Stephanie Feyne | Authenticity: The Impact of a Sign Language Interpreter’s Choices

Stephanie presented, Authenticity: The Impact of a Sign Language Interpreter’s Choices, at StreetLeverage – Live 2013 | Atlanta, GA. Her talk explored how the choices made by sign language interpreters affects the perception of Deaf people and how interpreters can present a more “authentic” representation of someone’s message.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.


(The examples in this article are of female interpreters and male Deaf individuals in order to accommodate the gendered demands of English pronouns. This may or may not reflect the actual identities of the people involved.)

In this presentation I will be discussing the concept of “authenticity” during interpretation – what it means and why I use this term.

We interpreters know we are responsible for the transmission of the content of speakers’ messages. An additional responsibility is to express the manner in which one person speaks, which allows the other participant to get a glimpse of who the person is.


Last month a Deaf teacher was presenting in front of a group of hearing children. I was interpreting for him. He told them to copy his notes from the board. I interpreted that in the first person, “copy what I wrote…”

A first grade girl spun her head towards me in disbelief. “You didn’t write anything!” she exclaimed. I agreed with her, that I hadn’t, but I then explained that our job as interpreters is to say what the Deaf person said. She thought about this for a second and replied, “Oh, you’re pretending to be him.”
That struck me as a profound statement. And, of course, she was absolutely correct! That’s exactly what we interpreters do – we take on the identity of the Deaf person as we represent their message so that the hearing person knows who they are.

We speak not “FOR” the Deaf party but “AS” the Deaf party. Our utterances are expressed in the first person:  ”I don’t understand my homework”, “I want to work for your company”, “My daughter is sick.”

Say What They’re Saying

Many hearing people assume that interpreters are experts and our work product is a verbatim rendition of the utterances of Deaf people.

I interviewed several hearing non-interpreters. I asked them what they thought interpreters did. One response summed it up, “You’re supposed to be just saying what they’re saying. ” I then asked them if they believed that every “um”, “uh”, and “you know” uttered by interpreters was originated by the Deaf person – and they replied affirmatively. This is an interesting belief about how interpreters function.

I am currently studying linguistic anthropology, a field that examines language and interaction, from which I have learned new theories that I now apply to interpretation.

I want to share some theory about authenticity and about identity:

Bucholtz and Hall (and other theorists) are saying that not only do we express our own identity through the way we talk but also the person talking with us uses their entire lifetime of experience communicating to take in what we say and how we express it and construct their own perception of our identity. They explore whether we are similar to or different from others who communicate that way. And throughout the interaction, their construct continuously is reified, refined or altered. Included in this situated identity are social factors, power differential, etc., but also the continuous unfolding of the individual in the place and time of the interaction; thus, the construct of identity is progressively negotiated and refined over time.

The second point from Bucholtz and Hall is what really knocked me out: that even as we talk in ways that represent our personal identity, listeners assess our language to see if we are genuine and credible.

When I first read about this I realized that this, indeed, is the task of sign language interpreters.  We attempt to express the message of the Deaf person in such a manner that the hearing person sees him or her as genuine and credible.

Brad Davidson, a linguistic anthropologist, studied interactions of hearing Spanish/English interpreters in hospitals in California. Davidson claims that interpreters may function as “gatekeepers.” His study delineated how Spanish interpreters in hospitals are gathering information prior to the doctor’s arrival in the consult room. They then answer the doctor’s questions directly. They are decide when or if Spanish speakers can talk or even ask questions. In addition, he found that the interpreters he studied would limit or refuse to interpret responses if they thought the patient’s answer was off point. He claimed that as a result doctors might see these patients as passive. This means the actions of those interpreters may be contributing to doctors’ perceptions of their patients’ identities.

I wondered if sign language interpreters also contribute to the hearing perception of the identity of Deaf people and am conducting research on that topic.

Natural Conversation

To explore interpreted interaction I think it is helpful to first examine direct interaction between two people, A and B. They usually take turns. The flow of conversation often feels natural.  They make eye contact. They may laugh. Their talk may overlap. One of them might interrupt the other, then their conversation continues.

However, when an interpreter is present the conversation is different. The conversation flows from A to the interpreter then to B, and when B replies the comment again goes to the interpreter before getting to A.

They make eye contact, but now there is more of a dance – with all the participants trying to catch the other’s gaze at some point, including the interpreter. Often the hearing party wants to look at the interpreter, because that is the source of the spoken word.

If they laugh, there is a ripple effect, say, first from the Deaf person, then perhaps the interpreter, and finally the hearing party if the interpreter has expressed it in a humorous manner in English. We hope we are interpreting in an “authentic” manner.

They may overlap, but the interpreter tries to control the flow and ask them not to speak at the same time. And they interrupt – at which point decisions have to be made. Who will win the interruption? Who decides?

If the hearing person tries to interrupt it is often fairly simple to stop a Deaf signer. We have eye contact. We know the polite rules for interrupting in sign. What about when a Deaf person interrupts a hearing person? What decisions do we make? What are our norms and beliefs about interrupting hearing speech? How do they affect our interpreting choices?

I happened to be present at a meeting with two Deaf and a dozen or so hearing participants and one certified interpreter. The discussion was heated. Everyone was calling out, interrupting the others, changing topics, etc. I noticed the interpreter signing everything that was spoken, but not voicing any of the comments of the Deaf participants. No matter how many times they tried to interject she steadfastly continued signing the hearing comments.  I wondered what the reason could be for her choice.

(Don’t worry, eventually the Deaf participants got their points in.)

After the meeting wrapped up, I asked the interpreter why she chose not to voice when the Deaf participants tried to interject. This interpreter was open to reflecting on her work. After a moment she replied that she had not called out because “It’s rude to interrupt.”

This is an amazing example of how our tacit norms for communication can control our interpreting choices. When the hearing parties interrupted each other she had no problem interpreting those comments into ASL. But for her to speak out and actually interrupt the hearing participants when the Deaf people wanted to interpose their ideas would have meant SHE was rude, and at that moment her norms for polite conversation overrode her interpreting mandate.

I must clarify that she was a skilled interpreter. She had no deliberate intent to oppress Deaf people or to curtail their communicative rights. She just had not realized her inner norms limited her interpreting choices, even though those choices ended up limiting the ability of those Deaf individuals to participate in their own meeting.

Unexplored Norms

And that is an important reminder – our unexplored norms can override our interpreting judgments. It is incumbent upon us as individuals to recognize our conversational norms in order for us to make conscious decisions about communication that will allow both parties to interact and see each other, and not see only the unintended results of our unconscious decisions.

We know most sign language interpreters don’t deliberately intend to control what Deaf people say, but many of us have not analyzed our own inner rules/norms for conversation. Many of us do not realize we have communicative norms that regulate our language, our understanding of what is polite and what is not. Do we interpreters know our own individual communicative style? Have we explored our tacit norms? Those unexplored norms can and do affect our interpretation choices, which then have an impact on the communication of the people we are there to serve.

I remember an occasion (quite some time ago) when my own unexplored norms impeded my interpretation.  I had learned that interpreters were “cultural mediators.” When a Deaf male supervisor started dressing down a male employee I was so uncomfortable that I softened the tone – thinking that I was culturally mediating. In fact, I “girled” him. I hadn’t witnessed male-male conflict before and I was so uncomfortable I softened his conflict style – in effect, I feminized him. This was not an authentic representation of his message or of his identity. I later realized that even though I had been raised in the hearing world and assumed I knew all the rules, I didn’t truly understand gendered communication and confrontation styles. I hadn’t considered the fact that what I did not know actually inhibited my interpretation and their communication. After some study and self-reflection I now feel better prepared and welcome the opportunity to interpret these kinds of events – bring ‘em on.

Gender Notions

Stephanie Feyne

Stephanie Feyne

Let’s consider gender – do men and women speak in the same manner? We know that women are 87 % of RID – so what happens to language and identity when Deaf men have female interpreters? Do interpreters’ gendered ideas of language and unexplored communicative norms affect the hearing perception of Deaf people?

Interpreters are present in various interactions. We interpret for agreement and for conflict. We interpret in settings where Deaf people have positions of power and where they don’t. We interpret for men, women, children, professionals, fluent eloquent speakers, and struggling signers. Do we know how to communicate in all those styles? What about the myriad fields that Deaf professionals inhabit? Do we know what those communicative norms are? Can we create utterances that allow us to seamlessly interpret in these settings and registers?

Curious about the impact of our work, I conducted research on how interpreters contribute to the hearing’ party’s perception of identity of the Deaf interactant. (Identity being both linguistic and professional.)

NOTE – In the signed version of this presentation I tried a joke that didn’t translate well – so instead of recreating it here, I would like to publicly thank Dennis Cokely for suggesting I add a final layer of complexity to my study that also grounds it linguistically, culturally and academically.

My Study

Briefly, my study is comprised of four hearing interpreters voicing from videotapes of four different Deaf educators. Four Deaf professionals rated the Deaf presentations, and four hearing professional raters listened to and evaluated the interpreted lectures.

Let me clearly state the interpreters in my study are all good, professional, intelligent, certified interpreters. They are brave, and generous, and willing to share their work with me. I thank them for allowing me in, which led to the work I can share with you!

Allow me to share a small sample of my findings:

In looking at the presentation of one Deaf lecturer, all four Deaf evaluators deemed this educator highly genuine and credible. But the comments from the hearing evaluator did not support her being rated as credible. All the Deaf evaluators said she was extremely knowledgeable and confident. The ratings of the one hearing evaluator I show in this presentation differed depending on the interpreter – more or less knowledgeable, and definitely not confident, in direct contrast to the ratings of Deaf evaluators. This, plus more data from my study, leads me to believe that the choices interpreters make affect the hearing person’s perception of the identity of the Deaf lecturer.

This means we interpreters have a great deal of power. And we have a tremendous responsibility. The hearing parties are relying upon our language to help form their impression of whether the Deaf party is genuine and credible (and vice versa).

How can we produce utterances that allow hearing people to see the Deaf person as genuine and credible? First, we must know what genuine and credible looks like/sounds like in both communities, in a variety of settings. Second, we must have the linguistic range to be able to produce genuine and credible utterances in both languages that are appropriate for the various settings in which we work. Those skills are prerequisites to authentic interpretation, which offers the parties an opportunity to see and assess each other.

This means that interpreting cannot be “business as usual.” It is important to recognize that an interpretation that works for one situation will not necessarily work for all. It is incumbent upon us to assess the setting, understand what kind of communication is appropriate, and have it at our disposal.

Authenticity Starts With the Authentic “I”

Within our linguistic and social repertoire we need to grasp the nuances of gendered language, conflict style, and emotional affect in ASL so that we are then able to produce an authentic rendition in spoken English.

This means that if we wish to interpret in a manner that is genuine and credible we cannot stay outside the Deaf community. We must actively engage with Deaf people in a variety of settings. We cannot assume we know what is going on. We actually need to be a party to direct communication by Deaf people in ASL without interpretation to the point that we are truly enculturated, and have those linguistic and social signals in our repertoire.

It is equally important for us to interact with a variety of people in the hearing world as well. If we only stay within our same contacts how can we guarantee we have the linguistic skill set to match other groups. A simplistic example is of an interpreter who spends all her time in elementary school settings who is then asked to interpret for a job interview at the professional level. That interpreter would have to assess her own skills: Does she know what interviews at this level sound like? Is she comfortable with the jargon of that field in both languages? Does she have the cadence of a professional? What kinds of utterances are typically produced there – short declaratory sentences or longer, denser utterances? Her goals would be to ensure that if the Deaf person presents himself as a genuine and credible professional, that she then renders his message in an accurate and professional manner, so that the hearing party sees him as genuine and credible without the interpretation getting in the way.

For this to occur, we interpreters, myself included, need to ensure we broaden our range of communication so that it is sufficiently wide to cover all the arenas in which we may find ourselves working. We interpreters must explore our own communicative norms so that when they arise in an interpreted setting we can acknowledge them and elect to disregard them consciously rather than having them control our interpreting decisions.

By preparing ourselves this way, we will be better able to recognize each party as genuine and credible and then go the next step – produce authentic interpretations that allow each to see the other as genuine and credible.

Stephanie wishes to thank Brandon Arthur and StreetLeverage for inviting her to present at StreetLeverage – Live 2013 | Atlanta and to express appreciation to all the participants at that event.

She also wishes to acknowledge Lynnette Taylor for her invaluable assistance in helping her prepare for this presentation; the constant support and guidance of Dennis Cokely; and all the participants in her research – the Deaf educators, interpreters, museum administrators, museum evaluators and Deaf evaluators, without whom this research would not have been possible. Stephanie is responsible for any misstatements, oversights, or oversimplifications in this article.

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Bucholtz, Mary and Hall, Kira.  2005. Identity and interaction: a sociolcultural linguistic approach. Discourse Studies 7:585-614.


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About the Author

Stephanie Feyne has been a certified member of RID since 1978. She interpreters in community, conference, educational and theatre venues. She teaches workshops in New York as well as around the country and is affiliated with the LaGuardia Community College Interpreter Education Projects. She was one of the four interpreting instructors for the annual TDF "Interpreting for the Theatre" Seminar housed at the Juilliard School. She is currently pursuing her MA in linguistic anthropology at Hunter College in New York City.

33 Enlightened Replies

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  1. I thoroughly enjoyed Stephanie’s workshops at the RID conference and this article will allow me to share the information with my colleagues more easily. I have been reflecting on my choices more since I heard her presentation and am far more aware of the decisions I make when interpreting ASL-English. I hope the same becomes true for the interpreters I work with. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Stephanie Feyne says:


      Thanks for your comment – and for coming to the workshops!!! It’s amazing that Dylan Geil and I have found so many interesting parallels in our research while coming from opposite directions:)

      I’m so glad you are reflecting on your choices – and I love that we can realize they ARE choices, and not just habits. I’d love to hear more how it goes with your work….feel free to keep in touch here or on Facebook.


  2. Jason says:

    Excellent presentation. Some questions related to the research project you did:
    You mentioned a group of deaf raters and a group of hearing raters. Pertaining to the subject matter of the presentation, were the skills, experience, and knowledge of the raters documented? If one rater was knowledgeable in the topic area but another was not, thier rating of the presenter’s credibility could be influenced. Again, great talk.

    • Stephanie says:

      Jason – Thanks so much for the question. It is a limitation of this study that I was unable to contact 4 Deaf experts in museum presentation. There was 1 such Deaf evaluator. The other 3 were experts in ASL interaction and communication. These individuals all have advanced degrees and they all have experience in teaching and evaluating presentations in ASL. What is really interesting to me is that there was far more inter-rater agreement among the Deaf raters than the hearing museum raters. Each question was on a scale of 1-6 (6 being the highest) and with almost every question for each of the resent actions evaluated, the raters of the ASL lectures were in agreement numerically. Each question also asked for what evidence from the lectures supported their opinions. The comments from the raters focused on different parts of the presentation but the numerical ratings were almost always identical. These evaluations were conducted individually, anonymously and asynchronously. So none of the raters met or even knew who the others were. They were, therefore, not influenced by the opinions of others. This was also true for the hearing raters, but there I noticed far less agreement from these evaluators. So, it would seem that even though the ASL evaluators were not all experts in museum talks they all noticed professional attributes in the original ASL lectures. The questions were taken from an evaluation fo that is used at one of the museums.

      Thanks for keeping me honest – smile!

  3. Lindsey Antle says:

    Fantastic article. I wish I could have heard it “live”. Thank you for your work.

  4. Molly Sheridan says:

    I value and appreciate the conscious-raising benefit of StreetLeverage’s postings; Stephanie’s presentation has succinctly reinforced the critical nature of mindfully ensuring authenticity in the work. After viewing this presentation, I have a better understanding about why some venues are uncomfortable and more importantly, how to resolve such dilemmas.
    Best to you Stephanie in your continued and worthwhile studies.

    • Stephanie says:

      Thanks so much Molly!

      I believe that we interpreters cannot expect ourselves to be a perfect match in every setting or for every person we interpret for. But I’m hoping that this exploration can assist us in recognizing our impact and in making space for the people in the interpreted interaction to see each other. And even to see ourselves a little more clearly. This research has been wonderfully eye-opening. I’ve learned so much. And I’m eager to hear what the impact can be on our work. Best to you, too! Stephanie

  5. Diana MacDougall says:


    Bravo! As you know, this topic is dear to my heart. Thank you for presenting such a clear article furthering this study in our field. Well done! Good luck on you graduate degree studies.

    My best,


    • Stephanie Feyne says:

      Thanks Diana.

      I do know how important this topic is to you!!
      Thanks for your comment- and I have to get cracking and finish up this degree:)

      • Stephanie Feyne says:

        PS – Diana, while prepping to write my thesis I’m rereading your: Gendered Discourse and ASL-to-English Interpreting. Such a great contribution! Thanks for all your work!!!!!

  6. Colette Phippard says:

    I am very interested in what you said about credibility. I had an experience where I wasn’t considered credible as a result of the behaviour of a previous interpreter. Although I worked as I always do and sat where is usually appropriate the medical professional in the interaction clearly did not trust me and did not like me sitting next to them (to the point where they turned their back on me and proceeded to attempt to communicate directly without the help of the interpreter). I also was removed from the room and given a dressing down from the doctor who decided that I was ‘adding’ information simply because she did not like the answers that the deaf person gave. We do not always know what we are walking into and we may make some good decisions about ‘sounding’ credible but if previous interpreters behave inappropriately, and I have good reason to believe that this person may not have been fully trained or registered (NRCPD register in the UK) it adds an extra dimension of difficulty and makes it a lot harder to be taken seriously and thus appear credible. That interpreter’s actions convinced the medical professional that their way was the appropriate way to work and it made my more ‘normal’/traditional way of working appear wrong and me not trustworthy. It’s difficult to know exactly what to do here because the middle of someone’s appointment is not really the place or time to start a deaf awareness/interpreter awareness lecture.

    • Stephanie Feyne says:


      That sounds like a horrible experience! My heart goes out to you.

      It is interesting that the doctor felt that her past experience with the patient overrode the information she was receiving in that moment. It sounds dangerous for them to allow an exam without the patient having access to communication (both to and from the medical team). I wonder what the patient felt….

      I believe that we are evaluated based on the interactant’s previous experiences with and expectations of interpreters. And it doesn’t help when previous experiences have been with interpreters who made Deaf people sound childish or incompetent – so when an interpreter comes in and can express meaning fully then the hearing people get concerned that they are being tricked – because their expectation is that the Deaf person doesn’t have communicative competence.

      I agree that it would have been an awkward time to discuss interpreter awareness without the patient taking a stand about how the medical appointment should go.

      I hope that patient was able to advocate (or find someone who could become a point person in advocating) for the right to communicate with the medical team in a language he/she could understand.

      I also see how when the patient no longer sounded “credible” (matched previous experience or expectations) then it followed that the interpreter was not “credible.” My guess is that the evaluation first was of the credibility of the patient.

      We have a lot to work on. So sorry that inexperienced interpreters created an expectation of continued ineffective communication!

  7. Kevin says:

    Hi, Stephanie! I love what you said about gender and expressing the identify of the opposite sex and making it natural. Body position, stance and other non-verbal cues are also important to understand. I went to a workshop recently where we worked on becoming the other sex in our stance. Overwhelmingly, women have more of a difficult time posturing like a man than the reverse. (And, like you said, a majority of the business is made of women.) It is very difficult, partially because of the characteristics of our different anatomies. Yet, this is also an important part of representing the client accurately.

    Not only did I have to research gender language, but in my ITP we discussed direct and passive voice as well as powerful and weak language. This changed how I viewed my personal way of speaking (and writing). Then, I noticed it changing in my interpretation.

    • Stephanie Feyne says:

      Hi Kevin,

      I’m so glad you worked on passive vs. active language and powerful and weak language awareness. These are important communicative tools that we need to have at our disposal. And it’s great to start thinking about them early in our careers!!!

      The workshop you attended on body stance is interesting. While I do not think any of us can pretend to be the sex or the gender we are not, I do think there is merit in knowing how people talk. Even if I stand in a more masculine manner I might still not know how to say things that sound like a man would say them.

      But I can know that ending utterances with upward inflections almost invariably makes me sound more insecure (and feminine), and hence less credible in situations where I am being evaluated as a professional. On the other hand, having upward inflections among friends shows affiliation, by not trying to be the boss of an interaction.

      For me, I think knowing these communicative cues will help me present information more accurately than changing my physical stance. But if as a person I learn I need to stand more assertively to trigger more commanding vocal choices, then I would consider that a tool to help me get the right spoken flavor in the communication. Like acting – some work from the inside out, and some work from the outside in:) Knowing our own triggers to produce the most authentic utterances can only benefit our product:)

      Thanks for sharing this workshop – made me think!

  8. Sean Gerlis says:


    You just had given us a great presentation. As a deaf person, you have brought this perspective in how our messages have been “attenuated” during their conversations to us.

    I’ve noticed how I have been “displaying” my communication to my hearing counterparts; sometimes I’ve noticed the message has been delivered in different way from what I originally would like it to be. I’ve often relied on interpreters and their ability to translate from my ASL to their spoken English. I’ve never taken an account on interpreters’ norms, values, etc., and their choices of words, which will affect my intent in delivering the messages during communicating. It did not occur to me at all till you shared us your presentation – authenticity and its impact on interpreters choices.

    A former colleague shared his communication habits, he would indicate he prefers his interpreters to translate his signs into English word for word to ensure its accuracy when being delivered. Sometimes, I’ve found his reasoning being sensible. In fact, when I thought of this but did not put this into practice often for myself during communicating during important functions, as I should have. Often, after meetings or engagements, I generally follow up our conversations through e-mails to ensure the accuracy of intent. Sometimes I’ve received the reactions from my emails were bit different from what I originally intended. It did not occur me the choices of wording interpreters use do play a big role in our everyday communication.

    On the other hand, in regarding of culturally sensitiveness (like you just mentioned earlier, I’d like to expound on); I’ve often found myself in very awkward positions during communicating with hearing counterparts. They have reacted to my messages quite poorly while I believed my responses were appropriate as according to social norms acceptable in our culture. Often, it left me to ponder about my ability to interact with hearing counterparts. I’ve often relied on interpreters with their best ability to minimize cultural clashes during communicating. So, would it be sensible on my part to believe it has to do with interpreters being feeling “incongruity” in translating due to limited exposure (or experiences) in both cultures and it’s behaviors/norms due to second (unlike native) language?

    I think it’s important for every parties really understand how interpreter function, like you said – “gatekeepers”, our message, intent, representation will be easily adjusted after passing through an interpreter.

    Overall, great presentation and it has given me more opportunity to muse about. Thanks, Stephanie for sharing this with us.

    With all the best,


    • Stephanie Feyne says:

      Thanks Sean –

      Your post gives us all a lot to think about. It must be so frustrating to have meetings and think that all was clear and then find out later that it was not!!!

      Sometimes it is hard for us interpreters to know what is going on as well. We have lots of language that we are used to and may not know that what we are saying is not “authentic” because it sounds authentic to us. I think there is a lot for all of us to learn – and this is where I am starting:)

      It is also hard to know about cultural negotiation – sometimes it is the interpreter who has missed something, sometimes it is that the understood but unsaid deeper meaning from one culture has not been brought into the other, and sometimes people just don’t understand each other no matter how hard they try.

      Both the hearing and the Deaf are relying on the interpreter to understand the languages, the context, the cultures, the meaning in that moment with these people in order to make the message clear. Often, I think we interpreters have a lot of responsibility, but sometimes I think people just don’t know how to get along with or without interpreters – smile. But if the interpreter has not caught something then it means we interpreters have to watch ourselves more carefully and try to learn what we can do to make meaning more clear on both sides. I believe our job is really hard, but really great – and when everything works and people communicate it feels fantastic!

      There are so many ways to work with interpreters. Sometimes I see Deaf people using your friend’s approach – of making sure the exact words that he signed are the words the interpreter speaks. But there are also other ways.

      We know that some signs have no corresponding English word. Sometimes it takes longer to say something in ASL, sometimes it takes longer to say something in English – because the languages are different. If the Deaf person is signing in exact English then the interpreter can follow each sign verbatim. But if the Deaf person is signing in more ASL then the interpreter cannot just speak words, but needs to know how to take in the whole message and interpret that, not just “words.”

      I would love to talk more with you about this!

      Thanks for your comment,


  9. Aaron Brace says:

    Hi Stephanie!

    Thanks for the insight and rigor you bring to this topic. The issues you raise apply not only to interpreting for people from whom we differ in significant ways, like gender; I’ve encountered issues with gender when a Deaf man was behaving misogynistically in a one-on-one interaction with a hearing woman, and I worried that I might “double” the effect if I, as another man with a separate physical presence, fully inhabited his meaning in the interpretation.

    On another note, and I hadn’t thought of this other experience in terms of “authenticity” before, but now it seems relevant: near the end of interpreting a semester-long class taught by a Deaf professor, in ASL, to hearing, non-signing students, one of the hearing students approached me and said, “When I heard I was going to get what the prof was saying through an interpreter, I was worried. I didn’t know if I could trust you. But after you corrected yourself the first time, I knew it would be alright”. If we’re being authentic, we don’t let people forget to take the interpretation with a grain of salt, and we empower them to verify what they think they’ve heard or seen from their interlocutor.

    In general, I don’t think we give the users of our services enough credit for being able to survive an exposure to the inner workings of our process. Of course, we shouldn’t/can’t lay it all bare all the time, but looking for every opportunity for transparency that could be meaningful and empowering is important, as it demonstrates that we know we’re there in a supporting role, not as the headline act of the interaction. We have this mindset that all has to be handled within an uncompromised first-person interpretation, without comment or annotation, when in actuality a little annotation and acknowledgement of the artificiality of interpreted interaction can go a long way to putting people at ease when interacting with each other via our services.

    I look forward to more of your work, and hoping it doesn’t make anyone else feel “lesser-than” by saying so, your fabulousness.


    • Stephanie Feyne says:

      No Aaron – it’s your fabulousness!! And I would characterize your comments the same way:)

      There’s so much to think about in your post. As for the doubling of the misogyny, I appreciate so much that you are sensitive to that. I believe it can happen quite often and unwittingly, so just being aware is a good tool for all of us. I know a parallel experience happens here in NYC when older interpreters are presenting the message of older administrators to students. In one case a student was irate that the interpreter had treated him/her in a disrespectful manner. No separation of message for messenger.

      It makes me think of our choices – and of the recognition that our process and even our function isn’t open to all. I often wonder how I make the determination to go into 3rd person – he is saying, “You stupid woman” or “You punk kid” – or whatever. I know many of my DPI colleagues make that choice more naturally than I, who had it ingrained in me that we always speak in first person….but I think that sometimes it helps me feel that a separation makes communication clearer. Because both parties have to feel that the interpreter can represent them. If we are seen as aligned only with one side (often the most powerful) then I wonder about the impact of that first person choice on willingness to participate fully….. More to think about!!

      I admit that I am far more likely to make the leap to 3rd person when the Deaf person is acting in an unstable manner (“She said that God told her to push the baby carriage down the stairs” … The subtext is “You can still trust me, she’s the one that is psychologically fragile, not me.”)

      This is my segue into your second point – that I now realize I’m doing that in order to preserve my credibility.

      I agree that the student’s concern about the course being alleviated by your clarifying when you were unsure about the interpretation was a result of her “authenticating” your identity. It actually was an impressive statement. S/he clearly understood that she had no way of evaluating the source of the message – you or the prof – and was concerned that the info s/he would receive could have been from either – so how could she trust it? And when you behaved in a manner that showed she could trust you, she authenticated your identity and then only had to work on authenticating the identity of the prof. This is a huge thing -because in triadic discourse the interlocutor has to authenticate both identities – but most of the time I believe that people automatically grant expertise to the interpreter and then assess the credibility of the Deaf person on the basis of the message they receive from the interpreter. It is complicated, and of course it would depend on previous experience with that person, previous experience with interpretation, what factors of communication are valued by the interlocutors, etc. I have interviewed individuals unacquainted with interpretation process and one quote sums up what I found from them, “You are saying just what they’re saying.” And when I followed up they explained that meant every “um,” “you know,” etc.

      Communication is so complex:)


      If we’re being authentic, we don’t let people forget to take the interpretation with a grain of salt, and we empower them to verify what they think they’ve heard or seen from their interlocutor.

      We have this mindset that all has to be handled within an uncompromised first-person interpretation, without comment or annotation, when in actuality a little annotation and acknowledgement of the artificiality of interpreted interaction can go a long way to putting people at ease when interacting with each other via our services.

      May I quote you?????????

      Cheers backatcha!


      • Aaron Brace says:

        It’d be more than an honor to be quoted by you, if you should have the occasion to do so!

        This discussion also calls to mind the frequent analogy of interpreting to acting- a particularly tempting but, to me, ultimately inapt one. Actors can take for granted the willing suspension of disbelief, and proceed toward whatever level of verisimilitude they can or want to achieve. They don’t have to worry that the audience will think the gun is real, the extra has really been killed or that they’re really in danger when the actor playing Sweeney Todd glares directly at them.

        Some interpreters seek to fully inhabit the messages they interpret as actors do their characters, to varying degrees of success- but I’m not sure ‘success’ is the term, for the reasons I stated in my previous reply. We can’t rely on that willing suspension of disbelief always being present in the people we’re interpreting between. Deaf people have it down more than hearing people do, generally, which would open up another whole discussion on whether the issues you’ve raised apply equally, or in the same way, in our authentic representation of the hearing person’s message to the Deaf person.

        It actually does open up another whole line of thought, so I’d better sign off here before diving too deeply into my own navel.

        Keep it up, Stephanie! In the immortal words of The Andrea True Connection, “More, more, more!”

        Cheerful hugs,

        • Stephanie Feyne says:

          Riffing off your actor analogy, looking at interaction like breaking down a script – into actions and objectives can be helpful – and are similar to Gish’s process:

          What are the objectives of the people in the interaction (what do they want to achieve) &
          What are the linguistic actions the people in the interaction take – what are they saying to get what they want).

          That reminds us of the famous (Gee it’s hot in here – meaning please open a window or turn on the AC) asks us to delve into the perlocutionary force (had to throw in a big word:) of the speech turn. Looking at it from that frame can be helpful – but I completely agree, not as an “actor.” :)

          I just had an interesting talk with a friend about this – an interpreter who, like you, voices for a Deaf professor who was concerned because they (plural for the sake of non-gendered English) do fine during the straight lecture parts, but recognizes that when the prof switches to humor that their own “go to” style for presenting humor is the style of their home community – which is not the same as that of the professor – and was concerned about what kind of identity they were presenting in those moments. Isn’t it great that we can even talk about this with such care and respect!

          We have no answers, although I think that hearing the prof with 2 different voices and seeing the prof over time helps the listeners to tease out what is the identity of the prof as mediated by interpreter X and by interpreter Y – or at least, what is the identity of interp X and interp Y – and then listen for the prof in between that…

          This is so much fun – I could go on for hours!


          Stephanie More-Feyne

  10. Lynne Martirano says:

    What a joy this was to read. I feel as if these thoughts have been in my head for a very long time and you put them out here in such a clear concise way. I would have liked to have been part of that study. We can all use these concepts as a catapult into self reflection.
    Thank you,

  11. Anna Harman says:

    Thank you for such a thorough and thoughtful article of this aspect of interpreting. You are so absolutely right that the interpreters must interact with the Deaf community. You have given me a greater insight of how difficult it is to be a skillful interpreter. When I request an interpreter, I try to find out if that interpreter interacts with Deaf people. Reading your article made my day! Thank you!


    • Stephanie Feyne says:


      I’m so glad this is helpful. I do hope many interpreters interact with the community.

      And I hope that you find them when you request interpreters!



  12. Darri says:

    As a child of Deaf adults (CODA) I find this to be extremely helpful for those rare moments I have to translate for my parents. One gets no training in translating and I have questioned my own ability to express my parent’s characters and meaning authentically. I am not often in a position where I have to translate, but it does happen from time to time. Next time I’ll be better prepared to go in with the mindset of an actual translator.

    Thank you Stephanie!

    • Stephanie Feyne says:

      Hi Darri,

      I’m so glad you found this article helpful!!

      It’s so true – that with no training it’s hard to know how to approach language – as just a combination of words/signs, or as a complete discourse. It’s great that this info keeps coming back around. I’m so fortunate to have had Dennis Cokely and Betty Colonomos and so many others who have started us off in the right way… and we just keep learning – so that we can make sure people understand each other:0

      Thanks for your comment! It’s much appreciated.

      And thanks for reading StreetLeverage!

  13. Madison says:

    Thank you for doing this research, Stephanie, and for bringing it to the platform. Your research is applicable to our profession.

    Our “tacit norms” heavily impact our interpreting work, even if we have been exposed to a myriad of other peoples’ norms. Perhaps choosing to use our norms over another’s is a product of judgment – subconsciously thinking that “my norms” are somehow better than “your norms.” This could mean that it’s not just a matter of varying communication styles, but a deeper issue that has been seemingly etched into the subconscious.

    How do we differentiate discerning and identifying one’s tacit norms from judging them? And if judging is a tendency for some, then how can we diminish its influence?

    • Stephanie Feyne says:

      Hi Madison,

      Thanks for your comment.

      It’s interesting when you talk about “choosing our norms” – I would agree that most norms are unexplored so that we don’t consciously choose one set over another. My hunch is that we do not judge one set as preferable, but rather we function without examining them at all – that’s why these tacit norms are so pervasive and powerful. And they can have powerful impacts on our choices in communication precisely because they are functioning below our radar.

      Sometimes we get puzzled when what we assume was normal was taken differently by someone else. Or when we made a choice that made sense but somehow upon reflection appears to be less successful (such as my ‘girling’ of the Deaf male professional and the other interpreter’s reluctance to vocally interject because “interruptions are rude.”

      I think that the judging you refer to might be our response to the communication of others when that doesn’t align with ours – but we might just assume it’s a communication problem :)
      For example: “He’s rude” because he keeps interrupting (normal behavior in face to face communication, but not when an interpreter is present and he just doesn’t even know that the interpreter hasn’t rendered the communication into spoken language yet).

      It takes discipline, awareness and willingness to openly explore our tacit assumptions about communication because they aren’t usually on the surface. But when we do, we find a lot more flexibility in dealing with ourselves and then with other people. Instead of assuming a deliberate act on the part of someone else that makes us uncomfortable, we can see that assumptions/ideologies/norms are present in everyone (including us) – and we can start to appreciate people as individuals with their own assumptions/ideologies/norms, not just as different from us or somehow annoying. :)

      I hope we can reframe “judging” into “recognizing and appreciating” difference. And that opens the door to better communication. But I believe that starts with self-awareness.

      Rhetorical question: If I don’t know what is guiding my choices, how can I rationally respond to someone else with different choices (and tacit norms)?

      Thanks for checking out this article and for reading StreetLeverage!

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