[Archives] Sign Language Interpreters: The Importance of the Day Before

Our archives are filled with the generosity of our presenters and contributors. It is often enlightening to look back at the path which leads to the present. To that end, we offer this glimpse into the StreetLeverage archives. This presentation was originally published on March 18, 2014.

Dennis presented Sign Language Interpreters: The Importance of the Day Before at StreetLeverage – Live 2013 in Atlanta, GA. His talk encouraged sign language interpreters to consider that the secret to successful interpretations often rests on “One thing. Just one thing” – remembering “the day before”. He suggests that a sign language interpreter’s failure to remember “the day before” means that they act on assumptions that generally result in a lack of meaning equivalence their interpretations.

You can find the PPT deck for the presentation by clicking here.

[Note from Dennis. What follows is generally based on my presentation at StreetLeverage – Live in Atlanta 2013. It is not a translation of that presentation but uses the presentation as a general outline for this written piece. In places, I have slightly expanded on the ideas presented during that presentation. I suggest that you view the presentation first and then read what follows.]

If you enjoy this presentation and accompanying article, consider going to StreetLeverage – Live 2017.

Challenge Assumptions

I’d like to begin with a brief history lesson. Our lesson begins with Euclid – the Greek philosopher and mathematician who is widely recognized as the first person to demand that we challenge assumptions on which solutions to a problem are based. Throughout history we see examples of assumed realities and assumptions being challenged by direct experience.

Consider the “Day Before Magellan”. In 1544, people who lived in the “Day Before Magellan” believed that the earth rested on the backs of three elephants, which, in turn, rested on the shell of a giant turtle, which swam in a vast sea. In the time of the “Day Before Magellan” people believed that the earth was flat. However, after Magellan and his crew circumnavigated the globe their direct, firsthand experience couldn’t be reconciled with the assumptions of people still living in the “Day Before Magellan”. When Magellan’s crew spoke about the earth, they did so from quite a different reality than those still living in the “Day Before”.

Consider next the astronomer, Nicolas Copernicus. People who lived in the “Day Before Copernicus” believed that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun, moon, and stars all revolved around the earth. But Copernicus, after thoroughly studying the galaxy proposed a model that placed the sun at the center of the universe. In his model, which was proven to be correct, the assumptions of those believing in the centrality of the earth were shown to be wrong. His model couldn’t be reconciled with the assumptions of people still living in the “Day Before Copernicus”. When Copernicus spoke about the galaxy, he did so from quite a different reality than those in the “Day Before”.

First ContactDennis Cokely

Consider now the “Day Before First Contact”. In the past, people of European descent generally believed that those of African descent or those who were Native Americans were decidedly inferior, were subhuman, were savages who had no values, culture or language and thus were essentially worthless. But then, a number of people of European descent began to have firsthand interactions with people of African descent or Native Americans. Those people learned that, indeed, those of African descent and Native Americans did indeed have languages, values, and cultures. When those Europeans spoke of Africans or Native Americans they did so from quite a different reality than those in the “Day Before”.

We all have assumptions and when we communicate with each other we generally do so believing that generally, we share assumptions. Certainly, that is the case when we all use the same words. But when we have new experiences they often challenge and change our prior assumptions.

Our Own Day Before

We each have our own “Day Before” regardless of our identity as coda, IDP, Deaf, or non-deaf. I can’t possible know about your “Day Before” so I can only talk about my own “Day Before”. What follows are reflections on my “Day Before” and the impact of my own “first contact” interactions with Deaf people.

I grew up with absolutely no Deaf people in my life. To me being deaf meant you weren’t intelligent, couldn’t read or write, couldn’t hear. If you were deaf you were disabled and you were to be pitied. And then in 1968 when I was in graduate school I met a Deaf man by the name of Patrick Graybill.

I was stunned – a Deaf man in graduate school???!!! This was most definitely not in keeping with my life-long assumptions about people who were deaf.

In the time of the “Day Before Pat” I assumed that Deaf people communicated by gesturing, pointing or using mime. But then I learned that Deaf people had a complex, structured, rule-governed language, which meant many of my assumptions in the time of the “Day Before Pat” were wrong.

In the time of the “Day Before Pat”, the notion that Deaf people had a culture was simply unthinkable because they had no language. The idea that they had values was also meaningless and preposterous. But through firsthand interactions I learned that Deaf people do have a rich and vibrant culture. My firsthand experiences and my long-held assumptions were radically different. And I had to reconcile my assumptions from the time of the “Day Before Pat” with my firsthand experience.

I thought that all of my long-standing assumptions when I lived in the time of the “Day Before Pat” were totally correct – being deaf means you can’t hear; being deaf is all about how a person’s hearing is defective. And then I learned that to be Deaf means, “to be one of us”; I learned that there is a Deaf Community. And again, I had to reconcile my assumptions from the “Day Before Pat” with my firsthand experience. And then another of my assumptions was shattered when I learned that Deaf people don’t see themselves as handicapped; they just see themselves as having a different language and culture. Again I had to reconcile my assumptions from the “Day Before Pat” with my firsthand experience. And when I spoke about Deaf people, I did so from quite a different reality than those who still lived in the time of the “Day Before Pat”.

Dennis Cokely

Dennis Cokely

And yet another long-standing and self-evident assumption that Deaf people were abnormal was also destroyed. That assumption was destroyed when firsthand experience showed me that Deaf people see themselves as “normal”. After all, Deaf people do have a language, a culture, a community, values, traditions, etc. Those who still lived in the time of the “Day Before Pat” had their assumptions, assumptions that I had once shared. But I now had Deaf friends and firsthand experiences that stood in contrast to those assumptions. And so again, I had to reconcile my assumptions from the “Day Before Pat” with my firsthand experience.

Another assumption held by those who still lived in the time of the “Day Before Pat” was that Deaf people couldn’t possibly be linguistically oppressed because they have no language. After all, they have to be taught to speak and lipread, they have to be trained to use their hearing. But from my Deaf friends I learned that their language, ASL, wasn’t taught or used in schools, that there were few Deaf teachers and that there were many other ways in which they were linguistically oppressed.

Like most people who still live in the time of the “Day Before Pat”, I grew up with quite a list of assumptions about Deaf people that were rooted in fiction and what passed for “common sense”; but those assumptions were not based in facts. But after interacting with Deaf people, my new set of assumptions was rooted in reality and experience. And so how could I possibly communicate that with those who still lived in the time of the “Day Before Pat”? My interactions with Deaf people had changed my life and definitely had changed my perspectives on Deaf people.

New Assumptions

But although I now had a new set of assumptions about Deaf people, the language and spoken words I used remained the same as they had all my life, my life in the time of the “Day Before Pat”. So, for example, I continued to use the word “deaf” and when I said that word, those who still lived in the time of the “Day Before Pat” thought I meant “can’t hear”, “disabled” “defective”, “inferior” and “less than”. Although my new assumptions, perspectives, and firsthand experiences had changed, my language and words did not change to reflect those new assumptions, perspectives, and experiences. Because my words and language in talking about Deaf people remained unchanged, those still living in the time of the “Day Before Pat” thought that we continued to share the same assumptions. It seemed logical to them – our words and language, the language of the “Day Before Pat”, were the same, so surely our assumptions must be the same. But my assumptions were clearly quite different than theirs.  But because I still talked like those still living in the time of the “Day Before Pat” their assumptions were not and could not be challenged and opportunities to confront or discuss their assumptions were missed. Those still living in the time of the “Day Before Pat” continued to think that because we talked the same we must think the same and have the same assumptions.

The Same Old Words

Imagine interpreting for a Deaf person addressing a group of people who aren’t Deaf. The Deaf person begins by signing the following [see the videotape at 9:46 — 9:59]. In the past, my spoken English interpretation would have been something like “My name is Pat. I’m deaf [and then there would be the typical and sometimes audible response of pity from those in the time of the “Day Before”] and you are hearing [to which there would be a quizzical or puzzled reaction].” That would have been what I said in my interpretation, but what I said is clearly not what Pat meant.

How could I accurately reflect what Pat meant by using words that were so deeply attached to the flawed assumptions held by those still living in the time of the “Day Before Pat”? Those words (“deaf”, “hearing” and others) had taken on new meanings for me but those still living in the time of the “Day Before Pat” had not yet acquired those new meanings. Using the same old words that I used in the time of the “Day Before Pat” meant that my spoken English interpretations could not possibly be successful. Those same old words simply reinforced the flawed assumptions of those still living in the time of the “Day Before Pat”; those words continued to reinforce a devalued view of Deaf people.

For many years Deaf people have been trying to tell those who are not deaf that Deaf people have a language, a culture, a community, values, traditions, etc. and have assumed that sign language interpreters were accurately conveying their meaning and intent.  But my spoken English interpretations (and I daresay those of most other interpreters) do not always accurately reflect the intended meanings of Deaf people. My interpretations that used the same old words as those still living in the time of the “Day Before Pat”, merely reinforced their negative view of Deaf people. I couldn’t possibly expect those still living in the time of the “Day Before Pat” to understand my experiences or to appreciate how my interactions with Deaf people had changed my perspective on Deaf people. Absent interaction and firsthand experience, those still living in the time of the “Day Before Pat” had not and could not attach my new meanings to “the same old words”.

For decades Deaf people, proud members of a Community, have been trying to tell those still living in the time of the “Day Before” about their proud Community, language, and culture. But when we interpreters use the word “deaf” the only thing that those still living in the time of the “Day Before” hear is “can’t hear”, “can’t hear”, “can’t hear”. But I believe that’s not what Deaf people mean or intend and as a result of our interpretations that use the same old words, Deaf people suffer.

Change Words and Change Assumptions

And so I have decided to change my words and my language. By changing my words and language, the assumptions of those still living in the time of “Day Before” can be challenged. Changing my words and language does not in any way change the meaning or intent of Deaf people, not at all. On the contrary, I believe that my changed words much more accurately reflect their intent and meaning.

Rather than automatically using the word “deaf”, I have decided to use the phrase “member of the Deaf Community” unless it is clear that what is meant is “can’t hear” (which I believe is rare). Thus those still living in the time of the “Day Before” are presented with a different framing of Deaf people and one that, I believe, more accurately represents what Deaf people have been trying to say to those still living in the time of the “Day Before”. That new framing is one that does not fit with the assumptions of those still living in the time of the “Day Before”. And gradually the assumptions about Deaf people of those still living in the time of the “Day Before” begin to change.

Thus I believe Deaf people’s meanings and intentions can finally and more accurately be conveyed to those still living in the time of “Day Before”. And Deaf people’s meanings and intentions are more clearly conveyed precisely because I have changed my oppressive language. And when we, as sign language interpreters, understand Deaf people’s meaning and intent and when we change our language accordingly, Deaf people’s true meaning and intent can finally be understood by those still living in the “Day Before”. Failure to change our language means that the assumptions of those still living in the tome of the “Day Before” will persist and Deaf people will continue to be oppressed and continue to be viewed as abnormal, defective and inferior.

One Thing. Just One Thing.

If you’ve seen the movie “City Slickers” you know one of the dramatic high points of the story – Curly, a tough, weather-beaten old cowboy asks Mitch (who is from the city) a question: “Mitch, do you know what the secret of life is?” Mitch says he doesn’t, and asks Curly to tell him. Curly replies that the secret to life is “One thing. Just one thing.” Unfortunately, in one of the worst possible cases of bad timing, Curly dies and so we never learn the one thing that is the secret to life.

And so, in memory of Curly, I’d like to suggest that for sign language interpreters the secret to successful interpretations might be “One thing. Just one thing”. But unlike Curly, I do plan to live long enough to tell you the secret. That one thing is — never forget living in the time of the “Day Before”. Those who are still living in the “Day Before” are usually one-third of the interpreting triad. As interpreters, remembering the assumptions of those still living in the time of the “Day Before” will help us better frame our interpretations. Remembering when we lived in the time of the “Day Before” will help us better craft our interpretations to more accurately reflect the meanings and intentions of Deaf people.

In closing, StreetLeverage – Live is all about change and becoming a change agent. I suggest that one very doable change each of us can make on a personal level is to change our words, change our language so that our interpretations more accurately represent the meanings and intentions of Deaf people.  Remembering the time we spent living in the time of the “Day Before” and the assumptions we held at that time, helps us avoid oppressive language and words that merely reinforce the assumptions of those still living in the “Day Before”. And so I encourage you to find and hold near your own “Day Before Pat”.

Enjoy this talk and accompanying article? Consider going to StreetLeverage – Live 2017.

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