Interpreters only need to know two things:
- Sign Language; and,
- Everything Else.
Interpreters only need to know two things:
Elementary School Interpreters are real interpreters.
VRS Interpreters are real interpreters.
Legal Interpreters are real interpreters.
CDIs are real interpreters.
Middle School Interpreters are real interpreters.
VRI Interpreters are real interpreters
Freelance Interpreters are real interpreters
University Interpreters are real interpreters
Pre-K Interpreters are real interpreters.
Mental Health Interpreters are real interpreters.
High School Interpreters are real interpreters.
My original plan was to write one Note to tackle Interpersonal Dynamics: Deaf Client; Hearing Client; and, your Team. But there is a lot to unpack in all these topics! So much that I split it into three.
I get calls and emails and texts (oh my) weekly-all asking the same question:
“What would you do if…”.
The details tend to diverge at that point, but the idea is the same.
What do you do when you don’t know what to do?
I addressed ethics, micro-audism and the interpersonal dynamic that exists between the interpreter and the Deaf Client in previous Notes.
So let’s talk about the interpersonal dynamics between the interpreter and the hearing Client.
How do you, as the interpreter, relate to the other actors in the communication event?
The Hearing Client
Author Douglas Adams wrote a scene in his book Dirk Gentely’s Holistic Detective Agency wherein the reader is given insight into a horse’s opinions on its rider. The author clearly states that it is not a super-intelligent horse or magical in any way. This handsome but quite normal horse formed opinions about its rider because:
It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion on them.
But, the author also observes:
On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.
What’s the point?
People who are Deaf tend to know a great deal about hearing people. However, most hearing people have no idea what it actually means to be Deaf in a hearing world.
That, of course, has never stopped any hearing person from expressing an opinion on the matter. I have heard hearing people expound at length on how, if they were Deaf, they would be “too self-sufficient to demand that someone else provide [them] an interpreter.” (That is an actual quote from an office manager at a medical clinic).
Against my better judgement, because you can’t fix the arrogance of privilege, I responded by quoting the first stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s poem Padgett M.P.
The toad beneath the harrow knows exactly where each tooth-point goes,
But the butterfly upon the road preaches contentment to that toad.
I don’t think she got it.
It is easy for one removed from the struggle to advise quiet acceptance to those who live the struggle every day (by the way, find the poem I quoted. It’s a fantastic exploration of watching someone who loudly expresses an opinion, on a topic about which they know nothing, becoming “educated”).
As a hearing person who has lived, worked and studied the Language and Culture of people who are Deaf, I can safely say that I don’t understand the experience of a person who is Deaf navigating a hearing world day in and day out. I never will.
But, I do know how to interpret between a person who is Deaf and a person who is hearing. I can say without fear of contradiction or false aggrandizement that I am an expert in that area. I can and will speak to hearing Clients with authority about what I, as the expert on communication in the room, need in order to do my job.
I’m not shy about advocating for the things I need in order to do my job (affording effective communication) And I am always professional about it.
It is important to clearly explain what I mean by being “professional.”
I always begin very politely, but, I am direct.
I am clear.
I am firm.
If needed I will be blunt.
But always polite, unless the situation calls on me not to be.
Make no mistake, there is a place for directness to a level that some may mistake for rudeness within the definition of professional discourse.
My measure for when it is time to move past blunt is when a lay person, who knows nothing about my job (outside their uninformed assumptions), attempts to “correct” me on how to do my job (specifically when they assume incorrectly).
I first attempt to educate, then to explain, but, if needed, I will correct their erroneous assumptions without negotiation.
Let me emphasize that again. Never forget that as an interpreter you are the expert regarding interpreting. That is why you are there; they called an expert to facilitate communication because they could not do it without your expertise.
That is the purview of the person who is Deaf.
Definitely defer to the person who is Deaf.
Anything regarding the process of interpreting is the area of expertise of the interpreter (If you are working with a CDI, and I hope you have had the benefit of that experience, it is amazing, then defer to the CDI). If (when) the hearing Client tries to insert themselves into your area of expertise handle it as the professional you are.
As I’ve said, “professional” doesn’t always mean the same thing as “polite.”
“Respectful” doesn’t always mean the same thing as being “deferential.”
On one occasion for example I had to educate a nurse who kept telling me how to do my job. I went through the steps I listed above, but to no avail. She just kept giving me orders, to the point that it was becoming impossible for me to do my job.
No one prevents me from doing my job.
My job is too important to allow that. So I finally said:
“I think see the problem here. You mistakenly believe that I work for you. Let me assure you, I do not. I’m an independent contractor that the hospital hired for my expertise. If there is an immediate medical emergency I will defer to your expertise, but, right now I have a job to do. You are interfering with my ability to do that job. That will stop.”
And it did.
In the end just keep in mind that the hearing people who hire you tend to come in two types: Those who know how to rely on experts to do the jobs they need done but don’t know how to do themselves, and those who assume that they are naturally an expert in all things and feel the need to direct the work of everyone else.
If you want to reduce problems and arguments during assignments you need to speak and act as the expert you are. Ninety percent of real problems that come up during appointments happen because we didn’t speak up when we felt like we should. The other ten percent happen because we say too much. There is a fine line between professional self-advocacy and arrogance. I find that line lies at the border of “this is what must happen to do my job” and “listen to how much I know.” Finding that line is both a science and an art. Staying on the right side of it is an imperative.
The key for me is asking myself a simple question. “Am I stating clearly to this hearing person what I need to do my job or I’m I arguing with a jerk.”
Never argue with a jerk, even if the jerk obviously wants to argue with you. You don’t have to attend every fight you are invited to.
Be clear, be direct, be professional and when in doubt remember Rule 8!
Hello! It feels good to be back and typing furiously with my thumbs!
I love working with teams. I always learn something by watching how another interpreter handles tricky linguistic issues or does the simple things better.
There is no such thing as plagiarism when it comes to interpreting. No interpreter has a copyright on a great way to interpret “that” no matter what “that” is. If you see something you can use then collect it for your toolbox and use it when you need it.
Stop looking at other interpreters and wishing you had the skills that he or she has. Figure out what they are doing, that you wish you were doing, and start trying to incorporate what you observe into your own work.
“It’s that simple,” you ask?
Well, yes. And no.
It’s as simple as opening your eyes and ears and mind. But, so many things block our ability to observe and incorporate breakthrough skills we see into our own work.
Number one barrier? Petty jealousy.
As I get older I have to admit more and more that the next generation of interpreters will be better at this than I could ever have hoped to be in my lifetime.
And that is a great thing. They should be better. Their skills and abilities should pass me by. That each generation of interpreters accomplishes more than the previous is good for the Deaf community and good for the profession.
It’s also to be expected because they have something to help them develop their skills that I never had. They have me.
I don’t mean me personally (though I try to do my share in the classroom) I mean they have the wealth of understanding contained within collective experience of my generation like I had the benefit of the giants who came before me. The next generation should build from the beginning on the solid foundation of the mistakes that taught me and crafted me into the interpreter I am today. They should not need to make the same mistakes I made to learn the same lessons I learned (though that is sometimes unavoidable). They should start above the noise and confusion by standing on my shoulders. This leaves them open to learn their own lessons, deeper mysteries of language and culture that I never got to because I was dealing with the lessons this profession had for my generation.
I have grown used to being the one who dazzled by reason the ease with which I handle difficult concepts. It is sometimes hard for me to admit that this young interpreter has produced a more clear concise interpretation than I.
It’s hard to admit that I still have things to learn. And harder to admit that this kid has something to teach me.
But that is the beauty of this profession, if we are willing to learn there is always something we can learn.
Our best resource is the Deaf community. If I have one lesson to pass on to working interpreters it’s this-prosody.
Take every opportunity to observe how people who are Deaf make themselves understood. How do they indicate the beginning of a new idea? How do native ASL users show the end of an idea? I’m not talking about grammar or vocabulary, I’m talking about dynamic functional punctuation.
When we look and really see how people who are Deaf transition between ideas or indicate turn taking or emphasize a point or refer back to a past idea… any myriad of structural linguistic guides that they produce with subtle shifts and facial expressions so naturally that these markers are almost imperceptible in flow of communication, but without which there would be no flow of communication, we quickly see how ham fisted and awkward our attempts to accomplish the same thing using crass signs are.
The economy of movement is inspiring. A native user can often accomplish with a nose wrinkle a meaning takes an interpreter 5-7 signs to produce in equity.
If we look and really see the structural perfection of it all we cannot help but say, “why aren’t I doing that? I should be doing that!”
And we can do “that.” We can do “that” if we are willing to see, process what we’ve seen and incorporate it into our work through applied practice.
There are always lessons to learn. There are always opportunities to be better at what we do, if we are willing to be taught.
When the phone rings at 1am and you know you are working a 8am, kiss your significant other and your bed goodbye, tell them both how much you will miss them, and remind yourself that you are doing a job you love and you will see both of them again… eventually.
Interpreters. Like a mime, but usually less irritating. Usually.
This Note has become a bit of an full time job for me. I have not been able to post anything because of my obsession with it.
In the book The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (read the books. The movies don’t do the story justice!explains that the problem with time travel is not what you would expect it to be. The Guide says:
One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem in becoming your own father or mother that a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can’t cope with. There is no problem with changing the course of history—the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.
The major problem is simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be descibed differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is futher complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.
Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later aditions of the book all pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy skips lightly over this tangle of academic abstraction, pausing only to note that the term “Future Perfect” has been abandoned since it was discovered not to be.
As with most things in life the Guide gives us insight into the condition of being human-in this instance that the things that are problems are often vastly different (and a little more pedestrian) than the things we assume to be problems.
So it is with interpreting. When we struggle with an interpretation we often look for a much bigger, much more catastrophic reason for our frustration than, we eventually find out, is the ACTUAL, reason for our frustration.
For example. When working from ASL to Spoken English (and almost as often Spoken English to ASL) interpreters who are struggling tend to jump on any idea that incorporates a fatally flawed lack of skill, comprehension, or ability on their own part.
While this approach carries with it metric tons of self-deprecating, unhelpful reasoning it is also infused with two “benefits” for the interpreter’s tortured soul.
First, it’s “analysis-proof.”
In law there’s a concept called being “judgment proof.” It means if you sue me for $100 million and win, but if I don’t have a bank account or a car or a house or any real property worth any value or insurance, then it really doesn’t matter if you sue me for $10, $20 or $30 million-you’re never going to see a dime; because I just don’t have it and there is no way I ever will.
The idea of being “Analysis-proof” follows similar logic. You can give me feedback or mentoring or instruction or support all you want, but if the problem is a fatal flaw inside of me, meaning my interpreter account is empty, then no amount of analysis will EVER result improved performance.
This dovetails into the second “benefit” or what I called the “why bother” mindset￼.
This second issue, the “why bother” mindset, logically and commonly-but not ubiquitously-follows on the heels of being “analysis-proof” (but it can exist independently as a stand alone self-defeating self-view).
It mentally flows like this:
If the issues that I have to overcome are so vast or too much or feel like they stem from a fundamental flaw inside of me, maybe I have an underdeveloped interpreter gene, then no amount of work will ever help me get better, so why should I bother putting more effort into building my skills beyond where they are right now. Perhaps I should just be happy with what I have and not try to challenge myself.
That self-view is attractive to the tired and frustrated because it can be applied to so many areas of our lives that we see as too hard to deal with.
If you are reading this and feel like it speaks directly to you (“is Uncle Dale watching me?”*) you are not alone. Every interpreter feels these frustrations at one time or another and grabs at these “answers”.
However, like time travel, when we feel like we’ve hit these walls it is often a result of looking well beyond the mark, at huge seemingly unsolvable issues (becoming your own parent) instead of stepping back and looking for the actual issue, because the actual issue seems so simple it’s almost silly (grammar).
In my experience for example what many interpreters see as an unresolvable issue turns out to be a simple Rhythm Trap.
The Rhythm Trap
Hearing interpreters, have you ever walked passed a room and heard a voice drifting from inside and thought to yourself, “that is an interpreter working from ASL to Spoken English (or if you are one of my students, “that is an interpreter working from Deaf to Hearing” Grin)?
You know the sound. Maybe you can hear it in your head right now.
Like some kind of interpreter 12 Step Program hearing interpreters all should all be able to admit in public that some version of the words, “like butter on a bald monkey” have spilled unbidden out of our mouths.
We have all, at some strange moment, realized we were humming along to a song in our heads to the beat of word-sign-word-sign-word-sign…
You know this obnoxious interpretive dance move, you’ve seen it over and over.
Why do we do that? What’s wrong with us?
It’s not about skill. It’s not about ability. Most importantly it’s not a fundamental catastrophic flaw in you.
It’s a conflict in the differential rhythms of the source and target languages.
Seriously. It’s usually just an issue of rhythm.
Think of it like this, the human brain loves patterns. It seeks them out.
I have found many different competing theories for why this is so, from it being a genetically coded survival trait requiring our brains to reduce anything deemed necessary to live to a set of simple, easily repeated steps (I was tempted to get into Necessity Breeds Simplicity here, then I remembered, I already did that! https://uncledalesrulesforinterpreters.wordpress.com/?s=Simplicity+)
So, your brain loves patterns. But, as with most languages, the rhythm structures of ASL and English are not even close to each other. Think of a person from India who learned English as a second language. Their use of English words are often impeccable but native English speakers may have a hard time following their speech patterns at first because they put the English words in the rhythm of their native language; to us it’s too fast and the intonation is too subtle. This is a difference between the rhythms of the two languages.
Now look at a native user of ASL:
Not even close the the rhythm of spoken English.
This is not the first time I’ve discussed this fact. It goes all the way back to the beginning. Rule 5 to be exact:
So, as a hearing interpreter your brain sees ASL, recognizes it as a language you understand, knows at a subconscious level that it’s not the rhythm of spoken English you are comfortable with-so your brain forces it into a pattern it likes; 4/4 Time with a back beat (think of the Beatles).
Voila, that weird interpreter cadence we all recognize is born. That cadence becomes the central thing upon which your brain attaches its focus. If the cadence is compromised by a concept that cannot be produced accurately within the comfortable cadence confusion ensues.
Not actual confusion as in the interpreter doesn’t understand the meaning. Confusion as in the meaning the interpreter understands does not fit in the rhythm that the interpreter’s brain has established. The rhythmic conflict causes the interpreter to second guess their understanding instead of seeing the flaw as a result their processing and production.
“Good to know,” you say. “What do I do about it?”
Ah. That’s the fun part.
Start with prosody.
Figure out how the person for whom you are interpreting “makes themselves understood.” How do they show the beginning of an idea and the end of an idea. Figure out how they separate concepts that should be separated and connect propositions that must be connected. That is ALWAYS the first step.
Once you’ve got their discourse down, summarize in your head what happens in-between the beginning of an idea and the end of that idea. Then do the same with the next and the next…
A true summary is what you’d get if you threw the concept in a pot and boiled it down for 8 days.
The essence of the concept without the frills.
If you produced nothing but this idea the Client would have the required information (but none of it will be pretty).
Now apply Uncle Dale’s Model of Interpreting to your summary.
Understand it in language A, say it in language B.
The Uncle Dale Model of Interpreting.
If you are working from ASL to Spoken English then understand it in Deaf and say it in Hearing.
If you are working from Spoken English to ASL the understand it in Hearing and say it in Deaf.
As needed apply the tool I gave you in the Note about necessity breeding simplicity I posted above.
If you pay attention to the meaning and not the form you can escape the Rhythm Trap.
Seems so simple.
For many of us it seems too simple.
That’s the problem. Big, insurmountable issues are often mentally and emotionally easier to deal with. If they are to big to fix we don’t need to try to fix them and we can tell ourselves to just be happy where we are.
Big, insurmountable issues are rare.
Most of the time we look well beyond the actual issue because we believe the problem that has caused us so much frustration can’t be that simple.
But quite often, it is.
Let’s be honest. Simple solutions beg to be implemented. If the issue CAN be addressed we are honor bound to try to fix it. That means we have to practice. We HAVE to put the work in.
Maybe, we think, it would be better if there was just a flaw inside of us that we can’t fix because, well, that seems easier, less labor intensive.
Here is the most important part. Pay attention. Ready?
You can do this.
There is nothing “wrong” with your brain or your abilities. The issue is nothing that a well adjusted interpreter can’t work through.
It’s all just a matter of seeing the steps you need to take and then taking them.
You’ll be fine. Just work the process.
Solid truth at a panel discussion in my class.
Question: Do you like interpreters?
Deaf Consumer’s Answer: I generally I like all the interpreters I work with.
Q: Do you trust interpreters?
DCA: (grin) Which interpreter?