I’ve been interpreting professionally for 25 years. I like to think I’m reasonably good at what I do but from time to time something will dawn on me about ASL or Deaf culture that I’ve never known or realized before. How embarrassing! After all this time there are fundamental things I don’t know about the language I use and the culture I participate in. At the same time, how exciting! My learning is never done.
For me, I know my best teachers are the Deaf people who tolerate me so patiently, despite my many miscues. Not only have I made many mistakes, I’ve had to learn “how to learn” the Deaf way – by trusting my own eyes, really see what is in front of me and make sense of it. Then, because I’m hearing, I have to check it out with Deaf people.
This past year I realized something else about Deaf culture that I completely missed before and it really made me blush. I did what I usually do in these moments – I went to Deaf people I know and trust and ran my observation by them to see if I was noticing correctly. So far, everyone has affirmed this observation.
What I noticed is simply this:
ASL has expected patterns of exchange that I was never formally taught. One basic pattern, which is critically important to master, calls for signing SORRY at specific points in a conversation in order to affirm the relationship during a time of differences. After the SORRY the rest of the interaction can proceed; without it, the relationship feels awkward or can even be derailed completely. This SORRY in ASL has a different use and meaning than sorry in English.
As I approached writing about my observation I looked in journals for articles about the role and function of apology in a variety of cultures and about call and response structures in dialogic languages. I found plenty of articles on both. I’m keenly aware that in the hearing world credibility comes from science, research, and academics so it was natural for me to go there – I’m hearing. But I also know that in the Deaf world credibility comes from Deaf people and from Deaf experience. There is no higher authority. If I am to write credibly about trusting my own eyes, examining what I see and consulting Deaf people, what does it mean if I then turn around and cite hearing experts on other cultures or languages? Isn’t it enough that Deaf people say so? In the end, I have to believe it is. Every culture defines its own source and structure for credibility. If I’m going to be in the Deaf culture, then surely I can practice this tenet when I’m writing about it.
What’s the Word For That?
In the hearing world we know what is real and not real by what has a label. If there isn’t a label for something, it usually isn’t legitimate. We love our labels! They explain so much. They give us a guide for how to think, feel, and act. It is part of our culture.
When I first began my interpreter training I was encouraged by my teachers to get involved with the Deaf World. They told me that “hanging out with Deaf people” was the best way to learn. They also admonished me to be careful because Deaf people had a way of expecting too much from others, of being dependent in an unhealthy way. “Be careful of your boundaries,” I was warned.
Around this time, researchers studying Deaf culture reported that RECIPROCITY was a primary feature of Deaf culture. Deaf people practicing RECIPROCITY support one another by contributing to the common good, not by only giving to those who have given to them or as a direct repayment to specific individuals. The same behaviors that I was warned to guard myself against were now explained and celebrated. Having a label allowed hearing people to re-frame them. Deaf people weren’t asking to be taken care of; they were inviting hearing people to participate in the common pool of mutual aid.
In my observations of difficult interactions between Deaf and hearing people I often see that when hearing people have a label for something, it is much easier to go along with what the Deaf people are doing. When we don’t have a label, we can have a tendency to stiffen up, to resist, and to end up in conflict.
I encourage all of us hearing people to recognize this tendency, know that it’s cultural, and realize that the Deaf World doesn’t feel the same need for labels to make their culture and their behavior legitimate so let’s take it easy on each other. Deaf people may not know what something is called but they sure know when it doesn’t feel right. We can trust them to guide us.
Part One – be sure and take your turn!
We know that ASL is more interactive than English at most levels of register. This is well documented in linguistic research and confirmed by our own experience. The most formal ASL lecture will include interactive features that would be unthinkable in a formal English lecture. We also have plenty of proof that ASL is also more interactive in less formal settings. We know these required responses in casual conversation by their label – back channel feedback. If these features are absent in a conversation it is a noticeable absence, one that can have a serious meaning – refusing to engage, a certain kind of coldness or at best a show of cultural incompetence.
This need to engage in dialogue, this need to perform our part in any exchange is a hallmark of ASL. In dialogic languages the need for specific responses to specific kinds of stimulus is known as Call and Response. ASL, like any dialogic language, has standard Call and Response structures.
While these structures are relatively rare in American mainstream culture, a number of sub-cultures do have strong Call and Response patterns. Most people are familiar with at least a few. Black church has a strong Call and Response component where the responses come as individuals pepper the talk with affirmative encouragement. Catholic Mass has a highly scripted Call and Response component. 12-step meetings have short bursts of Call and Response exchanges during readings and introductions. Also, the military also has highly scripted Call and Response structures.
One thing we probably all know about Call and Response patterns is that we are keenly aware if there is a failure in the response. Anyone who has been to a workshop, meeting or seminar has had this experience. The person opening the session gives the call, “Good morning!” The required response from the participants is “good morning.” If the response is too weak, the call will be issued again with more emphasis. Normally more people will help with the second response, it meets expectations, and the event can begin. On the rare occasion that the second response is also too weak, instructions may follow and an emphatic call will be given for the third try. I have only rarely seen the third call fail because everyone is aware that the properly enthusiastic “good morning,” has to be delivered by the participants for the event to proceed. To refuse a third time would be more than awkward.
In spoken English I always know when I’m supposed to respond. I may not be able to explain why, but I recognize a call when I hear it. Having the label Call and Response has helped me also tune in to this aspect in ASL because I may not always recognize a call. At times when Deaf people repeat the same thing they’ve just said, but with more emphasis, I now ask myself, “is there something they’ve called for that I’ve failed to provide?”
Part Two – How sorry is SORRY?
Every culture has it’s own role and function for apologies. In mainstream America there are generally two uses for the phrase, “I’m sorry.” The most common is an admission of guilt. It is an expression of a personal failing and fault. It means I admit I did something wrong and I will personally take responsibility for it. The second is an expression of sympathy, usually reserved for a serious loss or trauma.
Of course, other cultures have very different meanings for the phrase “I’m sorry,” and different understandings of apology. In Great Britain, when one person bumps into another the person who is bumped says sorry. In Japan there are many uses for apology and Japanese people tend to apologize frequently as ways saving face and reinforcing social status or hierarchy.
So what does SORRY mean in ASL? My observation is that it affirms my relationship with you over whatever else is happening. It means that somehow we will solve this problem together. It does not mean I did something wrong, it just means I acknowledge that this doesn’t feel good and I will work it out with you.
When is an apology called for in the Deaf World? This part is tricky for me. I know it when I see it now but I’m not sure my description will satisfy anyone. Probably the best way to understand it is to use your own eyes, notice where it occurs and check it out with Deaf people. I know it is unscripted. As far as I can tell, it is based more on a feeling, a kind of discord, or a type of interaction, than on a specific set of words or signs. There is something between us that feels bad – a conflict, a misunderstanding, or a difference of perspective. It can even be as simple as disappointing someone, even though their expectations might not have been my responsibility.
What happens when SORRY isn’t delivered at the expected point in a Call and Response exchange in the Deaf World? As in any other culture, the call is offered again with greater emphasis. The story, or “complaint” is repeated with more emotion. And if the apology is still not delivered, then what? In this case an explanation of what is wrong here is usually amped up. The problem in the relationship is now stated explicitly, in detail, often slowly, and with emphasis. If the apology is still not delivered this is a worst-case scenario. As a final attempt to save the relationship someone will probably be instructed to apologize. If the apology still isn’t delivered the relationship may be beyond repair. The connection would then be broken in a fundamental way.
I can use this observation to continue my noticing and checking with Deaf people.
I’m may overuse my SORRY, like a child discovering a new word, until I know exactly where it fits. This is a natural part of incorporating a new skill. It’s ok.
I can continue to ask questions. I can look at where we, the sign language interpreting profession, have a need to use our SORRY in our collaborating with Deaf people. Have there been times when we have not said SORRY when we needed to? How has it affected our relationships?
Of course, my big question is what else don’t I know? What other mistakes have I been making without ever realizing it? Are there ways for me to improve my noticing, or inviting Deaf friends to tell me when I’m off? Can I be humble and know that corrections are an act of friendship and love, not a criticism of who I am? Can I be thankful that there is always more to learn even when I’m really embarrassed?
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The terrible cocktail of “schizophrenia,” unethical business leadership and uninformed government decisions makers that lead to the sign language interpreting debacle at Mandela’s memorial service is a tragedy.
As a sign language interpreter, I cringe at the thought that as a field, we are responsible for the world’s distraction from the celebration of one of the planet’s most widely recognized human rights leaders and for yet another injustice served up to the Deaf Community.
The question that continues to roll around in my head is after the tsunami of sensationalism, swarming armchair quarterbacks, and CYA puffery blows over is, what will change?
While Thamsanqa Jantjie is the current face of the issue, unqualified sign language interpreters deploying or being deployed into local communities around the globe is a longstanding and widespread problem. A problem that necessitates the cooperation of a multiplicity of industry stakeholders willing to put down their nursing agenda and be accountable for the breakdowns in the system that continue to allow this problem to persist.
Are we courageous enough as field, both practitioner and organization, to make the hard decisions necessary to truly eradicate the problem?
If we come away from this debacle truly resolved to create meaningful resolution to the issue of unqualified sign language interpreters infringing on the human rights of Deaf people, perhaps we should consider taking action on the following:
Incorporate the applicable aspects of the UNCRPD as part of the ethical practices system for working sign language interpreters. Further, to insist on more aggressive and timely actions for violations.
Found a national organization to create, uphold and promote standards of practice for businesses deploying sign language interpreters.
Establish a coalition responsible for a partnership between national associations serving the Deaf community, national organizations serving sign language interpreters, and organizations responsible for the public awareness of the rights of Deaf people and the roles and responsibility of sign language interpreters.
Insist on local partnerships between Deaf and sign language interpreting organizations that result in the perpetuation of native perspectives among practicing sign language interpreters.
Care to add?
Thanks to Mandela for doing in death what he did in life, using his existence to raise the awareness of the atrocities, injustices, and disadvantages suffered at the hand of privilege, while working to make the world a more inhabitable place.
Let’s not allow the memory of Mandela’s memorial service to be one where the field of sign language interpreting disappointed the world. Let it be one where we honor Mandela’s life by rising from the ashes galvanized to end the rampant problem of unqualified practitioners infringing upon the human rights of Deaf people.
I am facing a panel of 6 people in front of an audience of 200 attendees. The event is about to commence. I have a lone microphone in my hand and an empty chair beside me. As I settle into position I look around for my team and realize that I am alone. I cannot locate the other two members of the interpreting team for the event, let alone the ‘second pair of eyes’ that were promised to me.
Right as the facilitator takes the stage, I see the other interpreters get into place to interpret for the audience behind me. “Great—I think—as soon as the panelists start, someone will come right over.” The Deaf panelist thought the same as I had assured all involved that the team was locked and loaded and ready to go. Sparing some of the logistical tidbits, I will say that what happens next is the very opposite of what I committed and of what had been committed to me, the very opposite of what had been instilled in me in my professional upbringing: I was not part of a team.
As I sit in my chair with the microphone I try to get the attention of my fellow interpreters. I wave my hand and the Deaf panelist tries to make eye contact with them from the stage…nothing. It never happens. For the next 45 minutes no one comes to my aid. After the panel and speakers finish, I make my way out of the conference. As I exit, one of the interpreters sees me and says, “great job” while throwing me a thumbs up and a wink.
Fortunately, the above series of events are not what I typically experience from my hard working colleagues. I do, however, need to go on record by saying, sadly, this was not the first time that I have been an eye witness to, or the recipient of the stated behaviors, which leads me to beg the question: Whose team are we on anyway?
What events transpired prior to me sitting there alone with the mic in my hand? Let’s rewind the morning.
I was informed with short notice that I would be voicing for a Deaf panel participant during a local conference. I was afforded no opportunity to prepare myself, as the speaker, with whom I work regularly, had yet to even form an outline of their own thoughts and points for their remarks.
Of course the idea of walking in cold to any situation can immediately ignite the nerves. And although I was engaged to be the primary voice interpreter for this panelist, I anticipated the event organizer requesting interpreters for the general audience, as there was a high expectation of several Deaf attendees to be present. Proactively I arrived as early as possible to get the lay of the land and pre-conference with the other interpreters.
Right away I was greeted by the requestor and made as many decisions as I could without the presence of the Deaf panelist. I was also told the other interpreters for the event had already arrived and I was introduced to one of the two of them. I felt an immediate sense of camaraderie flood over me at the relief of having a ‘team’ on hand. Not just one, we were potentially a team of three. Actually, when you include the Deaf panelist, I was really to be one of a four-member team.
My professional switch flipped into the ‘on’ position. I wanted to first put my ‘team’ at ease informing her that I work with this person regularly and would handle the voicing, however, I would really appreciate another pair of eyes next to me. I was met with lots of head nods and affirmations of support. I explicitly spelled out what I needed from my team and I was assured I was going to receive it. After all, these were the assigned interpreters for the conference. The whole conference was their responsibility, right?
In the end, I felt comfortable that the arrangements had been settled and we all knew our roles.
Reflecting on the events of that morning returns my focus to the basics with an intense need to open up a dialogue about where we are and where we are headed as a group of professionals. As sign language interpreters, we enlist ourselves to demonstrate professional courtesies to our clients and consumers, but what about to our professional counterparts, our co-workers, our fellow partners, and team members?
Part of the reason I pose this question, is because it was posed to me. At the conclusion of it all, the Deaf panelist wanted to know what had happened. Why was I not viewed as a member of the team? Why didn’t the interpreters feel the same professional responsibility toward me as I did towards them?
If we were there with the same purpose, with the same roles, and with the same goal, should we not have all been working together to provide continuity and integrity of message for all? Should it not be automatic that when we are present in multiples we forge an automatic alliance? What would have happened if I had not done a ‘good job’? After all, was not the success of the ‘team’ dependent upon the success of my production and how I worked with the Deaf panelist? Not one of us functioned independently of each other, rather, interdependently. Isn’t that how we should prefer to work, knowing our arsenal includes not only our tool bag, but those of a network?
The 3 Point Replay
Some things are innate, others have to be taught and nurtured until they become second nature. In my view, Professionalism, by way of teamwork, is one of those things. We need to understand its definition and its connectivity to those with whom we work. We also need to be aware of the social and cultural implications it has in and around the community when we fail to grasp the concept.
While I appreciated the one interpreter expressing her opinion that I did a good job, as I consider the events of that morning, I would like to offer 3 things that I believe could have changed the dynamics of the assignment and led to a better outcome:
With the need to reassure my team of my familiarity with the panelist, it is possible I projected a certain level of over-confidence, which may have given the impression that I needed less support than what I actually stated.
As the assigned conference interpreters, there was a need to be alert to all aspects of the event, whether or not serving as the primary interpreter for a certain portion.
Post-conference would have allowed us, as a team, to retrace which missteps led to our communication breakdown and which steps to take going forward as not to repeat any mishaps on our part.
The above forms part of the recipe to the antidote for counteracting the effects of unbalanced teamwork and contributes to preventing the series of events, which resulted in the unintended isolation of a team member.
It gives me pleasure to happily state that for the past twelve years, I have been part of a profession where I believe the majority to be team players, partners even, with the same mission on the tips of their fingers and tongues. In fact, many of them have raised and nurtured me with their skills and knowledge, even passing along and bequeathing me their professional genealogy.
But just as two children are raised in the same home with the same parents, with the same rules and expectations, who do not mimic each other, so it goes in the professional arena where no two interpreters reflect the same level or depth of understanding with regards to this concept. It then becomes abundantly clear what the antonym looks like.
I want to challenge myself and each of us to continue to analyze ourselves and our approach to the work we do and how it effects our colleagues. Teamwork should echo and permeate the very fabric of what we do.
During my attendance at the 2012 Region IV RID Conference in Denver and the 2013 National RID Conference in Indianapolis I found myself in tears more than once. While it is not uncommon for me to become emotional when I am with colleagues discussing the very serious, real and important issues that impact our work as interpreters, the tears I felt at these conferences were different. It was not until a moment of clarity during the business meeting in Indianapolis that I realized the difference.
It was not long after the start of the Business meeting in Indianapolis when I experienced a shift in my awareness about my emotional response during both conferences. It occurred as I was witnessing discussion and decisions regarding the use of spoken English via open microphone. As I was sitting there, feeling helpless, looking around the room feeling the heavy and volatile energy – I realized I felt as if I was witnessing a war. A battle waged between two perspectives, the deaf and hearing world, both fighting for recognition.
As a person who has grown up in both worlds, I have struggled with my own identity and place in each world since I can remember. Sitting there, I found myself relating with perspectives from both “sides.” As I type this, it strikes me that it may not seem such a powerful realization. After all, this struggle between the two worlds has been going on for years.
By framing this struggle through the lens of war and making the connection between my internal struggle and the mirror reflecting around me I found clarity that I have not yet experienced.
Lens of War
War is not something I want to perpetuate or contribute to.
When I consider ways to end war, three immediately come to mind: surrender, truce, and victory. At first thought, none of these sound too appealing. Truce suggests compromising or simply putting the “war” on hold for a short time. Surrender implies giving something up and the opposite of victory is defeat – so, depending on which side of the war you are on it could be very destructive. However, upon deeper reflection, and some reframing – I see these three approaches turning out to be possible strategies that can work in tandem to move the field to a more constructive and healthy space.
Calling a truce seems a good first step. Putting “the fight” on hold for a while in lieu of some time to reflect and take note of our own journey. Hindsight is indeed 20/20. When I reflect on my past struggles and active times of ‘war’ I see with clarity that it is only when I stop reacting that I am able to move past the fight. I think one of the biggest reasons people are able to move past the “fight,” is when they give themselves the opportunity to look within they become more centered on their own beliefs and perspectives. Thus equipping themselves more readily for healthy interactions when faced with situations where their beliefs and perspectives are challenged. So rather than reacting in an attempt to protect their own beliefs and perspectives they can more confidently listen to another and engage in productive discussion rather than destructive war.
Upon consciously calling a truce and engaging in self-reflection next can come surrender. In this context I think especially of surrendering judgment. Rather than judging emotions, reactions, behaviors – simply acknowledging them and accepting them as what is. The act of acceptance can be the step needed to move one from reaction to action. Rather than judging whether or not a colleague is using ASL in a shared space made up of Deaf and hearing people; first recognizing it as fact can slow down a likely knee-jerk reaction based on judgment of another’s actions purely based on assumptions. Instead of feeding the anger or resentment that resides within, attention could be focused on constructive approaches to addressing the incongruity of the person’s choice within this shared space. By surrendering judgment, we are more likely to be committed to sincerely sharing our own perspectives and receiving others perspectives, no matter how different they may be. From there we can move forward and hold each other accountable as we explore the issue at hand.
So, you may be thinking, ok Pollyanna, it would be nice if everyone came to the table being centered in self, and equipped for healthy, constructive dialogue; but that is not the case. I am aware that after reading this it can appear that my view of moving forward is one through rose colored glasses: that if we all just play nice the present state of affairs within the field will magically improve. I do not take this perspective in any way. This is where I see victory coming into play as a way to end war. When I consider what it means to be victorious in my own inner war, it is when I reach those moments of balancing all parts of myself that identify with both the Deaf and hearing part of me. It is when I have fully succeeded in enough self-reflection and enough surrendering of judgment that I feel fully acknowledged and accepted. It is also when I allow these parts of me to co-exist in ways that are fluid and evolving based on my interactions in the world around me.
So, ultimately, victory comes in acknowledging there will always be different views, therefore there will always be ample opportunities for war. It is up to us to choose how we enter each war. We can enter in full-fire, taking out everyone who crosses our path. Or, we can stay committed to our own truth, knowing it is fully ours until we decide to change it. Therefore, there is nothing to defend. There is only opportunity to fully be who we choose to be in each moment – to embody the change we wish to see.
The Costs of War?
War hurts. War scars. War kills. As I witness the wars taking place in our field today I see many costs. We are hurting ourselves, each other and immobilizing meaningful forward progress.
One of the biggest costs, perhaps is that sometimes we are in war and don’t even realize it. I think this is especially true for those of us who hear and experience the many privileges of living in a society where we take much for granted. Sometimes this unintentional war occurs as we perpetuate audism by defending and/or exercising our right to our own native language, or at least the majority language, by not considering ways that our hearing privilege colors our views of our work, therefore silencing people of the marginalized minority with whom we work.
A tangible example can be given by exploring sometimes buried assumption of one’s right to choose spoken English when engaging in professional development. When attending interpreting conferences, I sometimes sense a vibe in the air. At StreetLeverage – Live in Atlanta, Nancy Bloch referred to this vibe as “Hearing Interpreters Only.” This vibe manifests in a few different ways. Sometimes it is sensed as a mild irritation in the air due to having Deaf people in attendance. Other times it is disappointment at having to use ASL. Yet other times it feels as if Deaf people are being appeased – as if they don’t really understand our work but need to be placated.
I am in no way asserting that these things happen all the time, or that all hearing interpreters feel this way. Rather, I am attempting to articulate something that I merely sense; something that has the potential to shed light on one aspect of active war occurring in our field today. It is this type of exploration I hope will bring us closer to unpacking the baggage that underlies the tension and pain I both feel and witness all around me. This baggage that hurts us by way of limiting us to majority perspective; that hurts others by way of devaluing and ostracizing them; that perpetuates our false belief that we are the only ones who “get” our work; that there is something special to the work of interpreting that Deaf people don’t and can’t understand.
If we do not work together to explore areas of opposition surrounding areas of language use, oppression, privilege, assumptions, power and the like, we lose the opportunity to fully understand the existing struggles rampant in our field and professional organization. We also run the risk of our view being colored only by our likely colonized perspective of what it means to be a sign language interpreter. We lose out on the opportunity to fully realize that while we, as hearing interpreters, may always be the face of oppression, we do have the opportunity to change that face so that instead of being the face of that which we are against, we are instead the face of change, respect and acceptance.
“A man or a woman who has peace inside has everything. A man or a woman who is pulled apart by the war inside him or her has nothing. How you choose to interact with the opposing forces within you will determine your life. Starve one or the other or guide them both.”
– Cherokee Story
We must take a hard look at our own wars. If you feel like you are not engaged in or aware of any wars, either internally or externally in our field and with regards to the field of interpreting, I encourage you to explore more deeply. Some wars may be hidden – sometimes when we feel too much pain, or experience too much resistance to our views, we become desensitized and ignore signs of war. The exploration of the opposing forces within and around us becomes more critical when we consider the power we hold by way of the privilege we hold as hearing members of a society who are granted entry into both worlds – the hearing world and Deaf world. It is our responsibility to dive deeply into the issues surrounding us. The fact that we have the choice whether or not to dive deeply and choose not to have complete access to the world around us limited attests to the importance of this responsibility. This is the heart of privilege held by hearing interpreters.
We always have a choice.
If things get too overwhelming, too scary, too sticky, too “fill-in-the-blank,” we have choices that include access to both worlds. If we become too uncomfortable with our role in the deaf world, there is another world we can go and have unlimited communication access. Perhaps we can play the “neutral” card and be “just the interpreter” or simply detach and only show up in the Deaf world when actively interpreting. We must remain conscious of these choices.
I know important conversations addressing tough issues are happening within our field. Especially in response to the recent vote about the DPMAL position on the RID Board. I recently watched a video posted by Sarah Hafer sharing some of her thoughts in response to the vote and her discussions with colleagues in her graduate program. Locally, in Kansas, we are engaging in important, sometimes painful, dialogue regarding certification standards, our state commission and the varying perspectives that exist. So, the hard work is happening. People are showing up. People are unpacking. This work must continue and catch fire.
War hurts relationships. War scars hearts. War kills trust. The field of ASL/English interpreting is one rampant with opportunities for war. However, if we reframe the lens in which we look out into our field and communities, I believe those same opportunities are also ripe for growth, learning and healing.
Let’s unpack our own privilege, hold ourselves accountable, and be willing to share our own perspectives while remaining open to others. As scary as it may be, it can take us a long way toward peaceful, healthy dialogue and respectful, balanced co-existence.
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