Hi Everyone! Uncle Dale back again!
Just before graduation a student asked me, “when does it get to be easy?” I looked at her and, I confess, chuckled a little and said, if it ever does, you’re doing it wrong!
That was NOT the answer she wanted.
I said, you become more practiced, you become more proficent, you develop the process but the process never becomes easy.
She asked, “then how do interpreters like [Name, Name and Name] make it look so easy?”
What, I replied, is the operetive word in that sentence?
Oh you wish!
BINGO! Look, they make it look easy. That has no connection to it actually being easy.
I let that mill around in her head for a few moments before I said, but you understand it has to look easy. That’s imperative! The hearing client cannot even suspect that there is effort involved with the interpreting process.
Now she was really not pleased, “WHAT? Why?”
Because hearing people. That’s why.
Oh, there is no need to ask “hearing people… what?” You know what.
Fine. Let me put it this way:
To be Deaf is to live in constant risk of someone trying to take advantage of you (Flavia Fleischer got miffed at me one time for saying that until I explained) I did not say people taking advantage of you, I said risk of people trying to take advantage of you. Not always on purpose, but always a risk. Think of it this way:
There was a guy taking a tour of the Institute for Language Study. The guide took him passed several labs and showed him their research in Russian and Finish, French and German. Suddenly they come to a large door which the guide indicates they should quietly tip toe past. When they were clear of the hallway the guy asked the guide what the tip toeing was all about. “It’s the Americans” she said, “we have not found a way to break it to them that they are not the only ones here.”*
My point is, that joke could just as easily work with hearing people. Hearing people are highly “lingucentric.” Beyond expressing itself broadly in ethnocentrism, in signed interactions there is a tendency to subjugate Signed Language through a filter that they represent “visual representations” of the supposed dominant language. They feel that ASL is just a visual representation of English. Because in their minds how could it be anything else? It’s American Sign Language and in America we speak ENGLISH. (See Rule 1 which says, “Nope.”)
This lingual-centric attitude instills in hearing people a sense that any person who struggles with English is less capable or intelligent. Of course any interaction with a person lacking capability or intelligence becomes a burden, as in one must:
A) help; or,
B) put up with, this person.
The natural inclination is to take over, make decisions for that “child of a lesser god” and make sure you have taken care of them or at least speed this along so they are not your burden anymore (There are of course people who are open about their intent to take advantage of Language issues; as an attorney I’ve had to threaten more than one car dealer in my time. I have even heard of two times where someone objected to persons who are Deaf being granted Ph.Ds because they used interpreters for their defense and so they “obviously” did not have the language ability to really understand the subject to the acceptable level to call themselves Doctors).
With a heavy sigh the typical hearing person, regardless of his or her own capabilities or command of English, feels not just permission but an obligation to “do for” the “poor disabled person,” or “do to” if the opportunity presents itself.
This is the practical result of this elevation of English to a deified status. The person who is Deaf, no matter his or her natural brilliance, skill or ability always enters any communication at a disadvantage because they are using what is perceived as a lesser language. How many times have you had a doctor or a judge ask you if that is “really what [they] said,” or been controlled your eye-roll over the fact they are shocked at how much “easier it is to communicate with an interpreter.” That is because they approached the event, as is common, with the idea that ASL is just a broken form of English and the User a broken person so they will have to accept the full burden of the interaction. Any hint of difficulty in the process confirms this obnoxious belief.
Because of this common perception any difficulty in communication is assumed to be the fault of the Signed Language and by extension the User thereof; never a weakness in the hearing person’s own perfect language. The User of the minority language, ASL, is subject to reflexive-audism at the first moment of struggle; pitied or preyed upon. Like I said it’s not always a matter of evil intent, often it’s just reflex built into the culture. But reflex is powerful.
So, in the end part of your “advocacy” as an interpreter is to make sure the process of communication feels smooth, unquestionable, easy.
But it will never actually be easy.
It will never be easy because as a general rule interpreters kinda suck at ASL. We like to imagine we don’t but we don’t put half the time and effort into understanding the neuance of the language as we do into producing signs. If you don’t understand the neuance of the language you don’t produce that neuance in your signed interpretations.
It takes a hell of a lot of work to make it look easy, but it must look easy. In order make it look easy we must work (even after we get certified), to not just know the language enough to use it, but understand why we know-and be able to discuss it.
If it’s ever easy, you’re doing it wrong. But it must look easy to do it right.
*Linguistics jokes! Ha. I think the audience for that was Robert Lee, Dan Parvaz and… that may actually be it.