4 Obsessions of a Qualified Sign Language Interpreter

Sign Language Interpreter Considering Their Obsessions About the WorkSign language interpreters come to the profession from a variety of avenues; each possessing a range of life experience that makes their daily work distinct. Though the work from interpreter to interpreter is unique, it occurs to me that there are 4 primary preoccupations shared by qualified practitioners.

Some might consider them obsessions, the non-clinical type of course.

Whether obsessions or preoccupations, qualified sign language interpreters are driven to excellence in their work by 4 dominating thoughts:

1)   Cohesion: It is the role of a sign language interpreter to unite the parties participating in the communication by proactively considering and responding to the specific needs of their consumers, team interpreters, and meeting/event participants and organizers.

The qualified practitioner has fervor for cohesion because they fundamentally understand that a stellar individual performance does not necessarily equate to a job well done. Further, that it is the success of all parties to the communication that ultimately determines if an interpreter has been effective.

2)   Professionalism: It is the duty of a sign language interpreter to ensure they are familiar with both current developments and best practices within the field.

The qualified interpreter is passionate about professionalism because they understand that it is more than a state of mind or verbal declaration. They understand that it is the active pursuit of excellence; one that requires an interpreter to be informed and engaged within the profession and to uphold the social agreements that allow them to do their best work.

3)   Accountability:  It is the ethical obligation of a sign language interpreter to own, in real-time where possible, the inaccuracies found in their work.

The qualified practitioner is resolute in their view that the fear of being viewed to possess an inferior skill-set or to not be invited back to an assignment is insufficient reason to compromise the trust needed to do their work. They summarily avoid this temptation and accept that their best work is not error free and compensate accordingly.

4)    Connectedness: It is the responsibility of a sign language interpreter to recognize that they are part of a larger system of stakeholders.

The qualified interpreter is highly conscious that their actions have an impact on the interpreter that was there both before and after them, and that their actions do have an impact on the broader system of industry stakeholders. Further, they utilize this connectedness to better position themselves to partner with stakeholders to achieve excellence in their work.

A Framework

These obsessions create a framework for an approach to the work that allows a sign language interpreter to cope with the anxiety of confronting new environments, circumstances, and information day in and day out.

Further, it increases the capacity of an interpreter to earn the social currency needed to make adjustments in work environments and achieve consensus among consumers and meeting participants. This is key to their delivering truly remarkable work.

Achieving Excellence

Over the years I have heard interpreters share that a healthy dose of narcissism is necessary to be successful in the field. While I would agree to a point, I do think that a heightened awareness of the dynamics of their working relationships, the level of accountability taken/accepted for their work, and how they connect to the whole of our profession creates an approach to the work that makes certain sign language interpreters more likely to achieve excellence.

After all, and I believe you would agree, people who have achieved something impressive or have made a significant contribution to anything have done so because of a certain level of obsessiveness. I don’t believe achieving success in the sign language interpreting profession to be any different.

What obsessions makeup your framework for success?


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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.

15 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Bill Moody says:

    Interesting, such a different expression of our community roots and our tradition of professionals enabling people to communicate… but in such different language for this old practitioner! An “interconnected system of industry stakeholders (consumers, sign language interpreters, associations, businesses, service providers, educational institutions).”

    Hmmm… I admit to being a bit uncomfortable with the business-speak. I don’t think of interpreters as an industry, but with all the controversy these days surrounding the VRS industry, maybe I should. But it’s hard for some of us old guard practitioners. Don’t get me wrong, I agree 100% with the obsessions and the article; it’s the formulation that I have trouble with. Maybe it’s just a generational thing.

    I see myself out in the field as helping people make sense of the situations in which they find themselves with people who don’t speak their language; helping them achieve their goals if at all possible. A quintessentially human endeavor, although admittedly a business in some respects.

    Maybe the newer generations of Deaf people see us more as a service product rather than a part of their community. I do feel that in some of my free-lance work with younger consumers.

    Interesting. I do find those four obsessions are indeed my own, though.

    • Gerdinand says:

      So subscribe to the sentiments Bill expressed! Couldn’t have formulated any better…

    • Phlip says:

      I find that Bill’s sentiments resonate with me as well.

      Business based language for interpreting, while potentially well intentioned, separates the profession from the community, in the same way that the business of “signing for babies” surgically separates sign language from the Deaf (I am not knocking teaching children ASL or treating interpreting as a profession, I am addressing how it is done).

      I would also add that I get a bit uneasy when the word “accountability” is used. Not because we shouldn’t be held accountable for our faults, but because I recently read an article about the Finnish education system, and one of the statements made by the representative of the Finnish education system was something to the effect of “accountability is what is left over when there is a lack of responsibility.”

  2. Terri Hayes says:

    Hmm – I guess it depends on what you’re definition of “excellence” is.
    I personally have never particularly obsessed on any of those topics. I find them to be rhetoric promoted by interpreter training programs – who seem to believe that if you aspire to ‘cohesivity’, ‘professionalism’, ‘accountability’, and ‘connectedness’ your work will somehow improve and you’ll be a better than average interpreter. Following that premise, what we end up with is a large group of people all seeking warm and fuzzy, the idea that we need to be nice to each other and then we’ll be considered “practicing excellence”… a defintion of “professional”…
    but the actual result is a large body of interpreters who just barely attain expressive fluency, and often struggle with being able to figure out what this or that Deaf person just said –
    but then, true to topic, all the other interpreters are right there willing to hold your hand and tell you you’re doing a fine job regardless!

    So yeah, while we might need to think on the four topics presented in this article in general application, we need first to remember who we work for. (and ps – thats not You… yourself.. your business… or your interpreter teams, and compatriots, nor is it measured by how professionally you can represent yourself)
    Its Deaf people – who, without the benefit of super competent interpreters are kinda standing around in a given situation, trying to figure out how to navigate, how to negotiate, and how to get their sh*t done…

    There is so much need for competent interpreters… to be capable of working with those who, for some reason (i.e. they’re Deaf… they cant hear – so they cant assimilate vicarous information in the same way we can) just have a hard time “getting it”.. (the hearing world: view, requirements, expectations…) and on the far side, there is incredible need for interpreters competent to present (both voice and sign) to the Deaf who are climbing the ladder…
    Without incredibly competent interpreters, the aspiring Deaf Ph.D, the aspiring Deaf entertainer, the aspiring Deaf Congressperson, only has a soft, confused voice behind the microphone when they are trying to present on serious topics at a national level…
    (or perhaps they get to have a person who is self-qualifed and who is presenting in a way that more represents the interpreter’s education – than the Deaf person’s voice…ah! who’s to know!)
    In most cases, however, it is the Deaf person who can speak – and use their own voice, speaking a Spoken language for themselves – that are the ones who most often get offered the opportunity to present in a staged forum of any significant caliber… (and therefore – they are the people who are representing ‘Deaf’ – while interpreters are busy representing ‘professional’)

    This topic makes me crazy.
    Everyone around me is holding each others hands and telling each other what a great job they’re doing… seeking cohesiveness, connectedness… and expressing a definition of “professional”… (and feeling pissed off at me because I keep pointing to sign language, and skills based emphasis as the defintion of qualified…) but what I’m obsessed about (and will be until the day I die) is how to deliver information to a d/Deaf person in a way that is so transparent to the thinking process – that they can think about other things while they’re receiving information from me… so they can make internal connections – so they can see ramifications… so they can choose how to participate.
    I’m obsessed with constructing nuance and language and signing so that the Deaf person can sense the effect of their participation… and can unconsciously respond to the situation…
    I’m obsessed with attempting to make the communcaiton process so transparent that the Deaf person forgets they are using an interpreter. (and *sometimes*… I am good enough to do this and in those moments – the Deaf person I’m working for.. is as close to “equal” as they’ve ever been)

    All that obsession with the actual work – makes me sometimes appear to be less than warm and fuzzy (especially to the interpeters who have yet to know me as a person)… But while I do hold to accountabilty, and professionalism,cohesion, and connectedness in the over arching frame of my work… I am not preoccupied with them, I do not obsess on them. These are not the point of our process…

    I’m not here for the interpreters (except when I am)…nor for the profession (except when I am), I’m here to give Deaf people a tool with which to move through this very strange and demanding world toward something that can be called success. Their success – not mine – is the point.

  3. Bill Moody says:

    Surely we all agree with Terri that the most basic and fundamental skill in the interpreter tool kit is skill/fluency in both languages/cultures.

  4. Julie Whitcombe says:

    I’m with you Terri!

  5. Hi all~
    Thanks for the article!
    The comment above about skills by Teri is why I think the certification process should keep the skills portion separate from the ethics exam. The pass/fail certification process should be solely skills based.

    Here is what I focus on:
    1. Arriving on time
    2. Giving my full attention to each assignment
    3. I do think cohesion is something I do strive for…hadn’t thought of it that way
    4. Connectedness and comfortable, natural interactions that encourage the parties to really get to know each other
    5. Being as clear and easy to understand as possible…one of the best compliments I’ve had was about how the person wasn’t struggling to follow my interpretation because I’d used classifiers and ASL construction
    6. Being accurate…getting it straight and asking for clarification
    7. Being meticulous about invoicing, confirming appts, responding immediately to requests, returning calls, giving referrals when I can’t fill assignment, staying on top of the business part of independent contracting

    • Terri Hayes says:

      I agree with you about the certification test!

      and on all points that follow!
      (including and especially the part about love interpreting!!)

    • From the perspective of an interpreting agency in Los Angeles, your focus points are excellent. Could you possibly package them in a potion so that we can distribute these priorities among our network? Just kidding….sort of. We’ve recently experienced issues we struggle to manage and understand. Interpreters who cancel an entire day of work due to a flat tire. The cancellation is made by email 2 hours prior to the job start. This is just one example, but it happens more often than you might think. This most recent example left a student without an interpreter for an entire day. We were unable to find a replacement with such short notice. We find ourselves baffled asking ourselves “where is the professional ethic and concern for a deaf student left ‘lost’ for the day?” I have to say that most of our ‘seasoned’ interpreters are the most professional in the business. Those just getting started often have that professional piece missing and don’t seem to feel it’s a problem. So please start working on that potion and we’ll be your first customer! Thanks for all you do.

  6. Rachel says:

    I find “obsessions” the wrong word for this article. “Obsessions” come with negative connotations. The terms Brandon outlined are our responsibilities and expectations, at a minimum, of what we do as professionals. Please don’t make it out to be a bad thing.

  7. Gracie says:

    I’m a little late on this one but Terry – Bravo! I cannot thank you enough! I have struggled and struggled with the attitude that focuses on the interpreter, on their reputation, on their business ethics, anything but the process of providing as close to equivalency as is possible. I am sick of having to worry about whether the other interpreters *like me*. I am sick of worrying about what my reputation is in the interpreting community (since they are now seperate from the Deaf community). I see ITP students judging eachother on who shows up to Deaf events to hang out with eachother or who has the most Deaf people on their Facebook friends list(whether or not they actually take the time to get to know these people. It’s disgusting but a fact.) The focus has shifted from providing quality services and earning your way into the Deaf community, to now seeing your education as a VIP pass to circumvent all of that and simply take a position as the gate keepers of information and shouldn’t all the Deafies be grateful. Yet noone wants to talk about it because we wouldn’t be respecting eachother and therefore going against tenent 5. I know this isn’t all ITP students, but it’s enough that I question whether or not I have a place in this field.

    I understand that we are all working to advance this new profession we are a part of,and that professionalism matters because we are often not only representing ourselves, but the entire profession, but it comes to a point when we are so concerned about what our peers think or wasting our time passing judgement on those we deem inferior interpreters (for any number of factors ans whether or not we will admit it out loud) does is distract us from what should be our most important professional priorities. To me it just doesn’t seem worth it. Because like you said – the clients success, not my own, is the point. I think focusing on that would solve a lot of problems. Worrying about what the popular kids think is better left in high school.

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