Experience

Researching the history of Deaf interpreters allowed me to look back at my own career and see it through different eyes. After discovering the Deaf World via theater in the mid 1970’s when I was an actress in Los   Angeles, I found CSUN where I took all four(!) classes offered at the time: ASL 1 and 2 and Interpreting 1 and 2.

Clearly, I was not prepared to work as a sign language interpreter, but with encouragement from my Deaf theater friends, I cautiously began community interpreting. In hindsight, I recall that at several Social Security or VR appointments, the Deaf person I was supposed to meet brought a “Deaf friend.” And if my interpretations were not clear enough, the friend would succinctly convey the point, assuming the role of unofficial “Deaf interpreter.”

In the mid-1980’s, I got a full time job at a large TDD distribution center in downtown Los Angeles to handle the crush of new customers thrilled to get the latest communication devices. When walk-in customers arrived, my co-worker, a Deaf woman named Sue Lee, would greet them and demonstrate their choice of equipment. My job was to interpret the registration process between Deaf customers and the hearing phone company reps on-site. As LA is a city of immigrants, it often happened that the Deaf person and I needed some extra help going over the rules of the program. I’d ask Sue to join us and she would come up with a way to best convey the information. Once again, everyone benefitted from the skills of a “Deaf interpreter,” although we didn’t label it as such at the time.

After moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, I continued community interpreting, but returned to CSUN in 1991 for a 6-week course in legal interpreting. Our class of two-dozen seasoned interpreters included 3 Deaf interpreters and we enjoyed figuring out how to best work together in the legal scenarios we practiced.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve specialized in legal interpreting and often team with Deaf interpreters (now CDIs). Most of my peak moments interpreting have occurred while collaborating with a Deaf interpreter to achieve the shared goal of optimal understanding.  To me, it feels like dancing with the perfect partner. Having the benefit of teaming together repeatedly, we can often anticipate each other’s needs and intentions and seamlessly move as one.

For a new chapter in my book, I interviewed five very skilled Deaf interpreters with whom I have had the privilege and pleasure of working in court: Linda Bove, Daniel Langholtz, Priscilla Moyers, Ryan Shephard and Christopher Tester.

What We Found

Probably the Deaf interpreter’s most important skill is the ability to provide language access to a range of Deaf clients. But since the theme of my book is culture and my space was limited, I narrowed my focus to cultural aspects of Deaf interpreters’ work.

In analyzing the techniques DIs used for cultural adjustments, we discovered that besides the same kind of adjustments that hearing interpreters employ (including those I previously labeled “Highlighting the Point,” “Context Balancing,” and “Road Mapping”) Deaf interpreters also employed several other techniques, which we tentatively called “Empathy,” “Setting the Stage,” “Directive Form,” “Deaf Extra Linguistic Knowledge,” “Enlarging the Perspective” and “Deeper Understanding.” Further research will undoubtedly refine, redefine, and add to this initial attempt at classification.

Cultural Adjustments Only Deaf Interpreters Can Make

This discussion about techniques may prompt you to wonder, “Why can’t hearing interpreters just learn to do whatever the Deaf interpreters (DIs) are doing?”

In his seminal chapter, “Deaf Interpreters,” Patrick Boudreault, specifies that besides having sign language as a first language, DIs “share the Deaf experience with the Deaf consumer; this ‘sameness’ is an important factor in establishing rapport and communicating effectively.” He adds that the cultural identification “can generate a sense of empowerment within the Deaf consumer with which to express her thoughts to other people whom she could not previously communicate with” (Boudreault 2005, 335).

A classic example of “Directive Form” in legal settings occurs when a line of questioning posed to a Deaf witness requires only “yes” or “no” answers. Since ASL is highly dependent on context, the witness is often tempted to add some background which he or she probably assumes will clarify the “yes” or “no.”

Sometimes a reminder from the attorney or judge is all that is necessary for a Deaf (or hearing) witness to reluctantly confine their answers to a single word or sign. But it often happens that the Deaf witness repeatedly tries to include additional context in their answer. In these situations, I’ve seen DIs sign a very direct, ASK-YOU-QUESTION, ANSWER YES, NO, FINISH PERIOD. [The question.] ANSWER YES, NO, WHICH?

In this instance, it seems that coming from another Deaf person, the directive style is accepted, but if a hearing interpreter delivered the same command it could well be perceived as patronizing or controlling.

In Deaf Interpreters at Work, the authors describe a division of strengths: “DIs have a better understanding of sign language nuances, hearing interpreters have a better understanding of spoken language nuances…”(Adam et al. 2014, 7). This would naturally extend to nuances of cultural expectations. With mutual respect, these distinct spheres of expertise can become a source of synergy.

Here’s the Problem

This is a fascinating area of study and fertile ground for more research. But presently there are more pressing obstructions and potholes in the road ahead for CDIs.  I’ve seen many CDIs describe their determination to get trained and become certified, only to find that they cannot get enough work to make a living (unless, perhaps, they are willing to zigzag across the country to follow the work). So things may be changing, but at a snail’s pace.

I don’t believe that hearing interpreters have the luxury to shrug off this situation and stand by “neutrally.” It is up to us–the majority–to enable this transition and encourage the use of CDIs. Although the Deaf consumer sometimes requests a CDI, most often the hearing interpreter acts as first responder and gatekeeper. If communication is not going smoothly, we need to be honest with our clients and ourselves, stop the transaction and explain the need for a CDI.

This post ends with a few actions each of us can take to further the inclusion of DIs in our profession. But first, another bump in the road: our own attitude. Are we open, proactive, apathetic, threatened or resistant to increasing numbers of Deaf interpreters?

Taking Responsibility

As an interculturalist, I often look beneath the surface to see if there might be a cultural basis behind a persistent conflict. In collectivist Deaf culture, ensuring that the rest of the group has full access to information is a primary value.  For those hearing interpreters who feel threatened by the influx of Deaf interpreters, I wonder if this could this relate to the competition that permeates American culture or the value we place on individual accomplishments? Is it our fear of judgment?  Not wanting to give up our power?

Why does asking for a language specialist to bring expertise to a tough situation make some hearing interpreters feel like they are admitting failure or deficiency? Can we shift that view to see that together we can co-create meaning and provide the best possible language and cultural access?

5 Steps You Can Take:

1)     Take a workshop or class in teaming with DIs. If you can’t find one in your area, organize one.

2)     Find out who are the CDIs closest to your location. Make contact with them; ask for their availability and any special areas of expertise.

3)     Ask agencies you work for if they have contracts with CDIs. If not, urge them to put everything in place. (Often when a CDI is needed, it is discovered during an assignment with some urgency, e.g. medical or legal).

4)     Recognize the, often subtle, signals that a CDI is needed in a specific situation or for a certain Deaf consumer, (e.g., head nodding, repeating back your signs, reticence to reply in depth). Ask yourself, “Am I ‘working too hard’ to get the meaning across or fully understand the signs I see?”

5)     Be brave enough to stop the proceeding and explain why a language specialist (CDI) is required. Give appropriate resources, if needed. Stand firm; it may not feel comfortable.

What else can we do to bring Deaf interpreters back into their traditional cultural roles?

 

 

References

Adam, Robert, et al. “Deaf Interpreters: An Introduction.” In Deaf Interpreters at Work, edited by Robert Adams, Christopher Stone, Steven Collins, and Melanie Metzger. Washington, DC: Gallaudet Press, 2014

Boudreault, Patrick. “Deaf Interpreters.” In Topics in Signed Language Interpreting, edited by Terry Janzen, Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2005.

Forestal, Eileen. “Deaf Interpreters: The Dynamics of their Interpreting Processes.” In Deaf Interpreters at Work, edited by Robert Adams, Christopher Stone, Steven Collins, and Melanie Metzger. Washington, DC: Gallaudet Press, 2014

Howard, Nigel. “Deaf Interpreters: The State of Inclusion.” Street Leverage, April 16, 2013, www.streetleverage.com/2013/04/nigel-howard-deaf-interpreters-the-state-of-inclusion

Kaika, Jennifer. “Deaf Interpreters: In the Blind Spot of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession.” Street Leverage, March 6, 2013, www.streetleverage.com/2013/03/deaf-interpreters-in-the-blind-spot-of-the-sign-language-interpreting-profession

Mindess, Anna. Reading Between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters, 3rd edition, Boston, MA, Intercultural Press (forthcoming, October 2014).

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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?