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Power Dynamics: Are Sign Language Interpreters Getting it Right?

The relationship between a deaf professional and a sign language interpreter is as complex and unique as the individuals themselves. Darlene Zangara examines four central relational issues and suggests actions for strengthening this relationship at its core.

I was attending a community fund development event. An unfamiliar interpreter was scheduled to work with me. Unfortunately, I don’t always have the luxury of deciding or learning the identity of my interpreters before events. Nor do I have designated interpreters. However, the interpreter worked diligently at my side as I made my rounds of strategic conversations with attendees. A break was announced. I excused myself to the restroom. I returned to find the interpreter giggling and talking with a gentleman. I tried to nonchalantly assimilate myself into this lively discussion but the interpreter abruptly tells the gentleman, “I have to go back to work.” A very brief awkward moment, the gentleman quickly departs. I asked her who he was and what had transpired. She replied, “Oh, he was just asking about deaf people and sign language.” I wanted to go find a wall and bang my head. I prayed that I didn’t lose out on an opportunity.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Relational Dynamics

Today, designated relationships between deaf professionals and sign language interpreters are being scrutinized on the basis of the interpreters’ linguistic skills and the extent to which their “heart” is culturally deaf. At the same time, deaf professionals are drawing lines against oppressive attitudes and marginalization from the dominant communities. However, many deaf professionals and interpreters feel that the debates have been disheartening, provoking misunderstood divides between the two.

There is limited training regarding relational dynamics between the interpreter and the deaf professional and little is written on the topic. How do we manage the peripheral challenges and values of the dominant culture as a team?  How do we as individuals assimilate the awareness of oppression in our work? Many sign language interpreters and deaf professionals feel that this exclusive relationship requires much more than impartiality, savvy and recognizing imbalanced belief systems. This dilemma has definitely opened doors for endless debates with regard to whose Voice does it really belong? In the eyes of the interpreters, we know that the Voice belongs to the deaf person. Unfortunately, in the eyes of dominant community, it does not always appear that way.

The Fundamentals of Voice

Voice is the vehicle in communicating cultural identity, recognition and justice. Reclaiming or sustaining one’s Voice is to stand up for what one believes, or to preserve one’s identity and place in society. Deaf individuals are expected to proceed through a series of deliberations to determine favorable actions that will be persuasive, with the goal of embracing the voice of their cultural values. The deaf individual’s Voice or meaningful intentions will need to be effectively interpreted into mainstream American society’s language and paradigms. This requires reconstruction of the meanings and mediation of the facts and historical stories through a cultural lens into a language that mainstream society is accustomed to hearing and experiencing. This is a daunting challenge and a burden for those who do not mediate multiple cultures and languages effectively.

Although, the effective leadership of a deaf professional lies in their eloquence and eclecticism of skill in building relationships and influence, developing mutuality and effecting change, and the strategic positioning of themselves in the dominant culture. This also includes their ability to effectively mediate two languages; ASL and the Spoken English language; and two cultures, the mainstream culture and deaf culture with the assistance of the sign language interpreter. The deaf professional also relies on the quality of the language register and cultural fluency; signing skills; content knowledge; physical/mental stamina; and ability to support the leader’s traversing and positioning tactics.

For this piece, I am focusing on interpreters’ challenges. However, I do recognize that the divergence of relationships can easily be attributed to the deaf professional’s failure to lead. The fundamentals of Voice are moot if we do not comprehend the core issues for the divergences between the deaf professional and the interpreter. Looking at the four areas of challenges for interpreters, I will review:  Can’t Decide: An Extension or An Individual; Power Structure: Guilty by Association; Boundaries: Infinite Rubber Band and Total Congruence: Synchronicity.

Can’t Decide: An Extension or Individual?

The first core issue asks the questions, “Do sign language interpreters see themselves as an extension of the deaf professional or a separate individual where their own identity is evident?” Speaking for myself, I utilize the interpreter as an extension of myself. Now, keep in mind, most deaf professionals do not have the luxury of designated interpreters (Hauser, Finch & Hauser, 2008). Designated interpreters and deaf professional partnerships can provide opportunities to strategize and position due to having ongoing working relationship. However, there are times when designated partnerships are not feasible.  This personal incident gives me pause to ponder the potential unconscious paternalism and/or competitive nature.

I had a routine check-up with my primary doctor whom I have seen for a number of years. Initially, I was very purposeful in my communications with the nurse. As we progressed into the appointment, I noticed that the interpreter was increasingly uncomfortable with my positioning tactics. Prior to the physical examination, I instructed the interpreter to wait in the waiting area. She became flustered and insisted on staying until she interpreted the directions from the nurse. At this point, I was perplexed and decided to shrug it off. After the physical examination was completed, a meeting would take place in the doctor’s office. I instructed the nurse to bring the interpreter back. As I was waiting, the doctor and I had a casual chat. The attention shifted abruptly to the door as the interpreter made her entrance with urgency. She announced, “Hello Doctor.  I am the interpreter. We have met previously. I have worked with you.” She sought eye contact, smiled and stood behind the seated doctor in a very close proximity.  I was immediately caught off guard and felt like I was thrown into a popularity contest.

Granted, this is a subjective interpretation. However, my sense of vulnerability amplified as well as feeling underestimated. There are some interpreters who have difficulty embracing this concept – being an extension. In today’s society, individualism and competition are celebrated. Individuals are encouraged to compete and assert their own story. Everyone comes with a personal story and emblematically, a story is meant to be told. This is a value of the dominant culture. My question for this relationship is whose story is it?

Power Structure: Guilty by Association

The second core issue is sign language interpreters do have power. My interpreters are hearing, thus are representatives of the dominant culture. There is no way around it or denying it. Deaf professionals consistently experience unique challenges that are difficult to perceive by the dominant culture—including interpreters. The dominant culture is defined as having various forms of dominance or privilege; including race and ethnicity, gender, socio economic status, sexual orientation, disability, values, worldviews and life experiences. These privilege challenges are pervasive.

Individuals from the deaf community are not perceived as equal members of the dominant culture. The stereotypical perceptions are embedded in the language and social climate in which we live. Even though the deaf community works hard to mainstream within the dominant culture, the cultural and linguistic conflicts create a hierarchical dominance and privilege by the dominant culture—mainstream America. The deaf professional integrates the interpreter as a tool to gain access and position within the dominant culture. As Alex Jackson Nelson shared in his previous article, Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege, having self-awareness and an intimate understanding of marginalization and oppression is fundamental. Sign language interpreters who recognize privilege and power can begin to dismantle oppression. Ultimately, knowing that the relationships will instinctively have power disequilibrium is critical. Scientifically and naturally, biology and human nature wants to respond to disequilibrium with equilibrium—homeostasis.

Boundaries: The Infinite Rubber Band?

Boundaries and ethical dilemmas are extremely difficult to address and represent the third core issue. It is a continuous grey area. In the world of sign language interpreting, ideally one will consciously stretch the bounds ethically to produce optimal outcomes. A boundary is an invisible circle enclosing the individual. While the role of a sign language interpreter is to maintain professional distance, mediate information and remain focused on the consumer; the interpreter must also realize the “cloak of power and privilege” worn also influences her role. The interpreter’s cloak carries the power of information, dominant culture’s values, and provides the means of bridging communication and cultures. A worn rubber band may lose its elasticity; overuse of stretching the bounds may unconsciously seep in the dominance of the interpreter in the relationship. The interpreter must continuously perform a deliberate assessment of her boundaries both visible and invisible.

Total Congruence:  Synchronicity

The fourth issue is total congruence. When I am dancing with my interpreter, figuratively, we are synchronous. The deaf professional artfully collaborates with the interpreter to interpret messages accurately as well as matching the spirit of the message conveyed. The interpreter maintains appropriate language register, variation and synchronicity with discourse strategies. In addition, they must be able to understand all the cultural nuances and systems motivations of the dominant community. It is truly a joyous feeling knowing my Voice has been heard and I was in charge of the relationship. While this emotion is personal, the observation from the dominant community is that the interpreter did not dominate the dialogue. The focus remains with the deaf professional.

My Thoughts About “Leaning In”

As I approached the closing of this piece, I pondered the assumption of futility in these relationships. I am asserting that futility is perpetuated by ignorance and ego. Not everyone is ignorant or ego-driven nor do they want to be. First, I am not aware of what I am not aware of. Our greatest personal growth challenge is being aware of our own power and privilege. Second, borrowing a popular concept from described by Sheryl Sandberg in her book by the same title, “Lean In”. Sandberg’s book caught the attention of men, women and colleagues around the world, created tremendous social media attention, led to development of Lean In circles, coaching and resources to heighten awareness and support for women in the workplace. Lean In is a multifaceted, interpretative concept of pushing and/or backing off to support opportunities for an individual to succeed. While this concept is not entirely new, we have seen it utilized by many pioneers of the deaf and interpreting communities. Ways for “leaning in”include embracing the four core relational issues between the deaf professional and the sign language interpreter; an interpreter is an extension of the deaf professional; being aware s own privilege and power; being aware of her boundaries; and to dance with total congruence. It is a step towards respecting Voice and definitely a better ending for this scenario.

…I returned to find the interpreter giggling and talking with a gentleman. I tried to nonchalantly assimilate myself into this lively discussion. The interpreter introduces the gentleman to me, “This is John Smith from XYZ. He was just asking me about deaf people.” I smiled at the interpreter and gave her a nod. “Hi I am Darlene…”