Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadow of Invisibility

Anna Witter-Merithew

Some time ago some Deaf colleagues were talking about a familiar topic of conversations with and about interpreters, interpreter attitude.  As has typically been my experience, their use of this phrase carried a negative connotation.  Essentially, they perceived the interpreters who interpreted an event they attended as aloof, detached and largely disinterested.

What Happened?

When I inquired about specific behaviors, they described how the interpreters arrived for the event, let the event coordinator know they had arrived, briefly introduced themselves to the Deaf consumers, and then isolated themselves at the front of the room where they began texting and chatting while waiting for the event to start.

During the event, there was little if any effort by the interpreters to check-in with the consumers to verify whether things were working well or not.  During breaks the interpreters disappeared or were observed in the front of the room texting, talking on the phone or chatting with each other.  There was no initial interaction to break-the-ice and allow the consumers and interpreters to become acquainted or to explore logistical considerations and preferences. There was no inquiry into consumer preferences or the effectiveness of the services that were delivered.

At the end of the event, the interpreters said a quick good-bye and left. These behaviors—or lack thereof—were perceived as culturally rude and representative of a poor attitude.  Further, these Deaf individuals reported being distracted by these perceptions during the event being interpreted.  Their thoughts were on the challenge of working through versus with interpreters instead of the subject matter being interpreted.

This one specific example of interpreter attitude has really stuck with me. I find myself paying close attention to how we as sign language interpreters establish our presence and relate to consumers prior to, during and after interpreting assignments.  As a result, I have become increasing aware of just how deep the roots of the interpreter as invisible remain embedded in some of our professional acts and practices.  Even though we strive to move forward theoretically and philosophically in deepening our relationship with Deaf people, some of our professional acts and practices demonstrate that we are still working in the shadow of invisibility.  And, what these professional acts and practices communicate to Deaf people may be counter to our intentions.

Interpreter as Invisible

Historically, in an effort to minimize the potential for the sign language interpreter to step outside their role and take-over a communication event, the field-at-large has encouraged practitioners to perform their duties in the least obtrusive ways possible—even to the extreme of behaving as if they were invisible; merely a conduit for transmitting information from one language into another.  Interpreters may assume they must be detached to be impartial and/or appear professional. Interpreters might instruct speakers to proceed, “as if I am not even here.”  Unfortunately, such a restricted view of the role of an interpreter has proved fraught with misconceptions—the presence of an interpreter in the midst of what would otherwise be a direct human interaction will always have inherent implications.  There have been studies in the field of spoken and sign language interpreting that illustrate the degree to which interpreter presence impacts the outcome of communication events—often in unexpected and unintended ways.

In reality, the view of sign language interpreters as merely conduits has always been faulty primarily because the interpreter must be physically and intellectually present in the interaction to be successful. The interpreter cannot behave as if invisible because there are clearly times when there is a need for the interpreter to manage the flow of communication and facilitate or seek clarification of messages, as well conduct more active interventions when appropriate. Further, facilitation of and access to communication is at the heart of interpreting and is dependent on forming rapport and relationship as part of the interpreting process.

Nevertheless, assumptions that perpetuate the interpreter behaving as if invisible still exist and are evident in the experience of the Deaf colleagues when confronted with an interpreter team who is detached and functioning as disengaged. We still have work to do in terms of stepping out of the shadow of invisibility—focusing on how we establish our presence is just one opportunity.

Interpreter Presence

Interpreter presence relates to the manner and conduct of a sign language interpreter in the midst of interaction with consumers.  Ideally, this presence is evident in the quality of poise and effectiveness that enables the interpreter to achieve a productive and collaborative relationship with consumers.  This quality is much like a spirit or a manner that is felt and received by consumers as genuine engagement, attentiveness, readiness, acceptance, respect.  It is predicated on the desire to offer performance that facilitates a successful outcome—where consumers are able to achieve their goals for the communication event.  It should be evident in all phases of an interpreted assignment—pre, during and post.

Interpreter presence involves the state of mind and level of attention a sign language interpreter brings to his or her work—the state of being closely focused on the relationships and communication at hand, not distracted by irrelevant thoughts or external events.  This clarity of thinking and attention to the task at hand is an important part of the interpreter’s ability to deliver accurate and meaning-based interpretation. Establishing presence is central to creating rapport and establishing trust with consumers.

To illustrate, consider the importance of establishing presence in the healthcare setting where a strong rapport between the healthcare professional, patient and sign language interpreter will enhance the amount and quality of information about the patient’s illness transferred in both directions.  This can enhance the accuracy of diagnosis and increase the patient’s knowledge about the status of their health, thus leading to greater compliance with the proposed treatment plan.  Where such a relationship is compromised because the interpreter fails to create a functional presence, the potential for misunderstanding and risk increase.

Let’s Make the Commitment

It is important to acknowledge that consistently creating an effective presence requires a conscious and deliberate commitment—something that is not always easy to attain in the busy and fast-paced world in which we live.  There are many demands that compete for our attention. The intersection between the linguistic tasks associated with interpreting and the interpersonal dynamics involved in an interpreted interaction are indeed challenging to manage. However, if our intention is create and sustain meaningful relationships with Deaf consumers, this is one way we can make a difference.

Where do we begin?  A first step is self-assessment—we all benefit from a personal check-in with ourselves to examine and monitor our interpersonal behaviors.

  • Do I take time to meet Deaf consumers before assignments to become acquainted and discuss logistical considerations?
  • Do I touch base with Deaf consumers regularly throughout the assignment to make sure things are progressing effectively?
  • Do I make myself available to Deaf consumers during breaks to see if I can be of assistance?
  • Do I avoid using technology during assignments so I remain open, available, and approachable should I be needed?
  • Does my affect and demeanor reflect attentiveness, alertness, engagement and readiness?
  • Do I make myself available at the conclusion of assignments to connect with Deaf consumers should they be interested?
  • If I must leave immediately after an assignment, do I touch base with the Deaf consumer first, letting them know I need to leave and extending my appreciation for the opportunity to work with them?
  • Do I regularly talk with Deaf individuals, outside of interpreting assignments, about their perceptions and expectations of interpreters?  If I do, am I a good listener?

This is one practical way in which we can work to improve the experiences of Deaf consumers with sign language interpreters—and thereby improve our relationship with Deaf people. Let’s make the commitment to continue to step out of the shadows of invisibility and demonstrate our respect for the interactional and cultural norms of the Deaf Community.  Might this lead to less discussion of interpreter attitude and more discussion of Deaf-heart?