Handling our colleagues with kid gloves (e.g. Be nice to each other, y’all!)

Yo, you're a great interpreter, and Imma let you finish, but I have best interpretation of ALL TIME.
Yo, you’re a great interpreter, and Imma let you finish, but I have best interpretation of ALL TIME.

In a recent post on Street Leverage (available here for your reading pleasure), Darren Byrne describes the “Unwritten Rule” of sign language interpreters: one should not correct, impugn, or otherwise question the working interpreter’s translation, even if it is gruesomely apparent that the translation is “not working”. Mr. Byrne goes on to compare “fake interpreters”, like the one that recently made such a splash at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, to qualified (read: credentialed) interpreters who struggle to understand and be understood by the Deaf. He writes that the betrayal of the community by the qualified interpreter is more damaging than that of the fake interpreter because they are a member of the Deaf community, a hearing person allowed access to an exclusive world. In detailing his experiences as an audience member during an interpreted event, Mr. Byrne describes his feelings of trepidation (should I intervene to clarify the message or just grit my teeth and bear it?) and discomfort (here I am, an interpreter and a hearing person, and I know the working interpreter is dropping the ball). Ultimately, Darren comes to the conclusion that it is time to rewrite the “unwritten rule”: if you, as a qualified interpreter, witness one of your working colleagues failing to accurately interpret the message, step up and say something.

This post really made me think. I am not a particularly seasoned interpreter, having only been working for four years or so, but even as a student interpreter, I experienced that uncomfortable (and sometimes smug) feeling of witnessing a working interpreter fumble the message while in the hot seat. Sometimes I could sympathize (Man, that seemed like a really difficult segment to translate). Sometimes, I felt superior (Ha! I totally understood what they were saying — if that yahoo can get certified, I’ll have no problem!). Most of the time, though, I wasn’t even paying attention to the interpreter, since I know sign language and I can get the information first-hand, no need for translation. That being said, I think that the suggestion that non-working interpreters are obligated to interject when they witness a failed translation is a dangerous one, for several reasons.

First, who hasn’t been where that interpreter now sits? You can be the most credentialed, qualified, native-like signer in the world and still get it wrong sometimes. Who am I to judge, sitting in the audience, observing the process from afar? I’m not in the hot-seat, sweating bullets trying to keep up with a signer who, maybe, isn’t from my region, isn’t a great public speaker, isn’t an accurate fingerspeller — whatever. There are a lot of external reasons an interpretation might fail, and many internal reasons, too. We are human, after all, and in any profession, you get people on the job who are having an off-day. Luckily, for sign language interpreters, most jobs aren’t life and death — no one’s going to die or go to jail because I missed that segment and have to go back to ask for clarification (parenthetically, it should be noted that I do not interpret in judicial settings or in emergency rooms). If, at the end of the day, I can say to myself, “I did the best I possibly could to faithfully represent the message, and took responsiblity for any misconceptions,” then I can sleep that night. I think we should extend that professional courtesy to our fellow interpreters and stop coming down on one another for the thing that we all fear most: that we are simply not good enough.

Interpreting is a very cliquish profession. We all have our little groups: people I like to team with, people I refuse to team with, people that don’t like to team at all; interpreters I’ll hang out with socially, interpreters that I will hide from when I see them in the supermarket; CODAs, SODAs, PODAs, and people who just stumbled upon ASL and fell in love. We don’t always love one another with the kind of solidarity and compassion that minority groups are known for. Instead, we quietly judge one another, critique each other’s performances, and measure our own work against that of our colleagues. It’s hardly an environment conducive to solidarity. And I can imagine no better way to further segment our community than by standing up in the middle of a lecture or other public arena to correct the working interpreter’s interpretation. That poor interpreter, regardless of how much or how little they have been trying to successfully translate the message, will be mortified (and if he or she is anything like me, completely emotionally wrecked forever) and will lose trust in their community and in their peers. Their is no professional respect or courtesy in an action like that.

I understand that as interpreters we wear many hats. We are cultural liaisons, mediators, mentors, educators, and advocates. Sometimes there is a conflict of interest between those roles. After all, how to I responsibly advocate for my Deaf friend and colleague when I see that his message is being skewed by another interpreter — an interpreter who is also my colleague, and therefore also deserves my courtesy and respect? I believe there is a more gentle approach to take, and maybe some need for manners. For example, what’s to stop you from putting the power back where it belongs — into the hands of the Deaf individual? You could easily approach your Deaf colleague and let them know that you understood their message differently from the way it was represented by the working interpreter. Empower them to take it from there. It is something much different, after all, to receive criticism from the Deaf consumer than it is from another interpreter. In my mind, the Deaf consumer is not trying to condemn me or my skills, they just want to understand and be understood, and that is my job as the working interpreter. As such, I will gladly make any necessary adjustments in order to accommodate their needs.

One could also choose to politely hold their comments or critiques until there is a break and then approach the working interpreter to discuss their linguistic choices. Again, this is a difficult scenario to turn into a win-win situation, but maybe if we handled one another with kid gloves, we could give and receive feedback without coming across as pedantic or becoming defensive. If, for example, you approached during a break to commiserate with the working interpreter (“Oh, wow, I got to hand it to you — there were some tough concepts being thrown around there…”), the working interpreter may feel safe enough to open up about their struggles with the message (if they feel they had any). The working interpreter might even feel relieved — “No need to try and cover my tracks today. I can admit that I was struggling with the message, discuss it with another qualified interpreter, and maybe add a few more linguistic tools to my toolbox.” This fosters a culture of openness and acceptance among interpreters, where we can learn from each other and benefit from one another’s experience. If they don’t open up, well, then, at least you tried. Some people can’t or won’t take constructive criticism, and that is an entirely separate issue in the interpreting profession. Either way, this is certainly more appropriate that ripping the interpretation out of the working interpreter’s hands in the middle of a lecture.

Finally, to address Mr. Byrne’s initial feelings of “it isn’t my job to correct the working interpreter, but gosh, if I don’t then who will?” let me say this: you are exactly right. It is not your job as an audience member who happens to know sign language and happens to be an interpreter to interject if the working interpreter is failing to represent the message accurately. That is a job for the team. That is one of the primary reasons that we have a standard of team interpreting in our industry — two heads are better than one, and all that jazz. Two interpreters (or more) means that you have two minds working to translate the same message, represent it conceptually and accurately, and deliver it successfully. Hopefully, you get to work with a team who is not only receptive to constructive criticism, but who knows how to provide it, and who doesn’t spend their time in the off-seat zoning out or picking their nose (that, too, is a whole ‘nother issue in interpreting). In the ideal team situation, the on-interpreter can turn to his or her team for a feed when they miss something or quickly receive and deliver a correction if they initially got the message wrong. This eliminates the need for comments from the peanut gallery.

In the grand scheme of things, sign language interpreting is a fairly new profession, and one that is still struggling to garner recognition and respect outside of the Deaf community. Sniping at one another fails to add credence to our profession and devalues the work that we do as a whole. You don’t have to agree with your colleagues, but it helps if you treat them the way that you want to be treated (good advice for anyone in any walk of life, really). And I don’t think that Darren Byrne or any other interpreter, no matter how brilliant or skilled, would appreciate being called out as a failure in front our their friends, coworkers, and community members. Live and let live, and be good to one another, y’all. It’s the only way we’ll be able to make it to the next level.


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