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Sign Language Interpreters: Achieving Authentic Confidence

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

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

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

Escaping Ego-Related Limitations

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

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

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

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

Arrogance Stems From Ignorance

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

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

“Sign language is not performance art.”

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

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

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

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

Balancing Humility & Confidence

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

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

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

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

In the End

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

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Do Sign Language Interpreters Ever Have “Clients?”

Sign Language Interpreter Worried About Using the Term Client

Instead of subscribing to assumptions, how can we engage authentically with – and empower – consumers of sign language interpreting services? Xenia Woods unpacks the oppression and power imbalance inherent in the term client.

As a sign language interpreting student about eighteen years ago, I was told that the term client was falling out of use in our profession. If only that dream had come true by now. Sadly, the word is still far too commonly used.

Recently, I was a user of interpreting services, and I heard one of the interpreters talking with her intern during a break. She referred to us as her clients. I was so disturbed by this that I sat up and took notice. Excuse me? I thought. I am not your client!

How is it that interpreters have used this term for so long and not been taken to task? I believe the answer is that consumers of interpreting services rarely, if ever, hear them using it.

 What’s the Big Deal?

If you use this term, you may wonder, “what’s the big deal? I’ve seen it in textbooks!” The fact is: it contributes to oppression in a not-so-subtle way.

Think about the people who use this term. Mostly they are attorneys, counselors, consultants, and the like. They are people who give advice. They are people whose opinions are sought after at work. A simple search of the words “my client” turns up these types of professions: realtor, therapist, executive coach, attorney, editor, broker. And it usually implies that the client is the one who pays for the service. Clearly, this does not describe our work.

The Danger of Presumption

For us to use this term when describing our consumers is presumptuous, for two major reasons:

1.     We use it disproportionately to refer to deaf consumers. This reinforces the notion that many hearing people subscribe to: only deaf people need interpreters. But, as I am so fond of saying to hearing consumers, I don’t just interpret for (as you call them) the “hearing impaired,” but also for you, the signing impaired.

 2.     It suggests a measure of authority we cannot claim. While in some cases we do dispense advice – on matters of interpreting – it is inappropriate to put ourselves in a place of authority. As suggested by Trudy Suggs in her article, A Deaf Perspective: Cultural Respect in Sign Language Interpreting, we must bring deference to every situation we encounter, or risk upsetting the delicate balance of power that the interlocutors work so hard to achieve.

If we ever hope to foster the “full interaction and independence of consumers” (from the Code of Professional Conduct) we must abdicate, as much as possible, the role of arbiter of discourse. We must continue to seek ways to effectively walk the tightrope between managing turn-taking and letting the interactive chips fall where they may. Finding the balance requires a great deal of respect for both deaf and hearing parties, a healthy dose of humility and grace on the part of the sign language interpreter, and an understanding of one’s power and privilege as suggested by Aaron Brace in his article, The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter.

Maintaining Balance

Part of that careful balance – being humble and walking the fine line that allows us to leave as many decisions as possible to the consumers of our service – requires us to find every opportunity to step back into the wings, and leave the players to be fully on the stage.

In my experience, the following three maxims allow sign language interpreters to engage with people authentically, and avoid the self-assured distance that some interpreters create as a result of having felt powerless in the past.

1.     Be willing to be a little uncomfortable. If you’re always at ease, you’re making too many assumptions. While interpreters can offer suggestions on how to do things (such as placement, procedures, and the like), participants are much better able to bring their ideas to the table when they are actively involved in negotiating communication. This can sometimes be awkward at first, especially when the cultural gap is a large one.

2.     Ask questions. Another way to prevent the problems that arise as a result of faulty assumptions, questions allow us to check in regularly and revisit our standard approaches. Asking a hearing person about their experiences with interpreters, or asking a deaf person for ideas on how to approach a problem, we can engender trust and demonstrate that we truly respect consumers’ experience and knowledge.

3.     Use your powers of observation. Brandon Arthur suggested, in his article, The Goo at the Center of a Sign Language Interpreter, “As artists with a keen sense of observation, sign language interpreters become expert at investing in people. They quickly and efficiently invest small increments of emotional labor (personal, professional, linguistic, and cultural mediating micro-decisions) with those they come in contact with. By doing this, they earn the social currency needed to make adjustments in the work environments, achieve consensus among meeting participants, and to deliver experiences that are truly remarkable.”

In the end, no one is ever our consumer. They are, whether deaf, hearing, or hard of hearing, simply people. Let us never forget it.

I would love to hear how you maintain the careful balance in your work. Care to share?