Deaf Interpreters: Shaping the Future of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession

Eileen Forestal presented Deaf Interpreters: Shaping the Future of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. Her talk examines the paradigm shift occurring within the sign language interpreting profession as Deaf interpreters challenge traditional interpreting service models.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Eileen’s talk from StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin.  We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Eileen’s talk directly.]

Deaf Interpreters: Shaping the Future of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession

Good morning. It is so great to see all these beautiful people here today. Everyone is here supporting our field – the interpreting field and the field including Deaf Interpreters.

Deaf Interpreters truly are shaping the future of the sign language interpreting profession. Currently, the interpreting profession is experiencing a social transformation. This transformation stems from a variety of origins; there is research being done to develop best practices, StreetLeverage is encouraging new ideas and new ways to dialogue and view professional issues from a wider lens, bringing us together to engage with open hearts and minds.  Deaf Interpreters have been involved every step of the way since the beginning of the profession. Deaf Interpreters are here to stay. We will shape the future of the profession for all interpreters whose work includes American Sign Language and English.

Historical Perspectives

I want to talk a little bit about history. Although there were no formal labels like “Deaf Interpreter” in the Deaf Community early on, their presence was felt. Where there is Deaf Community, there is reciprocity – Deaf people taking care of each other. Sharing skills, knowledge and information has always been an integral part of the Deaf Experience. This idea is nothing new to us.

I’ll share a story from my own experience. I attended oral school as the only Deaf child in my hearing family. During my oral school years, I was constantly in trouble. At recess and outside of the classroom, on the playground, the other Deaf students would come to me for explanation and clarification. I would try, through our own version of gestures, signs and mouthing, the lessons and pieces the other students had missed. When I got caught doing this, I was punished with a ruler to my hands. It was innocent enough – they wanted to understand. We were young – only 8-10 years old, if you can imagine.

Later on, when I was in high school, my Deaf classmates would come to my house regularly. I was mainstreamed in high school. The St. Louis educational system was staunchly in favor of mainstreaming and students were spread out around the community in their school programs. On the weekends, the high school students would all come together. Those gatherings were my saving grace. At these weekend gatherings, the other high school students would come to me for help understanding their work.  It always made me think about how I could explain and describe the material – how to make the information clear and understandable in ASL.  As time went on, these interactions progressed to job seekers concerned and looking for help with their interview skills, etc. I would provide them with cues and assistance as best I could. Those experiences were powerful- I felt a deep sense of obligation. Obligation in the most positive sense – I was fulfilling my duties by providing reciprocity to the community. My participation played a part in maintaining that strong value in the community.

Even after I was married, Deaf community members sought me out at our home. There were even times when the police would come to the door. Bear in mind, this was before we had door bell signalers. My hearing children would awaken to knocking on the door and come to get my husband and I, letting us know the police were at the front door. The police would indicate that one of us needed to go with them to assist a Deaf Community member. My husband and I would determine which of us would go with the police and which of us would stay home with the children. On scene with the police, we would use all manner of communication – written, signed, whatever was required – to work through communication for clarity. As you can see, I’ve been interpreting and translating for quite some time now.

At some point, there was an epiphany that Deaf people can interpret. This realization led to many Deaf people being placed in a variety of situations to act as a professional interpreter by default. Eventually, after being thrust into situation after situation, Deaf people started to realize they could find work as a professional interpreter, part-time or full-time. Professional interpreting wasn’t a known career path – no one was in high schools talking to Deaf students about interpreting as a potential career. We see that starting now, this career path idea is making progress and slowly, but surely, the word is getting out. Gallaudet and a handful of other colleges and universities are on the forefront of the movement to encourage Deaf individuals to consider becoming a professional Deaf Interpreter, to consider interpreting as a career path.

As a result of this growing opportunity, the pool of Deaf Interpreters is expanding rapidly. While this expansion is positive, we still don’t have a sufficient body of research focused on how Deaf Interpreters approach the interpreting task. This research gap created a hole which hearing interpreters sought to fill – defining the function and role of Deaf Interpreters, but from a very limited perspective. In that model, hearing interpreters would take the lead and the Deaf Interpreter’s role was to follow that lead and sign for the Deaf consumer.

I’ve experienced this dynamic in my own work. One particular situation comes to mind. I was called to a hospital I had been to on numerous occasions. This was in the mid-1980s, maybe 1985, or so. I had worked with the hearing interpreter on numerous occasions in medical, legal and law enforcement situations. Even with those shared experiences, the hearing interpreter was very directive and insistent that they were the lead interpreter. At times, the hearing interpreter went as far as telling me when and what I should tell the Deaf consumer. Although I was a bit taken aback, I continued to try to interpret. The hearing interpreter, feeling I had somehow misunderstood their instructions, interrupted the process, indicating that I should follow their lead and “sign” for the person. This limited understanding of the Deaf Interpreter’s role completely disregards my innate sense of turn-taking and discourse flow within the cultural and linguistic norms of ASL. Rather than allow for a natural dialogic flow, the hearing interpreter tried to impose their views about a Deaf Interpreter’s role on my work, expecting machine-like behavior and utterances. Their insistence that I take on this foreign role, one which does not allow for development of rapport and natural language, created a sense of discord in me. Many Deaf Interpreters report similar experiences and feelings.

Hearing Interpreters Have Been Making Decisions About Interpreting By Themselves

Since its inception in the early 1960s, the profession of sign language interpretation has utilized a number of service models. There was the conduit or machine model, the communication facilitator model, etc. The Deaf Community has always had their own rubric for what makes a good interpreter and what good interpreting looks like. Unfortunately, those community expectations were not heard by those with decision-making power in the interpreting field. If you look at the professionalization of sign language interpreting, you can see, from the Code of Ethics to the service models used (conduit, communication facilitator, etc.), all these decisions have been made by hearing interpreters.

If we look to spoken language interpreters for a comparison, the decision-making process is quite different. The users of each language represented in a given situation are included in the decision-making process, and any relevant cultural considerations are also taken into account. In the sign language interpreting arena, hearing interpreters have traditionally made all the decisions, often stating, through the lenses of disability and paternalism,“We know what is best for you.” This perspective disregards the historical reality that Deaf people have been interpreting, supporting and deciding what is best for the community all along. This has been the reality since the beginning of the interpreting profession.

Eileen Forestal

Eileen Forestal

Now, as Deaf Interpreters enter the picture, there is a radical shift to a new paradigm. This shift is creating a level of dissonance for many hearing interpreters. The expectation that the hearing interpreter is the professional and the Deaf person is the client is an old paradigm. When that expectation is not met, hearing interpreters experience some uncertainty. They may feel off-balance – if the Deaf person isn’t the client, who are they? How do I do my job in this new landscape? This dissonance also impacts the Deaf Interpreter as they are left trying to respond to hearing interpreters in flux. Deaf Interpreters are clear on their function in an interpreting setting – they follow the interactive rules of ASL, as well as the natural discourse flow, using rapport and cultural knowledge to guide the interaction. They use their inherent understanding of the cultural and linguistic needs of the Deaf consumer(s) to manage and mediate between participants and to coordinate the process as a whole. When those tasks and roles are denied, it creates a dichotomy between hearing and Deaf Interpreters.

Deaf Interpreters have an expectation that they will be permitted to use the more traditional “community based” model of interpreting as described previously. To discard that model to utilize the “machine” model, as prescribed by hearing interpreters, also creates some tension and unease. This other way of interpreting is the antithesis of our approach, our practice, our work. We then become linguistic and cultural brokers. The expectation that our interpretations should be produced simultaneously is not our norm. Simultaneous interpreting is not the norm for a Deaf Interpreter – the pace, the speed is not natural. For a Deaf consumer, having signs thrown at them in rapid-fire succession does not equate to communication, does not encourage comprehension. Let’s set aside conversation about simultaneous interpreting for a moment and look at consecutive and dialogic interpreting. The interactive nature and the more natural pacing of these styles of interpreting do encourage and support comprehension.

(Aside to the moderator: Do you have the time? How much time is left? Great.)

Let’s look at research for a moment. There is a substantial body of research on the European approach to interpreting. In a situation where two spoken languages are present, for example, French and Spanish, the interpreter whose “mother tongue” or native language is Spanish would interpret from French (their second language) into their native Spanish. Working in their native language allows the interpreter to use their expertise with the linguistic and cultural aspects of their own language to accurately interpret from the other language. This has been the European process for interpreting. If we follow that line of reasoning, it is logical to use Deaf Interpreters’ “mother hands” in interpreting situations where ASL is the language being produced.

We stand at a crossroads as Deaf Interpreters seek a return to the “community based” model of interpreting. Some hearing interpreters accept this change process to varying degrees, while others are firmly resistant. We see a lot of resistance to the mere idea of standing and working alongside a Deaf Interpreter. There can be a variety of reasons behind their resistance. Perhaps the interpreter feels threatened or disheartened. They may question their own skills and qualifications or fear judgment from the Deaf Interpreters. There is a whole host of potential issues. It’s important to remember that hearing interpreters do have skills, they do possess valuable knowledge, particularly related to the English language, hearing cultural norms, etc. These skills, this knowledge creates successful interactions with hearing English speakers. Deaf Interpreters have their own experiences, their innate understanding of the Deaf Experience, their intuition, their cognitive frame – the way Deaf people see and understand the world.  All these skills and traits allow Deaf Interpreters to find the linguistic and cultural equivalents that provide for more cohesive interpretations and result in clearer communication for Deaf consumers.

If we, Deaf and hearing interpreters alike, begin to recognize and acknowledge the skills, knowledge and abilities each group contributes to interpreted situations, if we come to the interpreting task as equals, the experiences for the Deaf consumer and the hearing consumer have been powerfully enhanced. After all, who do we serve? Our consumers.

A Demanding Presence of Deaf Perspective and the Emergence of Deaf Interpreters

I’ve already discussed some of the points from the previous slide. Today, Deaf Interpreters are here (at StreetLeverage Live – Austin). I see a number of them scattered around the room. In yesterday’s session, there were 30-35 Deaf Interpreters in attendance. I’m starting to see larger numbers of Deaf Interpreters attending various conferences. In fact, Deaf Interpreters are becoming more active in every aspect of interpreting from conference attendance to linguistic research, Deaf studies, etc. The truth of the matter is that Deaf Interpreters are making regular and rich contributions to the field of sign language interpreting by virtue of their knowledge, skills and experiences.

We also have to recognize the shift in positioning that is taking place. Until recently, hearing interpreters have worked comfortably within the status quo, making decisions and going about the business of interpreting. When Deaf Interpreters enter the picture, many have experienced a moment of discomfort as they confront this shifting reality. This is a normal reaction. We, as Deaf Interpreters, have to create an environment where both Deaf and hearing interpreters can come together as a team. We can work together as allies, as partners. Deaf Interpreters aren’t here to take power away from hearing interpreters. We can share communication, share the power of that. Historically, Deaf people have had communicative power. Now, as Deaf Interpreters enter the scene more frequently, we can share our power with hearing interpreters. We will build meaning together.  We can’t do it separately. Deaf and hearing interpreters will own our interpretations, as will the Deaf and hearing consumers. As a unit, we can work through interpreted events to ensure that all consumers ultimately benefit from this teamwork and gain a clearer understanding of the interpreted message.

“Community Based” Interpreting Model vs. “Mainstream” Interpreting Model

Let’s talk about “community-based” interpreting and how we, as Deaf Interpreters, approach our work, versus the “mainstream” model of interpreting, the more machine-like, simultaneous, fast-paced interpreting. The “mainstream” model of interpreting goes “against the grain” for Deaf Interpreters.  That model of interpreting focuses primarily on speed, on the fast-paced production of information in an unending stream. Speed is really the only goal for this model. “Community-based” interpreting, on the other hand, focuses on more holistic goals: relationship/rapport, message comprehension, maintaining linguistic and cultural identity and community cohesion. As Deaf Interpreters, we have to recognize that “mainstream” interpreting does have its place. At the same time, we need to make some shifts to utilize the “community-based” interpreting model more frequently.

Reclaiming the “Deaf Interpreter Norm”

It is time. It’s time to reclaim the “Deaf Interpreter norm.” The rich contributions Deaf Interpreters make need to be infused and incorporated into the sign language interpreting profession. Along with the influx of Deaf interpreters I’ve described, there are also a host of Deaf researchers who are looking at translation, interpretation, culture and any number of other relevant topics. The expansion of Deaf participation in the field is not intended to exclude hearing interpreters but to embrace them and bring us all together. At times, hearing interpreters may feel we are pushing them away, but that is not the case. We are all working toward the same goals. It is remember that. By the same token, hearing interpreters need to give Deaf Interpreters the power to make decisions about how and when translations and interpretations should happen.

When we reclaim our “Deaf Interpreter norms”, you will see increased collaboration between Deaf and hearing interpreters, elevated conversation and discussion about language and interpreting choices and much more.  Deaf and hearing interpreters will be working as true teams, coming together as a unit in courtrooms, mental health and medical settings, job trainings, education, performing arts – the list of possibilities is endless.

I remember one instance – as you know, I’ve worked extensively as a Deaf Interpreter in the courts, etc. At one point, I was called to be an expert witness in court. The court had a Deaf Interpreter working throughout the proceedings. When I was called to testify, I took the stand and I realized that I felt a sense of freedom by having that Deaf Interpreter there. I knew that I  wasn’t bound by speed in this setting.

The first question came and I began to give my answer, feeling relaxed and confident. The Deaf Interpreter signed to me rapidly appearing to be concerned about hearing cultural norms and the impatience hearing people often feel with confronted by silence. By so doing they were suggesting that interpreter are unable to take the time needed to ensure communication truly occurs. While that may be the status quo as we know it, we need to make time. We must make time for communication to happen. As we do that, we will build more collaboration between Deaf and hearing interpreters.

I’d like to close with a poem. This poem will utilize the “1” and “5” hand shapes. [Note from StreetLeverage: Please access Eileen’s ASL poem at 18:25 of the ASL version of her talk. No English equivalent is available.]

Thank you, everyone.

 

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