Sign Language Interpreters: How to Avoid Being Abandoned at the Microphone

Lone Sign Language Interpreter Holding a MicrophoneI am facing a panel of 6 people in front of an audience of 200 attendees. The event is about to commence. I have a lone microphone in my hand and an empty chair beside me. As I settle into position I look around for my team and realize that I am alone. I cannot locate the other two members of the interpreting team for the event, let alone the ‘second pair of eyes’ that were promised to me.

Right as the facilitator takes the stage, I see the other interpreters get into place to interpret for the audience behind me. “Great—I think—as soon as the panelists start, someone will come right over.” The Deaf panelist thought the same as I had assured all involved that the team was locked and loaded and ready to go. Sparing some of the logistical tidbits, I will say that what happens next is the very opposite of what I committed and of what had been committed to me, the very opposite of what had been instilled in me in my professional upbringing: I was not part of a team.

All Alone

As I sit in my chair with the microphone I try to get the attention of my fellow interpreters. I wave my hand and the Deaf panelist tries to make eye contact with them from the stage…nothing. It never happens. For the next 45 minutes no one comes to my aid. After the panel and speakers finish, I make my way out of the conference. As I exit, one of the interpreters sees me and says, “great job” while throwing me a thumbs up and a wink.

Fortunately, the above series of events are not what I typically experience from my hard working colleagues. I do, however, need to go on record by saying, sadly, this was not the first time that I have been an eye witness to, or the recipient of the stated behaviors, which leads me to beg the question: Whose team are we on anyway?

The Pre-Conference

What events transpired prior to me sitting there alone with the mic in my hand? Let’s rewind the morning.

I was informed with short notice that I would be voicing for a Deaf panel participant during a local conference. I was afforded no opportunity to prepare myself, as the speaker, with whom I work regularly, had yet to even form an outline of their own thoughts and points for their remarks.

Of course the idea of walking in cold to any situation can immediately ignite the nerves. And although I was engaged to be the primary voice interpreter for this panelist, I anticipated the event organizer requesting interpreters for the general audience, as there was a high expectation of several Deaf attendees to be present. Proactively I arrived as early as possible to get the lay of the land and pre-conference with the other interpreters.

Social Agreement

Right away I was greeted by the requestor and made as many decisions as I could without the presence of the Deaf panelist. I was also told the other interpreters for the event had already arrived and I was introduced to one of the two of them. I felt an immediate sense of camaraderie flood over me at the relief of having a ‘team’ on hand. Not just one, we were potentially a team of three. Actually, when you include the Deaf panelist, I was really to be one of a four-member team.

My professional switch flipped into the ‘on’ position. I wanted to first put my ‘team’ at ease informing her that I work with this person regularly and would handle the voicing, however, I would really appreciate another pair of eyes next to me. I was met with lots of head nods and affirmations of support. I explicitly spelled out what I needed from my team and I was assured I was going to receive it. After all, these were the assigned interpreters for the conference. The whole conference was their responsibility, right?

In the end, I felt comfortable that the arrangements had been settled and we all knew our roles.

Collective Responsibility

Reflecting on the events of that morning returns my focus to the basics with an intense need to open up a dialogue about where we are and where we are headed as a group of professionals. As sign language interpreters, we enlist ourselves to demonstrate professional courtesies to our clients and consumers, but what about to our professional counterparts, our co-workers, our fellow partners, and team members?

Tiffany Hill - Sign Language Interpreter

Tiffany Hill

Part of the reason I pose this question, is because it was posed to me. At the conclusion of it all, the Deaf panelist wanted to know what had happened. Why was I not viewed as a member of the team? Why didn’t the interpreters feel the same professional responsibility toward me as I did towards them?

If we were there with the same purpose, with the same roles, and with the same goal, should we not have all been working together to provide continuity and integrity of message for all? Should it not be automatic that when we are present in multiples we forge an automatic alliance? What would have happened if I had not done a ‘good job’? After all, was not the success of the ‘team’ dependent upon the success of my production and how I worked with the Deaf panelist? Not one of us functioned independently of each other, rather, interdependently. Isn’t that how we should prefer to work, knowing our arsenal includes not only our tool bag, but those of a network?

The 3 Point Replay

Some things are innate, others have to be taught and nurtured until they become second nature. In my view, Professionalism, by way of teamwork, is one of those things. We need to understand its definition and its connectivity to those with whom we work. We also need to be aware of the social and cultural implications it has in and around the community when we fail to grasp the concept.

While I appreciated the one interpreter expressing her opinion that I did a good job, as I consider the events of that morning, I would like to offer 3 things that I believe could have changed the dynamics of the assignment and led to a better outcome:

  1. With the need to reassure my team of my familiarity with the panelist, it is possible I projected a certain level of over-confidence, which may have given the impression that I needed less support than what I actually stated.
  2. As the assigned conference interpreters, there was a need to be alert to all aspects of the event, whether or not serving as the primary interpreter for a certain portion.
  3. Post-conference would have allowed us, as a team, to retrace which missteps led to our communication breakdown and which steps to take going forward as not to repeat any mishaps on our part.

The above forms part of the recipe to the antidote for counteracting the effects of unbalanced teamwork and contributes to preventing the series of events, which resulted in the unintended isolation of a team member.

In Conclusion

It gives me pleasure to happily state that for the past twelve years, I have been part of a profession where I believe the majority to be team players, partners even, with the same mission on the tips of their fingers and tongues. In fact, many of them have raised and nurtured me with their skills and knowledge, even passing along and bequeathing me their professional genealogy.

But just as two children are raised in the same home with the same parents, with the same rules and expectations, who do not mimic each other, so it goes in the professional arena where no two interpreters reflect the same level or depth of understanding with regards to this concept. It then becomes abundantly clear what the antonym looks like.

I want to challenge myself and each of us to continue to analyze ourselves and our approach to the work we do and how it effects our colleagues.  Teamwork should echo and permeate the very fabric of what we do.


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About the Author

Tiffany Hill is a Washington, DC native, having been born in the district and raised in the Metropolitan Area, where she currently works as a trilingual, freelance Interpreter. She holds national certifications (CI,CT and NIC-Adv) and serves as a mentor to the next generation of sign language interpreters. She is a book loving traveler who is constantly out of her zip code. Still a local girl, when her hands aren't up in the air, you can find her running trails all around the area.

15 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Kevin Lowery says:

    There really is no “I” in team. But I think your teammates may have got the wrong idea. I’m all about stating my strengths and those areas in which I will need support. I can see how your familiarity with the Deaf panelist may have been misconstrued. It was, however, their responsibility to clarify their role.

    You always have to consider what view of the interpreting profession you are leaving behind. This did not impress upon the Deaf panelist any kind of role model for the profession except for a negative one. It probably made him/her feel as if he/she needed to reevaluate their dependence on a team of interpreters, vetting each one of them and making trust even more difficult. Not to mention how you feel about a team now but I suspect you have learned from this experience, too. When we interact, we learn and grow as human beings and obviously those two interpreters learned nothing because they just left with a “good job.”

    Lastly, when a Deaf panelist looks and tries to motion to you and you do something that is pretty bad. And then when the Deaf person wants to post-conference to understand the communication breakdown, even worse. Is it any wonder that Deaf people have a problem trusting interpreters sometimes?

    BTW, Tiffany, I have seen your videos online. Let’s just say that I am a huge fan.

    • Tiffany Hill says:

      Kevin, you are absolutely correct. It all goes back to the social and cultural implications certain decisions we make can have on those around us. Even those who are not ‘members’ of the community, but who are observers, catch a whiff when something is ‘off’ or distasteful. We have to be more cognizant of how the decisions we make in those environments may be interpreted or perceived by others. The 3 point replay was more of a ‘let’s try and learn something here’. We isolate each other come off exclusive when we under-act. We all need to do a better job of being a cohesive unit.

      BTW, thank you to your BTW. :-)

  2. Rodney Lebon says:

    Great article. Even though I am not a yet an Interpreter but in an ITP this really made me think. The way that people see the profession is partly reflected upon the work that is seen. In my future I hope that I will be successful in a team. Thanks for the article. I also enjoy your videos.

    • Tiffany Hill says:

      Great, Rodney. This is all part of that meta analyzing. It shows that you are already thinking with your future professional cap about what kind of team you want to be. That’s great. And thanks for the shout out too. Smile

  3. Michael Labadie says:

    It is a challenge to articulate what we need from our teams in any given situation. I appreciated your reflection of your comments to your team possibly being perceived as over-confident when you were actually requesting support. It is a crucial point to open dialogue about what we are requesting from our team and to ensure they grasp what we’re saying.

  4. Tiffany Hill says:

    Mike, exactly. Sometimes we have to shoulder some of that blame for the disconnect. And sometimes we can’t communicate loud enough. Hopefully we have that tendency, we can start self-evaluating more to adjust that deficiency.

    As my former mentor, thanks.

  5. Audrey Ruiz Lambert says:

    Your points on communicating with and commitment to our team, both Deaf and hearing, are well taken. As I read this, however, it seems the lack of communication occurred much earlier. Why were there only 3 interpreters for a conference that clearly needed, at minimum, 4 interpreters? Were all the interpreters secured at the same time prior to the conference or were you secured last minute when they realized there was a Deaf individual on the panel and another team of interpreters was needed? If it was last minute, why was only 1 interpreter brought in and not 2? Why was the expectation that you would have a team working from ASL into English and the interpreter working from English to ASL would have no team? Did the conference last 45 minutes or was it all day? I’m a firm believer in not splitting up the team, but I’m not getting a clear read here on how exactly this was set-up from the beginning. I’m not discounting your feeling of abandonment and certainly agree that if your expectation differed from that of the other interpreter that should have been conveyed instead of simply not being there and not responding to repeated attempts to get their attention.

    • Tiffany Hill says:

      Audrey, absolutely you make an awesome pair of points. I purposely left out some of the logistical componets for the article, but yes indeed the breakdown is obvious, starting from the way the request was handled. I was not there all day, and only for the panel that lasted 45 minutes as the opener to the conference, which was to last several hours. I believe the Deaf professionals addition to the panel was not always known from the jump and was more of an ‘ad on’ — with that being said I don’t believe the conference interpreters were well aware that they may also have to be working from ASL to English, until I showed up. Knowing that, I offered my services coming in realizing that, yes, even for this short time, we need a fourth. It was a hard play to pull out the book when you don’t have enough players and something ultimately suffers. The requestors and organizers are now aware, however, going back to the events there could have been a better temporary set up to make sure I wasn’t ‘alone’ for that short period of time. A little ingenuity, yes, but it could have provided a more favorable approach in less than favorable circumstances.
      But your points are well taken and I’m in full agreement.

      • Didi says:

        As I read this article I had the same questions as Audrey. And given your response I’m not sure if the other interpreters were wrong in teaming and leaving you alone. They may have thought that you were brought in specifically for that purpose (A to E). And since they were working all day already, they would definitely need a team as well.
        I realize that working alone in this situation is not ideal, but I feel that perhaps the focus shouldn’t be on how the other two interpreters failed at being good team members, but how we as interpreters need to communicate our needs better with people who coordinate such events. Others, including Deaf people, do not know our role nor our needs. So it is up to us to make sure that we have the support we need before accepting these assignments. Given that it was only 45 minutes though, I can see how the events person would only want to book 1 interpreter… typically we don’t get a team when working under 1 hour. If this is something you would need, then you would need to state that before accepting such an assignment.

        • Tiffany hill says:

          Didi, I appreciate your comments. I think we all would like to have ideal scenarios in our work environments, however, we aren’t always provided that luxury, and then we have to kind of just go with the flow. That flexibility is also an important aspect to good work ethic. The requestors did a less than thorough job with their accessibility request. No one was hurt in the process and I did survive, however, pre-conferencing did take place. So, yes, communication is key, and had either team member felt less than comfy in the parameters we set forth, then that too should have been communicated, otherwise we come off duplicitous. Teamwork is displayed in number of ways. I could have been shown support in a number of ways. The question of how we lend that support is still questioned and should be analyzed. But your points are well received.

      • Danette says:

        In all my 35 years of interpreting, I have come to realize that much of what we do in our profession is well within our control, but there are always components of our work that are out of our control. It seems that your scenario had both.

        In your control: At the time of the request, ask how many interpreters will be working during the 45-minute presentation. Ask the name of your ASL-to-English team. Ask the names of the English-to-ASL interpreters.

        Out of your control: The framework under which the requester and the other 2 interpreters were operating. Did the requester assume that you could handle 45 minutes alone? Did the requester tell the other 2 interpreters to take care of the Eng-to-ASL interpreting and that you would be responsible for the ASL-to-Eng? If the answer to the 2nd question is yes, then when you said you had ample experience as the “voice” interpreter with the Deaf panelist, then, in their minds, the concept that you could handle it alone was solidified.

        How very frustrating for you to feel that you were alone without support. I wish we were all trained the same way and that we all held ourselves to high professional standards. I think we are getting there little by little, but it takes time. Over the years, my biggest frustrations have occurred when I assumed all parties were on the same page. :) Obviously, as in any field, we can’t make those assumptions.

        Thanks for sharing your experience. I plan to share it with my interpreting students ….. for their own edification and hopefully the reminder that they should always support their team interrpeters —- no matter the skill level of that team interpreter !

  6. Sandra Wood says:

    As a Deaf linguist who has worked with interpreters for 30 years, one thing that jumps out at me here is the lack of input from the Deaf panelist. I myself always meet with my interpreters before my presentations and make sure that everyone is aware of the topic and their roles. I do not leave it to the interpreters to decide what to do. The Deaf panelist should have been included in your dialogue with the other interpreters, rather than you informing the interpreters of what your role and their roles would be. After all, the Deaf panelist is part of the team and, if she’s making motions to you and the other interpreters, that needs to be respected. She would have been well within her rights to take a pause and ask that there be a team of interpreters present for her presentation. There’s no way that I would expect my interpreter to voice and sign for me at the same time. One needs to be voicing and then another should be signing the comments of the other panelists and the audience. I see a clear breakdown in communication at several levels here.

  7. Tiffany Hill says:

    Sandra, yes! Great point. As I states above in response to Audrey, I left out some logistical points for the sake of the article. But, yes absolutely, that would have been the best and more ideal approach, to have ALL members involved in organizing and arranging the setup. And as I stated in the article, the Deaf panelist is/was part of the team. A couple of factors here, some omitted, is that the Deaf panelist did not arrive in enough time to participate in that pre-conference dialogue, which is why I stated that I made the decisions ‘i could’ without all parties involved. I love your level of professionalism and communication with your interpreters in advance. So important. Sometimes, however, unforeseen occurrences don’t always allow the ‘should happen’ to actually happen. Second, there’s also a misunderstanding that all professionals understand their own role and how to wield it. That happens across all arenas and across all disciplines. Trust is also a factor, when there is a level of over-confidence in your interpreters which may lead to assumptions. A learning experience for all involved.

    All in all I love and agree with your points. I would have loved for the Panelist to have taken charge. It was actual an original part of my 3-point replay. Actually the replay could have had several more points.

  8. Lisa Schulman says:

    “If we were there with the same purpose, with the same roles, and with the same goal, should we not have all been working together to provide continuity and integrity of message for all?” This not only ensures the success of the team, but consequently the success of our consumers. Who are why we’re there in the first place.

    I will admit, however, that I, as a much greener interpreter, have also become passive and felt compelled to abide by the lead of who I perceived as the more experienced interpreter. I believe that many less confident and less experienced interpreters feel hesitant to take any kind of initiative, lest they make a mistake or do something the more veteran interpreter does not welcome. I have been in that situation as well and been admonished for making the decision I thought was best at the time when I did attempt to take initiative.

    One of the aspects about interpreting that potentially enriches everyone involved is this opportunity to team — to witness other approaches and perspectives, to hopefully bring something new to each other’s repertoire and to just plain feel supported and offer support. I have been told that I am naive and unrealistic in expecting my field to be different from other more competitive, less amiable professions. I do not believe that. I am happy to say that I have worked with a great number of interpreters (such as yourself) who have truly exhibited what it means to “team,“ who have been supportive, forthcoming about their needs and expectations, and “on” even when not.

    Thanks for the article. I look forward to more from you!

  9. Rob Granberry says:

    Sorry to hear that you felt so abandoned. Glad that “nobody was hurt.” Lots of questions come to mind. I would echo some of the comments already made .. You mentioned the lack of a post-conference (possibly for logistical reasons, as they may have been on their way to interpret other sessions, etc.). I would suggest that some kind of “de-briefing” would have been (and maybe still could be) helpful. Since there was no provision for a post-conference, you might have been able (or even still be able?) to contact the requestor to get contact information for the conference interpreters to get their “take” on the events. This might help to confirm or modify some of your hypotheses, and may bring additional factors to light. (Sometimes this type of debriefing is even preferable to an immediate post-conference as it allows us some “distance”/ cooling-off from the situation.)

    I appreciate your willingness to reflect and self-analyze. Thanks for sharing

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