Sign Language Interpreters: Are Acts of Omission a Failure of Duty?

Sign Language Interpreter in Thought

Often, when discussing breaches of ethical conduct, the focus is on a sign language interpreter’s commission of some act.  Examples might include a breach of confidentiality, accepting assignments beyond one’s capacity, demonstrating a lack of respect for consumers and/or colleagues.  Equally concerning, although discussed less often, are acts of omission.  Acts of omission refer to instances where a practitioner doesn’t follow expected or best practice in performing their duties.

Examples might include failing to advise consumers when there are barriers to an effective interpretation, failure to clarify information the interpreter does not understand or misinterprets, or failure to use consecutive interpreting when the circumstances necessitate, among many others. Both acts of commission and omission can cause harm to consumers, practitioners and the profession.  However, the focus of this article is on acts of omission and their potential relationship to the persona of invisibility that is deeply rooted in our field.  If you haven’t read my previous post, Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadows of Invisibility, consider it a prequel to this article.

Why Do We Fail to Intervene?

Granted, there may be many reasons that a sign language interpreter fails to act when some type of intervention is needed and within their realm of responsibility. After all, interpreting is a complex process. We all come to the work at different levels of readiness for all that is required of us, as eluded by Dennis Cokely in his article, Vanquished Native Voices—A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis. However, it is worth exploring the degree to which lingering shadows of invisibility impact our inaction.   Is it possible that our long history of encouraging practitioners to behave “as if not really there” and allowing things to proceed “as if the consumers were communicating directly” has created a diffusion of responsibility?  As a result, do interpreters perceive themselves as less responsible for the outcome of the exchange, even when it is the interpreting process or the interpreter’s presence that is creating the need for an intervention?

This concept of diffusion of responsibility has been discussed by sociologists studying examples of bystanders who do nothing in an emergency situation. Findings show that the larger the bystander group, the less likely one of the bystanders will intervene. According to social experiments, an individuals’ failure to assist others in emergencies is not due to apathy or indifference, but rather to the presence of other people. Bystanders perceive that their individual responsibility is diffused because it is unclear who is responsible in a group situation.  When responsibility is not specifically assigned, bystanders respond with ambiguity.

Is it possible a similar phenomenon occurs with sign language interpreters?  Do we think of ourselves as bystanders—present from a distance, and therefore, not involved?  Have we internalized the neutrality we are to bring to our task as non-involvement and disinterest [versus objectivity and emotional maturity]?  Are we unconsciously promoting the tendency to diffuse our responsibility to act when action is warranted?  Do we believe that if we are to behave as invisible, then any kind of intervention is inappropriate? Do we experience feelings of ambivalence when confronted with the need for an interpreter-related intervention? If so, there may be serious implications for our ability to fulfill our professional duty and there is merit in exploring this concept of intervention further.

Practicing Due Diligence

Like all practice professionals, sign language interpreters have the obligation to engage in due diligence when carrying out their duties.  Due diligence refers to the level of attention and care that a competent professional exercises to avoid harm to consumers of their services. It is a customary process applied by professionals to assess the risks and consequences associated with professional acts and behaviors.  Applying due diligence during our work as interpreters can help us to anticipate potential issues that may arise and/or validate concerns that we are sensing during our work.  Here are some steps that can guide us in the process.

1.  Recognize that there may be a need for an intervention.  There are many potential instances where such a need could arise.  This step requires us to assess the cues within the situation that signal that something is not working and taking the time to examine such cues more fully.  For example, the interpreter may not know what is meant by what a speaker is saying.  Or, it may become clear that consecutive interpreting will produce a more accurate interpretation and/or allow for fuller understanding and participation by one or more consumers.  Or, perhaps a cultural misunderstanding has arisen that was not addressed within the interpretation. By paying attention to the cues that signal the potential need for an intervention, we begin the process of applying due diligence.

2.  Take responsibility.  The next step in the due diligence cycle involves assessing whether we have a professional responsibility to act.  Part of this step requires the sign language interpreter to quickly assess who ultimately holds the duty to resolve whatever risk or potential consequence exists.  For example, consider instances where an interpreter doesn’t understand the source language message.  Since the interpreter holds the duty to accurately interpret the message, it is the interpreter who holds the responsibility to intervene and seek understanding. Passing on the lack of understanding to the consumer (by glossing or fingerspelling for example), expecting that they ask for the clarification, is avoidance that is reminiscent of  that period in our history where we promoted the view of the interpreter as a conduit or machine.  It is an example of diffused responsibility.  As well, expecting consumers to seek understanding when we do not understand may be unrealistic.  If the interpreter does not feel comfortable intervening, it stands to reason the consumer may not either.  This doesn’t mean that the need doesn’t exist, just that there is a reluctance to acknowledge it in a transparent manner.  So, the test is to assess who holds the duty to generate the accurate interpretation. Clearly, it is the sign language interpreter, not the consumer.

3.  Plan a course of action. Deciding how to intervene is as important as deciding that an intervention is necessary.  There are certainly ways of intervening that are disruptive and can alienate consumers.  So, thinking the process through (even practicing and role playing possible approaches) with colleagues can help to identify specific and successful strategies for intervening. It is important to learn to intervene in a way that builds trust and confidence.  Practitioners who are diligent in taking responsibility for the quality and accuracy of their work comment that when they are proactive in creating effective working conditions, or address errors and misunderstandings in an open and authentic manner, it promotes trust and confidence by consumers.  Diminished trust and confidence seems to arise when sign language interpreters attempt to act as if all is well, when it may not be or simply isn’t.

4.  Take action.  Initiating the intervention is the next step in the due diligence cycle.  This is the step that requires the courage and confidence to act. Again, given our historic roots, many of us find ourselves fearful of taking action perceiving it will be viewed as interjecting of ourselves into the situation.  In reality, we are already part of the interaction, and offering an intervention when it is warranted is not interjection of self, but rather carrying out our professional duty.  This difference is significant.  One is about potentially crossing professional boundaries and the other about maintaining the integrity of our work and profession.

The consequence of failing to act when it is our duty to act can be very serious.  In the case of a police interrogation, failure to apply best practices can lead to challenges being raised as to the admissibility of a deaf suspect’s statements.  In the case of an IEP team meeting, failure to articulate observations in a professional manner can lead to an IEP that doesn’t address the real needs of the deaf child.  In the case of a job interview, failure to accurately convey details can mean the difference between a person getting a job or not.

Stepping Out of the Shadows

Part of our process of stepping out of the shadows of invisibility is acknowledging that it feels safer and easier if we just remain conduits.  We then do not have to address the on-going and complex ethical issues associated with role definition and conflicts.  But without grappling with these very issues, we remain merely technicians, not professionals. We cannot insist on professional standing when we do not perform in the customary ways that professionals perform. As well, we cannot achieve a collective discretion without tackling the hard questions and finding ways to make our work more transparent.

Likewise, as sign language interpreters, we must always assess whether the consequence of intervention outweighs the contribution it makes.  Timing and manner of an intervention are critical considerations.  Sometimes we can’t assess this piece until we can reflect on the assignment afterwards.  Thus, learning to be reflective practitioners is an essential part of the due diligence cycle.  A future post will address this topic.

The Hard Question

What do we believe about ourselves, our work and our contribution to the good of the Deaf society? As we explore the answer to this and other hard questions, we must consider the implications of our history of behaving as if invisible and its potential contribution to the diffusion of responsibility.  In determining our answer, let’s hold fast to that which we value—communication access, equality, integrity and our relationship to the Deaf Community and one another.  It is these values that help us continue our journey of career-long growth and development…and are the source of the courage we need to continue our commitment to keep asking ourselves the hard questions.


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About the Author

Anna Witter-Merithew is a nationally certified interpreter specializing in legal and community interpreting. She has served in a variety of local, state and national leadership positions, including President and Vice President of the RID and co-founder and Vice President of the CIT. Anna, a Coda, has taught in and administered interpreter education programs for over 35 years and currently serves as the Director of the UNC MARIE Center. MARIE is one of six centers forming the National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers. She has also published a variety of articles and resources relating to interpreting and interpreter education—many of which are collaborated works with valued colleagues.

21 Enlightened Replies

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  1. This is a compelling article highlighting our roles as sign language interpreters and what we do in the face of ethical ‘crisis’ that challenge our own sense of normalcy. This article is really so vital to the interpreting field since it overlaps cognitive sciences with our interpreting process. It sparks a different way to think about how to anticipate and aclimate ourselves to new interpreting situations. Also, it allows us to conisder how to respond in ways that allow for interpreters to realize and act on decisions that fully support equality in the communication process. Thank you for sharing such great insight with the interpreting community.

    I wanted to add some thoughts that I had related to this article. I’m currently reading a book currently by David McRaney called, “You Are Not So Smart” which seemed to me to have similarities to what was discussed in this article. He explains a concept called the normalcy bias. “Normalcy bias is stalling during a crisis and pretending everything will continue to be as fine and predictable as it was before.” (pg. 59, McRaney) I would argue that some of this diffusion of responsibility is not necessarily our ‘fault’ but it is something that we are ‘pre-programed’ as humans to do. We try to keep a sense of normalcy and simplicity in the face of complex ethical issues that we are just not cognitively prepared for. I envision this to be an emotionally-based subconsious decision that is made. If we don’t have a pattern of action already practiced and thought about before hand then we will be destined to ‘freeze up’ and in this case omit important information from the discourse process.

    It was beneficial to have the action steps outlined in this article to reinforce our professional responsibility to act on this topic. McRaney states in his book, “…the brain must go through a procedure before the body acts–cognition, perception, comprehension, decision, implementation, and then movement. There is no way to overclook this, but you can practice until these steps individually are no longer complex, and thus no longer take up valuable brain computation cycles.” (McRaney, pg. 59) This process would occur once the interpreter is faced with a situation that arises where they feel ‘stuck’, for lack of a better word, and would need to go through these steps in order to reach action. One question that I have related to this is where and how can we all ‘practice’ this inner script to change our actions? Is there anywhere in the interpreting community that would offer safe places to do this? Looking forward to further discussion. Thank you.

    McRaney, D. (2011). You are not so smart. New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

    • Anna says:

      Hi Sarah
      Nice to connect with you here in this environment. Thanks for sharing the McRaney resource. I agree, it seems he has some great insight into this issue of why we might not respond when there is a need for action. His theory of a normalcy bias is an interesting addition to the discussion.

      I agree with you that to avoid the pattern of inaction, we need to rehearse and think through what we will do in case an ethical quandary arises. This is one of the aspect of the work of Dean and Pollard that I so appreciate–Demand-Control Schema can give us a common framework through which we examine demands that arise, explore a range of possible controls we can employ, and assess the consequences/risks associated with our decisions.

      Your argument that our diffusion of responsibility may not be our fault, but rather a result of how we are programmed is an important point. I don’t see this issue as one of fault or blame, but rather insufficient conceptualization of our role and responsibility. As professionals, we have to go beyond the types of responses we might have as individuals to situation because we have a higher duty to the consumers of our service. We have to think and respond in unique and informed ways. My hope is that by talking more openly about these kinds of observations, by asking questions about things we observe happening within our field, we can begin seeking a deeper understanding of ourselves and our purpose. I want us to have a clear intention around what we will achieve as practitioners. And, as you have pointed out, understanding the factors that influence our reactions–such as the normalcy bias or our lingering shadows of invisibility (or any number of other factors)–is an important starting point. From there, we need to work on the inner scripts as you mention, which leads me to your question.

      I submitted a follow-up article to Brandon that focuses on reflective practice. It addresses more of the how and where we can talk about these kinds of things. I am hoping that some of our colleagues who also visit Street Leverage will share with us some of the strategies they use. Some that come immediately to mind are case conferencing groups, communities of inquiry that meet f2f or online, and even this very forum here. Even if we can find one or two other colleagues who will agree to form a discussion group to explore the inner scripts to change our actions, that is a perfect starting place.

      For years, I have benefitted from ongoing discussions with several valued colleagues–Kellie Stewart and Jona Maiorano are two in particular. We have spent hours unraveling complex situations in which we found ourselves, attempting to look at it from all different perspectives to determine what we could learn from it.

      Thanks again for joining this conversation. I hope you will continue to add your thoughts and experiences.

  2. Ed Bosson says:

    I find this article intriguing. I think one needs to be careful on “due diligence”. There have been instances where interpreter does not understand the contents being interpreted, but the sophisticated deaf/hh understands. I think the “due diligence” should be focused on interpreting and conveying the contents to the deaf/hh in a sign language mode they understands. This is not action of a machine, but a thoughtful and analytical way to interpret in a such way that deaf/hh understands even if the interpreter may not necessarily understand the contents being interpreted/translated.

    Also, there is danger of patronizing if interpreter assumes and decides for the deaf/hh on whether they need help or not. Granted, if interpreter really does not know how to “interpret/translate” the contents due to the nature of contents (lot of technical or medical terms for example) then should take oneself out of interpreting in this particular circumstance.

    I believe there are exceptions such as in an emergency or life-threatening situation, often strict rules do not apply to ensure both parties of emergency dispatcher and deaf/hh understands what is going on.

    Again, this article is well thought out and I appreciate seeing that; the last statement I wholly agree. I’m deaf by the way.

    • Anna says:

      Hi Ed! Thanks for adding to this conversation. It is so important to hear from deaf consumers like yourself.

      Thanks for reminding us that each consumer brings unique experiences to an assignment. You are right, we must make our decisions as to whether to intervene or not based on many factors…including who is the deaf consumer, what is their knowledge of the content being addressed, etc. In my own experience as an interpreter, I have learned that as you indicate, sometimes the deaf consumer knows as much as the hearing consumer about the subject being discussed. In those instances, the interpreter can rely more on the two consumers to check in with each other when needed. In that kind of a situation, assuming the interpreter is otherwise competent, the interpreter could generate the information without having subject matter expertise.

      As illustration, some years ago I worked with a deaf engineer who worked for a large corporation as part of the team that designed computers and copiers. He and the team knew exactly what they were talking about….I didn’t. In that case, I could fingerspell something and have the deaf engineer provide me with the context about what it meant or how to sign it. Likewise, when he was describing complex computer parts using classifiers, I could describe what I saw in very informal terms, and his hearing colleagues could give me the label the part he was discussing.

      However, these types of even exchange, where both consumers understand the subject content on equal footing are rare in my experiences as an interpreter. If an interpreter is a designated interpreter for a deaf professional, or in a specific job environment, it seems to occur more often. But, if you are a community interpreter going to the doctor’s office, or to an attorney’s office, or in court with a client who has never been before a court before, or working in a classroom with a language delayed deaf child, the situation is much different.

      So, as interpreters, we have a duty to go further in figuring out whether we need to intervene or not. I totally agree with your comment that we must always apply caution before we intervene and make sure that our motive is not to be paternalistic. Likewise, we must not over generalize what sophisticated deaf/hh individuals prefer in terms of an interpreter’s behavior as the standard for all consumers with whom we work. It is a constant process of assessing the conditions that exist with the needs and preferences of consumers.

      Keep sharing your experiences with us! We appreciate your encouragement.

  3. Milie Stansfield says:

    Again, Anna , a profound and well thought out discourse. Look forward to more!

    • Anna says:

      Hi Millie. Great to connect with you here again! Does this article fit with your own experiences? Any thoughts about Sarah’s great post introducing this theory of normalcy bias?
      Warm Wishes,

  4. Bill Moody says:

    This rich discussion hits us right in the practice of every day… Yes, we have been taught and internalized at a young age those ‘professional’ lines that supposedly cannot be crossed. As we age, we realize that the decisions of a true professional, as Theresa Smith says, are much more complex, which is why we actually deserve the title ‘professional’.
    “Normalcy bias”, as a way to avoid intervention in the face of complexity when one doesn’t know how to be helpful and prefers to play it safe, will, in the thoughtful evolving professional, eventually give way to the true human (and humane) normalcy that is the territory of the seasoned professional: who knows how to be relaxed and flexible (depending on the consumers and the situation) and to really HELP them communicate with each other.
    That is, after all, our primary purpose. Not to intervene on our own behalf, but on theirs!
    It is a practice that really comes from the socio-linguistic model of interactive socio-linguistics pioneered by Gumperz, then translated to the interpreting field by Wadensjö, Roy, Metzger, and others.
    What it really boils down to is: How can we as interpreters best help our consumers understand each other in a given situation? How can we help them accomplish their goals in the interaction? That is, in fact, what we mean by a “faithful interpretation”.
    I learned a lot from studying the history of spoken and signed language interpreters’ research into “faithful interpretations”, which I condensed into an article in the new online RID Journal of Interpretation (the condensation was taken from my longer article in the British journal Sign Langange Translators and Interpreters[SLTI] from 2007). Anyone who wants the full article from SLTI can get it by emailing me at
    Thanks, Anna, Dennis, and Brandon for initiating these discussions, which are at the heart of our work!

    • Anna says:

      Hi Bill! So great to connect with you here. Hope all is well in your world. I appreciate your remarks and would like to explore a couple of your statements further.

      You mention that this ability to move toward a more human and humane normalcy is the territory of the seasoned professional. I certainly agree that the seasoned professional has a broad base of experience from which to draw when making critical decisions. At the same time, this ability to act when action is required cannot be restricted to the more experienced interpreter. It is a way of thinking and behaving that we must equip entering interpreters with as well. Otherwise, they may fail to recognize when they need to rely on the expertise of someone with more skill and experience, among any number of other possible errors in judgement. So, how do we do a better job of instilling critical thinking and reflective practice skills in all practitioners?

      Along this same line, it is important to acknowledge that even seasoned interpreters fall pry to these old patterns and beliefs about overstepping boundaries or failing to adopt best practices. As an important example, although research has been available for some years now underscoring the increase in accuracy of consecutive interpreting versus simultaneous interpreting (ex: during deaf witness testimony), even some seasoned practitioners use simultaneous interpreting.

      You also mention learning much from the history of spoken and signed language interpreters. I agree! We share so many common challenges and opportunities. In some work I am currently doing with Holly Mikkelson and Cynthia Roat, both indicate that spoken language interpreters too struggle with the perception of invisibility. Some changes seem to be emerging in the area of spoken language interpreting in healthcare settings, but much less so in legal interpreting. Have you seen this as well?

      Thanks for sharing with us about your two articles. Please feel free to give us the full citations. I am sure readers would like to know how to access your work in the British journal.

      Warm Wishes!

      • Bill Moody says:

        Absolutely agree…we do need to train for it. And, yes, spoken language interpreters, and even CART service providers, have brought the invisibility issue up with me several times. I didn’t realize that CART providers are also struggling with the issue, especially outside of the courtroom. Warm wishes back!

  5. Jeffrey Kirkwood says:

    Thank you for this article and thank you to the responders who added to and expanded upon the topic.

    As a 30-plus year practitioner of ASL-English interpretation (and so-called transliteration) I have seen my practice evolve as I gained experience and exposure to a vast array of interpreting-contexts and a diverse and broad cross section of consumers of my services. My practice is consciously different if I’m working with social workers and a deaf client with limited language access in any of the three languages he was exposed to and we are dealing with possible abuse; as compared to a truly bi-lingual bi-cultural and socially savvy deaf professional and her colleagues.

    I do not have the academic foundation of an interpreter training program though I do have multiple degrees. Deaf individuals and senior/mentor interpreters were my teachers and they threw me into “real life” jobs and helped me swim. It is my observation that a number of programs training interpreters fail to teach critical thinking and decision-making like I had in my school of hard knocks.

    I was once approached by a student in an interpreter preparation program two or three semesters after she was in a class on Deaf Culture taught by a Deaf professor. She said to me, “I had no idea how hard it was to do what you and your team did (sign to voice interpreting of a 3 hour lecture) and how well you did it until now.” She was referring to her more advanced classes and some beginning experiences in interpretation. She seemed overwhelmed because she had learned enough to know that she was now scared by the process. I don’t think she was given the tools for decision making in her program.

    Much earlier in my career I had the occasion while I was waiting for a client in a medical waiting room to witness an interpreter doing her best interpretation of an argument between a different deaf patient and her doctor. The disagreement began in a crowded waiting room. The deaf person was clearly animated and the doctor was loud and I watched what at first was a beautiful and accurate interpretation of the exchange. I then became aware that the interpreter’s “dynamic energy” was adding to and, I began to feel, multiplying the tone and nature of the argument. From that moment on I began to see myself as a dynamic, “not invisible” participant in a communication exchange. A participant who clearly impacted the nature and end result of the communication process.

    The decisions I make (and they are not always right) are based on the notion that all interpreting is contextual. In any context there are participants (and, perhaps, the ghosts of prior participants – the hearing person’s prior experience with that or a different deaf person; one or more experiences they each have had with previous interpreters, etc.) If we as interpreters ignore these realities we will not be able to make clear decisions and perform our duties with due diligence.

    On a different occasion I interpreted for a deaf couple. One member of the couple was struggling with a life threatening illness. The decision for treatment or not was more than serious. The potential treatment was potentially as fatal as the illness already was. I was not the first interpreter and this was not the first exchange between the couple and the specialists. But one thing struck me as odd – there was a nurse taking notes. Later in the waiting room I was told that the nurse was repeatedly used because the couple “could not trust the interpreters.” There was clearly a history here. It was these and other experiences in my career that helped me flesh-out my model. Happily my interpretation was effective but I had followed a string of interpreters who were not effective and may not have known it. The deaf couple were near tears because they had gained a more complete understanding of their situation than they had ever had. I do not say this to toot my own horn. I use this example to make my point.

    If we are not aware of the context, the people in the context and their prior and present experience within that context; if we do not manage the language of the context whether we are fluent or we are using what I call “phonetic interpretation” – that is everyone in the room understands even if we don’t and they are still communicating; if we do not consciously and actively participate in the achievement of each persons end-goal in the communication process then we are committing acts of omission.

    Along with all the other writers I do not blame myself or others unless we simply ignore professional development and self awareness. It is simply a matter of raising our professional consciousness and correcting the decade old error in assuming that we are some how “neutral” and that we do not impact the communication process.

    For me it is not a matter of “that it happens,” for me it is a matter of what tools do we have as professionals to make the necessary decisions to alter our work to fit the needs of the context, the people and the goal(s) of communication.

    • Anna says:

      Hi Jeffrey! Thanks for these great remarks. You have offered us insight into the experiences that led you to your current understanding of your work and our role and responsibility as interpreters. Thank you for your candor and openness. I hope others will share their experiences as well.

      Absolutely, interpreting is contextual. Discussion and research around the contextual nature of our work continue to grow. I appreciate that in addition to understanding the contextual nature of our work, you are advoacating for that knowledge to guide and inform our decision-making. That is what I want as well–for us to not only understand the contextual nature of interpreting, but ACT on it when it is appropriate and necessary. The latter requires a different kind of skill set.

      You mention the importance of the tools we have as professionals to make the necessary decisions that can alter our work to fit the context–which includes the participants and their goals, as well as the goals of the system. Can you share with us a bit about what tools have been helpful to you in this process? The application of demand-control schema is one tool that comes to mind. Can you offer some others?

      Again, thanks for your important remarks here! They are a great contribution to this discussion.

  6. Oya Ataman says:

    Hi Anna, thank you for your articles I enjoy reading. I am wondering why you have not mentioned the Ally Model of interpreting so far. I am from Germany and as for “to intervene or not to intervene, that is the question” I feel that we are, for once, ahead of our U. S. colleagues. And I know, as a matter of fact, for once, we Sign Language Interpreters are ahead of the spoken language interpreter colleagues.

    We have been practicing the ally model established in acceptance of the postcolonial power dysbalances among stakeholders with differing cultural backgrounds of different statuses. The presence (and even absence) of the interpreter, whether intended or not, always impacts the situation.

    Within this practice, the question is not whether to intervene but how to intervene and, very important, how to avoid the contrary of what you call “diffusion of responsibility”, i. e. blind actionism or patronizing.

    In order to train the abilities necessary for making these delicate judgements we have comparative workshops on hearing and Deaf culture, workshops including role plays as you have suggested. We have protected (!) forums in which we can exchange our experiences and develop a non-judgmental way of giving constructive criticism to each other and reflect on the given situation within the terms of the ally model.

    Unfortunately, there has already been just criticism concerning the ally model by Graham Turner (“Some Essential Ingredients of Sign Language Interpreting” 2006, in: R. Locker McKee’s WASLI Proceedings 2005). Whereas it is clear that the Machine Model (or what you refer to as the Invisible Interpreter) does not work, the duty of the Ally Interpreter to decide about interventions (each decision must be based on profound knowledge to the degree that it can be reflected upon and communicated) is too much a burden. Professionals who are in the beginning of their career can not be expected to have studied sociology and bring the life experience and emotional stability of a veteran necessary for this kind of practice. What Turner suggests is a distribution of responsibilities, perhaps steering towards a new interpreting model which I used to refer to as Transparency Model: “In other words, since the meaning of language does not just reside ‘in the words’, but also in our understanding of them, everyone involved in an interpreted exchange shares responsibility for all parts of ensuring effective communication; we’re all in this together!” (108). That sounds great to me but far beyond our post-colonial reality…. However, in settings, for example corporate, in which the hearing and or deaf stakeholders bring substantial experience in working cross-culturally and between languages, the stakeholders do know what the job of an interpreter is about, what can go wrong and how they can do their part that it does not. They have perhaps already had one or two “intercultural communication” workshops.

    My position as for now is to practice Ally, engage in dialog and to encourage my professional association to invest in the kind of public relations effort that would bring us closer to an environment in which the Transparency Model could take roots. I would also suggest a co-operation between U. S. and German interpreting trainers in order to develop effective workshops regarding the practice of the ally model.

  7. Anna says:

    Hi Oya
    Thanks for sharing the prevailing approach used in Germany and for providing us with the citation for Graham Turner’s article. I enjoyed exploring the topic of the ally model with German sign language interpreters during your first conference held at the University of Magdeburg some years ago.

    The ally model is part of the interpreting tapestry here in the United States and our exploration of roles and responsibilities continues to evolve. And, here in the states, the application of the ally model goes beyond how we act and respond while interpreting. It also informs our behavior as members of the Deaf Community–our public use of ASL, our commitment to helping to further the interest of the deaf society whether interpreting or not. And, as happens in Germany, there are periodic events where Deaf people and interpreters come together to reflect and to discuss how to create more productive alliances. For example, there has been a widely attended community forum at several of the national interpreter’s conference where important issues are discussed and perspectives shared. And for many years, an allies conference has been held in the northeast part of the United States.

    I appreciate the use of the term transparency in Turner’s work. And, I absolutely agree that all participants share in the responsibility for the outcome. Often, in order for deaf and hearing consumers to exercise their responsibility, they have to be aware that something of what is needed. This may require the interpreter to offer an intervention and then collaborate in an open and transparent manner with the consumers to create an effective communication/interpreted event.

    In reality, the degree of responsibility each person can take depends in part on the degree of autonomy they bring to the situation. Are the social conditions conducive to each person expressing their autonomy? Does each participant have sufficient control over their social circumstances to have a range of options they can employ in each situation? So, depending on the degree of autonomy expressed by consumers (hearing or deaf), the interpreter may adjust the degree of autonomy they exercise. Certainly in situations where the deaf person exercises a high degree of autonomy (such as in the corporate setting you mentioned where the deaf consumer is bilingual and bicultural), the interpreter may be able to exercise more conservative options in applying their role. However, when the deaf person is not able to exercise or doesn’t possess a high degree of autonomy, the liklihood is greater that the interpreter will have to apply more liberal controls in exercising their role and responsibilities. And what all of this looks like in action is something we need a lot more discussion about for sure!

    In this article, I am attempting to call attention to areas of intervention that are specifically within the interpreter’s domain–such as the decision to use consecutive interpreting versus simultaneous. Certainly, in making this decision the interpreter will need to collaborate with consumers to ensure the process is effective. And doing so in an open and transparent manner is one way to distribute responsibilities as Turner suggests.

    Thanks again for your post!
    Warm wishes,

  8. Yet another excellent discussion at – thanks to all involved for this resource, and to Anna for opening up this topic. I think the ally model helped the field to look again at some important issues, but I certainly wouldn’t advocate blanket adoption of that approach, as Anna’s comments indicate. I like Oya’s term ‘transparency model’, because that very much captures the key notion I’ve been trying to develop in recent years – some indication can be seen in my paper (presented in 2004 and published in 2007) in the volume from John Benjamins called ‘The Critical Link 4′. In this paper, as the abstract summarises, I “argue for a revised understanding of interpreting as a comprehensively collaborative activity. In presenting this case, I focus on the interpreter’s role as a weaver-together of narratives and a connector of people. I stress the interpreter’s task of working with others, ie actively bringing them into the process of negotiating meaning, to share triadic communicative events where participants constantly align and re-align themselves in complex kaleidoscopic ways to achieve their collective communicative goals.” Cynthia Roy framed the question well 20 years ago in asking what is or can be the nature of the interpreter’s co-participation in interaction. I think that remains a critical question (THE critical question, even?) and in suggesting that this role should be as an enabler of a collaborative search for meanings, I tried to nudge the story on a little.

    • Anna says:

      Thanks for elaborating further on your work! One of the things that will help in continuing this paradigm shift is for us to speak in practical terms of how our work will look different in the moment. So, what does it look like when the interpreter is performing as the “enabler of a collaborative search for meaning”? Many practitioners are looking for scripts…not to memorize, but to hear and/or see as a reference point for how to respond differently in the moment that an intervention is needed. This is one of the levels at which we need to “nudge the story” a bit further, as it will offer the application of an otherwise theoretical/philosophical discussion.

      Simultaneously, we need to continue the theoretical/philisophical discussion…we need a deeper conceptualization of who we are and what we do as interpreters. Your point about interpreters needing to work collaboratively with others is critical…as is our ability to understand the systems in which we work more fully. If we understand the systems more fully, we can better understand the individuals that work within those systems, how they communicate, and as Dean and Pollard discuss, appreciate their thought worlds. This level of understanding is necessary to achieve the weaving-together of narratives you mention.

      Thank you so much for your continuing scholarship and contributions to the field of sign language interpreting. And thanks for joining the conversation here at Street Leverage! Hope we can share in more of your thinking!

      Warm Wishes,

      • Bill Moody says:

        I was advocating that an experienced interpreter who is looking for the most honest human interaction will find the balance, depending on the consumer and the situation, between advocating, actively intervening for fairness’ sake, and leaving the automony to the any savvy consumer (hearing or deaf) who can take responsibility for their understanding of what is being said, including their knowledge the systems involved, and how they should respond to accomplish their own personal goals in any interaction. That said, I think Anna is right that we need to train young interpreters to have the scripts and strategies needed to make the judgements to decide on all the complex ramifications of the interaction as it unfolds. (Anyone who thinks that the first sentence of my reply is too complex will understand the complexity facing the interpreter who is simply trying to be human and fair in the work…)
        The responsibility for such training of young interpreters (something I really do not do like Anna does), rests on the assumption that some of our scripts and strategies are in fact counter-intuitive, and must be learned.
        The Transparency Model, or, as we refer to it in NY, the “Open Process Model” (cf, Molly Wilson), has its basis, again, in the fact that we are in fact ‘professionals’, in the true sense of the word, who have an important role to play in judging which strategies we use to help people understand each other.

        • Oya Ataman says:

          Hi Bill, could you tell me where to find Molly’s text please?
          And Anna yes, the link between theory and practice is missing in our everyday work. Its a little easier in English-speaking countries but in Germany, for example, you can’t expect the interpreters to plough trough Truner’s writing with their high-school English. Wouldn’t it be nice to have sort of a SLI’s multilingual Wikipedia where we collaborate to bring together concepts and models, summarize books or texts, maybe even in Signs? Would that not be a step towards Open Process? How are our deaf clients going to know about our work if it is so hard for them to access the information? I think that would go for the average social worker as well…

  9. Diego says:

    Hi Ana, you have this article in pdf?

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