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Building Trust: Accepting the Mantle of Sign Language Interpreter

Building Trust - Accepting the Mantle of Sign Language Interpreter

Trustworthiness is a trait all sign language interpreters must embody. Wing Butler posits that it is our duty to display our commitment and trustworthiness at all times, on-the-job and off.

Trust is a huge part of the sign language interpreting profession. As ASL interpreters, we are representatives of our clients, our profession, and at times the entire Deaf community. At the end of the day, our job is a commitment to honor those we represent and the mantle they’ve entrusted to us.

[View post in ASL.]

The Epitome of Honor

That much responsibility can feel daunting, but sign language interpreting isn’t the only occupation with such a high level of trust. One of my favorite examples of taking on a mantle for a job—and one that comes with high expectations of conduct—is the elite Tomb Guard of Arlington Cemetery.

These sentinels guard the famous Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. According to their official website, those who train for this rigorous assignment must meet the highest standards, “including following strict rules, training guidelines, and the need for complete dedication and commitment to the Tomb.” The Tomb Guard have been watching this tomb 24 hours a day, 7 days a week since 1937! No matter what the weather is like, there is always a Tomb Guard present.

After 9 months of service at the tomb, these soldiers receive the Tomb Guard Identification Badge (TGIB). This award is symbolic of their dedication to the tomb, a dedication they are expected to honor for the rest of their days. Even when the guards become civilians, the TGIB can be revoked for committing a serious offense that discredits the Tomb of the Unknowns.

In many ways, I feel that sign language interpreters should honor our position just like the Tomb Guard. Ours is a job that can be called on at any time, in any condition. Beyond that, sign language interpreters protect the communities we serve. We’re defenders, helping people navigate tricky situations that could end disastrously if we aren’t doing our job right. And often, no one will ever know if we’re doing our jobs correctly or not. This high level of trust is precisely why our actions and words matter, even when we’re off the clock. Recently I’ve noticed that many in our community are not living up to our professional standards the way we should.

An Awkward Situation

Just this year, I was in a group of interpreters at a regional event, waiting for our next assignment. I was an interpreter from out of state, and the downtime gave me a chance to meet the local interpreter professionals. As many conversations do, it turned into a discussion about our profession: ethics, organizational decisions, and the injustices some find in our craft. Then the discussion turned to the ever-common topic of the national professional organization’s financial decisions—and how much my peers disagreed with them, to the point of emotional vitriol.

As the criticism became harsher and harsher, I found myself slipping to the back of the group. These interpreters had no idea I had left the treasurer position just a couple of months prior. I tried to diffuse the situation by asking if anyone in the group had watched the treasurer’s latest report. The video addressed many of the issues they were complaining about. But they didn’t follow my lead. Instead, the blaming and ill-will finding marched on until I finally told them the truth: that I had recently left the treasurer position. All the interpreters stared at me in shock—and quickly moved the entire conversation to a more supportive, civil place.

Consider The Shadows We Cast

Loud complaining always has the potential to embarrass the complainer, but that isn’t why I’m sharing this story. I’m more concerned about the deeper consequences of being publicly hostile toward viewpoints we disagree with. And how simple venting and unproductive negativity is harming our professionalism as interpreters. Whether we like it or not, our behavior directly impacts our integrity and our trustworthiness as representatives and guests of the Deaf community. We must pay special attention to our actions at all times so we can be worthy of greater trust through greater professionalism.

The Path to Greater Professionalism

How do we become more trustworthy? Our Code of Professional Conduct is a great place to start, but here are some other suggestions to help us stay professional as sign language interpreters.

1.  Show Respect through Restraint

No matter how you shake it, our public behavior off the clock—whether that’s in person or over social media—has consequences for our reputations as interpreters. This is exactly why we need to honor our profession through thoughtful consideration of our actions.

Too many of us are taking our role lightly by posting anything and everything online. Even when we’re expressing disagreement or sharing ideas, the key to showing professional restraint is keeping our expression civil even when it’s tempting not to. In the spirit of keeping things civil, there are certainly opinions that shouldn’t be expressed in public at all. To know which ones, try out the elevator test outlined in my StreetLeverage article “Does Social Networking Impair Sign Language Interpreter Ethics?”

2.  Watch Out for Intergroup Bias

Humans naturally identify with other humans that are like them, whether it’s a sports team, a family, hearing people, deaf people, or people who share a common profession—like sign language interpreting. We all naturally favor the “us” that’s like you and disfavor the “them” that’s unlike you. Psychologists call this concept intergroup bias. According to Professor Mina Cikara, research suggests that an “us versus them” mentality is one of the key factors that drives groups to collective violence. This violence can be as small as hostile discussion or as widespread as genocide.

Intergroup bias is running rampant in our society, but I would suggest that our interpreting community has much more to lose by engaging in intergroup bias. As we’re striving to be trustworthy in our profession, we must all make a concerted effort to stop vilifying others around us. Let’s stop looking for a “them” to blame for our problems and start listening as we try to understand perspectives different from our own.

3.  Share Opinions in a Spirit of Empathy

This one is always a good idea. Are we expressing opinions to share of ourselves and build up the world around us? Are we open to thoughtful, understanding discussions? Even with people who disagree with our beliefs?

In my StreetLeverage Live presentation “Status Transactions: The ‘It’ Factor in Sign Language Interpreting,” I talked all about the power of humility in an interpreter. It is truly an act of humility to slow down, listen to others, and consider both sides. It takes time and it certainly requires effort, but giving other people the benefit of the doubt can improve both our professional and personal lives. Empathetic listening and seeking the truth is the fastest way to come up with creative solutions to our problems. Which brings me to my final point . . .

4.  Focus on Positive Action

Going back to my experience with my fellow interpreters, that entire situation could have gone very differently. All of us could have participated in a thoughtful, civil discussion about our organization’s finances. Maybe we could have watched their annual report together for context. If everyone still felt unsatisfied with the status quo, we could have drafted a letter to the Board proposing a solution in a respectful yet assertive fashion. This whole experience could have turned into positive action to make our sign language interpreter community better.

In a world that’s already filled with harsh critique, we’re going to make a much bigger difference by turning our opinions into meaningful actions. After all, having opinions isn’t nearly as important as how you live by them; that is what makes you a trustworthy interpreter.

Greater Trust is One Decision Away

To me, being worthy of trust boils down to one simple choice: committing to a higher standard of professionalism. If we all strive for a spirit of civility and positive restraint, we’ll already be changing ourselves and interpreting for the better. That is how all of us will truly become guardians of our profession and those we serve.

Questions to Consider:

  1. Think of the most trusted interpreter in your community. What traits do they display which set them apart from other sign language interpreters? Do you share these traits? If not, how can you develop them?
  2. In what ways are you actively seeking to decrease intergroup bias in your professional circles? What is one step you can take to dismantle an “us versus them” paradigm?
  3. Would you be willing to invite an interpreting colleague to join you in committing to a higher professional standard? What would that accountability relationship look like for you?

 

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What Are We Really Saying? Perceptions of Sign Language Interpreting

Sign Language Interpreter Framing Their Work

Kelly Decker examines common ways sign language interpreters frame the task of interpreting and peels back some of the implications and impact on the field and the larger communities served.

 

Sign language interpreters are taught that meaning is conveyed through accurate word choice. Do we give the same considerations to word choice when we label and describe interpreting itself? How do our words and actions frame our work?

As a professional sign language interpreter, I would like to address some of the language used when conversing with colleagues, training new interpreters, and depicting the profession to the mainstream media. The frames we use, as a profession, have the power to devalue the work we do, and by extension, the communities we serve. Continued reinforcement of these frames impacts public perception of sign language interpreting.

[Click to view post in ASL.]

It takes years of intentional practice, reflection, and dedication to develop competence as a sign language interpreter. Platforms such as Street Leverage allow us to continually highlight and examine the ways we have yet to grow. MJ Bienvenu’s Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilingual and Carol Padden’s Do Sign Language Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension? illustrate two fundamental problems we face in the field.

While we have begun to address the language we use to talk about our work, there is more work to do. I have selected four examples which demonstrate various ways interpreters contribute to current understandings of our work. There are many other examples that could be analyzed. I encourage you to contribute to this conversation online and with your colleagues to further examine how our use of language can contribute to a misperception of our profession and the disenfranchisement of the Deaf community. These types of conversations lead to greater awareness, which can be a catalyst for change.

The Labels We Use: “Terp”

It is not clear to me where this abbreviation came from. A cursory search on the internet found that it is cited as slang for “interpreter” and paired with the word ‘deaf’. We work with marginalized communities who are continuously disenfranchised regardless of the abundance of evidence and research regarding language, intelligence, and Deaf Gain [1]. We deflate our profession and the work we do for the sake of a few saved keystrokes.

This word “terp” (and I call it a word since it has become commonplace nomenclature and somewhat of a phenomenon within our field [i.e. TERPexpo],) is used primarily in written English when interpreters communicate with and refer to each other, and when interpreting agencies make requests for “terps”. The use of the term “Terp” does not stop within sign language interpreting circles. Since it has become somewhat the norm internally, it has spilled out into the larger community as the preferred label for what many interpreters want to be called. I feel this does a disservice to the field. I am an interpreter.

Misleading Terminology

“Hands-up”

As I understand it, in most instances, this phrase refers to actual interpreting. I come across it when dialoguing with ASL/English interpreting students. This term is used in practicum to indicate a requirement that is different from observation hours – the need for “hands-up” hours.

When sign language interpreters in the field and educators in interpreter education programs use this term to talk about the work we do, it implies that interpreters only interpret in one direction, into American Sign Language. It implies that Deaf people have nothing to say nor contribute. In reality, our work is working between – at least – two languages. This misguided idea is further bolstered by how our national organization frames the act of interpreting. The interpreter certification exam tests interpreting capabilities and decision-making. Yet ASL vlogs, created by RID, refer to the performance portion of the interpreting exam using a gloss that gives the literal impression that the exam is a “signing test”[2].

As explained above, “hands-up” addresses only half of the work we do. Or does it? When colleagues say “I prefer to work into ASL, it’s easier” or “I don’t do any ASL to spoken English work,” is it because interpreters, too, believe that interpreting is only done in one direction?

Additionally, the term “hands-up” perpetuates the erroneous notion that sign language interpreters, most of whom are second language learners of ASL, prefer to work into ASL because they are “comfortable”, “have more experience working into ASL,” or “feel they are clear”.  Substantial evidence is to the contrary [3].

Interpreting, and more broadly, signed languages, have little to do with the hands. While sign language is expressed in a visual modality, the hands are but one element of that mode. Language is rich and complex. It conveys thoughts, emotions, and abstract ideas and it results in human connections. Language is influenced by and interwoven with culture. It is impacted by generational, intersectional and regional influences. Reducing an entire language to its modality is a prime example of how the dominant language and culture exerts power over and diminishes a linguistic and cultural minority.

“Voicing”

This term “voicing” has become commonplace within our field as a descriptor for the spoken language work we do as interpreters. It is a descriptor that oversimplifies the nature of the work, as if it requires no cognitive decision-making by the interpreter, nor cultural brokering between the two languages, and that the interpreter functions simply as a sign-by-sign voice over.  In Jessica Bentley-Sassaman’s article, Taking Ownership: Defining Our Work As Sign Language Interpreters, she states “voicing” does not appropriately state what we do, what does is naming what we are actually doing when interpreting.

As the profession continues to use the term “voicing”, I believe that we perpetuate a medical perspective on deafness. It bolsters the idea, that when deaf people use sign language they need to be fixed somehow, given a voice, and that’s what interpreters are doing.

This portrayal of the work reinforces a view held by the majority culture that  the language used by the Deaf community is somehow deficient. This misconception is propagated by the Alexander Graham Bell Association, whose position was made public [4] after the televised accomplishments of Nyle DiMarco, that desirable language development and outcomes for deaf children are only possible when focusing on listening and speaking, both of which are deeply rooted in the deficit-based medical model of what it means to be deaf.

As sign language interpreters, I believe we ought to unpack the implications and impacts of how we frame our work.

Perceptions of Professional Interpreters: Shake It Off [Interpreter Version] [5]

This video was so popular on social media after its release in December 2014, that the video’s participants were a part of the entertainment during RID’s 2015 national conference in New Orleans, LA. I have cited this piece not based on its participants but as an example of how we portray who we are, what our work entails, and how we approach the task of interpreting.

From what I gather, this video was made as a parody, a day-in-the-life of a sign language interpreter. All joking aside, what I cannot shake off while watching this video without audio input, is that it clearly represents misconceptions about the work we do:

(1) we only work into sign language, as the tired arms, hands and fingers portray;

(2) we only do this work for the money, as the interpreter runs off screen following the dollar bills;

(3) we self-medicate, as the abundance of pills clearly shows; and

(4) we can brush off the significance of the task of interpreting, as the title of the song conveys.

This day-in-the-life video makes no mention of the substantial cognitive work we do, which is the foundation of the product we produce. The sole focus is the self-aggrandizement of the interpreter. We must consider how this can contribute to the  mainstream media’s abundance of misleading and demeaning pieces about sign language interpreters while #DeafTalent continues to go unnoticed.

Holding Ourselves Accountable

These examples are both subtle and not so subtle. As these flawed representations proliferate, we, as practitioners, as educators, and as a professional organization, become complacent and immune to the deleterious effect they have on our profession. We may dismiss it, saying, “This is the way we’ve always talked about the work,” “This how my interpreter training program said it,” or “I never really thought about it.”

We need to think about it. We need to talk about it. We need to question and remind each other when we use language that trivializes our work.

Mastery of interpreting is no easy feat. It is a labor of love, a demanding cognitive endeavor, and a dedication to craft. Above all, we are collectively accountable to representing our work with the utmost respect for the Deaf community.

How will you model talking about the work we do?

Questions for Consideration:

  1. The ways in which we, as a profession, talk about the work we do is anchored upon our understanding of what interpreting means. Are the ways we portray the work, the profession, and the communities we serve accurate?
  2. How do you think the ways that we talk about the work impact the profession?
  3. Do you have examples of times when dialoguing with colleagues where how they were talking about the work just did not sit right?
  4. With those examples in mind, how can you further explore what it is that did not sit right?

References:

[1] Bauman, H-Dirksen and Murray, Joseph. Editors. Deaf Gain Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity. University of Minnesota Press. October 2014.

[2] Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. RID Announces Moratorium on Credentialing You Tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6PM4a1tR7E Posted 9 Aug 2015.

[3] Nicodemus, Brenda and Emmorey, Karen. Directionality in ASL-English interpreting Accuracy and articulation quality in L1 and L2. Interpreting. Vol 17:2. 2015. p. 145-166.

[4] Sugar, Meredith. Dispelling myths about deafness. Online: http://www.agbell.org/inthe-news/response-nyle-dimarco/ Posted 1 April 2016

[5] Ott, Stephanie. Shake It Off [Interpreter Version] You Tube https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=DS2UdoXS3xA Posted 13 Dec 2014.

 

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4 Obsessions of a Qualified Sign Language Interpreter

Sign Language Interpreter Considering Their Obsessions About the Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Framework

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

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

Achieving Excellence

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

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

What obsessions makeup your framework for success?