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What Are We Really Saying? Perceptions of Sign Language Interpreting

Kelly Decker examines common ways sign language interpreters frame the task of interpreting and peels back some of the implications and impact on the field and the larger communities served.

Sign Language Interpreter Framing Their Work

Sign language interpreters are taught that meaning is conveyed through accurate word choice. Do we give the same considerations to word choice when we label and describe interpreting itself? How do our words and actions frame our work?

As a professional sign language interpreter, I would like to address some of the language used when conversing with colleagues, training new interpreters, and depicting the profession to the mainstream media. The frames we use, as a profession, have the power to devalue the work we do, and by extension, the communities we serve. Continued reinforcement of these frames impacts public perception of sign language interpreting.

[Click to view post in ASL.]

It takes years of intentional practice, reflection, and dedication to develop competence as a sign language interpreter. Platforms such as Street Leverage allow us to continually highlight and examine the ways we have yet to grow. MJ Bienvenu’s Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilingual and Carol Padden’s Do Sign Language Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension? illustrate two fundamental problems we face in the field.

While we have begun to address the language we use to talk about our work, there is more work to do. I have selected four examples which demonstrate various ways interpreters contribute to current understandings of our work. There are many other examples that could be analyzed. I encourage you to contribute to this conversation online and with your colleagues to further examine how our use of language can contribute to a misperception of our profession and the disenfranchisement of the Deaf community. These types of conversations lead to greater awareness, which can be a catalyst for change.

The Labels We Use: “Terp”

It is not clear to me where this abbreviation came from. A cursory search on the internet found that it is cited as slang for “interpreter” and paired with the word ‘deaf’. We work with marginalized communities who are continuously disenfranchised regardless of the abundance of evidence and research regarding language, intelligence, and Deaf Gain [1]. We deflate our profession and the work we do for the sake of a few saved keystrokes.

This word “terp” (and I call it a word since it has become commonplace nomenclature and somewhat of a phenomenon within our field [i.e. TERPexpo],) is used primarily in written English when interpreters communicate with and refer to each other, and when interpreting agencies make requests for “terps”. The use of the term “Terp” does not stop within sign language interpreting circles. Since it has become somewhat the norm internally, it has spilled out into the larger community as the preferred label for what many interpreters want to be called. I feel this does a disservice to the field. I am an interpreter.

Misleading Terminology


As I understand it, in most instances, this phrase refers to actual interpreting. I come across it when dialoguing with ASL/English interpreting students. This term is used in practicum to indicate a requirement that is different from observation hours – the need for “hands-up” hours.

When sign language interpreters in the field and educators in interpreter education programs use this term to talk about the work we do, it implies that interpreters only interpret in one direction, into American Sign Language. It implies that Deaf people have nothing to say nor contribute. In reality, our work is working between – at least – two languages. This misguided idea is further bolstered by how our national organization frames the act of interpreting. The interpreter certification exam tests interpreting capabilities and decision-making. Yet ASL vlogs, created by RID, refer to the performance portion of the interpreting exam using a gloss that gives the literal impression that the exam is a “signing test”[2].

As explained above, “hands-up” addresses only half of the work we do. Or does it? When colleagues say “I prefer to work into ASL, it’s easier” or “I don’t do any ASL to spoken English work,” is it because interpreters, too, believe that interpreting is only done in one direction?

Additionally, the term “hands-up” perpetuates the erroneous notion that sign language interpreters, most of whom are second language learners of ASL, prefer to work into ASL because they are “comfortable”, “have more experience working into ASL,” or “feel they are clear”.  Substantial evidence is to the contrary [3].

Interpreting, and more broadly, signed languages, have little to do with the hands. While sign language is expressed in a visual modality, the hands are but one element of that mode. Language is rich and complex. It conveys thoughts, emotions, and abstract ideas and it results in human connections. Language is influenced by and interwoven with culture. It is impacted by generational, intersectional and regional influences. Reducing an entire language to its modality is a prime example of how the dominant language and culture exerts power over and diminishes a linguistic and cultural minority.


This term “voicing” has become commonplace within our field as a descriptor for the spoken language work we do as interpreters. It is a descriptor that oversimplifies the nature of the work, as if it requires no cognitive decision-making by the interpreter, nor cultural brokering between the two languages, and that the interpreter functions simply as a sign-by-sign voice over.  In Jessica Bentley-Sassaman’s article, Taking Ownership: Defining Our Work As Sign Language Interpreters, she states “voicing” does not appropriately state what we do, what does is naming what we are actually doing when interpreting.

As the profession continues to use the term “voicing”, I believe that we perpetuate a medical perspective on deafness. It bolsters the idea, that when deaf people use sign language they need to be fixed somehow, given a voice, and that’s what interpreters are doing.

This portrayal of the work reinforces a view held by the majority culture that  the language used by the Deaf community is somehow deficient. This misconception is propagated by the Alexander Graham Bell Association, whose position was made public [4] after the televised accomplishments of Nyle DiMarco, that desirable language development and outcomes for deaf children are only possible when focusing on listening and speaking, both of which are deeply rooted in the deficit-based medical model of what it means to be deaf.

As sign language interpreters, I believe we ought to unpack the implications and impacts of how we frame our work.

Perceptions of Professional Interpreters: Shake It Off [Interpreter Version] [5]

This video was so popular on social media after its release in December 2014, that the video’s participants were a part of the entertainment during RID’s 2015 national conference in New Orleans, LA. I have cited this piece not based on its participants but as an example of how we portray who we are, what our work entails, and how we approach the task of interpreting.

From what I gather, this video was made as a parody, a day-in-the-life of a sign language interpreter. All joking aside, what I cannot shake off while watching this video without audio input, is that it clearly represents misconceptions about the work we do:

(1) we only work into sign language, as the tired arms, hands and fingers portray;

(2) we only do this work for the money, as the interpreter runs off screen following the dollar bills;

(3) we self-medicate, as the abundance of pills clearly shows; and

(4) we can brush off the significance of the task of interpreting, as the title of the song conveys.

This day-in-the-life video makes no mention of the substantial cognitive work we do, which is the foundation of the product we produce. The sole focus is the self-aggrandizement of the interpreter. We must consider how this can contribute to the  mainstream media’s abundance of misleading and demeaning pieces about sign language interpreters while #DeafTalent continues to go unnoticed.

Holding Ourselves Accountable

These examples are both subtle and not so subtle. As these flawed representations proliferate, we, as practitioners, as educators, and as a professional organization, become complacent and immune to the deleterious effect they have on our profession. We may dismiss it, saying, “This is the way we’ve always talked about the work,” “This how my interpreter training program said it,” or “I never really thought about it.”

We need to think about it. We need to talk about it. We need to question and remind each other when we use language that trivializes our work.

Mastery of interpreting is no easy feat. It is a labor of love, a demanding cognitive endeavor, and a dedication to craft. Above all, we are collectively accountable to representing our work with the utmost respect for the Deaf community.

How will you model talking about the work we do?

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Questions for Consideration:

  1. The ways in which we, as a profession, talk about the work we do is anchored upon our understanding of what interpreting means. Are the ways we portray the work, the profession, and the communities we serve accurate?
  2. How do you think the ways that we talk about the work impact the profession?
  3. Do you have examples of times when dialoguing with colleagues where how they were talking about the work just did not sit right?
  4. With those examples in mind, how can you further explore what it is that did not sit right?


[1] Bauman, H-Dirksen and Murray, Joseph. Editors. Deaf Gain Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity. University of Minnesota Press. October 2014.

[2] Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. RID Announces Moratorium on Credentialing You Tube Posted 9 Aug 2015.

[3] Nicodemus, Brenda and Emmorey, Karen. Directionality in ASL-English interpreting Accuracy and articulation quality in L1 and L2. Interpreting. Vol 17:2. 2015. p. 145-166.

[4] Sugar, Meredith. Dispelling myths about deafness. Online: Posted 1 April 2016

[5] Ott, Stephanie. Shake It Off [Interpreter Version] You Tube watch?v=DS2UdoXS3xA Posted 13 Dec 2014.


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6 Presentations That Will Make You a Better Sign Language Interpreter

Sign language interpreters constantly strive to be better practitioners. Often it is a flash of perspective that gives context to the challenges they face and assists them in moving along their path to actualization.

6 Presentations That Will Make You a Better Sign Language Interpreter

Let’s admit it, being a sign language interpreter can be tough. Sometimes a little sprinkle of perspective can contextualize the challenges we face as practitioners. From language fluency to connecting with the community, from confronting social justice issues and inaccurate assumptions to maintaining our integrity and leaving a legacy, these flashes of insight can lead us to becoming the interpreters we aspire to be. What follows are sprinkles of goodness that will, in fact, make you a better sign language interpreter.

1.  Dennis Cokely | Sign Language Interpreters: The Importance of the Day Before

Dennis Cokely

In his StreetLeverage – Live | Atlanta presentation, Sign Language Interpreters: The Importance of the Day Before, Dennis Cokely discusses the dangers of unchallenged assumptions and the “one thing” sign language interpreters must always remember in order to render more effective, meaningful, and culturally appropriate interpretations.

View the ASL, English and PPT here.

2.  Deb Russell | Sign Language Interpreters: Discover & Recover an Enduring Legacy

Debra Russell

Deb Russell’s StreetLeverage – Live | Atlanta presentation, Sign Language Interpreters: Discover & Recover an Enduring Legacy, recognizes the importance of uncovering and acknowledging the contributions and traits of leaders who have significantly impacted the field of interpreting. In order to move forward, we must first understand where we have come from.

View the ASL, English, and PPT here.

3.  Betty Colonomos | Sign Language Interpreters: Fostering Integrity

Betty Colonomos

In her presentation, Sign Language Interpreters: Fostering Integrity, from StreetLeverage – Live | Atlanta, Betty Colonomos defines integrity and highlights the critical need for accountability in the field of sign language interpreting.

View the ASL, English and PPT here.

4.  Doug Bowen Bailey | Transforming Perspectives: The Power of One-to-One Conversations For Sign Language Interpreters

doug bowen bailey

Doug Bowen-Bailey’s StreetLeverage – Live | Austin presentation, Transforming Perspectives: The Power of One-to-One Conversations for Sign Language Interpreters, explores the concept of one-to-one conversations as a means of connecting with the Deaf community and other interpreters.

View the ASL, English, and PPT here.

5.  Trudy Suggs | Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter

Trudy Suggs - Deaf Disempowerment and Today's Interpreter

Trudy Suggs’ StreetLeverage – Live | Baltimore presentation, Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter, powerfully explores both financial and situational disempowerment within the Deaf Community.

View the ASL, English and PPT here. 

6.  MJ Bienvenu | Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals?

MJ Bienvenu - StreetLeverage - Live 2015

MJ Bienvenu’s StreetLeverage – Live | Austin presentation, Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilingual?, explores the deeper questions involved in determining whether sign language interpreters are, in fact, bilingual.

View the ASL, English and PPT here.

The Whole is More than the Sum of its Parts

While these presentations represent a small part of the wisdom and insight shared at StreetLeverage – Live events, we hope this retrospective provides you with some tools, ideas and information to support your journey to becoming the sign language interpreter you’ve imagined yourself to be.

* Enjoy these presentations? Join us at StreetLeverage – Live 2016.

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Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals?

MJ Bienvenu presented Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals? at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. Her talk examines if sign language interpreters are proficient bilinguals as expected and if not, is it okay for them to work in the field while still acquiring the language?

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of MJ’s talk from StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin.  We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access MJ’s talk directly.]

Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilingual?

In a discussion about bilingualism I asked the question, “Are sign language interpreters bilingual?” I was struck by the thought that I have posed this question before. Upon reflection, I realized that we have asked this exact question repeatedly over the years. It almost feels silly to ask that question. So I queried some people and found that, indeed, this question is still considered relevant and important. I find that fascinating.

I entered the field of sign language interpreting in the early 80s. Having grown up seeing my share of interpreters, and in light of the fact that this question still persists, I’d like to explore the concept of sign language interpreters as bilinguals a bit further.

“I am an interpreter because I am a bilingual. I am bilingual because I am an interpreter.”

I have seen people say, “I’m an interpreter because I’m bilingual. As a bilingual, I should be able to use the opportunity to work as an interpreter.” That logic seems to make sense. But then, if you look at the second sentence, that’s an interesting concept. “I am bilingual because I am an interpreter.” This gives me pause. Is that statement true?  It is an interesting assumption. “Because I’m an interpreter I am bilingual.” I’d like to talk about this idea a bit more.

Bilingualism Revisited: The Ability to Comprehend and Use Two Different Languages

The reason I’m interested in talking about “bilingualism revisited” is because I feel that many people talk about bilingualism and being bilingual, but I don’t think we have a common, shared understanding…well, we may have a shared understanding, but we don’t have a shared measurement for what “bilingual” means. On its face, on the most simplified level, one might want to say that bilingualism is the ability to comprehend and use two languages. Is it, in fact, that simple? Do we consider levels of proficiency in both languages? That’s something to ponder.

Language Ability vs. Language Use

Now, I’ve done extensive analysis of both language ability and language use. This was an excellent opportunity for me to review the literature on bilingualism and I found some information as I did so. Language ability refers to productive competence, meaning that a person has a level of ease or fluidity…As an example, I’m here [at StreetLeverage Live – 2014 | Austin] because ASL and English are the designated languages and I am able to fluidly navigate between either language as needed. In our daily worlds, Deaf people move between ASL and written forms of English. As for sign language interpreters, in theory, they, too, navigate between two languages – ASL and spoken English. That’s the theory, anyway.

There is another term to consider – passive competence. This refers to a person who may have the ability to comprehend other people’s language usage, but display an inability or lack of fluency in their own expression of that language. Certainly, there is a range of what is considered fluent. When I first saw this term, I was intrigued. Deaf people’s experience with interpreters is very often summed up as: “They don’t understand us.” I was taken with/intrigued by Tom Humphries’ comment this morning when he talked about not always having an English vocabulary equivalent for an ASL term. Most literature and discussion about bilingualism focuses on the interaction of spoken languages, not between signed and spoken languages, as if Deaf people don’t exist around the world. When the discussion is about spoken language, passive competence makes sense. In our world, passive competence could mean that someone who can’t fully comprehend ASL and can’t produce it expressively can still work as an interpreter. If that is true, what are the implications? It is certainly food for thought.

Individual Bilingualism and Societal Bilingualism

Individual bilingualism occurs when an individual person has fluency in two languages, often obtained through interaction and social contact with parents, friends, educational institutions, the community, etc. These exposures all help to develop that person’s language competency.

Societal bilingualism is related to socio-linguistics – the power structures of the languages involved. This is a core element of the Deaf experience. In our experiences as Deaf people, we are aware of those dynamics. When we talk about the power structures of ASL and English, some of you may insist that both languages share equal power. I see several heads turning in reaction in the audience. The reality is that the two languages are not considered equivalent. The general view is that English carries much more status and power than ASL.

And regardless of how “good” the interpreter is or how hard they try, that message is often conveyed through the interpreter, as well. It is conveyed through teachers of the Deaf, through interpreters, through friends, who don’t recognize the power they wield. My students will often say that they need to “match” the hearing person and in their ASL production, they automatically give hearing people a higher level of status simply by referencing them in a higher position spatially. The disparate power structure is unconsciously established in a few simple moves. That implicit message is woven throughout the discourse. Throughout our interpreter training, we see this unconscious establishment of the hearing power structure within the language we use. Interpreters internalize these messages and propagate them. The idea that hearing people hold superior status is passed along and Deaf people are given lower status. So, this is how students internalize our language, our experiences and our community.

“Bilinguals are those who use two or more languages in their every day lives.”
(Grosjean, 2010)

I have a strong affinity for that quote. This definition resonates for me. The reality is that bilingualism is a daily, day-to-day state of being. It can’t be attained in a 9-to-5, clock in each morning, interpret all day and clock out at 5pm to return to your English-speaking life, never seeing ASL in use. It isn’t possible. You cannot become a competent bilingual under those conditions. It is not possible.

It is interesting to note that years ago, in our history, there were many so-called “community interpreters”, friends of Deaf people, who had intimate knowledge of the daily lives of Deaf people. Some of those interpreters were CODAs, had Deaf neighbors or were somehow, for some reason, fully engaged in the Deaf World. Those individuals devoted much of their time to engaging with Deaf people, using ASL in that world – sometimes only briefly exiting to maintain relationships with their non-signing family. Even when they spent time in their hearing, English-oriented environments, they didn’t discard or disconnect from the Deaf community. They still participated in the Deaf World on a regular basis.

Today, things are different. I certainly understand that we need to produce interpreters in an expedient way. Does that mean we have to produce “9-to-5 interpreters”? What are the implications of that? Are those “9-to-5 interpreters” truly bilingual?

Level of Proficiency

Level of proficiency. In my reading, I found some fairly utilitarian definitions of levels of proficiency. In contrast, I asked Deaf people and interpreters about their definition of interpreter proficiency. Overwhelmingly, the answer was native-like fluency in expressive ASL and native fluency in all forms of English – spoken, written and reading comprehension. It’s interesting that we have on the one hand a definition of proficiency that entails multiple levels, while on the other, we have the sign language community instead aspiring to a singular, ultimate point of proficiency.The reality in our daily lives is that most interpreters’ proficiency is significantly lower than the expectations of the Deaf community. The intent here is not to be negative. This is the reality. So, we have an expectation of native-like fluency and as I see it, there are individuals who fall somewhere between those two places.

More and more Deaf people are coming into contact with interpreters now. Not necessarily in face-to-face, in-person, in-the-flesh interactions but via video relay services. In those moments, we are confronted by language that may make us think, “Is that my language? Is that ASL?” We’ve been given the right to request a change of interpreter, but often, in deference to the interpreter, we don’t have the heart to ask them to switch. This is an interesting phenomenon because we may have that moment where we pause, but go on with the call, forgetting ourselves and falling into our natural language patterns, leaving the interpreter to try to keep up. Upon checking in, we may find ourselves altering our language to meet their skill level. So again, it is important to consider levels of proficiency.

School Experience

The school experience. I’ve done quite a bit of research and have had many conversations about this topic. The d/Deaf experience, irrespective of educational background or language use – whether one comes from an oral education, SEE signing, total communication (that is really more of a philosophy), simultaneous communication, the Rochester method or ASL – includes a number of commonalities. Deaf children internalize various patterns of their language that are unique to the educational realm. When they see something presented to them that is unclear, it is common that Deaf students will check in with their peers who can provide some clarity and explanation which may be in language that is more accessible to them. This is a critical part of their language development which starts from the time they enter school – probably around age 3-4 through about age 18.

Typically, interpreters don’t have this experience, regardless of their entry into the Deaf community as CODAs or friends of the Deaf community. If those interpreters are placed in a classroom – where they experience what I often call my “other language” – as hearing people, they would be able to access the academic English. Certainly, there may be topics that some are less familiar with or with which they might struggle, but generally, they could process it. But when placed with Deaf people talking about academic subjects – math, science, etc., the interpreter doesn’t have the proficiency to follow. In theory, they should have the language proficiency, but in missing that period of language development, that school experience, they are missing a critical part of the Deaf experience and a part of our language. If we are relating this idea to the topic of bilingualism, shouldn’t a bilingual person have access to “everything” in a language?

Often, interpreters seek language input. For example, they may be preparing for a social studies unit on American history and are seeking appropriate language for ships and the colonization of America. When asked, Deaf people often find themselves educating the interpreter. The interpreter may also say something like, “Spelling the names of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria is too difficult. Do you have any ideas for creating signs for the ships?” Deaf people are confronted by this conflicting behavior – a “bilingual” person whose behavior doesn’t seem to indicate bilingual proficiency.

Social Experience

Social Experience. Right. So, back in the day [translation note: presenter uses a sign that could be glossed as LONG AGO], well, it wasn’t exactly that long ago. Either way, in years past, I believe that there were myriad opportunities to interact with interpreters – we attended social events, learning and interactive events where we conversed and shared ourselves and the language used there was rich and natural and fluent.

Currently, I see what I would label classroom or “Textbook ASL.” This type of signing is typically a mechanized, citation form of signing that does not convey fluency or natural, common usage of ASL. That natural, fluent expression comes from social interaction. It is perfectly acceptable to learn ASL in the classroom, but to translate that kind of language to real-world work or to label that usage as “bilingualism” is inaccurate. That isn’t bilingualism. That kind of language is almost robotic – the person may display perfect grammatical and linguistic forms, which I applaud. They may produce all the grammatical and non-manual markers in the right place, at the right time, but the message, the core meaning is absent.

Cultural Behaviors

Culture. This is most often the place where conflicts arise – problems, struggles, misunderstandings can all impact the message in the attempt to bring two languages and cultures together. Finding that place where two languages and cultures can come together effectively is a challenge because cultural understanding is so critical. Culture is so integral. Cultural immersion from a young age is critical for true understanding. This is true for any language and culture – it isn’t specific to interactions between Deaf and hearing people, but the struggle is very real.

You’ll remember the reference to societal and socio-linguistic issues. Again, the power differentials between one culture and another come into play. Yesterday, in her presentation, Stacey Storme talked about privilege, which resonated with me. Privilege. In terms of real world application, when we bring two cultures together, we often confront issues of privilege – issues that are in conflict with the bilingual experience.

In all honesty, it was a relief to know that there would not be voice interpreters today. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, I can present in ASL without other considerations. Secondly, I’ve grown tired of being stopped after a presentation only to be told that the interpreters didn’t understand or had misinterpreted my message. Finding that out is a blow, especially when the information comes after the fact. A hearing interpreter who is presenting with voice interpreters can catch and correct an error while it is happening. That is privilege at work. It doesn’t align with cultural behaviors. To hear an error and accept it, carrying on as a Deaf presenter must, without immediate repair is the culturally appropriate thing to do. A Deaf presenter doesn’t have any option – they only find out about it when it is too late to repair. This is one illustration of the struggle, the disconnect between the definition of bilingual and the cultural behaviors which should align with that definition.


Situations. There are a whole host of situations that people experience on a regular, even daily basis, and this point applies both to situations and my discussion of cultural behaviors, how do/can interpreters prepare for all of these situations? We could select examples from hospitals, legal situations, academic settings, weddings, funerals, or a number of other settings.  Each setting and situation has unique and difficult demands.


Flexibility. How flexible can we be? As Carla Mathers mentioned yesterday with regard to legal interpreting – there are rules in place so the interpreters can’t be too flexible and at the same time, we must allow for some flexibility. That flexibility is related to language use. I could see language flexibility as one measure of bilingualism.

Yes because…

I got an interesting answer when I posed the question: “Do you think sign language interpreters are bilingual?” The slide says “Yes,” but really, most people responded with a resounding, “No.” I was surprised by the response. When I was given the reasons people said no, I understood more clearly. To those few individuals who answered “Yes”, I asked, “Why did you answer yes?” Several of the “Yes” respondents said they answered that way because interpreters were able to communicate. I found that answer intriguing. The purpose of using language is to communicate but effective communication doesn’t mean effective use of language. Some responded that what was important was the interpreter conveying the main idea or basic concept. The idea that someone who has access to a full language (a bilingual) communicating only the most basic information in an interpretation gave me pause.

MJ Bienvenu
MJ Bienvenu

One Deaf person said that their own educational experiences, in the mainstream and at the Deaf school, prepared them. Their interpreters and hearing teachers signed basic, surface ideas and concepts, leaving them to decipher the rest of the information on their own. So, an interpreter, in that person’s view, could be considered bilingual and interpret only basic information because they (the Deaf person) had developed the skills to navigate through that kind of language input. But this also illustrates the inequity that exists between English and ASL. I work in a university setting. Across the United States, there are individuals who are not proficient in trying to decipher vague or basic language input. Remember earlier when we talked about the school experience – that peer learning that takes place? In these other settings, there may not be a peer to ask. In that situation, the Deaf person has only the interpreter’s rendition. That’s a problem.

Others responded that the interpreter had probably been measured by linguists and labeled bilingual. Others felt that interpreters, by virtue of their certification, must be considered bilingual.

I posed the same question to those who answered, “No.”

No because…

The “No” respondents had a variety of reasons for their answers. On reason given by many was that interpreters aren’t fluent enough in expressive ASL. It is interesting to note that most people, when asked this question, focused on ASL proficiency and not English. Both Deaf and hearing respondents, almost across the board, focused on ASL skills even though an interpreter must have English language proficiency, as well.  So, most people focused on ASL fluency. Other answers included finding interpreters hard to watch (either causing fatigue or they were uninteresting), they had too many miscues or misunderstandings, etc.

One of my own personal experiences might be good to insert here. I was at RID – the specific organization isn’t the point of this example. My point is that I was at a conference presenting. I showed a videotaped text with poor ASL usage – full of errors. The errors were purposeful. Afterwards, I asked the participants if they thought this was something good to use on the web as an example of good ASL usage. Many hands raised up to indicate that yes, they thought it was. Taken aback, I shared that this video was not, in fact, a good model of ASL. That moment gave me some important information.

So, let’s return to my original question. When we consider proficiency levels, knowledge, experience, flexibility, the ability to navigate through varied situations and interactions, community involvement and culturally appropriate behavior, it is clear that our definition of bilingual does not fit the textbook definition. No, that’s wrong. I should say that the textbook definition does not fit our definition of bilingual.

Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals?

The question remains the same. I don’t have the answer for you today. I leave it to you to determine the answer to the question: Are sign language interpreters bilingual? Hopefully, I won’t have to pose the question again. Before we can comfortably answer this question, we must determine our definition of bilingual.

Thank you.

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Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals?

MJ Bienvenu

MJ BienvenuTalk

Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals? 

MJ’s talk will examine if sign language interpreters are proficient bilinguals as expected and if not, is it okay for them to work in the field while still acquiring the language?


MJ Bienvenu, A native ASL signer, originally from Baton Rouge, LA, MJ received her BA in English and MA in Linguistics from Gallaudet in 1974 and 1983, respectively. She received her Ph.D. specializing in Linguistics/Lexicography from Union Institute and University in 2003.  She is a professor in the Department of ASL/Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University. MJ is presently serving as Chair of Gallaudet’s Sesquicentennial celebration.

MJ has conducted workshops on topics of bilingualism, ASL, Culture, empowerment, LGBT, -isms, and interpretation.

On a personal level, MJ loves spending time with her wife, and their dogs and cats and reading and traveling.

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Debra Russell | Sign Language Interpreters: Discover & Recover an Enduring Legacy

Deb presented, Sign Language Interpreters: Discover & Recover and Enduring Legacy, at StreetLeverage – Live 2013 | Atlanta, GA. Her talk encouraged sign language interpreters to consider the opportunity before them to uncover, discover, and recover the gifts from previous leaders in the field.  Further, Deb explored how interpreters can emulate the traits of these leaders in their own actions in order to leave a legacy of meaning.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.


Sign Language Interpreter Deb Russell - StreetLeverage - Live 2013 | Atlanta
Debra Russell

I am from Canada and we have a way of opening a meeting, which is to thank and recognize that we are standing on ground previously owned by the Aboriginal people.  I also want to open this talk by thanking and recognizing the Deaf community, who taught me their language, culture and their experience of seeing the world. So thank you to my local Deaf community and the communities across Canada. I am fortunate, as I have the opportunity to travel widely in Canada and throughout the world, which means many Deaf communities have taught me, while sharing their experiences with me.  Thank you to the CODAs, many of you in this room have taught me about your life experience, and I thank each of you.  We have one CODA here today from Canada, Janice, thank you for sharing your insights and helping me envision what each of us can do.  I never attended or graduated from an interpreter training program – the Deaf community taught me how to interpret, and they still do teach me, helping me understand how to match what they expect, prefer, and want to have happen with interpreters from their point of view. Based on that experience, I share this talk.

Importance of Looking Back

Now, my topic is about understanding our legacies and why it is crucial to look back.  If we don’t understand our histories, we are destined to continue to make errors, and lose our way.  I think it is important to look back and identify those who lead us, taught us, and ask if we need to find ways to embrace their teachings in a healthy way.  Understand that I have been given twenty minutes, which means it is impossible to recognize all of the leaders that have contributed at the local, state or provincial, or national or international levels.  So I have chosen some key people – people who have taught me and key people who have contributed greatly to our profession, and some that are still contributing. You may look at the list today and point out those I have not mentioned – to those people, I thank them for their contributions and hope they will accept my apologies for not including them today.

As I began the research for this presentation, I thought it was important to uncover the stories, the many positive stories that we can continue to learn from. For example, we can learn about our successes, and how we define success.  If we forget those stories then we ultimately block our future success.  It can prevent us from setting goals, and making progress on those goals that can result in improving our profession.  So today is a chance to look back and see what those people contributed to our field and what we must learn from their legacy.

A legacy can be defined as our history, and also how we remember a person, or what we pass on to others.  A legacy can be positive or negative – it is for you to decide.

Lilian Beard

I start with Lilian Beard.  As I look out at the audience, as soon as Lilian’s photo came up, you immediately smiled.  Why?  How do we remember Lilian? Many of you never had the chance to meet her, but we have a collective memory of her many contributions to our field.  How many of you remember her from 2009 at RID in Philadelphia, regaling us with story after story and everyone in the audience being captivated by her.  Her contributions are numerous.  This quote speaks volumes:

“…our friendship (with Deaf people) was never affected because they knew I was always there to support them.”

She was a CODA and this quote speaks to her relationship with the Deaf community, how she was always there to support the Deaf community. My question is this: are we still supporting Deaf people in the same way?  If Lilian were here today, what advice would she offer us?  How would she guide us in solving problems? Remember what she said when she started the Texas chapter – she began by talking with Deaf people, with, not talking to, not talking about, but talking with Deaf people.  She was a wise woman and that sage advice still is true for us today.

As I remember Lilian, I am struck by the following characteristics: humble – she was indeed 100% humble, and she was collaborative, with interpreters, Deaf people and people who were not involved in the Deaf community.  Her big heart was open to everyone.  I think she had a Deaf heart – well before we began talking about what it means to have a Deaf heart – she demonstrated what it meant.  She also knew the value of recognizing and thanking people for their contributions.  She did so much, but one key event was her role in creating the Texas Registry of Interpreters.  She admitted that she didn’t know how to create an organization so she found someone who knew how to do that and engaged their support.

“I did not do it myself, but I found someone who knew how to create the registry…”

“I think my strong suit was giving acknowledgement to people in the right proportions…”

This is similar to what Anna Witter-Merithew mentioned on Friday night at this conference – each of us must find allies, collaborators, and supporters in order to be successful.  As I said, Lilian’s strength was to recognize and thank others for their service and contributions.  I wonder, if we were take a good look at ourselves now, does our profession currently recognize the contributions of others?  Or, are we so busy complaining, that we are forgetting to recognize and thank people?  Lilian was a founding member of RID in 1964, which is well before some of you here were born!  As a founding member, what was her vision for the organization?  Maybe our organization has gone through many changes, however one of the original visions was to build the organization with Deaf people, and that Deaf people would remain integral in the organization.

Lou Fant

Lou Fant – same response as when you looked at Lilian’s photo.  We all remember him with such fondness and affection.  Let’s look at some of Lou’s characteristics, and there are many of note!  For me, Lou was a pioneer.  He forged a way for us, leading us without us knowing he was leading us!  He was also a CODA, and also very humble.  He had a Deaf heart, and for me, he was a teacher, and a builder – a builder of organizations and a people-builder.  He constantly encouraged us to improve as individuals and as organizations.  Those traits are all things that we should value and strive to emulate.  I went back and re-read Lou’s obituary and this line so resonated with me: “Lou Fant heard the Deaf with his heart.”  That line says it all.  Lou listened to the Deaf community with his heart, which says everything to me.  Lou, like Lilian, was a CODA and he loved sign language.  As I recall Lou, he stressed that we must treasure American Sign Language – and not the version of ASL that many of us as interpreters use, but the way Deaf people use their language!  His first book, AMESLAN, is a book I still have on my shelf.  It is also very interesting for me to see that some Deaf leaders and teachers throughout Canada and the US are talking about their community as an Ameslan community, not as a Deaf community, but rather an Ameslan community.  Lou gave generously of his time to create organizations like RID, CIT, the National Theatre of the Deaf, and the list of contributions and successes goes on.  Despite his long legacy, Lou never boasted of his involvement in our field.

1.  RID certification – reasonable alternative to contract with an agency that specialized in devising, administering and scoring examinations…

2.  Two important benefits to us:

–   RID no vested interest, certification on more objective footing 

–   Home office staff and local affiliate personnel would be freed up to attend to what ought to be the main business of RID, fostering the professional growth in all of us…

Sometimes I wonder what Lou would advise us to do about our current challenges with certification.  While his book, Silver Threads, is over 25 years old, I think his comments then about certification are food for thought for us today.  We are still debating certification all these years later, but Lou’s idea was to take certification out of our organization and put it into the hands of an organization that specializes in assessment. Doing so would leave the RID staff with the time to focus on the business of RID:  to promote the development and growth of our profession.  Interesting, isn’t it?

Anna Witter-Merithew

Many people have contributed to the development of our profession, and throughout that process there were others that also recognized the value of creating an organization for interpreter educators.  I know that many were involved in that movement; however, I have chosen Anna Witter-Merithew, who is with us today.  I could use the whole 20 minutes to talk about Anna’s contributions, but the point is this:  she has been actively involved in RID, serving multiple terms as President and Vice-President.  She has served as the President of CIT twice.  She has developed curriculum for teaching interpreters, she has created interpreter education programs, and more recently we note her work in the area of ethics and decision-making.  She is nothing short of an amazing leader and an amazing contributor.

MJ Bienvenu

Let’s look at MJ Bienvenu, who is still so actively involved. As I look back on my 30 years in the field, MJ has been present everywhere – RID, CIT, and more!  MJ is one who deeply understands the Deaf experience, equality and what it means to meaningfully include Deaf people in a movement.  How would we define her? I think as an activist, an activist with the goal of equality.

“It’s about… Love for justice and equality for all. Love for basic human rights. Love for civil rights for all people…”

 Nov 7, 2012  Planet Deaf Queer

Many of you will have studied the “green books,” so you know her face, or remember her involvement in the Deaf President Now movement. She was also the co-founder of the TBC during 1997.  That organization was the first organization to bring interpreters and Deaf people together to have conversations about power, and what was happening between the sign language interpreting and Deaf communities.  She is a phenomenal leader!

Betty Colonomos

As our field developed and we saw the emergence of many interpreting businesses, others questioned whether a business model was what was most effective for our field.  Betty Colonomos was one of those people, and she found a way to create a business that also valued and embedded Deaf culture into every aspect of the business.  Again, we can see that Betty has persisted in contributing to the community, and after 30 plus years, she is continuing to write, present, teach, and encourage us to reflect deeply.  Her interpreting model is one that is taught daily in programs across this country.   Her work with the Etna group is teaching the next generation to be reflective practitioners.  Her contributions are countless.

Ed Bosson

Another example of someone who has contributed hugely to our field is Ed Bosson.  Ed is known as the  “father of VRS,” and there is no doubt that technology has dramatically changed our profession.  We need to thank Ed for his vision of what equal communication access for Deaf people could be.  He has impacted each of us.

Have We Lost Our Way?

But sometimes I wonder, like Shane Feldman said this weekend, if its like driving a car aimlessly – and sometimes we simply are lost.  Have we lost some of those key characteristics that our previous leaders so generously modeled for us?  Now we see more and more interpreters obsessing about the financial aspects of being interpreters, and not thinking about contributing. We also see tensions among our colleagues, and camps that have emerged.  Yesterday, Nancy Blanchard spoke of the tension between the concepts of business and service.  Is business the primary driver, or is service?  Additionally, our relationship with the Deaf community appears to be fading, and our relationship with each other as colleagues is changing.


Can we recover some of those traits?  My answer is a resounding yes!  As we have heard yesterday and today, one of the first things we can do to recover as a profession is to regain our relationship with the Deaf community, in meaningful ways, not just to discuss business practices but to connect to the heart of the community.  Another action we can all take is to commit to leadership with integrity, leadership with honesty.  We can also all commit to everyday doing something that will improve our community.  We sometimes speak of wanting to change the world, change our organizations, and change the field.  But let’s shift that attention inward, where maybe we have to start changing ourselves first.  We can take action that will result in positive change, and everyday that requires us to do something with the possibilities in front of us.  You can take actions such as acting as an ally, which requires that you continue to have hope.

Deb Russell StreetLeverage Live - Power GraphicThis next slide comes from some research that my friend and colleague Risa Shaw and I are doing related to power and legal interpreting.  I think the model is relevant to this conversation.  We need to explore what it is we envision when we talk about the task of interpreting.  Do we see interpreting as merely the act of relaying words and signs, and see ourselves as passive? Or, do we see interpreting as something that requires us to be actively involved in the Deaf community, supporting Deaf people, and looking carefully at our decisions and actions that can oppress Deaf people?  The model shows a “sense of agency,” which speaks to the inner control where we have to take responsibility for the work, for our profession, and ultimately for each other.  It’s a huge discussion.  And finally, the model addresses training.  How are we teaching interpreters? I am an interpreter educator and I am nervous about how we teach interpreters now.  All three of the circles on the slide feed into the area of “power” and that’s been our discussion this weekend.  How do we share power?  How do we recognize our power and acknowledge the impact of negative power?  I think if we explore these areas in depth we can recover, as a field.

“I have felt several emotions as I wrote this book: joy, dismay, excitement, anger, and hope… Joy because of how much we have accomplished; anger at our inability to make decisions… and hope for our success.  The one emotion I did not, nor do not feel, is despair…”  P. 89

The above quote is from Lou’s book, where he talks about the many emotions that surfaced during the writing process, and Lou stressed that never once did he feel despair, which represents his ability to maintain hope as an ally.  I think each of us here at StreetLeverage – Live | Atlanta feels that same sense of hope – I know that I very much feel that sense of hope from this event, and feel hope from each of you.

Connect and Collaborate

6 Steps to Becoming an Ally – Heather Bishop  (2002)

1. Understand roots of oppression

2. Understand different oppressions – similarities & differences

3. Consciousness & healing

4. Working for own liberation

5. Becoming an Ally

6. Maintaining Hope

Sometimes our students learn this material from Bishop, from her book entitled “Becoming an Ally.”  I appreciated Anna’s comments yesterday about the stages of “becoming,” and while we may not be there yet, we are “becoming.”  So, we are learning all over again how to connect and collaborate, and thus how to become an ally.  Bishop’s last three steps talk about healing and consciousness raising, and that certainly has been our focus this weekend.  When we look at the step, “becoming an ally,” we need to ask what does that look like from the Deaf community’s point of view, and what does it mean for interpreters, and CODAs?  That will require a great deal of conversation and dialogue. The final step of maintaining hope is our job!

Your Legacy

What lies ahead is an opportunity for us to uncover, discover, and recover the gifts from our previous leaders’ many contributions, and to look at how we can emulate their traits in our actions.  As a graduate of WADS University – remember that is Lou’s phrase, “Watch and Do the Same,” I graduated from that university – I watched our leaders and found ways to copy their actions and that is where we can find hope!  So now I ask each of you to think about what your legacy will be for this field.  You have an opportunity to change yourself and change the field.

What will your contribution be?

Thank you.


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