We have to accept that we can try and try to help someone make their life better, but we can never overcome that person’s compulsion to make their life worse.
I’m sitting in the Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris on my way to Malta for a week (look it up. Grin).
Being on a trip like this always gets me thinking about all I learn just being in “not America.”
How we got to Malta is a little bit of a story in and of itself, but, in a rare moment of self-editing I will not tell it here, because if I do I will never get to the reason I sat down to type this out with my thumbs in the first place.
Suffice it to say it had a lot to do with never having met anyone who had been to Malta. As my Note will hopefully emphasize, that is reason enough to go almost anywhere.
Now, the Note I sat down to write.
Years ago I hired a former student to be a Lecturer in my program.
I was thrilled she accepted the position (I firmly believe the strength of a program can be measured by how many former students you would love to bring back to teach).
She was an amazingly gifted student (and has gone on to become one of the finest Interpreters, and in all honesty, one of the finest people I have ever had the pleasure to know).
As a student she had one quirk that caught me off guard. One day in class she told me that she would never work in VRS interpreting.
I agree! because my ADHD CANNOT abide a cubicle.
That was not her reason.
She did not want to work in a VRS setting because “ASL from East of the Mississippi scared her.” It scared her BAD.
I couldn’t let that lie now could I.
Quite literally I picked up my cellphone and called Anne Leahy in Washington D.C. I said, “Anne I’m sending you someone you need to teach how to walk on hot coals, she has all the skills but she doesn’t know how tough her feet are” (not the last time I’ve sent Anne someone with skills o’ plenty and let her take care of the confidence part).
Anne brought out the best in her and sent me back an amazingly well rounded interpreter.
She certified before she graduated and charged out into the world to get some real experience.
A few years later I got approval to hire a Lecturer for my program.
When my former student applied I was thrilled! She was as amazing a teacher as she was at everything else.
The next summer I was invited to CIT in Puerto Rico and I asked my former student, now colleague, if she would like to go as well.
She was nervous.
“I’ve never been out of the country,” she said.
“And you still won’t,” I replied, “Puerto Rico is part of the United States. They use the dollar and have Walmart’s and stuff. You don’t even need a passport” (which is good because she didn’t have one).
She felt better. Somewhat. I mean when you think about it Puerto Rico is waaaay east of the Mississippi.
So. Off we went.
When we landed I dropped her off at her hotel and checked into mine then I picked her up and we made plans for the first day of the conference in the lobby of my hotel. When we finished I suggested we get something to eat.
Now, I have a friend who was born and raised in Puerto Rico and I asked her what is “not to be missed” as far as local food.
“Mofongo,” she said.
So we walked over to the concierge and asked if there was a place near the hotel where we could get Mofongo.
“Yes!” she said, “there is a great place within walking distance.”
At that moment felt a hand in the middle of my chest and my former student, now university colleague, pushed me backwards, leaned into the the concierge and asked, “have you ever actually eaten Mofongo? I mean, what’s it like?”
The concierge looked at her kindly and said, “that is kind of like me asking if you’ve ever eaten a turkey dinner. Yes, it’s the national dish.”
I reached forward and gently took a hold of her ponytail and pulled her backward as her ear passed my mouth I whispered, “we need to talk.”
I got the address for the restaurant from the concierge and we started walking toward it.
“Where to begin?” I thought. I cleared my throat and said, “my father once told me if you haven’t had a parasite at least once in your life you have not eaten enough interesting things.”
She stopped and looked at me just as you are imagining she looked at me and said, “ok that’s crazy.”
“Maybe,” I replied, “but here is what is going to happen tonight. You have a per diem for meals from the university. We are going to this restaurant and ordering Mofongo and you are going to try it. If you legit don’t like it I will spend my own money to buy you a Subway sandwich. Deal?”
“Deal,” she sighed. And off we went.
For anyone who doesn’t know Mofongo, it is mashed plantains fried crispy and smothered in stewed meat. It. Is. Fantastic.
She loved it. She ordered it everywhere we went for the rest of our time in Puerto Rico.
While we were sitting at that very nice cafe in San Juan, eating delicious food, I asked her a question that had been elbowing its way to the front of my mind ever since I first asked her if she wanted to go to CIT.
“You don’t have a passport?”
“No,” she replied, “never needed one.”
“You should get one.”
“Why?” she asked, “I’m not planning on going anywhere.”
“You need a passport,” I explained, “for the same reason that I think golf would be a much more interesting game if they just added a penalty box. They don’t have to change the rules at all-just add a penalty box. The fact it is there will inspire its use.”
She looked at me puzzled. It was not the first time and has not been the last.
“Think,” I explained, “you’re not planning on going anywhere and maybe it’s because you don’t have a passport, but, if you had a passport you would be inspired to use it!”
“I don’t know…” but she was thinking about it.
“Look at you right now. You’re stretching your experiences. You are in your twenties, you have a job that gives you some disposable income, you will never be this mobile, this free in your life.” I made eye-contact. “Get a passport.”
And she did.
Since that meal of Mofongo in Puerto Rico she has been all over the world. She has been to Russia, Thailand, and more countries in Europe and South America than I could possibly remember. She is no longer a Lecturer at my program, she has gone on to do phenomenal work in every area to which she sets her hand. And she has used her passport (I actually called her to see if she could cover some classes for me for during this trip and she was in Lisbon).
The point is she will tell you that each one of these trips has made her a better interpreter. Each has added to her knowledge base. Each one has expanded her cultural awareness and expanded her mind to the diversity of ideas. She has a better understanding that I do of what makes it easier and harder to navigate in a culture that is not your own using a language that is not your own.
She was already awesome and these experiences made her better.
It’s Awesome Gain.
So, here I am now I’m sitting in a cafe called Xemxija on the island of Malta. I took my own advice.
Why Malta? Do you know anyone who has been to Malta. Now you do.
What do you know about Malta?
Well now you know about this^^. This is the oldest know human manipulated edifice on earth. It is literally the first stone they know of on the planet that someone, or more likely, some group of people said, “we should pick this stone up from here and place it, in a very specific way, right there.”
It’s the pillar of the Skorba Temple. It’s older than Stonehenge and predates the pyramids by thousands of years.
This is the only painting Caravaggio ever signed. It’s here on Malta (there are actually two other Caravaggio paintings on Malta).
From what I can see the ADA has not made its way to Malta, but I’ll ask these folks about it tonight.
In Thornton Wilder’s famous play ‘Our Town’ Mrs. Gibbs pines for the experience of going to – ”a country where they don’t talk in English and don’t even want to”
Every interpreter should pine for that same experience. It will make you a better interpreter and a more well rounded person.
Get a passport.No matter your age or place in life-get a passport and let it inspire you.
p.s. Before I published this I sent it to the interpreter it is about. She asked me to quote her:
“Meeting Dale Boam changed the trajectory of my life. He was the first person to see the light inside me and demand that I stop playing small. I never knew that life outside of the comfort zone would be so worth it.”
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.
Don’t you wish excuses students and mentees give for not doing their assignments worked in real life?
VRS INTERPRETERS: Don’t you hate it when, mid-shift, your butt falls asleep? Because you know it will be up all night.
My job is not to teach you how to interpret.
My job is to teach you how to learn to interpret, everyday, even when I’m not here.