Years ago, while I worked for a fledgling ITP at a local community college, I noticed a strange phenomena. Many of the students seemed sad. I mean really sad. A lot and daily.
They didn’t start out this way.
The entering cohorts were almost always happy and excited. But, as each semester passed these bright young student interpreters grew more and more cynical, angry, hypercritical of their own work and resistant to feedback.
They started their homework videos with an apology and ended their homework by saying something like, “ugh, I really struggled with that one,” even when their work was objectively great.
I started calling this the, “pre-apology” and “post-justification.”
I railed against it in my classes.
Now, I will admit, I was young and I was still learning how to mentor students, so for a while I wondered why the profession attracted so many people with such serious depression. Were we all broken people (well, maybe, but that is a Note for another day. Grin)?
Then, one day, I was sitting with a particularly promising student (who went on to become a particularly fantastic interpreter) getting ready to start a one-on-one review of her interpretation of a text and she suddenly burst into tears.
Like I said, I was young and this was a new experience for me and I had no idea what to do. So I did the only thing I could think of…
I shut up and waited.
After a minute or so the student pulled herself together and said, “ok, ok I think I’m ready to be judged now.”
That threw me.
“I’m not judging you,” I stammered, “I’m grading you. There is a difference.”
She smiled through her tears and said, “maybe for you, but just once I would like a teacher to look at my work and say ‘this is really well done’ and then not give me a list of things I did wrong!”
That really threw me.
“Your work is good,” I assured her, “it boarders in excellent, constantly. What makes you feel like we (the instructors) don’t think it is?”
“The only thing all of you ever tell me is this error or that error,” she answered, “it gets to wearing on you, you know? Knowing you never do anything right.”
The problem is I had to admit I didn’t know. I had never been an ITP student like she was. Well, kind of, but not really.
When I was 15-years-old I went to a party and I met a girl who was cute and Deaf. I became an ASL groupie. I followed her around and started to learn to sign so I could date her (I think we were officially boyfriend and girlfriend for most of one day… Looking back I was less of a boyfriend and more of a “puppy” who followed her around and was excited at each new ASL “trick” she taught me). We are each of us very happily married to someone else and so that relationship is long gone, but the ASL stayed (I’m happy to say our friendship has endured though. Hi Heather!).
Through Heather I met several other Deaf kids my own age (shout out to Kimo!) and started to hang out with them. Each of them taught me, not through structured lessons, but through friendship and everyday interactions.
After high-school I went on a two year mission through my church. My calling was specifically to speak ASL. Missionaries serve in pairs and many of my companions were (and still are-shout out to Jason) Deaf. Again, I learned each day, but it happened organically, because I loved each of them and wanted to speak to them.
It was in Indiana that I met, for the first time, a Deaf person who did not care if I understood them or not. This person was not rude or mean-it was just not their job to hold my hand and pat my head.
What had been for me “a really super fun and neat thing to do” was this person’s life and precious culture.
It was… let’s call it an enlightening moment.
I realized that every person who is Deaf I had met thus far had been SOOOOO nice to me and it must have been irritating at times for them to pet the puppy.
By that point I was already interpreting on a regular basis and had been for years for friends and mission companions. The situations I had been in probably deserved a ton of feedback but at that time everyone was just happy I had all my fingers and a willing attitude, so they just smiled and gave me the thumbs up.
It was a hard enlightenment. That was also the day I started to study ASL, instead of play with it.
So back to the talented ITP student who felt she did nothing right. I wasn’t sure what to say to her.
I knew I should have something profound and comforting, I had only the beginnings of an understanding of the psychology of being an ITP teacher and almost none of the actual experience of being an student.
Someone once told me you should never try to learn algebra from someone who has never struggled with algebra, because they say things like, “so obviously you…” and it’s NEVER obvious! That’s why you are trying to learn it!
As I sat with this student I realized that, although I had struggled, I had not struggled with the same things with which she was struggling. I had come by my skills little by little over many more years than she was being allotted… and without the chance of a failing grade.
I also realized how often I both literally and figuratively said, “so it’s obvious that…” to students.
That day I stumbled on the concepts of the Error Trap and Feedback Depression.
Interpreting does not happen on the hands, it happens in the head. It is a mental process with a physical product. We can see the product but never the process. That’s why we have interpreting Models, like Cokely’s Sociolinguistic Model or Colonomus’ Integrated Model of Interpreting or even my own Relative Time Model of Processing. These Models help us follow the process of interpreting as it occurs in the locked box of our skulls where we can’t see it.
We take what comes off the hands or out of the mouth (the product) and walk it back through a combination of these interpreting Models in order to identify deviations from the established cognitive steps of the interpreting process (separating them from manifestations that are purely physical deviations from the accepted forms of Sign production) in order to improve the end product (the interpretation).
These Models give us a roadmap to evaluate the product of interpretation in order to determine if it is more successful or less successful, but this only helps if we have a way to discuss the deviations we identify in the product.
We tend to call these deviations “Errors.”
It would be if interpreting was purely a science measurable by a formula (hint: it’s not called the Cokely Sociolinguistic “Formula” of Interpreting).
The reason these measuring tools are called “Models” is that interpreting is equal parts science and art. A dynamic and ever changing process like communication is subject to emotion, creativity, sarcasm, jargon, the introduction of new ideas that must be discussed, evolving Norms and Mores and countless other forces that constantly push and pull and twist the process.
Communication is messy.
It is always messy.
Language is built on words (written, spoken or Signed) organized into accepted structures. Communication is the manipulation of these organized structures with the intent of creating a shared meaning.
Years ago when I was spending a summer at the National Theatre of the Deaf in Chester CT someone asked a senior member of the company, Andy Vasnick, how you evaluate if a person is “fluent” in ASL. I will never forget his answer.
“Fluency,” he said, “is measured in the ability to use a Sign incorrectly on purpose to make a point and everyone knows why you did it and no one feels the need to correct you.”
And there it is.
The meaning one intends is not always found within the accepted structures of language as they exist and so to get the meaning you want you must often deviate from the accepted Norms.
In the strictest sense these deviations are Errors because they exist outside the parameters set as a baseline in the literature.
If the deviation is intentional and accomplished the communicative goal for which it was intended then it may very well be an Error but it is not a mistake.
If it does not accomplish the intended communicative goal it’s a mistake.
If shared understanding occurs by reason of a deviation, but it was produced unintentionally, it is a mistake (yes you read that right. Even if it works it’s wrong if you did it by accident because you can’t replicate it).
So it is possible, and even beneficial for something that is and Error to be the correct choice.
In other words, “you can use a Sign incorrectly on purpose to make a point and everyone knows why you did it and no one feels the need to correct you.”
There is a vast difference between an “Error” and a mistake.
The belief that Errors and mistakes are one and the same is the Error Trap, which leads to Feedback Depression.