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Stephanie Feyne | Authenticity: The Impact of a Sign Language Interpreter’s Choices

Stephanie presented, Authenticity: The Impact of a Sign Language Interpreter’s Choices, at StreetLeverage – Live 2013 | Atlanta, GA. Her talk explored how the choices made by sign language interpreters affects the perception of Deaf people and how interpreters can present a more “authentic” representation of someone’s message.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.


(The examples in this article are of female interpreters and male Deaf individuals in order to accommodate the gendered demands of English pronouns. This may or may not reflect the actual identities of the people involved.)

In this presentation I will be discussing the concept of “authenticity” during interpretation – what it means and why I use this term.

We interpreters know we are responsible for the transmission of the content of speakers’ messages. An additional responsibility is to express the manner in which one person speaks, which allows the other participant to get a glimpse of who the person is.


Last month a Deaf teacher was presenting in front of a group of hearing children. I was interpreting for him. He told them to copy his notes from the board. I interpreted that in the first person, “copy what I wrote…”

A first grade girl spun her head towards me in disbelief. “You didn’t write anything!” she exclaimed. I agreed with her, that I hadn’t, but I then explained that our job as interpreters is to say what the Deaf person said. She thought about this for a second and replied, “Oh, you’re pretending to be him.”
That struck me as a profound statement. And, of course, she was absolutely correct! That’s exactly what we interpreters do – we take on the identity of the Deaf person as we represent their message so that the hearing person knows who they are.

We speak not “FOR” the Deaf party but “AS” the Deaf party. Our utterances are expressed in the first person:  “I don’t understand my homework”, “I want to work for your company”, “My daughter is sick.”

Say What They’re Saying

Many hearing people assume that interpreters are experts and our work product is a verbatim rendition of the utterances of Deaf people.

I interviewed several hearing non-interpreters. I asked them what they thought interpreters did. One response summed it up, “You’re supposed to be just saying what they’re saying. ” I then asked them if they believed that every “um”, “uh”, and “you know” uttered by interpreters was originated by the Deaf person – and they replied affirmatively. This is an interesting belief about how interpreters function.

I am currently studying linguistic anthropology, a field that examines language and interaction, from which I have learned new theories that I now apply to interpretation.

I want to share some theory about authenticity and about identity:

Bucholtz and Hall (and other theorists) are saying that not only do we express our own identity through the way we talk but also the person talking with us uses their entire lifetime of experience communicating to take in what we say and how we express it and construct their own perception of our identity. They explore whether we are similar to or different from others who communicate that way. And throughout the interaction, their construct continuously is reified, refined or altered. Included in this situated identity are social factors, power differential, etc., but also the continuous unfolding of the individual in the place and time of the interaction; thus, the construct of identity is progressively negotiated and refined over time.

The second point from Bucholtz and Hall is what really knocked me out: that even as we talk in ways that represent our personal identity, listeners assess our language to see if we are genuine and credible.

When I first read about this I realized that this, indeed, is the task of sign language interpreters.  We attempt to express the message of the Deaf person in such a manner that the hearing person sees him or her as genuine and credible.

Brad Davidson, a linguistic anthropologist, studied interactions of hearing Spanish/English interpreters in hospitals in California. Davidson claims that interpreters may function as “gatekeepers.” His study delineated how Spanish interpreters in hospitals are gathering information prior to the doctor’s arrival in the consult room. They then answer the doctor’s questions directly. They are decide when or if Spanish speakers can talk or even ask questions. In addition, he found that the interpreters he studied would limit or refuse to interpret responses if they thought the patient’s answer was off point. He claimed that as a result doctors might see these patients as passive. This means the actions of those interpreters may be contributing to doctors’ perceptions of their patients’ identities.

I wondered if sign language interpreters also contribute to the hearing perception of the identity of Deaf people and am conducting research on that topic.

Natural Conversation

To explore interpreted interaction I think it is helpful to first examine direct interaction between two people, A and B. They usually take turns. The flow of conversation often feels natural.  They make eye contact. They may laugh. Their talk may overlap. One of them might interrupt the other, then their conversation continues.

However, when an interpreter is present the conversation is different. The conversation flows from A to the interpreter then to B, and when B replies the comment again goes to the interpreter before getting to A.

They make eye contact, but now there is more of a dance – with all the participants trying to catch the other’s gaze at some point, including the interpreter. Often the hearing party wants to look at the interpreter, because that is the source of the spoken word.

If they laugh, there is a ripple effect, say, first from the Deaf person, then perhaps the interpreter, and finally the hearing party if the interpreter has expressed it in a humorous manner in English. We hope we are interpreting in an “authentic” manner.

They may overlap, but the interpreter tries to control the flow and ask them not to speak at the same time. And they interrupt – at which point decisions have to be made. Who will win the interruption? Who decides?

If the hearing person tries to interrupt it is often fairly simple to stop a Deaf signer. We have eye contact. We know the polite rules for interrupting in sign. What about when a Deaf person interrupts a hearing person? What decisions do we make? What are our norms and beliefs about interrupting hearing speech? How do they affect our interpreting choices?

I happened to be present at a meeting with two Deaf and a dozen or so hearing participants and one certified interpreter. The discussion was heated. Everyone was calling out, interrupting the others, changing topics, etc. I noticed the interpreter signing everything that was spoken, but not voicing any of the comments of the Deaf participants. No matter how many times they tried to interject she steadfastly continued signing the hearing comments.  I wondered what the reason could be for her choice.

(Don’t worry, eventually the Deaf participants got their points in.)

After the meeting wrapped up, I asked the interpreter why she chose not to voice when the Deaf participants tried to interject. This interpreter was open to reflecting on her work. After a moment she replied that she had not called out because “It’s rude to interrupt.”

This is an amazing example of how our tacit norms for communication can control our interpreting choices. When the hearing parties interrupted each other she had no problem interpreting those comments into ASL. But for her to speak out and actually interrupt the hearing participants when the Deaf people wanted to interpose their ideas would have meant SHE was rude, and at that moment her norms for polite conversation overrode her interpreting mandate.

I must clarify that she was a skilled interpreter. She had no deliberate intent to oppress Deaf people or to curtail their communicative rights. She just had not realized her inner norms limited her interpreting choices, even though those choices ended up limiting the ability of those Deaf individuals to participate in their own meeting.

Unexplored Norms

And that is an important reminder – our unexplored norms can override our interpreting judgments. It is incumbent upon us as individuals to recognize our conversational norms in order for us to make conscious decisions about communication that will allow both parties to interact and see each other, and not see only the unintended results of our unconscious decisions.

We know most sign language interpreters don’t deliberately intend to control what Deaf people say, but many of us have not analyzed our own inner rules/norms for conversation. Many of us do not realize we have communicative norms that regulate our language, our understanding of what is polite and what is not. Do we interpreters know our own individual communicative style? Have we explored our tacit norms? Those unexplored norms can and do affect our interpretation choices, which then have an impact on the communication of the people we are there to serve.

I remember an occasion (quite some time ago) when my own unexplored norms impeded my interpretation.  I had learned that interpreters were “cultural mediators.” When a Deaf male supervisor started dressing down a male employee I was so uncomfortable that I softened the tone – thinking that I was culturally mediating. In fact, I “girled” him. I hadn’t witnessed male-male conflict before and I was so uncomfortable I softened his conflict style – in effect, I feminized him. This was not an authentic representation of his message or of his identity. I later realized that even though I had been raised in the hearing world and assumed I knew all the rules, I didn’t truly understand gendered communication and confrontation styles. I hadn’t considered the fact that what I did not know actually inhibited my interpretation and their communication. After some study and self-reflection I now feel better prepared and welcome the opportunity to interpret these kinds of events – bring ’em on.

Gender Notions

Stephanie Feyne
Stephanie Feyne

Let’s consider gender – do men and women speak in the same manner? We know that women are 87 % of RID – so what happens to language and identity when Deaf men have female interpreters? Do interpreters’ gendered ideas of language and unexplored communicative norms affect the hearing perception of Deaf people?

Interpreters are present in various interactions. We interpret for agreement and for conflict. We interpret in settings where Deaf people have positions of power and where they don’t. We interpret for men, women, children, professionals, fluent eloquent speakers, and struggling signers. Do we know how to communicate in all those styles? What about the myriad fields that Deaf professionals inhabit? Do we know what those communicative norms are? Can we create utterances that allow us to seamlessly interpret in these settings and registers?

Curious about the impact of our work, I conducted research on how interpreters contribute to the hearing’ party’s perception of identity of the Deaf interactant. (Identity being both linguistic and professional.)

NOTE – In the signed version of this presentation I tried a joke that didn’t translate well – so instead of recreating it here, I would like to publicly thank Dennis Cokely for suggesting I add a final layer of complexity to my study that also grounds it linguistically, culturally and academically.

My Study

Briefly, my study is comprised of four hearing interpreters voicing from videotapes of four different Deaf educators. Four Deaf professionals rated the Deaf presentations, and four hearing professional raters listened to and evaluated the interpreted lectures.

Let me clearly state the interpreters in my study are all good, professional, intelligent, certified interpreters. They are brave, and generous, and willing to share their work with me. I thank them for allowing me in, which led to the work I can share with you!

Allow me to share a small sample of my findings:

In looking at the presentation of one Deaf lecturer, all four Deaf evaluators deemed this educator highly genuine and credible. But the comments from the hearing evaluator did not support her being rated as credible. All the Deaf evaluators said she was extremely knowledgeable and confident. The ratings of the one hearing evaluator I show in this presentation differed depending on the interpreter – more or less knowledgeable, and definitely not confident, in direct contrast to the ratings of Deaf evaluators. This, plus more data from my study, leads me to believe that the choices interpreters make affect the hearing person’s perception of the identity of the Deaf lecturer.

This means we interpreters have a great deal of power. And we have a tremendous responsibility. The hearing parties are relying upon our language to help form their impression of whether the Deaf party is genuine and credible (and vice versa).

How can we produce utterances that allow hearing people to see the Deaf person as genuine and credible? First, we must know what genuine and credible looks like/sounds like in both communities, in a variety of settings. Second, we must have the linguistic range to be able to produce genuine and credible utterances in both languages that are appropriate for the various settings in which we work. Those skills are prerequisites to authentic interpretation, which offers the parties an opportunity to see and assess each other.

This means that interpreting cannot be “business as usual.” It is important to recognize that an interpretation that works for one situation will not necessarily work for all. It is incumbent upon us to assess the setting, understand what kind of communication is appropriate, and have it at our disposal.

Authenticity Starts With the Authentic “I”

Within our linguistic and social repertoire we need to grasp the nuances of gendered language, conflict style, and emotional affect in ASL so that we are then able to produce an authentic rendition in spoken English.

This means that if we wish to interpret in a manner that is genuine and credible we cannot stay outside the Deaf community. We must actively engage with Deaf people in a variety of settings. We cannot assume we know what is going on. We actually need to be a party to direct communication by Deaf people in ASL without interpretation to the point that we are truly enculturated, and have those linguistic and social signals in our repertoire.

It is equally important for us to interact with a variety of people in the hearing world as well. If we only stay within our same contacts how can we guarantee we have the linguistic skill set to match other groups. A simplistic example is of an interpreter who spends all her time in elementary school settings who is then asked to interpret for a job interview at the professional level. That interpreter would have to assess her own skills: Does she know what interviews at this level sound like? Is she comfortable with the jargon of that field in both languages? Does she have the cadence of a professional? What kinds of utterances are typically produced there – short declaratory sentences or longer, denser utterances? Her goals would be to ensure that if the Deaf person presents himself as a genuine and credible professional, that she then renders his message in an accurate and professional manner, so that the hearing party sees him as genuine and credible without the interpretation getting in the way.

For this to occur, we interpreters, myself included, need to ensure we broaden our range of communication so that it is sufficiently wide to cover all the arenas in which we may find ourselves working. We interpreters must explore our own communicative norms so that when they arise in an interpreted setting we can acknowledge them and elect to disregard them consciously rather than having them control our interpreting decisions.

By preparing ourselves this way, we will be better able to recognize each party as genuine and credible and then go the next step – produce authentic interpretations that allow each to see the other as genuine and credible.

Stephanie wishes to thank Brandon Arthur and StreetLeverage for inviting her to present at StreetLeverage – Live 2013 | Atlanta and to express appreciation to all the participants at that event.

She also wishes to acknowledge Lynnette Taylor for her invaluable assistance in helping her prepare for this presentation; the constant support and guidance of Dennis Cokely; and all the participants in her research – the Deaf educators, interpreters, museum administrators, museum evaluators and Deaf evaluators, without whom this research would not have been possible. Stephanie is responsible for any misstatements, oversights, or oversimplifications in this article.

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Bucholtz, Mary and Hall, Kira.  2005. Identity and interaction: a sociolcultural linguistic approach. Discourse Studies 7:585-614.

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Will Sign Language Interpreters Recognize Their Own Reflection?

Brandon Arthur, Ben Hall, Jan Humphrey, Carl Kirchner, and Angela Jones - 2013 RID Conference
Brandon Arthur, Ben Hall, Jan Humphrey, Carl Kirchner, and Angela Jones

As I rub the blur of the 2013 RID conference from my eyes, I am left feeling a sense of appreciation for the conference program that took attendees through a highlight reel of contributions that have shaped both RID and the field as we know it. This stroll through history reminded me, perhaps other conference goers as well, that many meaningful contributions to the field of sign language interpreting have been made by those with a keen awareness of their own inexperience.

As the glimpses of our collective history shared at the conference exemplified, it takes individual and organizational courage to look into the unknown, lean forward and do what’s right for the future of the field—regardless of experience.

Extending a Reflection

It is with this backdrop that I tip my hat to Tina Maggio and Shane Feldman, and the RID Board for leaning forward into in the unknown to embrace the proposal to have a social media sponsor for the 2013 RID conference.

What is exhilarating about social media is why it is threatening—we humans are at the center of it. At StreetLeverage, we believe that social networking is a near immediate reflection of how we humans see and engage the world as we find it.

In the framework of the coverage of the 2013 RID conference, StreetLeverage endeavored to extend a reflection of the conference to sign language interpreters via the social web. It was our aim to encourage engagement and most importantly to add to the depth of the individual and collective reflections of sign language interpreters on important topics and industry developments.

Were we successful? You’ll have to be the judge.

Coverage Highlights

If you missed some or all of the StreetLeverage coverage of the 2013 RID conference, never fear. What comes next is our very own highlight reel.


We put our cameras to work capturing conversation with key players and conference goers and asked them to share their experience and views on the future of the field, the challenges we face, and how we might define success moving forward.  You can find a smattering of those conversations below.

Brenda Walker-Prudhom (13 min.)

We sat down with outgoing President of RID, Brenda Walker-Prudhom, to get her feelings about her term as President.

Dawn Whitcher (9 min.)

We met with the incoming President of RID, Dawn Whitcher, to get her view on the future of the organization.

David Geeslin (13 min.)

We met with the Superintendent of the Indiana Deaf School, David Geeslin, to talk about how Deaf Schools can fortify the skills of sign language interpreters.

Attendee Reel (10 min.)

We asked conference attendees about their experience and what they enjoyed most about the conference.

Flavia Fleischer (16 min.)

We met with 2013 RID conference keynote speaker, Flavia Fleischer, to gain insight into her keynote speech and the importance of Deaf Community Cultural Wealth.

Shane Feldman (16 min.)

We sat down with RID Executive Director, Shane Feldman, to get his impressions of his first RID conference and how the experience will guide his work.

You can find additional interviews and video coverage of the conference by clicking here.

Live Updates

We covered the largest amount of the 2013 RID conference via live updates on Facebook and Twitter. You can find the coverage by visiting the StreetLeverage Facebook page and reviewing our Timeline for the sessions you are interested in. Or, you can find the coverage on Twitter by searching #RID2013 or @streetleverage.

* If you are interested in the live streaming so graciously offered by RID, you can find it by clicking here. (Note, you will have to search through a number of events to find RID sessions).

Photo Album2013 RID Conference Closing Ceremonies

We hope you enjoy a collection of pictures from the 2013 RID conference. We had a lot of fun and appreciate everyone at the event being a good sport about our capturing the celebration. You can find them here. 

Educational Sessions

We attended several of the educational sessions during the conference. We hope you’ll find these interesting and informative.

Workshop | Conflicts Between Interpreters and Clients: When You’ve Tried Everything

Pamela Whitney, Matthew O’Hara and David Bowell noted that most ethical complaints stem from some sort of perceived violation of the Code of Professional Conduct via information shared on social media websites like Facebook.

Workshop | Thinking Through Ethics: Development of Ethical Decision-making Among Interpreters

Liz Mendoza uses the results of her online survey as a backdrop to explore if expert and novice sign language interpreters differ in prioritized competing meta-ethical principles when making ethical decisions.

Workshop | Educational Interpreters: The Missing Piece of the IEP

Richard Brumberg and Donna Flanders empower sign language interpreters in educational settings by providing the tools to become an effective member of the IEP team.

You can find additional session coverage here.

Team StreetLeverage

Team StreetLeverage at the 2013 RID Conference
Team StreetLeverage - 2013 RID Conference

I wish this would get easier, but it just doesn’t. I struggle to effectively articulate my gratitude for the work of the team of dedicated friends of the industry that made the StreetLeverage coverage of the 2013 RID conference possible. May karma smile upon each of them. In order expedite, I am sending karma wishes into the universe on their behalf.

Hayley Baccaire

May your contribution bring your family the swim test results it deserves and not less than 2 rooms of air conditioning.

Wing Butler

May your efforts deliver you endless evenings of milk and cookies and the knowledge that giants do come in all shapes and sizes.

Lindsey Kasowski

May your work at the conference bring you a tall and handsome that embraces both your 140-character addiction and your relationship with Starbucks.

Diane Lynch

May your contribution bring your mother a speedy recovery and you a fresh supply of rice cakes and natural peanut butter to share.

Jennifer Maloney

May your efforts bring you a readily available supply of gum and a life that never finds you squinting at an ice cream parlor menu.

Lance Pickett

May your work bring you a home studio that levitates with excitement each time you enter.

Paul Tracy

May your contribution bring you a cameo with Harvey Spector and 5 pink shirts with kicks to complement. Oh, and an office with electricity!

Amy Williamson

May your efforts bring you the academic success you deserve and the quiet satisfaction that your plight to change the world for two little boys is well on its way.

Group, thanks for your willingness to put in the grueling hours necessary to ensure the coverage extended was worthy of the industry receiving it. I am proud to know you and call you my friends. 


As you can imagine, the StreetLeverage coverage of the 2013 RID conference would not be possible except for the generous support of our partners. I would like to thank each of them for their contribution and support of StreetLeverage and our aim to amplify the perspective of sign language interpreters.

Stand with me and raise a glass in honor of the companies that put their resources where there mouth is?

Gallaudet Interpreting Service (GIS) | Washington, DC

Champion Level Sponsor

The Sign Language Company | Los Angeles, CA

Champion Level Sponsor

Professional Sign Language Interpreting (PSLI) | Denver, CO

Activist Level Sponsor

Purple Communications | Rocklin, CA

Activist Level Sponsor

Sorenson Communications | Salt Lake City, UT

Advocate Level Sponsor

TCS & Associates | Rockville, MD

Advocate Level Sponsor

Partners Interpreting | Boston, MA

Advocate Level Sponsor

Access Interpreting | Washington, DC

Founding Sponsor of StreetLeverage – Live and Supporter Level Sponsor

Sign Language Interpreting Professionals (SLIP) | Pittsburgh, PA

Supporter Level Sponsor

Deaf Access Solutions (DAS) | Bethesda, MD

Supporter Level Sponsor

Visual Communication Interpreting (VCI) | Knoxville, TN

Supporter Level Sponsor

 In the End

At the end of the day, I am hopeful that the StreetLeverage coverage of the 2013 RID conference added value to those attending and was found to be informative and insightful for those sign language interpreters and industry stakeholders attending from afar.

I also hope, at some point, that the coverage of the conference can be used as an example of what is possible when new ideas are embraced, courage is taken, and generosity abounds.

The industry reflection we are creating today is what will be used to measure our progress 50 years from now. Lets create one we are proud to recognize.

What was your favorite part of the conference (live or virtual)?


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