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Sign Language Interpreters: Are Acts of Omission a Failure of Duty?


The consequences of inaction can be high for sign language interpreters. Anna Witter-Merithew contextualizes our reluctance to intervene appropriately with thoughts on a history of opting for “invisibility” instead of action.

Often, when discussing breaches of ethical conduct, the focus is on a sign language interpreter’s commission of some act.  Examples might include a breach of confidentiality, accepting assignments beyond one’s capacity, demonstrating a lack of respect for consumers and/or colleagues.  Equally concerning, although discussed less often, are acts of omission.  Acts of omission refer to instances where a practitioner doesn’t follow expected or best practice in performing their duties.

Examples might include failing to advise consumers when there are barriers to an effective interpretation, failure to clarify information the interpreter does not understand or misinterprets, or failure to use consecutive interpreting when the circumstances necessitate, among many others. Both acts of commission and omission can cause harm to consumers, practitioners and the profession.  However, the focus of this article is on acts of omission and their potential relationship to the persona of invisibility that is deeply rooted in our field.  If you haven’t read my previous post, Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadows of Invisibility, consider it a prequel to this article.

Why Do We Fail to Intervene?

Granted, there may be many reasons that a sign language interpreter fails to act when some type of intervention is needed and within their realm of responsibility. After all, interpreting is a complex process. We all come to the work at different levels of readiness for all that is required of us, as eluded by Dennis Cokely in his article, Vanquished Native Voices—A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis. However, it is worth exploring the degree to which lingering shadows of invisibility impact our inaction.   Is it possible that our long history of encouraging practitioners to behave “as if not really there” and allowing things to proceed “as if the consumers were communicating directly” has created a diffusion of responsibility?  As a result, do interpreters perceive themselves as less responsible for the outcome of the exchange, even when it is the interpreting process or the interpreter’s presence that is creating the need for an intervention?

This concept of diffusion of responsibility has been discussed by sociologists studying examples of bystanders who do nothing in an emergency situation. Findings show that the larger the bystander group, the less likely one of the bystanders will intervene. According to social experiments, an individuals’ failure to assist others in emergencies is not due to apathy or indifference, but rather to the presence of other people. Bystanders perceive that their individual responsibility is diffused because it is unclear who is responsible in a group situation.  When responsibility is not specifically assigned, bystanders respond with ambiguity.

Is it possible a similar phenomenon occurs with sign language interpreters?  Do we think of ourselves as bystanders—present from a distance, and therefore, not involved?  Have we internalized the neutrality we are to bring to our task as non-involvement and disinterest [versus objectivity and emotional maturity]?  Are we unconsciously promoting the tendency to diffuse our responsibility to act when action is warranted?  Do we believe that if we are to behave as invisible, then any kind of intervention is inappropriate? Do we experience feelings of ambivalence when confronted with the need for an interpreter-related intervention? If so, there may be serious implications for our ability to fulfill our professional duty and there is merit in exploring this concept of intervention further.

Practicing Due Diligence

Like all practice professionals, sign language interpreters have the obligation to engage in due diligence when carrying out their duties.  Due diligence refers to the level of attention and care that a competent professional exercises to avoid harm to consumers of their services. It is a customary process applied by professionals to assess the risks and consequences associated with professional acts and behaviors.  Applying due diligence during our work as interpreters can help us to anticipate potential issues that may arise and/or validate concerns that we are sensing during our work.  Here are some steps that can guide us in the process.

1.  Recognize that there may be a need for an intervention.  There are many potential instances where such a need could arise.  This step requires us to assess the cues within the situation that signal that something is not working and taking the time to examine such cues more fully.  For example, the interpreter may not know what is meant by what a speaker is saying.  Or, it may become clear that consecutive interpreting will produce a more accurate interpretation and/or allow for fuller understanding and participation by one or more consumers.  Or, perhaps a cultural misunderstanding has arisen that was not addressed within the interpretation. By paying attention to the cues that signal the potential need for an intervention, we begin the process of applying due diligence.

2.  Take responsibility.  The next step in the due diligence cycle involves assessing whether we have a professional responsibility to act.  Part of this step requires the sign language interpreter to quickly assess who ultimately holds the duty to resolve whatever risk or potential consequence exists.  For example, consider instances where an interpreter doesn’t understand the source language message.  Since the interpreter holds the duty to accurately interpret the message, it is the interpreter who holds the responsibility to intervene and seek understanding. Passing on the lack of understanding to the consumer (by glossing or fingerspelling for example), expecting that they ask for the clarification, is avoidance that is reminiscent of  that period in our history where we promoted the view of the interpreter as a conduit or machine.  It is an example of diffused responsibility.  As well, expecting consumers to seek understanding when we do not understand may be unrealistic.  If the interpreter does not feel comfortable intervening, it stands to reason the consumer may not either.  This doesn’t mean that the need doesn’t exist, just that there is a reluctance to acknowledge it in a transparent manner.  So, the test is to assess who holds the duty to generate the accurate interpretation. Clearly, it is the sign language interpreter, not the consumer.

3.  Plan a course of action. Deciding how to intervene is as important as deciding that an intervention is necessary.  There are certainly ways of intervening that are disruptive and can alienate consumers.  So, thinking the process through (even practicing and role playing possible approaches) with colleagues can help to identify specific and successful strategies for intervening. It is important to learn to intervene in a way that builds trust and confidence.  Practitioners who are diligent in taking responsibility for the quality and accuracy of their work comment that when they are proactive in creating effective working conditions, or address errors and misunderstandings in an open and authentic manner, it promotes trust and confidence by consumers.  Diminished trust and confidence seems to arise when sign language interpreters attempt to act as if all is well, when it may not be or simply isn’t.

4.  Take action.  Initiating the intervention is the next step in the due diligence cycle.  This is the step that requires the courage and confidence to act. Again, given our historic roots, many of us find ourselves fearful of taking action perceiving it will be viewed as interjecting of ourselves into the situation.  In reality, we are already part of the interaction, and offering an intervention when it is warranted is not interjection of self, but rather carrying out our professional duty.  This difference is significant.  One is about potentially crossing professional boundaries and the other about maintaining the integrity of our work and profession.

The consequence of failing to act when it is our duty to act can be very serious.  In the case of a police interrogation, failure to apply best practices can lead to challenges being raised as to the admissibility of a deaf suspect’s statements.  In the case of an IEP team meeting, failure to articulate observations in a professional manner can lead to an IEP that doesn’t address the real needs of the deaf child.  In the case of a job interview, failure to accurately convey details can mean the difference between a person getting a job or not.

Stepping Out of the Shadows

Part of our process of stepping out of the shadows of invisibility is acknowledging that it feels safer and easier if we just remain conduits.  We then do not have to address the on-going and complex ethical issues associated with role definition and conflicts.  But without grappling with these very issues, we remain merely technicians, not professionals. We cannot insist on professional standing when we do not perform in the customary ways that professionals perform. As well, we cannot achieve a collective discretion without tackling the hard questions and finding ways to make our work more transparent.

Likewise, as sign language interpreters, we must always assess whether the consequence of intervention outweighs the contribution it makes.  Timing and manner of an intervention are critical considerations.  Sometimes we can’t assess this piece until we can reflect on the assignment afterwards.  Thus, learning to be reflective practitioners is an essential part of the due diligence cycle.  A future post will address this topic.

The Hard Question

What do we believe about ourselves, our work and our contribution to the good of the Deaf society? As we explore the answer to this and other hard questions, we must consider the implications of our history of behaving as if invisible and its potential contribution to the diffusion of responsibility.  In determining our answer, let’s hold fast to that which we value—communication access, equality, integrity and our relationship to the Deaf Community and one another.  It is these values that help us continue our journey of career-long growth and development…and are the source of the courage we need to continue our commitment to keep asking ourselves the hard questions.

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Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadow of Invisibility


Sign language Interpreter presence vs. interpreter invisibility represent two sides of the same coin. Anna Witter-Merithew encourages practitioners to recommit to more culturally-aware practices.

Some time ago some Deaf colleagues were talking about a familiar topic of conversations with and about interpreters, interpreter attitude.  As has typically been my experience, their use of this phrase carried a negative connotation.  Essentially, they perceived the interpreters who interpreted an event they attended as aloof, detached and largely disinterested.

What Happened?

When I inquired about specific behaviors, they described how the interpreters arrived for the event, let the event coordinator know they had arrived, briefly introduced themselves to the Deaf consumers, and then isolated themselves at the front of the room where they began texting and chatting while waiting for the event to start.

During the event, there was little if any effort by the interpreters to check-in with the consumers to verify whether things were working well or not.  During breaks the interpreters disappeared or were observed in the front of the room texting, talking on the phone or chatting with each other.  There was no initial interaction to break-the-ice and allow the consumers and interpreters to become acquainted or to explore logistical considerations and preferences. There was no inquiry into consumer preferences or the effectiveness of the services that were delivered.

At the end of the event, the interpreters said a quick good-bye and left. These behaviors—or lack thereof—were perceived as culturally rude and representative of a poor attitude.  Further, these Deaf individuals reported being distracted by these perceptions during the event being interpreted.  Their thoughts were on the challenge of working through versus with interpreters instead of the subject matter being interpreted.

This one specific example of interpreter attitude has really stuck with me. I find myself paying close attention to how we as sign language interpreters establish our presence and relate to consumers prior to, during and after interpreting assignments.  As a result, I have become increasing aware of just how deep the roots of the interpreter as invisible remain embedded in some of our professional acts and practices.  Even though we strive to move forward theoretically and philosophically in deepening our relationship with Deaf people, some of our professional acts and practices demonstrate that we are still working in the shadow of invisibility.  And, what these professional acts and practices communicate to Deaf people may be counter to our intentions.

Interpreter as Invisible

Historically, in an effort to minimize the potential for the sign language interpreter to step outside their role and take-over a communication event, the field-at-large has encouraged practitioners to perform their duties in the least obtrusive ways possible—even to the extreme of behaving as if they were invisible; merely a conduit for transmitting information from one language into another.  Interpreters may assume they must be detached to be impartial and/or appear professional. Interpreters might instruct speakers to proceed, “as if I am not even here.”  Unfortunately, such a restricted view of the role of an interpreter has proved fraught with misconceptions—the presence of an interpreter in the midst of what would otherwise be a direct human interaction will always have inherent implications.  There have been studies in the field of spoken and sign language interpreting that illustrate the degree to which interpreter presence impacts the outcome of communication events—often in unexpected and unintended ways.

In reality, the view of sign language interpreters as merely conduits has always been faulty primarily because the interpreter must be physically and intellectually present in the interaction to be successful. The interpreter cannot behave as if invisible because there are clearly times when there is a need for the interpreter to manage the flow of communication and facilitate or seek clarification of messages, as well conduct more active interventions when appropriate. Further, facilitation of and access to communication is at the heart of interpreting and is dependent on forming rapport and relationship as part of the interpreting process.

Nevertheless, assumptions that perpetuate the interpreter behaving as if invisible still exist and are evident in the experience of the Deaf colleagues when confronted with an interpreter team who is detached and functioning as disengaged. We still have work to do in terms of stepping out of the shadow of invisibility—focusing on how we establish our presence is just one opportunity.

Interpreter Presence

Interpreter presence relates to the manner and conduct of a sign language interpreter in the midst of interaction with consumers.  Ideally, this presence is evident in the quality of poise and effectiveness that enables the interpreter to achieve a productive and collaborative relationship with consumers.  This quality is much like a spirit or a manner that is felt and received by consumers as genuine engagement, attentiveness, readiness, acceptance, respect.  It is predicated on the desire to offer performance that facilitates a successful outcome—where consumers are able to achieve their goals for the communication event.  It should be evident in all phases of an interpreted assignment—pre, during and post.

Interpreter presence involves the state of mind and level of attention a sign language interpreter brings to his or her work—the state of being closely focused on the relationships and communication at hand, not distracted by irrelevant thoughts or external events.  This clarity of thinking and attention to the task at hand is an important part of the interpreter’s ability to deliver accurate and meaning-based interpretation. Establishing presence is central to creating rapport and establishing trust with consumers.

To illustrate, consider the importance of establishing presence in the healthcare setting where a strong rapport between the healthcare professional, patient and sign language interpreter will enhance the amount and quality of information about the patient’s illness transferred in both directions.  This can enhance the accuracy of diagnosis and increase the patient’s knowledge about the status of their health, thus leading to greater compliance with the proposed treatment plan.  Where such a relationship is compromised because the interpreter fails to create a functional presence, the potential for misunderstanding and risk increase.

Let’s Make the Commitment

It is important to acknowledge that consistently creating an effective presence requires a conscious and deliberate commitment—something that is not always easy to attain in the busy and fast-paced world in which we live.  There are many demands that compete for our attention. The intersection between the linguistic tasks associated with interpreting and the interpersonal dynamics involved in an interpreted interaction are indeed challenging to manage. However, if our intention is create and sustain meaningful relationships with Deaf consumers, this is one way we can make a difference.

Where do we begin?  A first step is self-assessment—we all benefit from a personal check-in with ourselves to examine and monitor our interpersonal behaviors.

  • Do I take time to meet Deaf consumers before assignments to become acquainted and discuss logistical considerations?
  • Do I touch base with Deaf consumers regularly throughout the assignment to make sure things are progressing effectively?
  • Do I make myself available to Deaf consumers during breaks to see if I can be of assistance?
  • Do I avoid using technology during assignments so I remain open, available, and approachable should I be needed?
  • Does my affect and demeanor reflect attentiveness, alertness, engagement and readiness?
  • Do I make myself available at the conclusion of assignments to connect with Deaf consumers should they be interested?
  • If I must leave immediately after an assignment, do I touch base with the Deaf consumer first, letting them know I need to leave and extending my appreciation for the opportunity to work with them?
  • Do I regularly talk with Deaf individuals, outside of interpreting assignments, about their perceptions and expectations of interpreters?  If I do, am I a good listener?

This is one practical way in which we can work to improve the experiences of Deaf consumers with sign language interpreters—and thereby improve our relationship with Deaf people. Let’s make the commitment to continue to step out of the shadows of invisibility and demonstrate our respect for the interactional and cultural norms of the Deaf Community.  Might this lead to less discussion of interpreter attitude and more discussion of Deaf-heart?