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Sign Language Interpreters: Achieving Authentic Confidence

Can sign language interpreters find equilibrium between humility and confidence? Xenia Woods examines the impact of having too much or too little of either trait, and how this delicate balance can be cultivated and maintained.

Imagine yourself in the restroom while on a break from your work as a sign language interpreter. You look into the mirror as you dry your hands. What do you see? A linguist? An ally of the Deaf community? A wordsmith? Someone who is struggling to prove him or herself?

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Most sign language interpreters have dichotomous personalities. However, this split personality can actually be a good thing for us to have. Humility and confidence are the two seemingly contradictory halves of the interpreter personality. But when well-managed, they are ideal manifestations of the dualistic interpreter personality. As Brandon Arthur points out in, Do You Resemble the Sign Language Interpreter in Your Head?, “an appropriate level of self-awareness is critical to finding success in the sign language interpreting profession.”

Escaping Ego-Related Limitations

In their worst forms, humility and confidence swell into fear and arrogance. The fear stems from a lack of hard work on the part of the interpreter to continue to improve his or her skills. When a sign language interpreter is working at learning and doing her best, and only taking on work she can handle well, she has nothing to be afraid of. Those who are most fearful realize at their core that they should be doing more to improve their skills or that they are interpreting in settings that are beyond their skillset.

The key to escaping ego-related limitations, whether they are the kinds that make us too confident, or not confident enough, is an intentional and well-informed practice of reflection. Anna Witter-Merithew explains in, Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice, that this is a crucial habit for avoiding professional isolation and for achieving not only growth, but also well-being.

An intentional practice of reflection and development can consist of many possible elements:

  • Balancing Humility and Confidence is the key to professionalismobservation-supervision groups as defined by Robyn Dean
  • mentoring by a more experienced interpreter
  • peer mentoring
  • reviewing videos of one’s work with a Deaf language mentor
  • workshops and conferences in which one has defined goals and out of which one develops new practices
  • independent study in which one tackles specific skills with the help of consultants and research
  • attending intensive trainings with group discussion sessions
  • personal/life coaching
  • researching, writing, and teaching while applying what one learns to one’s own practice

Arrogance Stems From Ignorance

The more experienced a sign language interpreter is, the more he knows how much there is yet to learn. Consumers, whether Deaf or hearing, do not respond well to interpreter arrogance. But they do need interpreters who are confident. When a sign language interpreter is confident, the parties who are using the services of the interpreter trust that what they are saying is being faithfully relayed, whereas a self-conscious or insecure interpreter will cause consumers to be uncertain whether their communications are being conveyed accurately.

Many hearing consumers fan the flames of arrogance by praising interpreters for their “beautiful signing.” “It’s like a dance!” “You did such a wonderful job!” they say. While many of us are uncomfortable with this kind of attention, other interpreters are quite happy to interpret music, comedy, theatre, and the like, despite the fact that it, by definition, places one in the limelight. It has become for some an artistic expression. This is not without controversy. A recent article editorial in the Baltimore Sun by Deaf Gallaudet professor Caroline Solomon and her brother, attorney Jeffrey Archer Miller, expressed the sentiment:

“Sign language is not performance art.”

This tells us that some see highly visible examples of creative interpreting as outside the realm of what is necessary and acceptable.

Most sign language interpreters believe in humility and understand that, in general, interpreters are not performers. If you have a part of your personality that is a performer, you should express that elsewhere by being a musician, an actor, or a dancer, so that you’re not tempted to use your position as an interpreter to express that need. This issue has recently been highlighted by the Deaf Community in Seattle in their protest of the Seattle Men’s Chorus, which has, for many years, used an unqualified interpreter who openly prides himself on performing via sign language.

It is sad and embarrassing that we sometimes let our heads get too big. I will never forget the amazing characterization that Dr. Laurene Simms provided at the California State University Northridge Interpreting Symposium one year. She took on the traits and mannerisms of every know-it-all, self-absorbed, show-off interpreter she’d ever seen, and combined them into one laughably conceited character. The effect was humorous but also sobering.

In recent months, a refreshing trend has appeared in online media: the examination by both sign language interpreters and Deaf consumers of the problems that surround bringing interpreters into focus. We can all agree that interpreters deserve to be acknowledged for excellent service, but what we don’t agree on is what kinds of acknowledgement are acceptable. Negotiating this tightrope cannot be done in a vacuum, which is why all interpreters need to participate in ongoing discussions with interpreters and consumers about what professionalism looks like for our field.

Balancing Humility & Confidence

So what will help sign language interpreters achieve and maintain this balance between humility and confidence? It requires equal parts self-knowledge, education, and participation in the interpreter and Deaf communities.

1. Deaf consumers are not always prone to giving interpreters feedback. Don’t ask for it; it’s not their job to offer critiques. If a Deaf consumer provides you with useful feedback, you are fortunate. However, it is common for Deaf and hearing consumers to have no feedback for the interpreter(s). This can actually be a good thing! It may very well mean that your work was unremarkable and therefore effective.

2. The best interpreting goes mostly unnoticed. If the consumers are focused on the discussion rather than on the interpreter, then the interpreting process will be almost invisible. This is explained eloquently by Theresa Blankmeyer Burke in her editorial, The Costs Incurred: Hearing Non-Signers and Signed Language Interpreters. In this piece, Burke explains why she takes issue with what she calls “Interpreter Basking in the Spotlight Syndrome.” Bottom line: it draws undue attention away from the consumers.

3. When consumers are displeased with an interpreter, it is more likely to be about her attitude than her signing skills. A confident yet humble sign language interpreter is a good ally for any consumer.

In the End

Each of us has a unique blend of personality traits that make us who we are as sign language interpreters. This variation is good, as it allows us each to be suitable for different types of work. What’s crucial is that we are qualified for what we’re doing, and treat everyone with respect. When we remember to always focus on the message more than ourselves, we will be providing our best work. In the end, the work is not about us. It’s about the people we serve, and their communication. When interpreters have developed authentic confidence, they can allow people’s communication to flow unimpeded.

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Do You Resemble the Sign Language Interpreter in Your Head?

Do You Resemble the Interpreter in Your Head?

When reviewing our day, our month or our career, it can be tempting to play back the highlights and fast-forward past the less-comfortable scenes. In this article, Brandon Arthur explores the importance of fact-checking our own narratives and embracing the whole story.

Its part of the human experience to tell ourselves a story about the kind of person we are and why we choose to do what we do. This innate storytelling tendency extends to the professional personas we build as sign language interpreters. Have you ever paused to question if you actually resemble the sign language interpreter that you narrate you are in your head?

The Slant

While it’s not a stretch to believe that most of the stories washing over us are being told in support of a particular point of view, it is far more challenging to consider the presence of a slant in the very story we tell ourselves. Particularly, when it may result in a mental throwdown over what we believe the caliber and impact of our work is and what it may actually be. Aaron Brace’s article, The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter, explores this epic internal struggle.

With that said, I think most would acknowledge that a slant, likely more than one, exists in the story we narrate to ourselves as sign language interpreters. I’m not suggesting that we deliberately weave untrue stories about our work to our consumers and ourselves. Rather, that presence of the slant drives us to only narrate the highlights, even the flattering, and leave the rest in the “not news worthy” pile.

Clearly, with the discretion and autonomy, as highlighted by Anna Witter-Merithew in her article, Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadow of Invisibility, we have as sign language interpreters, to believe we are the sum our highlight reel is problematic.

Impaired Self-Awareness

In my mind, the most problematic aspect of the presence of a slant in our professional narrative is its ability to impair self-awareness. As any seasoned interpreter can attest, an appropriate level of self-awareness is critical to finding success in the sign language interpreting profession. If we operate while suffering from an impaired awareness of self, we risk exposing our consumers and colleagues to deficits in our ability to:

1)    Appropriately acknowledge our weaknesses and limitations.

You’ve seen it. Damage done. Enough said.

2)    Remain conscious of our biases.

It is easy, when lacking an appropriate level of self-awareness, to allow our preconceptions to infiltrate our interpretation and skew the meaning and intent of an intended communication.

3)    Earn social currency.

Operating without an appropriate level of self-awareness challenges even the best of us to authentically connect with consumers and meeting participants. This prevents us from efficiently navigating unfamiliar environments in order to effectively to our work.

If as sign language interpreters we are operating with these deficits, we position ourselves to make mistakes in our work and ultimately erode the trust needed to successfully deliver an experience worthy of our consumer’s confidence.

Embrace the Slant to Succeed

It occurs to me that in order for us to successfully overcome the slant, we need to embrace it. By embracing it, I am suggesting that we use what we know about it to our advantage.

What do we know? We know the slant enjoys opining on accomplishment. We know if mistakes must be mentioned, it likes them minimized. We know the slant views vulnerability as a public relation nightmare. How do we harness its incessant narcissism to our advantage?

Reframe. Reframe. Reframe.

We need to reframe our failures, shortcomings, and moments of vulnerability so they are “news worthy.” We can do this by viewing:

1)    Daily failures as learning opportunities.

After all, the hero in every story learns important lessons along the way. Let’s recognize the value of these lessons, be honest about needing them, and acknowledge they are to our betterment.

2)    Vulnerability as strength training.

By using moments of vulnerability as an opportunity to genuinely engage our consumers and colleagues to draw on their experience and expertise, we will find sage advice and a connection to something much greater than ourselves—the forward progress of the profession.

3)    Revision as an opportunity.

As the narrator, each of us has the ability and opportunity to rewrite the narrative in our heads—in whole or in part. We should always remind ourselves that we may not have the ability to control the outcome, but we can control how we respond to it.

By choosing to reframe our failures, shortcomings and vulnerabilities we expand the series of “news worthy” events used to define who we are and why we do what we do. In a profession that requires a high level of self-awareness, this is definitely to our advantage.

BTW, the slant finds all of this “news worthy.”

Authenticity Matters

In the end, the type of story we narrate to ourselves as sign language interpreters has a significant impact on the work that we do. While it is not likely that we will ever resemble the sign language interpreter we narrate we are in our heads, we should aspire to resemble an interpreter that is not the measure of their highlight reel, but one who can authentically connect with their consumers and colleagues and deliver an experience worthy of their confidence.

Suggestions on how to keep the slant in check?

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