Imagine yourself in the restroom while on a break from your work as a sign language interpreter. You look into the mirror as you dry your hands. What do you see? A linguist? An ally of the Deaf community? A wordsmith? Someone who is struggling to prove him or herself?
Most sign language interpreters have dichotomous personalities. However, this split personality can actually be a good thing for us to have. Humility and confidence are the two seemingly contradictory halves of the interpreter personality. But when well-managed, they are ideal manifestations of the dualistic interpreter personality. As Brandon Arthur points out in, Do You Resemble the Sign Language Interpreter in Your Head?, “an appropriate level of self-awareness is critical to finding success in the sign language interpreting profession.”
Escaping Ego-Related Limitations
In their worst forms, humility and confidence swell into fear and arrogance. The fear stems from a lack of hard work on the part of the interpreter to continue to improve his or her skills. When a sign language interpreter is working at learning and doing her best, and only taking on work she can handle well, she has nothing to be afraid of. Those who are most fearful realize at their core that they should be doing more to improve their skills or that they are interpreting in settings that are beyond their skillset.
The key to escaping ego-related limitations, whether they are the kinds that make us too confident, or not confident enough, is an intentional and well-informed practice of reflection. Anna Witter-Merithew explains in, Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice, that this is a crucial habit for avoiding professional isolation and for achieving not only growth, but also well-being.
An intentional practice of reflection and development can consist of many possible elements:
- observation-supervision groups as defined by Robyn Dean
- mentoring by a more experienced interpreter
- peer mentoring
- reviewing videos of one’s work with a Deaf language mentor
- workshops and conferences in which one has defined goals and out of which one develops new practices
- independent study in which one tackles specific skills with the help of consultants and research
- attending intensive trainings with group discussion sessions
- personal/life coaching
- researching, writing, and teaching while applying what one learns to one’s own practice
Arrogance Stems From Ignorance
The more experienced a sign language interpreter is, the more he knows how much there is yet to learn. Consumers, whether Deaf or hearing, do not respond well to interpreter arrogance. But they do need interpreters who are confident. When a sign language interpreter is confident, the parties who are using the services of the interpreter trust that what they are saying is being faithfully relayed, whereas a self-conscious or insecure interpreter will cause consumers to be uncertain whether their communications are being conveyed accurately.
Many hearing consumers fan the flames of arrogance by praising interpreters for their “beautiful signing.” “It’s like a dance!” “You did such a wonderful job!” they say. While many of us are uncomfortable with this kind of attention, other interpreters are quite happy to interpret music, comedy, theatre, and the like, despite the fact that it, by definition, places one in the limelight. It has become for some an artistic expression. This is not without controversy. A recent article editorial in the Baltimore Sun by Deaf Gallaudet professor Caroline Solomon and her brother, attorney Jeffrey Archer Miller, expressed the sentiment:
“Sign language is not performance art.”
This tells us that some see highly visible examples of creative interpreting as outside the realm of what is necessary and acceptable.
Most sign language interpreters believe in humility and understand that, in general, interpreters are not performers. If you have a part of your personality that is a performer, you should express that elsewhere by being a musician, an actor, or a dancer, so that you’re not tempted to use your position as an interpreter to express that need. This issue has recently been highlighted by the Deaf Community in Seattle in their protest of the Seattle Men’s Chorus, which has, for many years, used an unqualified interpreter who openly prides himself on performing via sign language.
It is sad and embarrassing that we sometimes let our heads get too big. I will never forget the amazing characterization that Dr. Laurene Simms provided at the California State University Northridge Interpreting Symposium one year. She took on the traits and mannerisms of every know-it-all, self-absorbed, show-off interpreter she’d ever seen, and combined them into one laughably conceited character. The effect was humorous but also sobering.
In recent months, a refreshing trend has appeared in online media: the examination by both sign language interpreters and Deaf consumers of the problems that surround bringing interpreters into focus. We can all agree that interpreters deserve to be acknowledged for excellent service, but what we don’t agree on is what kinds of acknowledgement are acceptable. Negotiating this tightrope cannot be done in a vacuum, which is why all interpreters need to participate in ongoing discussions with interpreters and consumers about what professionalism looks like for our field.
Balancing Humility & Confidence
So what will help sign language interpreters achieve and maintain this balance between humility and confidence? It requires equal parts self-knowledge, education, and participation in the interpreter and Deaf communities.
1. Deaf consumers are not always prone to giving interpreters feedback. Don’t ask for it; it’s not their job to offer critiques. If a Deaf consumer provides you with useful feedback, you are fortunate. However, it is common for Deaf and hearing consumers to have no feedback for the interpreter(s). This can actually be a good thing! It may very well mean that your work was unremarkable and therefore effective.
2. The best interpreting goes mostly unnoticed. If the consumers are focused on the discussion rather than on the interpreter, then the interpreting process will be almost invisible. This is explained eloquently by Theresa Blankmeyer Burke in her editorial, The Costs Incurred: Hearing Non-Signers and Signed Language Interpreters. In this piece, Burke explains why she takes issue with what she calls “Interpreter Basking in the Spotlight Syndrome.” Bottom line: it draws undue attention away from the consumers.
3. When consumers are displeased with an interpreter, it is more likely to be about her attitude than her signing skills. A confident yet humble sign language interpreter is a good ally for any consumer.
In the End
Each of us has a unique blend of personality traits that make us who we are as sign language interpreters. This variation is good, as it allows us each to be suitable for different types of work. What’s crucial is that we are qualified for what we’re doing, and treat everyone with respect. When we remember to always focus on the message more than ourselves, we will be providing our best work. In the end, the work is not about us. It’s about the people we serve, and their communication. When interpreters have developed authentic confidence, they can allow people’s communication to flow unimpeded.
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