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Implicit & Explicit Meaning: Implications for Sign Language Interpreters

Patrick Graybill presented Implicit & Explicit Meaning: Implications for Sign Language Interpreters at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. His talk examines how authentic meanings can be implicit or explicit and explores some of the guiding principles for uncovering meaning.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Patrick’s talk from StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston.  We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Patrick’s talk directly.]

National Treasure

Good morning, everyone! It’s difficult for me to start after having watched that tribute. I’m truly stunned. To call me a national treasure, however, could be a dubious honor. I have to ask myself whether this means that I’m now a fossil or if I’m still going strong. But, after watching the video [Aaron Brace video tribute to Patrick Graybill], I must say that every time I saw Aaron Brace, I was inspired. I simply planted the seed. That’s all! What happened from then on was not my doing alone.

Freedom to be Authentic

This weekend I’ve come to the StreetLeverage conference, but I’m not an interpreter. I’m just a Deaf person, so at first I didn’t know why I would come to such an event. However, yesterday and this morning helped me understand that I can cry. I don’t tend to cry, but I did, because here at StreetLeverage, ASL is allowed to come first. It’s placed above English, and that makes me feel free, inspired, like I can simply be! I feel like I did years and years ago when I was at the National Symposium on Sign Language Research and Teaching (NSSLRT) here in Boston. Prior to that I had been performing a one-man show for the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD), and on tour a voice actor would stand behind me and interpret my lines. While I was on stage, I would worry the whole time that I might jump a line. What would the voice actor do? Would he follow me? I was utterly thrown off by this worry during my performances. I couldn’t concentrate at all. Now, Dennis Cokely was at the NSSLRT. Like me, Dennis also planted a seed that grew. He had a Lexus; he had a condo. I didn’t have these things, so I watched him and learned. At the NSSLRT I was slated to do my one-man show, and I asked Dennis who would voice interpret for me. He said, “No one. It’s not necessary.” I said, “Wait a minute! It’s important that interpreters in the audience understand me! There has to be a voice actor behind me on stage!” He said, “No, there doesn’t.” That evening, after the day’s events, I performed my show, and I felt unbelievably free. I was emotionally free. I had no worries about the interpreter behind me. That experience had an enormous impact on me, and it convinced me of something that I’ll share with you now.

As I said, that evening on stage I had no worries, no internal distractions or discomforts to impede my performance. I want interpreters to have that same experience. I want you to feel honest inside, to feel free, to feel that if you make a mistake, you can carry on. I want you to feel in your work that you’re not merely donning a mask and pretending to be something, but that you are being authentic as a person.

Implicit and Explicit Meaning

Language has multiple meanings. Sometimes it carries explicit meaning, which is easily grasped and easily understood. Sometimes language conveys implicit meaning, which is murky, abstract, and difficult to encode. Perhaps a good word for this type of meaning is “invisible”. This hidden meaning wants to be made clear to the world. “Here I am! Under here! Bring me out!” Interpreters study these meanings, and they often spend more time looking at explicit meaning than implicit meaning. However, when they understand the implicit meanings, their interpretations are far more honest, clear, and confident. If they stay at the surface without plumbing the depths of meaning, the message is not made clear, and we as consumers have to work very hard to uncover the meaning ourselves. That’s what I want to address with you today.

Yesterday, Marvin Miller presented on Deafhood and the importance of having an internal sense of identity. Interpreters must have their own internal sense of identity, too – their “interpreterhood”, if you will. My journey as a teacher, as an actor, and as a member of the church began with this internal sense of identity. It must start from an authentic place within.

Gulliver’s Travels

I grew up in a residential school, which taught me one particular way of thinking. I had to adopt my teachers’ perspectives and follow their lead. Then at Gallaudet, when I was about 20 or 21 years old, I began to grapple with my identity. I knew I wanted to be an actor, but Gallaudet didn’t offer a major in theater. Acting was considered extracurricular there, which was fine, but I had to choose a major. I thought perhaps I could pursue teaching, but Gallaudet didn’t offer a major in education either. I had to wait until graduate school to study education. So, as I was weighing my options, I spoke with Dr. Robert F. Panara who was a late-deafened professor. He said, “You love acting. You love reading. You should major in English. You can read and study plays.” And being the good boy that I was, I followed his advice. I took classes in English, and in one, we read Gulliver’s Travels. I understood it superficially, thinking that the story of the giants and the miniature people was merely cute. But as we discussed the book in class, and different perspectives were raised, I became confused. These characters were symbols representing the struggle between the British and the Irish. This concept really threw me. From then on, I grew to understood that a text contains multiple perspectives.

Much later, I learned how to translate the Bible, and fortunately, I didn’t have to struggle alone in that task. I counted on MJ Bienvenu, Marie Phillip, Freda Norman, linguist Charlotte Baker-Shenk, consultant Kevin Kreutzer, as well as a hearing biblical scholar who had expertise in Hebrew and Greek. We all worked together, examining and uncovering the layers of meaning in the Bible and bringing them to the surface. I was at once intellectually and emotionally stimulated. I loved the Bible! Not because of its piety, but because people from biblical times experienced the same struggles, the same emotions, and the same depth of thinking that we do today. Literature contains these same themes. Gulliver’s Travels contains these same themes. From that point on, this work has been fun! Uncovering implicit meaning is fun, and I want you interpreters to experience that, too. It’s fun! Life is good. Why waste it arguing? Dig into the deeper meanings, and do it together, not alone.

The Semantics of Boston Strong

Let’s look at this symbol in terms of its explicit and implicit meanings. On Friday, Patrick Costello exclaimed, “Boston Strong!” Firstly, that statement had a certain prosody. We know some of its explicit meaning, but we can explore it more deeply. What does Boston mean? What does Strong mean?

I don’t have a PhD in semantics. I am not a linguist. But I have consulted on the interpretations of plays with Aaron Brace among others, and we focus on examining meaning at the implicit level. We work to uncover deeper meanings, and people have often said to me, “You should teach a course in semantics!” I’ve always demurred, but over the years, despite the fact that I have no degree, I have gained a lot of experience with interpretation and translation. I’ve come to realize that teaching is not what’s important. Gaining experience is. The work of deep analysis, digging for and unearthing implicit meaning, is perhaps where the new national treasure lies. Making explicit those implicit meanings allows us to present a clearer message. From there, we can doff our masks, dispense with ambiguity, and be free to render an authentic message. Whether you’re an interpreter, an actor, or a teacher, the key is communication, and clearer is better. Don’t you agree?

Levels of Meaning

There are fours levels of meaning, and I imagine you’ve studied them and know what they are. I find them fascinating. Take Street Leverage, for example. We have the word, street. Taken alone, what does this word mean? I’m here at this conference and I see no street. What about the word, leverage? Maybe this is a common word for hearing people, but as a Deaf person, I see the words “street” and “leverage”, and I don’t get it. Now, at the phrasal level, what is Street Leverage? What does this phrase mean? I still don’t know. At the sentential level, I can look at the words that make up the mission of StreetLeverage and begin to see that it has to do with interpreters improving their skills, developing a sense of identity, and advancing the profession. But it’s not until I look at the level of the text as a whole that I can understand what StreetLeverage is all about, both intellectually and emotionally.

We can do the same exercise with the expression, Boston Strong. What is Boston? What is Strong?

Mayor Menino’s Speech: Semantic Levels

This is an excerpt from the mayor’s speech made on the day after the marathon bombings in Boston. We see the word Boston in the text. What was in the mayor’s mind when he said that word? What did he mean by Boston? Let’s look further.

Patrick Graybill
Patrick Graybill

We may think of a city when we see the word, Boston. But can a city be strong? “We are one Boston.” Interesting. We are a city? Are we buildings? No, we are people. Okay, so Boston cannot exist without us as people. Boston needs us. “One”. Hmmm. The paragraph begins, “Good morning. And it is a good morning…” Do these two iterations of “good morning” mean the same thing? No, they don’t. We know this intuitively. Obviously, the mayor meant the first as a greeting. The second is a statement on the greatness of the morning due to the fact that we are together, united. Boston is us. We are one. And the people of this city are not breaking down. We are resilient. Intrusions will not budge us. Challenges cannot disrupt us. We are strong. This is what is meant by Boston Strong. To simply interpret this concept into ASL with the signs for “Boston” and “strong” is not enough. It’s also not about how to do it correctly or who decides what the appropriate signs are. As we take time to engage in discussions about its meaning, the right signs will emerge. It’s not as though one person can come up with the correct expression of this in ASL. That would be impossible. It requires that people work together to construct its translation.

Responsibilities for Translators

I’ve been a translator for about 25 years. It is imperative for us to look for and uncover implicit meaning. It is our responsibility! We must sift through ambiguities and render a whole, truthful, completely clear picture of what is there in the source text. Then when I deliver the translated text to a group of Deaf people, its message must be understood as equal to, not lesser than, that of the source text. Equivalence is our ultimate responsibility.

Genuine Confidence

Interpreters have the very same responsibility that translators do. As you acquire more skills in translation work, your confidence will grow. Your interpretations will become strong, and you’ll astound people with the clarity of your work. You won’t leave us looking at each other trying to discern what you mean. No more of that! Here at StreetLeverage, as I experienced yesterday and today, it’s happening. It’s possible. There’s no need for voice interpreters. I’m standing here today, and I’m not wondering what the interpreter is doing. I don’t have to look down to check on an interpreter. All of us, Deaf and hearing alike, are using ASL here. We’re all on equal footing. It’s a strange world for me, but it’s the best. It’s simply the best.


Lastly, interpreters do not have to do this work alone! Together, we can do the analyses, make mistakes, and learn. Together, we can take on this task. Moreover, it isn’t only for the “on” interpreter and the “off” interpreter to tackle a translation. Deaf people and hearing people must work together on this. In my workshop this afternoon, Deaf and hearing people will work together to translate a text. This translation work serves as a tool, since interpreters on the job must do it simultaneously in real time. You can practice using this tool from time to time, in the evenings over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, in front of a nice dessert. You can sit in a circle, look at a text, and work on uncovering its implicit meanings. Discussing it together, the hearing interpreters can analyze the English text while the Deaf interpreters determine how best to express those concepts in ASL. Working together, our world will surely grow brighter! Good luck to you all!

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UpCycling the CPC: Role Space and the Reasonable Interpreter Standard

In search of the “Reasonable Interpreter Standard”… Re-thinking the NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct with a fresh look at current best practices, recognition of role-space, advocacy and social media ethics.

UpCycle the CPCHurray! The RID Code of Professional Conduct Review Committee report came out on 6/23/2015! Many of us are eagerly awaiting a revised CPC. After reading through it, I felt inspired to sit down and draft a document which constitutes my approach to the intricacies of ethical practice, both philosophically and pragmatically, in my daily community sign language interpreting work.

[Click to view post in ASL]

This proposed draft is the fruit of fantastic input from a variety of sources (listed below) and also from the sometimes painful juxtaposition of the perceived proper role of a professional interpreter and an outdated CPC. As an interpreter who works for a variety of agencies and entities over a large geographic area, this proposed CPC is more compatible with my collective experiences over the past 26 years as an ASL interpreting practitioner and attempts to address many of the concerns raised in the recent CPC Review Committee report.

Your input and perspectives are invaluable! Share your thoughts on this important topic that has far reaching implications for individual interpreters and the community at large.

Thank you!

Code of Professional Conduct for ASL Interpreters (DRAFT)


Interpreting is an art and service profession. Interpreters work to provide access for individuals who do not share a common language or language mode. To demonstrate their commitment to the technical as well as relational components of the work to remove language barriers, respect cultural norms and promote shared communication, RID Certified American Sign Language Interpreters shall adhere to the following professional standards that both guide interpreter conduct and protect the public trust in certified interpreters.


All RID Certified Interpreters are bound to comply with this Code of Ethics. Interpreting students and interns are encouraged to adhere to this Code as pre-professionals, in conjunction with supervision by RID Certified interpreters, mentors and instructors.


1.  Accurate and Complete Interpretation

Each participant’s source language should be faithfully rendered in a manner that conserves and conveys all meaningful elements of the speaker’s message and intent into the target language. A natural prosody that reflects the tone, style and register of the speaker should be employed. The interpreter shall strive for the highest standards of accuracy to enable the parties to clearly communicate with one another and avoid misunderstandings. The interpreter shall make repairs promptly and discreetly. If at any point an interpreter is unable to fulfill this tenet, the interpreter has a duty to either decline or remove her/himself from the assignment. Sight translation of forms and documents is within the scope of practice. Consecutive, simultaneous, team or relay interpreting with an intermediary interpreter are all valid approaches to this task, and the interpreter shall use professional discernment to request a team interpreter to effectuate communication.

2.  Commitment to Autonomy

The interpreter shall constantly strive to support full autonomy of the participants. While some situations may require the interpreter to make adjustments such as improved positioning, lighting or other logistical considerations, the primary focus will be to facilitate  participant autonomy. The interpreter shall avoid interjecting actively into the conversation or message. Exceptions include utterances which constitute social pleasantries, responding to direct questions, management of the interpreted interaction such as checking in with the parties to ensure the interpretation is clearly conveyed and accessible, clarification of content and professional courtesies.   Interpretation is a group activity creating a shared experience, and the interpreter has a duty to interact in ways that are socially responsive, culturally and linguistically inclusive and also maintain an overarching commitment to participant autonomy.

3.  Confidentiality

Privileged or confidential information acquired in the course of interpreting or preparing for an assignment shall not be disclosed by the interpreter without authorization. Data and records shall be handled using current industry standards including password protected computer files, locked cabinets and shredding of obsolete documents. HIPAA laws or any other federal, state or local laws governing information management shall be adhered to strictly. Interpreters work in a variety of settings for a variety of entities. Case studies, which are representative of repeated occurrences within interpreted interactions over time, can be shared with peers for the purpose of analysis and professional development in the same manner that other professionals conduct continuing education with the goal of improved service outcomes. Interpreters may make public comment on public information.

4.  Professional Demeanor

Interpreters shall conduct themselves in a professional manner that engenders respect for all parties. This applies to standards of dress which are conducive to a visually accessible interpretation. For most interactions business casual is appropriate. Identification such as a badge is recommended to assist the parties in readily identifying the working interpreter.  Examples of professional conduct include prompt confirmation of availability, fulfillment of confirmed assignments and punctuality. The interpreter shall maintain appropriate professional boundaries and separate personal from work interactions out of respect for all parties. Social media shall be used judiciously with consideration for all parties with particular attention to maintenance of standards of confidentiality. Obtain permission from all parties before posting shared experiences on social media or online.

5. Collegiality

Interpreters shall strive to work effectively, professionally and in good faith with all colleagues, mentoring partners, interpreting interns and students. Team interpreters shall caucus as needed before, during and post-assignment to ensure an optimal interpretation. Colleagues shall be approached directly, privately, one-on-one, to address any concerns or breaches of ethical conduct. Filing of grievances shall be made only after all other standard conflict resolution methods have been unsuccessful. Every effort shall be made to maintain open, accountable and positive relationships with peers that support full communication access for all parties.

6.  Preparation

Interpreters shall make all necessary efforts to prepare adequately for assignments. This includes obtaining preparation materials such as speeches, meeting agendas, documents, textbooks, police reports, etc., that will promote the most complete and accurate interpretation.

7.  Conflicts of Interest and Role-Space

Interpreters shall avoid conflicts of interest and dual roles which result in diminished capacity to devote full attention to the task of interpreting. The concept of a conflict of interest is well established, and interpreters shall adhere to norms of conflict of interest avoidance, both perceived and actual. Unanticipated conflicts of interest shall be disclosed to the parties promptly. Complete neutrality, or the absence of vested interest is not achievable.  Interpreters are dedicated to effective communication for all parties. However, interpreters can commit to fully participate in the role-space of interpreter to facilitate communication in order to support the parties in reaching their mutual goals of shared exchange.

8.  Professional Development

Interpreters shall maintain RID certification, completing required CEUs within each cycle, and also engage in supplemental continuing education, mentoring, pro-bono work, etc., to promote the furtherance of knowledge and skills within a framework of social justice. Membership and participation in professional organizations is strongly encouraged.

9.  Advocacy and Resource Referral

Interpreters are in a unique position as functional bi-cultural bilinguals. Interpreters shall provide referrals to available and appropriate community resources to support equal access. Interpreters may engage in advocacy services in settings that are separate from the interpreting function and that fall within standards of acceptable professional conduct and do not constitute a conflict of interest.

10.  Functional Maintenance

Interpreting is physically, emotionally and mentally demanding. Interpreters shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that all members of the interpreting team have adequate supports, including breaks, to promote health and longevity in the interpreting field. Interpreters shall decline or discontinue assignments if working conditions are not safe, healthy or conducive to interpreting.

11.  Business Practices

Shelly Hansen
Shelly Hansen

Interpreters shall adhere to the highest standards of ethical business practices which include but are not limited to accurate invoicing, charging reasonable fees for services rendered which constitute a livable wage, payment of taxes, maintenance of licenses and professional liability insurance, etc. Interpreters shall engage in pro-bono interpreting. Interpreters shall refrain from using confidential interpreted information for personal, monetary or professional gain or for the benefit or gain of personal or professional affiliations or entities. Interpreters shall avoid interpreting in settings which involve payment terms that are inconsistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act or any other federal or state law or local statute prohibiting discrimination.

12.  RID ED: K-12

RID Certified ED: K-12 interpreters shall adhere to the most current version of the EIPA Guidelines of Professional Conduct for Educational Interpreters when working in K-12 educational settings.

13.  Court Certified Interpreters

Legal interpreters have an additional level of ethical accountability to the courts and judicial system. Interpreters qualified to work in legal settings by either federal or state regulations or by virtue of RID legal credentialing shall prioritize the applicable court interpreter oath and timely access to due process. Legal interpreters shall strive to comply with current best practices and make statements on the record, requests, disclosures and recommendations that represent current best practices for legal interpreters.

14.  Adherence to Federal, State and Local Law

Interpreters shall abide by all federal, state and local laws which supersede this Code of Professional Conduct.   Interpreters shall fulfill all mandatory reporting duties and respond to subpoenas.

Reasonable Interpreter Standard

No illustrative behaviors are included. All tenets shall be considered using the reasonable professional interpreter standard. If an action, engaged in repeatedly, would promote:

  1. increased autonomy of the parties
  2. effective communication exchanges
  3. encourage public trust in the interpreter’s services

by actions taken in good faith effort adherence to these core tenets, the behavior should characterize that of a reasonable professional interpreter. For further assistance, please contact the RID Ethics Committee.

Questions for Consideration:

  1. Forget about dream vacations…What is your dream CPC?
  2. How do you want to see social media addressed collectively?
  3. Why is a succinct CPC preferable to a 5 page test-prep document?


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Llewellyn-Jones, P. & R.G. Lee (2014) Redefining the Role of the Community interpreter: The concept of role-space. Carlton-le-Moorland, UK: SLI Press.

National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc.

EIPA: Guidelines for Professional Conduct

Dean, R. K., & Pollard, R. Q (2011). Context-based ethical reasoning in interpreting: A demand control schema perspective. Interpreter and Translator Trainer, 5(1), 155-182.


Collegial Assistance:

Thank you to Xenia Woods, along with the Street Leverage staff, for their willingness to review and provide feedback and edits on this submission! Thank you also to Mr. Ed Alletto for his insightful legal trainings and gentle but direct prompting.


Q:  Why aren’t there any definitions?
A: Unnecessary as this applies to the RID Certified Interpreters.

Q: Why not include the section about “representing qualifications accurately”?
A: Because it is already illegal to misrepresent yourself and this CPC only applies to RID Certified Interpreters

Q:  Why not address VRI/VRS?
A: Unnecessary as this applies to RID Certified interpreters regardless of venue.  Employment requirements are separate from a Code of Professional Conduct, which applies to members of a professional group.

Q:  Why not more illustrative behaviors?
A:  A CPC should be succinct.  This covers the core tenets and should be interpreted using the reasonable interpreter standard, which this version makes more explicit and should strengthen the application of this CPC.   It is not possible to list all applicable illustrative behaviors. It is possible to provide ethical principles with guidelines for making determinations that will result in ethical conduct.  See Model Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters in the Judiciary for an example of this format.

Q: Why not discuss the Demand Control Schema?
A: In my opinion, DCS is a is a tool used to manage the interpreting interactions, but is not appropriate in a CPC. Individuals can engage in behaviors that do not match up with the CPC, and then state a need to use certain controls because of demands that are the result of earlier poor choices that could have been avoided. The CPC should stand above the DCS, which then can be used to comply with the CPC. [Edit 8/6/15.]

Q: Why not include a separate tenet for medical interpreters?
A: This may be necessary at a future date if a separate medical certification is added by RID.  At the moment this CPC along with HIPAA laws and contracting terms provide sufficient ethical guidance. (For example: no unsupervised access to clients, and stepping out of exam rooms when patients need additional privacy.)

Q: Why not make this binding for students/interns?
A:  The CPC can only be binding for certified members, who can participate in grievance procedures, be sanctioned and have their professional certifications suspended or revoked. Students may, for example, have a course requirement to adhere to the CPC in order to participate in an internship placement, but do not have a professional duty to adhere to the CPC until achieving certified status.  The number of non-RID certified interpreters working in the field continues to decline, as states adopt requirements for licensure that are predicated upon RID certification. The onus is on the RID Certified interpreter to guide the student/intern to adhere to the CPC.  See the ABA Model Rules for Professional Conduct Rule 5.3 for an example of this supervisory relationship.