Nigel Howard | Deaf Interpreters: The State of Inclusion11 min read
“No two persons ever read the same book.” I share this quote from Edmund Wilson with you to highlight a point in this presentation. A reader brings to a book their own experience and understanding in order to create meaning from the story they read. We all approach our work with our own experience and understanding and often ascribe our own to others’ work. In our work with a team, these differences or similarities in how we understand our work become very clear. In order to work through it all we have to keep in mind the goal of the interpreter’s work in the first place…to ensure that people who do not have a common language are able to communicate with each other.
Many people incorrectly believe that the concept of deaf interpreters is new when, in fact, deaf people have been functioning as interpreters within the community for as long as there have been deaf people. A good example of when this happens is in the classroom when the teacher is not a fluent user of sign language. In this situation, students will ask other students to interpret for them what the teacher is saying. In this situation, the interpreter is functioning as a deaf interpreter. The standardization, training (of which there is currently not enough), and certification of deaf interpreters are more recent developments but the function itself is not a new one.
Another belief many hearing interpreters hold about working with a deaf interpreter is that they will be perceived as unskilled or new in the field. This can lead to a lot of self doubt on the part of the interpreter. The other side of this misperception comes from deaf interpreters themselves when they believe that because know sign language then that automatically means they will be a good interpreter. As a profession we know that interpreting takes more than language fluency.
All of these perceptions play into an interpreter’s beliefs and understanding about their own work and our field in general. Another perceptual layer is added on for deaf interpreters who are interpreting in their own community where they have relationships and shared pasts with the people they are interpreting for. Every interpreter carries around their past with them. For the deaf interpreter, their past can haunt them on the job when they are working with a community member that has shared their past, a fact that can lead to distrust and misunderstanding.
The deaf community also ascribes to a perception about deaf interpreters. Some deaf community members hold a belief that deaf interpreters are useful only for deaf people that have cognitive impairments or have some idiosyncratic language need that calls for it. They don’t yet understand that deaf interpreters could benefit them as well. This misunderstanding could simply be a result of having always worked with hearing interpreters and no experience working with a deaf interpreter. The misunderstanding could be rooted in that shared experience with the deaf interpreter and feeling distrust and lack of confidentiality or a boundary.
The misunderstanding could go back to simply not understanding that deaf interpreters are required to go through training and abide by the same code of conduct that hearing interpreters do. Or they may not trust the fact that the number of hours required for a deaf interpreter to sit for the certification test is currently FAR LESS than it is for a hearing interpreter, lending less credibility to the deaf interpreter. The discrepancy in the amount of study required to sit for a certification test also leads to misperceptions between hearing and deaf interpreters about who is more or less qualified to be working as an interpreter.
Misperceptions abound within the deaf interpreter community as well. Deaf interpreters are often quick to judge other interpreters entering the field based on their educational background, involvement in the community past and present, and their sign language fluency. There are also deaf interpreters who are fluent users of sign language; however, do not have a clear grasp on the task of interpreting. These judgments and perceptions occur regardless of the deaf interpreter’s certification status.
I put the “C” in CDI in quotes because I often see deaf interpreters who have achieved a national certification place emphasis on the fact that they are not just a deaf interpreter but a certified deaf interpreter. I commend the individuals who are able to attain a national certification; however, the label has little meaning for me. If we look at hearing interpreters for comparison, interpreters who have achieved a national certification do not ascribe to the label of certified interpreter. They are simply, interpreters. I believe that the addition and emphasis on certified in labeling oneself is a tacit way of bringing validity and an implication of expertise to one’s work. The current certification systems are developed with a focus on generalist/entry level skills. Having this certification does not make one an expert in all things interpreted and this fact should be reflected in the work a deaf interpreter chooses to do and not do. I argue that deaf interpreters should accept this same model as hearing interpreters and not overly emphasize certification status.
Before we go any further, I ‘d like to make sure we are all working from the same understanding of terms that are often used when talking about what a deaf interpreter does in their work. We can’t really talk about perceptions until we are using common definitions.
A Relay Interpreter is one that passes the information from one person on to another. I see relay interpreting used often by deaf interpreters. Relaying information is retaining the form of the language in its original state. It is passing the message on to another person without analyzing or unpacking the source text for cultural, linguistic, or environmental factors to meet the goal of the communication in the target language.
A Shadow Interpreter is used in theater settings but can be seen in other settings as well. With this method, the interpreter literally shadows the speaker as they move about.
A Mirror Interpreter is useful in settings where there are members of an audience or setting that cannot see the original signed message due to sight line or distance restrictions. This interpreter will employ relay interpreting function by maintaining the form of the source language.
A ‘translation’ according to The Oxford Companion to the English Language is “communication of the meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target language text”. With this definition in mind, we can understand what an Interpreter or Translator is doing.
Deaf-Blind Interpreters are often deaf interpreters. People who function as Intervenors/SSPs for Deaf-Blind people may also be deaf interpreters but their role is very different than when they are functioning as an interpreter. Often the terms (and roles) are conflated and I’d like to make clear here that Deaf-Blind interpreters and intervenors serve very different functions even though it may sometimes be the same person doing both.
Calling someone an International Sign Interpreter is a misnomer. There is no International Signed Language, per say, so in looking at our definition of translation/interpretation the word translation or interpreter doesn’t apply in its strictest sense. Deaf interpreters who are providing access for an international audience have developed their communication skills from interacting with many deaf communities in many geographical areas that are not their own. They have learned how deaf people talk about specific concepts and topics in a common and sometimes gestural way and are able to modulate their language used depending on the audience. This is a very specific skill of which some deaf interpreters claim to have but in fact do not because they lack the experience in a variety of international sign language communities.
High Visual Orientation/Gesturing as a form of communication is another function of deaf interpreters and is sometimes used.
The term ‘Interpreter’ should conjure some meaning for you since I am addressing an audience of interpreters. I envision your understanding of interpreter is ‘someone who provides equivalent translations between a signed language and a spoken language’. An ‘ASL-English Interpreter’ would be the appropriate term for those of you who work between those two separate and distinct languages.
If we take the basic definition of ‘interpreter’ that I have presented above and apply it to the term ‘Deaf Interpreter’, what is the definition? What languages are deaf interpreters working between? It is not a signed language and a spoken language.
There are some deaf interpreters for whom they view their role as interpreter and advocate. Advocating is a very different function all together and one that should not be confused with the interpreting role. As members of the very community of people we are serving, deaf interpreters need to be cognizant of our role as language and cultural brokers only. Deaf interpreters with little training or experience may be quick to attribute mental health issues that manifest as communication barriers to our function as interpreters and may overstep a boundary. A boundary that is not ours to cross but should instead be conveyed to the provider that is communicating with the deaf person. This mixing of roles by some deaf interpreters may feed into the resistance and lack of trust that some deaf community members feel about using a deaf interpreter.
According to RID’s Standard Practice Paper on Team Interpreting, “Team Interpreting is the utilization of two or more interpreters who support each other to meet the needs of a particular communication situation. Stewart, Schein, & Cartwright define it as “two or more interpreters working together, not just physically but intelligently”. These two definitions get at the fact that while there may be individual members of the team, they are not to work individually. Instead, each member is charged with working together toward a shared and collaborative target language interpretation that is an equivalent to the source language. Truly a team approach.
I have worked as a deaf interpreter in a variety of settings. I have because it is true that a deaf interpreter can and should be used in a variety of settings; including but not limited to medical, mental health, legal and with deaf people who are non-native signers, immigrants and are of any age.
As hearing interpreters yourselves, you may be faced with a situation where you realize that you would prefer to team with a deaf interpreter. A common scenario where deaf interpreters are called in is to work with children or in mental health situations. I advocate bringing one in but you need to also remember that simply because someone is deaf, fluent in sign language and hangs a shingle out calling themselves an interpreter, it does not mean they have the requisite skill set for the situation you are faced with. Keeping in mind that we are all generalists and may not be the best qualified for every situation out there, discretion on the part of all interpreters is paramount to ensuring the best outcome.
It is usually the hearing interpreter that first identifies that a deaf interpreter would be beneficial in any given situation. If an agency has past experience with the deaf person or the situation, they may identify the need ahead of time but usually it falls on the hearing interpreter to make this assessment.
The interpreter may determine that a deaf interpreter is needed as a team for a variety of reasons such as the complexity of the situation. The need for discretion applies to determining when and if a deaf interpreter is needed as well. Careful consideration needs to happen before calling a deaf interpreter in for any and all interpreted situations. A thoughtful weighing of the situation, the environment, and the resources has to be considered along with understanding that calling in a deaf interpreter is a team approach and that, together, each interpreter will remain responsible for the communication that happens.
An interpretation of someone else’s thoughts will rarely be error free. With that in mind, 2 heads are better than one. Each interpreter processing the source message and then creating a shared understanding will result in a more accurate target message. A teamed interpretation with both a deaf and hearing interpreter working collaboratively will result in a better overall interpretation that results in a product that provides clarity of ideas and message equivalency for the intended audience.
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