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Meet, Engage, Learn & Inspire: Mentoring and Sign Language Interpreters

Meet, Engage, Learn & Inspire: Mentoring and Sign Language Interpreters

Mentoring is often cited as a way to bridge the “readiness gap” for emerging sign language interpreters. Kim Boeh outlines the benefits of mentoring relationships and tips for successful interactions.

You find yourself sitting in a classroom surrounded by your peers and realize that you will soon graduate from your interpreter education program and you experience a moment of panic. You realize that once you leave this college community of peers, instructors, and total comfort zone, you will be all on your own out there in the “real world” of interpreting. What will you do when you need advice? Who will counsel you when you don’t know if you are permitted to wear the swanky new outfit to the assignment or if it is okay to take that picture and post it on Facebook or is it ok to….? What you really need is a mentor.

[View post in ASL]

There appears to be a need and perhaps even an outcry for mentoring in the field of sign language interpreting. There is a dearth of qualified and trained mentors available across the board due in part to lack of availability, lack of training, and lack of feeling qualified to mentor. Mentoring, if done properly, truly has a lot to offer both the mentor and mentee. RID’s Mentoring Standard Practice Paper (2007), stated that mentoring is a learning and growing experience for everyone involved in the process and the experiences that are gained through mentorship foster a higher level of professionalism for each individual practitioner. For many in the field, mentoring is considered an essential component of interpreter education but in many instances, mentoring is a component missing from interpreter education (Winston & Lee, 2013).

Bridging the Gap

Cokely (2005) and Ball (2013) mentioned a gap emerged once sign language interpreters started being trained in colleges in lieu of being chosen for language proficiency and groomed by the Deaf community. Some solutions to decreasing this gap in the education of interpreters that have been suggested in the past include implementing mentoring opportunities for students (Delk, 2013; RID, 2007).

I know what it is like to walk alone into the unknown from college training programs to real-world interpreting. I did not have much access to mentors during my interpreter training program or the first several years working as an entry-level interpreter. There were not enough mentors available to meet the demand at the time. I have personally experienced the lack of support and guidance that many entry-level interpreters encounter. I have witnessed first-hand many new graduates struggling with entry into the field, and this has deepened my belief that mentoring is the key to successfully transitioning recent graduates from college to work-readiness. I say this because I became a mentor in my local community and saw the benefits that occurred when I worked one-on-one with new graduates. We each learned from the experience by collaborating and working together. Collaboration can increase rapport, trust, and unity among interpreters.

For my master’s thesis, I asked over 400 interpreters and interpreting students in the United States and Canada one specific question referring to their feelings of how important it is to have mentors available for entry-level interpreters. The collected data from that question shows there is a strong belief in the importance of mentorship in the interpreting field by those currently working, preparing to work or previously having worked in the field. I also asked if mentoring were made readily available who would take advantage of the mentoring opportunity? A total of 82% of the participants replied they would take advantage of mentorship if available. I believe mentorship could help to bridge the gap that exists between educational preparation programs and work-readiness in the profession of interpreting. It could also lead interpreters to expand their knowledge base, provide professional development opportunities and guide them to becoming more highly-skilled interpreters regardless of their time in the field.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Connect with the Community

Leslie Janda Decker wrote an article for StreetLeverage entitled Sign Language Education: Returning to Deaf Heart. She mentions having D/deaf individuals as mentors and tutors for ASL students and interpreters. Having the D/deaf community and the professional interpreting community come together for the advancement of the field and the services to the communities is paramount. Having mentoring available either in person, via email and/or via live video chats could greatly improve the field of interpreting and the confidence of interpreters.  

Create Awareness and Positive Change

Mentoring can bring about positive changes to the profession. Implementing small group mentoring situations can prevent future students from feeling fearful of entering the profession and feeling alone. Upon graduation, a new interpreter could be assigned a deaf and/or hearing mentor to guide him down the path from student to professional. Mentors are also useful to veteran interpreters wanting to improve a specific skill area or branch out into a different setting they have not experienced previously (e.g. legal). Mentoring can benefit each and every interpreter in a myriad of ways:

  • building trust and rapport in the community
  • learning new signs/expanding vocabulary
  • building self-confidence
  • discussing ethical scenarios
  • exploring new settings (e.g., mental health, legal, freelancing)
  • keeping abreast of new technology
  • staying current with social media sites and apps related to the profession
  • learning proper business practices
  • expanding business opportunities/networking

We all need to work together to fill the void that is missing in our field and mentoring can help.

Understanding and Overcoming Barriers to Mentorship

If so many people are interested in working with a mentor, then why are so few people working with mentors? Is it lack of availability? Cost? Fear? Traumatic experiences with previous mentors? Perhaps there are no skilled or willing mentors locally? How can we overcome the issues of not having enough qualified and willing mentors and interested mentees? One thought is that we all have something to offer. The student may learn a new technique or approach that was not around 20 years ago, and they can share this with others in the field. The veteran interpreter has “been there-done that” and can share experiences to shed some light on different scenarios to the novice interpreters entering the field. No matter where you are in your journey, you have something to offer to others and something to gain from others. More of us can set up study programs, workshops, and discussion groups to build camaraderie and share knowledge.

Key Tips to Mentoring

  • Determine what you want to gain from the mentorship (Skills development? If so, pick two elements of your work you want to focus on such as fingerspelling errors and use of space.)
  • Seek out an experienced, professional who is respected in the community and see if they have time to watch your work live or via a video and give feedback on just the two elements that you are working on (e.g., fingerspelling errors and use of space)
  • Feedback should be given and received without the use of evaluative language (e.g., good, bad, should have, you did/didn’t). Instead say, “What I observed was clear, effective fingerspelling. The use of space was ineffective in this sample due to items being set up in one space but referred to in another space, leaving the message unclear.
  • Focus on the WORK, not the interpreter. The goal of mentorship is to assist in accomplishing goals, and it is never the goal for one interpreter to criticize another. When working in teams and in mentoring roles (as mentees and mentors) we should always focus on the WORK, not the interpreter.
  • Give back! If someone offers to mentor you, find a professional way to give back to them and or the community. Reciprocity makes the world go round.

In Conclusion

We all have something to offer, so let’s find out what that is for each of us individually and share with our colleagues regardless of how long they or we have been working in the field. Whether you choose to start mentoring or become a mentee yourself, there is so much more out there if we are all just willing to take that next step to meet, engage, learn, and inspire. What are you waiting for?

Questions to Consider:

  1. If academics believe mentoring is one solution to help minimize the work-readiness gap in the field, what can we do now to make mentoring available nationwide?
  2. What do you think the requirements should be for someone who wants to be a mentor?
  3. How can each veteran interpreter find a way to assist the novice interpreters entering the field?
  4. How can each novice interpreter find a way to assist the veteran interpreters in the field?

For a more in-depth look at the research by Kimberly Boeh please visit


Ball, C. (2013). Legacies and legends: History of interpreter education from 1800 to the 21st century. Edmonton, Alberta Canada: Interpreting Consolidated.

Boeh, K.A. (2016). Mentoring: Fostering the profession while mitigating the gap. Master of Arts in Interpreting Studies (MAIS) Theses. Paper 26.

Cokely, D. (2005). Shifting positionality: A critical examination of the turning point in the relationship of interpreters and the deaf community. In M. Marschark, R. Peterson, E. A. Winston, P. Sapere, C. M. Convertino, R. Seewagen & C. Monikowski (Eds.), Sign language interpreting and interpreter education: Directions for research and practice (pp. 3-28). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Decker, L.J. (2015). Sign language interpreter education: Returning to deaf heart. Street Leverage. Retrieved from

Delk, L. (2013, February 28). Interpreter mentoring: A theory-based approach to program design and evaluation (Rep.). Retrieved from National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers website: aspiring-interpreter/mentorship/mentoring-toolkit/articles/.

Ott, E. (2015). Horizontal violence: Can sign language interpreters break the cycle? Street Leverage. Retrieved from

RID. (2007). Standard Practice Paper. Mentoring. Retrieved December 20, 2015 from

Winston, B. & Lee, R. G. (2013). Introduction. In B. Winston & R. G. Lee (Eds.), Mentorship in sign language interpreting (pp. v-viii). Alexandria, VA: RID Press.


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Accountability: A First Step to Harmony Among Sign Language Interpreters?

Accountability - The First Step to Harmony for Sign Language Interpreters

Altering our approach to problem-solving by moving from blame to accountability can transform the field of sign language interpreting.

Have you ever felt a great line of divide working its way through the interpreting profession? It seems that recently every group discussion, article, or even online discussion revolves around one group being frustrated with the actions of another group. If I am being honest, I must admit, I am guilty.

[Click to view post in ASL]

The more I started thinking about my own frustration, the more I realized I was part of the problem. To become frustrated with a group and sit quietly in that frustration or even worse, talk about it with my peers, only allows the problem to fester. It is because of that realization this article started to develop. I realized that I did not want to be a part of the great divide; I would prefer to accept responsibility for my actions and become part of an even greater solution.

The divisions within the sign language interpreting profession are deep and impactful. We have become a field where like-minded individuals group together, spending our time pointing fingers and placing blame rather than accepting responsibility for our own behavior. The great divide extends to many groups:

  • Deaf and Hearing
  • ITP graduates and Interpreters from the “school of experience”
  • CODAs and second language users
  • Nationally Certified Interpreters and Novice Interpreters

There are also many variations outside of and within these groups. Make no mistake; none of the groups listed are perfect. But what good is it to voice our complaints about these groups if we have no solutions? If complaints are constantly being emphasized, without solutions, then the complainer becomes part of the problem.

There are several issues within the groups listed above that we have the ability to control. While this article cannot address every divided group in the profession, let us look at one of the pairings as an example: nationally certified sign language interpreters versus novice sign language interpreters. More and more often, I have heard novice interpreters express frustration at the way they feel certified interpreters look down on them. I also hear certified interpreters express concerns about how novice interpreters are quick to take work they are not qualified to accept. We see the potential problem within each group’s perceptions. Now, let us discuss possible solutions.

Certified Sign Language Interpreters

Certified sign language interpreters should accept responsibility for fostering the growth of those novice sign language interpreters. There are many ways this can be done, such as mentoring, providing positive feedback, encouraging them in the right direction, and being mindful of how we approach them to give feedback.

I have heard the phrase “Certified Interpreters eat their young” more than once. While we may joke about this phrase, there are novice sign language interpreters who are afraid to reach out because they feel this statement is true. As certified sign language interpreters, we must be accountable for our actions. We should not base our opinion on our own beliefs and thoughts, rather, we should reach out to our peers for help when we are mentoring or giving advice. Remember, just because the advice did not come from us does not mean the advice is not valid. We should respect the advice that our peers have shared even if we would not offer the same feedback.

We also need to acknowledge when the novice interpreter is trying to follow the rules and be patient while they continue to advance their skills and knowledge. We are setting the standard those novice interpreters will one day follow.

Novice Sign Language Interpreters

As novice sign language interpreters, we should also accept responsibility by recognizing that we have an impact on the field of sign language interpreting. Our reputations will be made based on the decisions we make as we advance through the field.

When in doubt, it is appropriate to reach out to trusted certified sign language interpreters for their advice. We need to be willing to accept feedback from those who have experience. We also need to be willing to decline work that we are not ready to accept, skill-wise.

When we come across certified sign language interpreters who are not approachable, then we must look for others who are approachable. Just like the certified sign language interpreter who must be accountable for their actions, so should the novice interpreter. Remember, we are also representing the community we have become a part of and our actions could reflect positively or negatively on those communities.

We are All Accountable

Accountability is the key to a successful change. Each of the groups identified have issues that are very important to its members. The challenge is to find solutions to the issues that allow the group to stop pointing the finger, and start accepting responsibility.

The time has come to make a change in our field. The energy we have spent making excuses needs to be channeled into a newfound energy for finding solutions. Recently, in her article, Sign Language Interpreter Education: Time for a National Call to Action, Cindy Volk reached out with a “National Call to Action” and outlined ways for interpreter training programs to make changes. These types of articles are important because they offer suggestions for making change possible.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The examples provided above are just the tip of the iceberg. Today, I used Certified Interpreters v. Novice Interpreters as an example. The list of solutions was not an exhaustive list, but it is a start. The need now is for each of the other listed groups to consider, “How can I be a part of a positive change?”

I challenge these groups to find ways to work together. I challenge people within the groups to write more articles and get involved with more discussions that provide solutions. If there is a problem that the group feels strongly about, find ways to resolve the problem that do not include placing blame on the other group and then walking away.

It does not matter if you are an interpreter, presenter, teacher, student, consumer, or where you fit in, next time you feel strongly about a topic in the field, stop and think about how your response will impact the person listening. Remind yourself that if you just complain, you are part of the problem.

If there is one thing I have learned in all my years of interpreting, it is that this field is very distinct. Although I have been involved in the field since 1996, my family still does not know exactly what I do on a daily basis. They cannot understand what is involved in the whole process, no matter how many times I explain it to them. This has led me to the realization that we are a lonely field. If we turn against each other, who can we turn to for support? We each have a vested interest in the field of interpreting, whether we are service providers, or consumers. We need to look within our own groups and decide whether we are part of the cause of the great divide, or part of the solution to mend the gap.

Questions to Consider

1. What are some ways sign language interpreters can accept the challenge of bridging the gap?

2. Why are some people fearful about reaching out to opposing groups? What are some of those  fears and how can they be addressed?

3. What are some ways we can educate ourselves before we make a quick decision about another group?


Related StreetLeverage Posts

Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Langauge Interpreters Break the Cycle? by Kate Block

Strategic Partnerships: Cooperation Among Stakeholders in Sign Language Interpreting Isn’t Enough by Chris Wagner

Sign Language Interpreters: Is It Me? by Brian Morrison



Volk, C.  (2014, October 8) Sign language interpreter education: time for a national call to action. Street Leverage. Retrieved from




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Expanding the Definition of “Sign Language Interpreter Educator”

Expand the Definition of Sign Language Interpreter Educator

What makes a Sign Language Interpreter Educator? Jessica Bentley-Sassaman shares why this title belongs not only to instructors at the front of the classroom, but to those who guide and mentor interpreters throughout their education and career.

Traditionally, when people think of a sign language interpreter educator, they think of a person who formally teaches in an Interpreting Program at a college or university. It is true that instructors and professors who work at colleges and universities are interpreter educators, however there are so many more who guide new interpreters and interpreting students on their way to becoming a proficient interpreter. The definition of a sign language interpreter educator encompasses so many more people than only those who formally teach.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Sign language interpreters do not learn how to interpret by only attending classes at their local Interpreting Program. They also need to participate in a variety of activities that will engage them and provide opportunities for growth as a language user and as a sign language interpreter. These activities also prepare them for their careers.

These activities include but are not limited to:

  • interactions with the Deaf community outside of classes to become proficient in ASL
  • observations of working interpreters
  • mentoring with interpreter mentors
  • working as teams/colleagues with mentors after graduation

Brian Morrison said it aptly in his article, It Takes a Village to Raise a Sign Language Interpreter, “Interpreter education programs have a finite amount of time. We know that they aren’t able to teach everything we would like students to know before they enter the field” (Street Leverage, 2013). Interpreter educators are not the only people who are doing the educating of new interpreters.

Expanding the Definition


Perhaps you have thought, ‘I just mentor students, I am not an educator.’ Being “just” a mentor is educating interpreters. Mentors, whether Deaf or hearing, teach new sign language interpreters about language use, application of ethical decision making in the moment, on-site logistics, debriefing after an interpretation, providing immediate feedback, engaging in reflection, and assisting in application of new skills. Some mentors team up with working interpreters who are working towards certification, state licensure, or the Educational Interpreter Performance Assessment. Even though that interpreter is not a student, he or she is still learning about a new skill and learning how to apply that new skill. I have worked with mentors several times in my career as an interpreter – as an intern on my practicum, when working towards earning my RID certification, years later as a certified interpreter when I was working on taking the Specialty Certificate: Legal. Even now, if a situation comes up and I need to bounce ideas off another, I call a more seasoned interpreter and pose my questions.  Mentors play a crucial role in the skill development of interpreters, no matter if the interpreter is novice or seasoned. Mentors are interpreter educators.

Some interpreting agencies have mentorship programs, whether formal or informal. These programs assist during the transitional period from graduation to certification or to working interpreter. By setting up these types of mentorships, these agencies provide opportunities for new sign language interpreters to work with seasoned interpreters. They have a vested interest in seeing the Deaf community receiving the quality services that they deserve. These agencies are interpreter educators.


Workshop presenters are educators. The knowledge that presenters impart to interpreters helps mold them, sharpening their skill sets, teaching new information, new insights, and new ways of thinking. Sign language interpreters in all walks of life grow from the content taught during workshop trainings. Whether it is ground breaking information, or a new spin on an old theory, if you are a workshop presenter, you are an educator.

Deaf Community

Deaf community members who take new interpreters under their wing and help get them established in the Deaf community are interpreter educators. The amount of information/experience the Deaf community graciously gives to sign language interpreters is invaluable. Stacey Webb noted the importance the Deaf community has on the interpreting community in her article, The Value of Networking for the Developing Sign Language Interpreter. There is no way to fully express the debt and gratitude owed to the Deaf community for the valuable instruction. You are an educator.


Researchers provide the theory, the reasons behind why we do what we do as professionals. Their contributions to the field of interpreting have expanded our horizons, have put a term to what it is we do, have validated that ASL is a language, helped interpreters understand the process of interpretation. Through articles, books, workshops, and courses taught, the cutting edge research expands sign language interpreters’ horizons. Researchers are educators.

It Takes More Than One

It takes more than just one teacher to produce a qualified sign language interpreter. For all those who are involved in teaching, guiding, mentoring, encouraging, and embracing interpreters; you are educators.

Improving the quality of interpreters is the core of who we are as a profession. Our united goal is to provide the Deaf community with the qualified, effective interpreting services, embracing the concept of a Deaf-heart (see Betty Colonomos’ article Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart) and giving back to the Deaf and interpreting communities for future generations. For everything you have done to assist a new interpreter, you are an interpreter educator and CIT is an organization for you.

Where Do Educators Find Support?

There has been a misconception that CIT is only for interpreter educators. This is not the case. The Conference of Interpreter Trainers was established in 1979. CIT’s mission statement starts out with our purpose, to “encourage the preparation of interpreters who can effectively negotiate interpreted interactions within the wider society in which Deaf people live” (CIT).

The CIT conference is a gathering of people like you, interpreter educators. The conference is a great time to network with other professionals. Learn about new teaching approaches, mentoring practices, standards in interpreter education, technology, and application of studies. This conference is a great place to learn more about being an interpreter educator and to get involved. CIT is for you!

My Personal Journey to CIT

I began teaching at an ITP in 2006. At that time I was unaware CIT existed. A fellow educator at another institution had talked to me about and encouraged me to join. He also encouraged me to get involved in a CIT committee. That advice lead me to joining and becoming involved in CIT. I attended my first CIT conference in 2010 and I enjoyed the intimacy of the conference. I was able to network with and get to know many other CIT members who were educators, presenters, and mentors. That networking has made me a better educator. Attending CIT conferences is like coming home to a community who has a vested interest in providing high quality interpreting services for the Deaf community.

In Conclusion

Everyone who has a hand in assisting interpreting students, new and working interpreters is an interpreter educator. Your role in that interpreter’s career is important.  By being involved with an interpreter student, new and working interpreters, and providing feedback, you are sustaining the field of interpreters, you are ensuring that the interpreters gain and have the necessary interpreting skills and understanding of what the Deaf community looks for in interpreters. As time goes on, those interpreters will look back and remember that someone else took an interest in assisting them. Those interpreters are the future and they will learn by example how to give back to the interpreting and Deaf community based on how you educate them. You are an interpreter educator.

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How Do Sign Language Interpreters Avoid Mentoring’s Dodgy Undertow?

Avoid the Dodgy Undertow of Sign Language Interpreting

Can mentoring relationships among interpreters avoid common pitfalls? Lynne Wiesman describes ideal traits of mentoring partnerships to result in success for both experienced and novice interpreter.

We have all had someone who “took us under their wing” at some point in our careers. These people that we say changed the trajectory of our careers and pulled us up by allowing us to stand on their shoulders. These people, whose quiet grace, wanted nothing more for their trouble than for us to become the best sign language interpreters, professionals, and humans we could become.

Unfortunately, some of us have also had the type of mentor, who had goals that were not transparent and altruistic; where we sensed that the goal was to push us down. Those mentoring relationships sought to further intrinsic, selfish agendas.

Although the latter may have inherently negative connotations, it is not automatically unscrupulous for a mentor to want a mutual benefit from the relationship. Quite the contrary, agencies have a need to cultivate more interpreters. Veteran interpreters, for whom the work has lost some of its original appeal, may long for a burst of energy and enthusiasm. Interpreters want to model for a newer interpreter. Mentoring is an excellent way to bring a fresh, new perspective, while providing a way to give back and pay it forward.  All are necessary and vital for the preservation of our field!

Unchecked Assumptions

These aforementioned scenarios could be detrimental if they contain a motivation or element of conscious or unconscious deception or inauthenticity. If the primary goal for entering into a mentoring relationship is anything other than supporting mentees (students or working interpreters) to realize their goals of becoming an effective sign language interpreter, it may still be a successful relationship, but may not be a mentoring relationship. The chief objective for all stakeholders of mentoring is for newer interpreters to be pulled up, not pushed down.

If either in the relationship has motives other than to pull up or based on unchecked assumptions, the relationship exists with a dodgy undertow.  Assumptions can occur on both sides of the relationship. Newer interpreters must “pay their dues”, “can’t possibly have Deaf heart”, “can never possess the foundations of what it takes to be a good interpreter from mere classroom learning”, or “are just in it for the money”.  Veteran interpreters “owe me”, “can’t possibly know as much as me since they never attended an ITP”, or “have been in the field so long, they can’t be up to date on current research.”

It is not my intent to insinuate that either have ulterior motives or agendas to push down. It is my intent to raise awareness of an effective and powerful approach to mentoring that pulls up all stakeholders of a mentoring relationship.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Members of professions (e.g., nursing, teaching, and interpreting) receiving mentoring, report that mentoring is a formidable and effective intervention for induction into an industry. For years, as Lynette Taylor in Modern Questor: Connecting the Past to the Future of the Field reminds us, interpreters with more experience have been paired with those will less experience as a way to “navigate new waters.” We are where we are today, in part, due to mentoring by the Deaf community, agencies, and veteran sign language interpreters.

Unfortunately though, some also report being mentored in ways and by people who were untrained and unclear on the purpose and goal of mentoring. There are those who have never received formal training because it was not available or it was deemed unnecessary. A percentage of those may also believe that formal training is not an effective path to becoming an interpreter (or mentor.) This belief can permeate the mentoring relationship. Those who, perhaps, sought to mentor to further a gatekeeper role. Whether or not there exists a need for interpreters to become gatekeepers beyond those who truly own the keys and who live beyond the gates, this should not be done under the guise and pretense of mentoring.

Using ones personal or professional power to leverage control of someone’s dreams and goals can cause harm and ultimately does not result in any gains for society. Having the position power and exercising that ability to prevent access and advancement under the guise of mentoring is deceitful, defies the goal of mentoring, and is tantamount to abuse.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Not all mentoring should be altruistic but all mentoring relationships should be driven by an agenda that is co-created and negotiated, transparent, and authentic.

The foundations of quality mentoring hold a premise that a mentoring relationship is ultimately forged and maintained by open and honest communication. It would follow then, the lack of quality communication, communication conflicts, or even deceptive communication can set the stage for a dysfunctional mentoring relationship. Ott (2012) characterizes communication problems in mentoring as having an origin in intergenerational communication conflict, which may result in horizontal violence. Horizontal or “lateral violence occurs within marginalized groups where members strike out at each other as a result of being oppressed. The oppressed become the oppressors of themselves and each other” (Findlay, 2013). While interpreters are not, as a group, considered a marginalized group; many individual members are. Considering also that a large percentage of veteran interpreters have roots that are deep in the Deaf community either by familial, religious or other types of alliances, they have born witness to the impacts of others’ experiences and collaterally been harmed by their marginalization.

Ott sets the line of demarcation between generations of sign language interpreters at those who pre-date the requirement by RID to require a Bachelor’s in interpretation. Others have posited that line lies at the enactment of the ADA in 1990 or the establishment of ITPs as a turning point forever changing the landscape of interpreting. Where the line is that distinguishes generations of interpreters is open to debate and not the point of this article.  The reality is that the interpreting landscape has changed dramatically since those first days of family members providing volunteer services. There exists now an “interpreting space” (Taylor, 2013) shared by those who learned via the “school of hard knocks” and those who learned in a formal classroom. This is progress, right?

The paradox of progress is that to move toward one thing (pulling us toward a new understanding of professionalism), we move, or are pushed away, from another (our alliances with the Deaf community).

Unconsciously Competent

In the case of interpreting, progress pushed us away from the fledgling industry comprised of people with rich cultural experiences, knowledge of ASL, and values that were not formally or academically taught. Many of these early entrants into the field provided interpreting and are now the “veterans” who learned by association with members of the Deaf community who pulled up each and every person willing to facilitate communication. The learning was largely informal and by trial and error. Many mistakes were made; people were often put unwillingly and unknowingly in situations where irreparable harm could have been done (and may have been). Learning occurred as a result of these mistakes, not from an interpreter educator’s red pen or feedback on homework but during and after the work in discussions with consumers and team members. Learning occurred from those mistakes and veterans grew into the professional roles without ever stepping foot into a college classroom to study interpreting. Veterans could (and still can) culturally mediate and produce an effective product but can not explain how they did it. In a sense, veterans are, as Maslow (1940) would describe, “unconsciously competent.” Someone having so much experience producing interpretations, to the point of it becoming an innate task, characterizes this stage of learning. However, because they are unconsciously competent, they may also not be able to describe the discrete and multi-layered processes or decisions made leading up to the production of the task.

Consciously Competent

Herein lies a peek into what may be part of the communication conflict. Veterans are now being asked to mentor newer entrants into the field. Entrants who are afforded this opportunity based on that very same progress that pulled the field away from its cultural and linguistic roots. That progress that moved us toward professionalization of sign language interpreters was a result of ever-increasing academic and certification requirements. These newer interpreters lie somewhere on the continuum near unconsciously incompetent to consciously competent. These newer entrants to the profession have acquired a set of tools & processes, vocabulary, and research-based approaches & theories to be able to articulate the decisions made completing an interpreting task and analyze their work. They do this with a level of academic sophistication that can, as frequently reported, leave veterans feeling less competent or intimidated.

Mentors have frequently commented that “students can’t have Deaf heart” as if there is a formula or some secret membership card that they don’t yet possess. I challenge that assumption! In my experience as a mentor and educator, students in the program and just having graduated, may not have all of the cultural experiences that veterans do, but they definitely are passionate about the work, excited, enjoy socializing with Deaf people, and are still very interested and hungry for feedback from consumers. They are closer to having Deaf heart than many interpreters who have been in the field 5 years. It is then when we need to seize the window of opportunity, give them exposure to the community and culture that also paved the way for our induction into the field, and pull them up, as we were pulled up.  In my experience, that bright light dims after roughly 5 years in the field and seems to be replaced with the reality of the work, competing demands for time, or exposure to others whose light has dimmed or who may never had have a “Deaf heart”.

Finding Commonalities

Yes, our interpreting space and the landscape has changed. Let’s use this newer space and maximize the synergistic benefits for all. Veteran interpreters possess a different, and valid, perspective and ownership of the work. At the same time, newer interpreters possess a different motivation for having entered the field with a justifiable deep sense of pride in their educational accomplishments. The intersection of the two, provided by the mentoring relationship, can reap some very positive and mutually beneficial opportunities to unpack and discuss each other’s paradigms and to learn from and with each other. Find the commonalities!

As StreetLeverage’s mission is to effect positive change, my challenge for all is to leverage the powerful potential in the strengths and challenges of each group. What one set possesses, the other lacks. One set of interpreters possesses cultural and linguistic knowledge, experiences, and competencies. The other set possesses the academic knowledge, new experience, energy and enthusiasm.


Both veteran and novice interpreters have the same goal of wanting to provide effective interpreting. The best path to competency does not have to be recreating traumatic experiences for the mentees. Just as doctors used to give people a shot of whisky to pull out a bullet and saw off a leg, we too moved away from archaic methods and have made progress and created better tools to educate and mentor new interpreters. Pushing away the future of our industry does not benefit the community.  For all, incorporate approaches that pull new interpreters up and not push them down.

Pulling Up

Pushing Down Behaviors

Welcoming, open and authentic sharing of knowledge, information, and resources Withholding access (assignment, or consumer-related info)
Open and authentic communication throughout the process. Co-creating and negotiating motivations and agendas. Non-verbal & verbal behaviors (facial expressions, audible displays of displeasure, use of sarcasm and teasing, aggressive statements, etc.)
Sincerity & involvement in all opportunities. Accountability to the agenda. Undermining & sabotaging activities that make oneself unavailable for team support or deliberately setting up negative situations
Direct, authentic, and transparent communication. Posturing (infighting, deliberate betrayal, rumors, bickering, and unhealthy approaches to conflict management, not speaking directly to a person but speaking about them.)
Team accountability and discussion. Censuring (attributing the product of the teamed effort to the work of one person)
Respecting relationships and boundaries established as a result. Boundary violations (disclosing private or confidential information)
Inclusive behaviors Exclusive behaviors
Acceptance of a newer interpreter’s skill or knowledge deficits Intolerance for a newer interpreter’s skill or knowledge deficits
Embracing Intimidation
Supporting toward competence Blaming for incompetence
Validating experiences that got us both to this place Imposing one’s own experiences as the best or only route to competence

Adapted from Corgan, J. “Lateral Violence in Nursing”.

Extending a Challenge

My challenge to all –  PULL UP:

  • students, recent graduates, and new interpreters: pull them in early, while they are still so eager, willing, impressionable, and will benefit from your attention!
  • veteran interpreters: they have a wealth of experience, establish those invaluable relationships as early as possible and will benefit from your knowledge!
  • the entire community: we are only as strong as our weakest link!

As in the words of J.F.K., “A rising tide lifts all boats.”  Are you on board and willing to change the tide? Commit this year to entering into at least one mentoring relationship and pull up our profession!



Findlay, D. (2013). Kweykway Consulting.

Original Maslow, A (1940) replicated Broadwell, M. (1969). Unconscious Competence. Teaching for Learning (XVI). V 20 February 20, 1969 – NUMBER 41, (PAGE 1-3a).

Ott, Emily K., “Do We Eat Our Young and One Another? Horizontal Violence Among Signed Language Interpreters” (2012). Master’s Theses. Paper 1. 

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It Takes a Village to Raise a Sign Language Interpreter

The transition from student to working interpreter can be challenging when current practitioners are hesitant to step forward as guides. Brian Morrison pushes back on some negative mindsets regarding passing the torch, and makes suggestions on how to reach out to the next generation.

With fall upon us, students in interpreter training programs all over the country have begun another semester on their journey to becoming a sign language interpreter. Along with the classroom lectures and hands-on practice teachers are planning, they are also reaching out to the interpreting community for one of the most crucial pieces of the students’ development, observation and mentoring opportunities. However, these opportunities are becoming increasingly difficult to find. While some of the scarcity can be attributed to specific requirements of the situation, some of the difficulty is also due to a lack of support by the sign language interpreting community.

“Why would I train students to take my jobs?”

The statement above is a common one given as an explanation as to why sign language interpreters don’t want to work with students.  This statement saddens me not only as an interpreter, but as an interpreter educator as well. Personally, I wouldn’t have achieved what I have today if it wasn’t for the mentors and interpreters that I looked up to and served as models during my early development. As an educator who is striving to find opportunities for students, it’s equally frustrating.

How many of us benefited from these types of relationships that our students are striving to find and often cannot? What if, while we were developing our own skills, interpreters had given us the same reply? Would we be the interpreters we are today?

Where’s the disconnect? All interpreters who have gone through an Interpreter Education Program (IEP) experienced similar requirements for working with interpreters as students are doing now. Has it been so long that we’ve forgotten what it was once like when we were in their shoes?

Overall, students in these programs truly want to become interpreters and be contributing members of the profession. They sacrifice their time to focus on their skills and are committed to that process. As Stacey Webb highlights in her article, The Value of Networking for the Developing Sign Language Interpreter:

In order for students to be successful sign-language interpreters, prior to graduating it is critical that they develop a relationship with both the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community (DHHC) and current-working professionals within the DHHC.  This would include interpreters, educators and DHHC advocates. By fostering these relationships, students will create educational, professional and personal opportunities that would not be available to them outside of the classroom environment.”

So while students do make attempts at networking to cultivate these opportunities, it is very often a struggle.

“They have no respect for the elders in the profession”

This statement above, and variations of it, is another common sentiment towards students. While I don’t deny that attitudes reflective of this statement do exist among students, I also have to wonder how much responsibility can be attributed to the current state of the ‘system’?  What I have learned is that students are very observant.  They learn by watching and they often emulate what they see. In our reluctance to work with students, have we conveyed to them that we don’t value them or their work?   Have we somehow systematically disrespected the label “student” through our actions or lack thereof? In her article, What Role Does Civility Play in the Sign Language Interpreting Profession?, Carolyn Ball stresses the importance of civility in the field of interpreting and interpreter education. She states:

If all interpreters, educated through formal training, were given a clear sense of the importance of civility in the workplace and in interactions with colleagues, perhaps more recent graduates would benefit from repeat business and high levels of job satisfaction.”

As educators, cultivating an attitude of civility is definitely something that we can incorporate into our interpreter education programs. In turn, as experienced interpreters, we can also be the models of civility that we want them to emulate by embracing these students and guiding them into the profession.

As a profession, we recognize there is a shortage of qualified sign language interpreters. While several factors contribute to this, the fact is that most of these graduates will go on to work as interpreters. Many of them, like most of us when we started working as interpreters, will not be as prepared as they should be. Additionally, at some point, they will become our colleagues. If, as a profession, we made a commitment to being more involved with students early on in their professional lives, we could be training the team member we will want to work successfully with later. The latter scenario also suggests apossibility, the interpreted interaction as much more successful.

“I can’t believe you don’t know that!”

Interpreter education programs have a finite amount of time. We know that they aren’t able to teach everything we would like students to know before they enter the field. The field of sign language interpreter education has grown in the last several years thanks to organizations such as the Conference of Interpreter Trainers (CIT), the Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education (CCIE), and National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers (NCIEC). New research, new curricula, and improved standards for education programs are now available and these programs have access to materials and information which weren’t previously available.  Rather than viewing interpreter education programs negatively or putting the sole onus on them for having not taught students all they need to know, we can shift our focus to building on their existing foundation. To echo Kate Block’s sentiment in her article, Mentorship: Sign Language Interpreters Embrace Your Elders, take advantage of this new information that the students can bring to our work. Imagine the outcomes when the new student and the experienced interpreter learn and grow from sharing their knowledge with each other.

“What can I do?

I think first and foremost, we can be the manifestation of the theme, “I Am Change”, as StreetLeverage challenges us to do through this website. Interpreter education programs and students cannot be ignored, so as a responsibility to our profession, we can decide to step up and support our novices.

How can we make that change? There are several things that as individuals we can do right now.

Remember your passion.

Reflect back on your journey to becoming an interpreter. Remember what it was like to be that student…eager to learn and wanting experiences.

Offer observation.

Offer 2-3 opportunities a month to the local ITP for student observations. While much of the work may not be suitable or possible to have students present, we often do have situations that would be perfect.


Offer to go and speak to students at the local ITP. If you can’t offer them observations, offer them your wisdom in the classroom.

Sponsor a student.

Become a “Big Brother/Big Sister” to an ITP student. I think if we all look back to our early days, at least one name will come to mind as someone who “took us under their wing” and got us through. Be that person to a student. Be the interpreter you want to see the students grow to become.

Host an induction.

As a community and/or alumni association, host an induction ceremony for a graduating group of interpreting students. Acknowledge their hard work and dedication while welcoming them into this sometimes crazy, always wonderful world of interpreting.

Start a group.

Establish reflective practitioner groups that include students and new interpreters. StreetLeverage articles provide excellent discussion material for all levels of sign language interpreters. Case conferencing allows for insightful discussions of the decision making process based on actual scenarios.

I’m a strong believer in the idea of “it takes a village.” This is our profession and as such, we need to actively commit to the next generation of interpreters. Let’s face it, as individuals we will not be in the field forever. In order to preserve our legacy, we can leave positive impressions on the lives of the next generation. Let’s raise them well.

What will your contribution be?

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New Lamps for Old: Apprenticeship in Sign Language Interpreting

Sign Language Interpreting Professor

The field of interpreting evolves rapidly; bridging the gap from educational programs to real-world interpreting is critical. Rico Peterson shares critical components from RIT/NTID’s DAS Apprenticeship program.

A while ago I taught a workshop in Thailand. My driver, Tuy, took pains during our commute to describe points of interest and cultural nuance. At stoplights, vendors would rush into the queue of cars. One day, Tuy bought a small garland. As he fixed the flowers to his rearview mirror, he explained, “Respect for the car and for the road. It’s important to respect where we’re going and how we’re getting there.”

On the cusp of this new academic year, those words ring truer than ever.

Recalibrating Pedagogy

Those who taught sign language and interpreting in the days before technology remember a very different pedagogy than that which has developed since, a pedagogy borne largely by technology.  You might say that we have seen interpreting education grow from pre-video to meta-video.

Perhaps the biggest constant in this time of change has been video technology and how it continues to impact our field. Technology and the ready availability of cassette recording revolutionized interpreter education in the 1980s. We discovered quickly what a handy tool video could be in teaching and learning interpreting.

Technology in the 21st century has turned the tables. Since 2002, video has learned what a handy tool interpreters can be.  As the revolution rolls on, pedagogy recalibrates to consider a new model of sign language interpreting, one where some of the most fundamental precepts of our work are radically different from those we espoused as recently as 2005; where values like professional authority, publicly known standards, and adherence to a code of ethics are superseded by company policy, private, proprietary standards, and selective application of a code of ethics.

Real-World Approximation

In the days before widespread, curricularized interpreter education, people came into our field armed with resources. Language competency, at least as reckoned in ASL, was determined before one was “invited” to interpret. (Granted, this “invitation” betimes felt more compulsory than invitations often do.) Interaction in the source and target languages was available in abundance. Opportunities to work in real-world settings were offered in bite-size chunks. A simple phone message here or appointment made there, done successfully, was fundamental to expanding one’s repertoire into more complex discourse settings. The study of moral conduct was fairly transparent. One needed to behave appropriately to be accepted into the larger deaf/interpreting community. Local communities were adept at policing themselves, endorsing only those with proven fluency and values as “approved” interpreters.

What can apprenticeships today glean from this aboriginal learning environment?

The Challenge

Today students in our sign language interpreting programs are often novice signers, and rarely do they have anything approaching ready contact with both source and target languages. This is a circumstance peculiar to sign language interpreting education. A good deal of what we call Interpreting Education might also be described as “Advanced ASL” or “Advanced English”.  In doing some research several years ago, I identified a university that offered programs in both spoken and signed interpretation. Regarding language competence, the exit requirements for the sign language interpreting program were lower than the entrance requirements for the spoken language programs! It is commonly accepted that “Advanced ASL” is a major component of many sign language interpreting programs.

To be sure, the study of “Advanced ASL” contains as many questions and perplexities as the study of “for-profit interpreting”.  Again the issue arises — How best to equip novices with experience that will prepare them to enter our rapidly evolving field?

Practice Profession

Interpreting is frequently referred to as a “practice profession”. Definitions for “practice profession” are sprinkled liberally with concepts long known to adherents of “Situated Cognition” and “Experiential Learning”; including things like cognition in context, that knowing and doing are interwoven, and interaction with communities of practice. In both domains it is stipulated that exposure to real work in real settings is fundamental to mixing and refining the palette of skills interpreting requires.

The value of experiential learning or, as we call it, “apprenticeship” in interpreting is as well understood as it is little available.  Each year, the 130 IEPs in this country graduate roughly 1000 students. The lack of opportunities for graduates of interpreting programs to be supported as they take their critical early steps down the path toward becoming interpreters has been heard time out of mind in interpreting education.

A number of entities have recognized and rushed to remedy this lacuna, this crucial gap in interpreter education. Indeed, opportunities today are more available than ever for this sort of transitive assistance. Entire communities and regions have come together to offer mentorship programs. One video relay vendor in particular is commendable for its attention to interpreter education.

Critical Program Components

At the Department of Access Services (DAS) at RIT/NTID, we define apprenticeship as a guided entry into the craft and trade of sign language interpreting. The question of what an apprenticeship in interpreting ought include  is a central consideration of any program. As apprenticeships take place in real-world settings, who we are and what we do is fundamental.

Here, then, are some of the core components of the DAS program that I think can be valuable to  apprentices and programs supporting interpreters:

  • Varied venue:

It is critical that programs offer a diversity of settings for their apprentices to work.  At DAS we have found that while we are steeped in postsecondary education, academic interpreting, we can expose apprentices to everything from medical to legal (student disciplinary) to student government and life and professional development for the 100+ deaf faculty and staff.  The greater the exposure, the more rich the apprentice experience. The more rich the experience, the better the outcomes in the real world.

  • Quality working conditions:

The ratio of interpreting time to preparation time is an essential factor in postsecondary interpreting.  Again, using DAS as a backdrop, we build interpreting schedules on a ratio of approximately 2:1 in terms of “interpreting” time and rest, recovery, preparation, professional development time. While this may be a high bar in the field of sign language interpreting, we are committed to affording our staff interpreters the time and resources necessary to produce work of the highest quality.

  • Professional development activities:

Regular access to in-service trainings, workshops, and learning experiences offers an opportunity to reinforce aspects of our practice.  While the amount of professional development can certainly vary, at DAS we have offered over 60 professional development opportunities for our staff of 125 interpreters in the last two years alone.  Increased opportunities for reinforcement supports a more confident interpreter in practice.

  • Peer to peer mentoring:

Innovation is key to a program’s success.  As an example of program innovation, beginning in the spring of 2012, DAS staff interpreters have been offered state-of-the-art mentorship training that allows us to explore new and exciting aspects of mentorship, including assessment and self-assessment.

  • Veteran Staff:

The level of experience of a program’s staff may be the most valuable part of apprenticeship. The practical experience offered to support the navigation of ethical and practicing situations is highly valuable to those graduates transitioning into practice. An example of the value a program can bring, DAS employs over 120 full time interpreters who have an average tenure of 13.5 years.

 Apprenticeship is Not For Everyone

To be sure, not every student graduating from an IEP wants or needs an apprenticeship. Many students graduate and go directly to work. However, it has been my experience that just as many can benefit from a structured, supported transition from being a student to being an interpreter, one that takes familiar elements of interpreter education like rubrics and self-assessment and blends them into a vibrant experiential learning environment.


The pedagogy of interpreting education must keep pace with the evolution of interpreting practice. DAS’s new apprenticeship program represents an honest offer to improve the way we bring new people into the work we love. And as Tuy once said, it’s important to respect where we’re going and how we’re getting there.