more experimentation

I tried that moving-around-the-group style again today in a different setting with a bunch of people who weren’t part of the first experiment. I’d just barely had a chance to explain it to my team and the Deaf person when the event got underway, so we all took the plunge. At break I asked how it was going:
It feels more natural,” said the Deaf person, going on to explain that it felt better to look at the speaker and know that no one was wondering about whether or not they were paying attention.


This is the first group I’ve done since I got “stuck” in the traditional model (of planting butt in one place and not moving). Overall, the whole event seemed to go very well. Early on, the facilitator made space for some discussion of the interpreting process by the whole group, which hardly ever happens but is such a blessing because it normalizes our presence and function. This made it easier for some inclusive discussions during break, and someone even made a parallel later in the day between the interpreting process and “translating” something from the individual/psychological level to the group/systemic level. The parallel opened up a natural opportunity for the Deaf person to explain the two levels on which interpretation occurs, via mode (from the auditory to the visual) and via language (from the grammar, syntax, semantics of English to the linguistic features of ASL). It was just simply way cool!
I did notice some issues, however (as I always do!). grin. The most glaring was my own error in not voicing a comment made by the Deaf person upon reentering the room, instead I answered the query. It was a bit tricky because this person has good speech skills and voiced for themself, so I responded to the “code” of signing as a private request. Of course, if this occurred between a working interpreter and a non-deaf person there would be serious upset! It was also complicated by the fact that there was a lull in the group’s overall discussion because someone was sketching a diagram on the board and no one was speaking, so there was no conversation being interrupted. Which, duh!, “ought” to have made it even easier for me to voice the question and defer to someone in the group. I was conflicted between the “norm” of participating in privileged communication between interpreters and deaf persons and the “rule” of providing equal access to all.
The problem with the norm, as I see it, is especially apparent during breaks, when often interpreters and deaf interlocutors (the fancy word for those who are supposedly communicating directly with each other) chit chat about various and sundry things. For instance, during the first break today we had a conversation about who forgot to bring lunch. Nothing earth-shattering, but the non-deaf person watching was excluded. No big deal you say? Well, I think it could be, because while we (the interpreters) had a nice little bonding moment with the deaf person, we’re not going to be back in that situation again, but the deaf and non-deaf persons ARE going to be interacting with each other for some indeterminate period of time into the future. Did we serve to promote their relationship or hinder it?
The other interesting thing I noticed, which is VERY common, is that the non-deaf members of the group simply didn’t ask what was going on when there were signed conversations that weren’t voiced. Why is that? My team says it may depend on context, even gender (men might ask what’s going on more often than women?) and I’m wondering if age has something to do with it as well? Teens for instance, and very old people – both groups who may not feel as much need to conform to perceptions of social etiquette as those of us solidly in the “middle”. But who knows? In my experience, it is quite rare for non-deaf persons to ask to be included in non-interpreted signed conversation. This could be taken as a demonstration of respect, and I’m not intending to be critical of it, but it begs questions of power and accountability. Who is “supposed” to decide when a non-deaf person should or should not be included? And what are the long-term (one could say systemic) consequences of these decisions?
Don’t misread me; I’m not complaining about a single thing that happened today. It was one of the smoothest jobs I’ve had in a long time and I can’t think of any specific thing that I think could have gone better – except for having captions (!). It’s just that I’ve become more attuned over the years to certain group dynamics that repeat themselves over and over again in so many different variations of settings and with such diverse persons that I think it’s worth opening up more discussion about whether or not these particular habits serve or inhibit bilingual communication and cross-cultural relationships.

2 thoughts on “more experimentation”

  1. I haven’t read everything carefully. But being the innovator that I am, I’ve used the “nontraditional” way of interpreting for all kinds of work.
    In educational settings I get right up next to the board pointing directly to the teacher’s examples instead of trying to re-draw them in the air. In mental health groups I piroutte around the room (figuratively although it’s a nice visual) moving from speaker to speaker instead of simply indexing.
    I wouldn’t like to sit through an hour of “He says…” and “He says…” and “Now he says…” which is, I think, what that pointing at people is really all about, isn’t it?
    Once was at a “deaf centered” event where the keynoter rearranged everyone to sit in a circle but the interpreters couldn’t deal with the arrangement. They still wanted to plant themselves in one spot instead of being where the action was. Made the whole discussion “interpreter centered” instead. It was very sad and still haunts me years later.
    Sure, there’s limits. I don’t think they are carved in stone anywhere, guess they have to be negotiated. Really interesting, Steph. I wouldn’t have ever thought of it as “doing anything different”; I just do it (move, not negotiate although I negotiate also without thinking of it as something different).
    Is that process of negotiation something different? Is it not usually done by interpreters? Do we tend to come in and impose our will on others or are we really the gentle mediators we claim to be? I don’t know, these are honest questions. I know which side I come down on but when I’m there, there isn’t usually another interpreter for me to watch. We’re mostly ham-handed tyrants, aren’t we? I’ll bet we are.
    I negotiate. I’m really into these feminist paradigms for interpreting. Can’t help myself. Sold on it.
    Do you sometimes during the break instead of bonding just ask, “Do you want me to tell you what I hear? Over there they seem to be talking something about children, and these two men are talking about where to get coffee. Does any of this interest you?” Sometimes at breaks or lunches I do that. I think it’s a different kind of bonding experience — more like tool in the hand of the user if the metaphor makes sense.
    Late at night. It’s the caffeine typing now. I’m done.

  2. Hey Ben – love those caffeine-inspired thoughts! I’ll tell you the truth. I was trained to plant my butt and most Deaf folk I work with tell me to stay still. It’s been a process just getting into position to negotiate! Yes, of course I often interpret what’s going on during breaks. Usually the Deaf folk aren’t interested…sometimes, but not often. And non-deaf folk don’t tend to ask what we’re chatting in non-voiced sign) about during breaks, even if they are curious! Maybe because you work solo so often you’ve had more flexibility to develop your own style? And perhaps you’re just more skilled at social interaction in general? It has been an on-going challenge for me to reconcile the power I hold as an interpreter with the delicacies of balancing cross-cultural communication dynamics with empowerment needs. I’d like to think I’m getting better at managing this without putting myself at the center of attention – I agree that is one of the ickiest dynamics.

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