The Three Temptations of a Sign Language Interpreter

The dynamics of working as a sign language interpreter are complex and require that a person be comfortable operating in the unknown with limited information. As a result of navigating these complexities, we are accustom to owning the decisions—or choosing not to own them—that influence the value and outcome of our work. Unfortunately, with this ownership comes the temptation to give in to one of what I will  refer to as the Three Temptations of a Sign Language Interpreter (note, I borrowed the temptation concept from Patrick Lencioni’s, The Five Temptations of a CEO – A Leadership Fable).

When giving in to one of these temptations, even the most skilled interpreter reduces the value of their service and calls into question the label we have advocated for years to achieve, a professional.


T1:  Dismiss that our actions reflect on the Deaf participant.

As interpreters, we give into this temptation in order to reconcile in our minds that our choices couldn’t possibly be the deciding factor in whether a qualified candidate gets the job, which ultimately supports their ability to fund their child’s college education.

It’s more comfortable to believe that our actions are conveniently invisible.

When confronted with this temptation, let’s remember that from poor interactions with meeting participants or not adhering to our Code-of-Professional-Conduct to tardiness or disheveled attire, the impression we make is lasting and inseparable from how the Deaf participant is perceived.

T2:  Avoid ownership of the errors in our work.

Interpreters give in to this temptation because we are fearful. We fear losing the confidence of meeting participants. We fear being viewed to possess an inferior skill-set. Ultimately, we fear not being invited back.

The damage, when an interpreter gives in to this temptation, is significant. For individuals to part an interaction believing they have an understanding of the other person’s position, only to find their understanding—and the work done since—is incorrect challenges the trust needed for the interpreting process to be successful.

Being indifferent to the errors in our work, may appear as validation of the view that we are part of an industry that is past feeling.

T3:  Misrepresent the amount of time on assignment.

Interpreters regularly work outside the view of those who hire them. Consequently, we may be tempted to misrepresent the amount of time we are on an assignment. This usually takes on a shape similar to, “I was only 10 minutes late and the meeting hadn’t started anyway” or “I was teaming with the regular interpreter and they would have started the assignment anyway.”

In either case, giving in to this temptation erodes the very nature of our being called a professional.  If those that hired us can’t trust that we will ethically represent our time, can they trust us to effectively represent them and/or own our errors?


While resisting these three temptations can be a challenge, it is important that we never lose sight of our accountability for the outcome of our work. It’s my view that if we truly consider the impact of giving in to these temptations, its far easier to overcome them.

If one, or more, of these temptations make you feel uncomfortable, consider the reason and adjust accordingly. As interpreters, let’s be confident in our abilities, welcoming of the accountability for our decisions, and remain focused on contributing to positive outcomes.


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About the Author

Brandon is a nationally certified sign language interpreter and passionate industry entrepreneur. He has worked on both the practicing and business sides of the industry for the past 15 years. His father is deaf and his mother is a sign language interpreter. He is a devoted father and husband and enjoys the sport of triathlon.

7 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Aaron Brace says:

    Hi, Brandon,

    Wow, you’ve really started something with this blog- it’s already stimulating lines of discussion that, I’m hopeful, will fill in gaps in our understanding of our work and our relationships to Deaf people.

    The temptations you’ve listed, as worded, are immediately recognizable as ethically bankrupt. More dangerous than these, to me at least, are those temptations that sound perfectly reasonable, given our enculturation as hearing Americans, and yet are equally destructive. They’re innocuously intuitive to interpreters and the hearing people in their lives… sometimes even the Deaf people in their lives… and *understandably* difficult for some to identify and resist.

    Here are a few that come to mind, with my sense of why they’re dangerous (not because I think any of it is news to you or most of your readers, but because this is the internet and you never know who might be reading):

    - Maximize one’s earning potential through hard work and efficient scheduling.
    Dangerous because it leads to the kind of fatigue that makes us think of social time with Deaf people as “work”; because it leads us to book ourselves so tight that Deaf people are often left without services just as they’re about to get their goals accomplished, also arriving at the next job without enough time to allow the Deaf person to assess us and work with us to set up how we’ll provide service.

    - Capitalize on all opportunities presented, if one feels qualified for them.
    Dangerous because our intuitions about our suitability for any job is often based on mainstream notions of education and credentialing, and on the mere fact that we’ve done that job before (regardless of any proof that we did it well). There is widespread support for these faulty intuitions.
    Also dangerous because it overlooks other important factors- I may be perfectly qualified for a job, but know that the Deaf person involved has a pool of preferred interpreters who weren’t even offered the work because the hearing person doesn’t/can’t know that kind of thing.

    - Design all rate schedules and business practices according to what the market will bear.
    Dangerous because it prioritizes our profit and upward mobility over Deaf people’s pursuit of their lives. But there is, of course, another danger to this discussion: do we really want to say that, in order to be an interpreter who is an ally to Deaf people, one must abandon all notions of profit and upward mobility? If we don’t overtly articulate what it means to, ethically, “do well” in this profession, we will leave many of our colleagues resistant to any analysis of this temptation, doggedly giving in to it.

    - Create one’s material life based on maximizing one’s earning potential.
    Dangerous because it requires us to do all of the things above, and makes us even more resistant to making choices that might better serve Deaf people. This is something that I still find myself tripping up on.

    This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the misguided, often subconscious, yet apparently rational temptations we face, that hinder our ability to live and work in integrity as allies to Deaf people. I think we need, as a profession, to articulate more of these, as well as what the process of letting go of them might look like. I’m convinced that there are feelings of loss and fear that inhibit many of our colleagues in doing so, and that some level of empathy and compassion for those feelings will be necessary in order to turn them around.

    Thanks again, Brandon, for creating this forum!


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