I was asked (!) to write a summary of my ongoing interpreting research for a sign language interpreter’s journal in the United Kingdom in which I would discuss similarities and differences between spoken and sign language interpreter’s experiences. I’ve hammered out a first draft but am lost for a conclusion. I need help! I’ve written to an audience of “insiders” – but I hope it is understandable to non-interpreters as well. I would love any and all feedback regarding clarity. What will help the most, right now, is if you would share with me your thoughts and reactions to what I’ve written. Do you agree/disagree? Does it lead you to certain questions or help bring a particular dilemma into view? I’m honestly curious about whatever comes to your mind while considering about what I’ve written.
The framework I’m writing from – my research lens – is critical discourse analysis. I don’t explain that here at all (that’s for the dissertation).
Dynamics of Simultaneous Interpreting in Speech and Sign
I was thrilled at how familiar it felt to talk with spoken language interpreters at the European Parliament last spring. I interviewed more than sixty professional conference interpreters, trying to get a feel for their view of the effectiveness of interpreting in the largest multilingual organization in the world. They complain about the same things that bother sign language interpreters: lack of prep materials, speeches read from written texts at blazing speed, inelegant and disorganized speakers – how many tangents can one squeeze into a single sentence? As a professional, I enjoyed their wit, finely honed intelligence, and broad knowledge of social, economic, and political issues. (I didn’t meet any of the dull ones, although I heard rumors of their existence. They lurk among us.) While I was there in the role of a researcher, my work as a sign language interpreter would often become part of the interview as we shared anecdotes, questions, and musings about similarities and differences in ‘the work’.
Most of the differences don’t matter much. Not that they are inconsequential, but they are specific to the languages, cultures, personalities, contexts, and agendas of each situation. Even the mode divide &emdash; the verbal/auditory mode of speech or the visual/gestural mode of sign &emdash; is, in and of itself, not particularly significant as a difference for the doing of interpretation. (None of the interpreters I interviewed hesitated to accept sign as real language, although I was surprised how many thought it might be universal.) The differences that stick in my mind have more to do with the ways these spoken language interpreters tended to discuss problems of meaningfulness more than problems of practice. It’s been over a decade since my interpreter training program in the US, so I don’t want my reflections here to be taken as a judgment on the state of the art &emdash; curriculum may have evolved quite a bit. But the kinds of workshops I see advertised and occasionally attend regarding sign language interpretation are usually skills-oriented. The discussions and conversations that occur in these settings are problems of practice: what would you do in this situation? How would you handle that kind of thing? What if such-and-so occurs?
Now, it could be that my memory is skewed, or that there’s some way I handled the interviews that brought questions of meaning into the foreground among the spoken language interpreters I was fortunate enough to meet. By problems of meaningfulness, I mean, “Is interpreting worth it?” Does interpreting have intrinsic value as a human talent? Does it offer something unique to intercultural communication or structures of cross-cultural social organization? Is the need for highly skilled professional interpreters an economic and political resource requiring protection and cultivation? Or, is interpreting a communicative choice of last resort? Should it be? Sign language interpreters do discuss concerns of collusion with oppression (audism) and how to avoid impeding Deaf empowerment, but there is little apparent concern over the demise of the field. There are concerns, centered in the Deaf community, that recent technological advances in video-relay telecommunications equipment will irrevocably alter the character of Deaf Culture by allowing an increasing percentage of communication to be conducted from the home instead of in person. The popularity of this service among people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing is to be expected, as the technology allows a wider range of options, giving access to privileges of privacy and convenience that non-deaf (“hearing”) persons have long enjoyed. Interpreters have, in general, embraced the new technology with equal enthusiasm, albeit with growing wariness about occupational hazards running the gamut from increased risk of repetitive motion injuries to basic exploitation by employers intent on maximizing their profit margin.
While the field of sign language interpreting grows and diversifies, at least a dozen spoken language interpreters informed me that they would not advise a young person to pursue professional spoken language interpreting as a career. Conference interpreting was characterized at least once as “a dying profession”, and those who don’t think it will fade completely believe the range of venues where it is used will continue to shrink. Few imagine the possibility that community interpreting could become a growing market (despite large populations of immigrants and refugees all over Europe), because maintaining linguistic and cultural integrity for non-European “others” is undervalued and drastically underpaid. Conference interpreters recognize the value and necessity of community interpreting &emdash; some even saying interpreting in the community is more vital to people’s lives than conference interpreting because at the governmental level there are so many checks and balances, while at the community level a real person is dealing with an immediate situation with actual, possibly dire, consequences. However, without a marked increase in status and remuneration very, very few conference interpreters perceive community interpreting as a viable option.
It is possible that the focus I’m highlighting here has to do with the radically different socioeconomic and institutional levels of work between spoken language conference interpreters and sign language community interpreters. The pool of interpreters I interviewed at the European Parliament are without question in the elite ranks of the profession. This does not necessarily imply a hierarchy of skill (I would argue that community interpreters can be just as talented in the doing of the job), but it is a reflection of the political environment and Parliament interpreters’ proximity to power. Community sign language interpreters work in the every day world of (hopefully) routine appointments with doctors, lawyers, and therapists. We work in myriad social service and educational settings where deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals seek institutional support to live their lives and pursue their dreams. We also interpret for large corporations and small businesses, for political organizations and self-help groups, for weddings, funerals, parties, and protests. The commonality across these situations is that the minority language user is rarely the person in charge, is rarely the boss or the person with the power to decide how things will be.
Spoken language interpreters at the European Parliament, however, not only rub shoulders with national political figures and world-renowned leaders, but are integrally a part of negotiations that establish the rules for institutional structures that will dictate the life chances of millions. There are still issues of minority and majority languages, although these are typically described as “larger” and “smaller”, and spoken language interpreters are quite attuned to ways that smaller language users sacrifice their linguistic power by frequently choosing to use a larger language instead of their own. The pressures on Members of Parliament and the officials who administer the institutional apparatus to speak a lingua franca rather than use interpreters are subtle and overt, economic and political, and disquietingly pervasive. These are different manifestations of the same ethic of homogeneity that have plagued deaf persons and immigrants in the US for generations. Beginning with the banning of sign languages at residential schools for the deaf and proceeding through English-only movements and recent repeals of bilingual education laws, all of these moves presuppose monolingualism as a superior mode of communication. They assume understanding is unproblematic, or at least less so, if communicators use a common tongue.
Anyone who has experienced a relationship fall apart on the basis of misunderstanding knows differently. Anyone attending to political negotiations between entrenched parties knows each side is likely only to perceive what they already believe. “Understanding” is a concept mired in magical thinking and a facile faith that if one just uses “the right words” everything will go as one desires. Spoken and Sign language interpreters share the intimate awareness that the right words are a gift: never a guarantee. Words often are not right in the beginning, they grow into “rightness” over time, as situations unfold. Words are uttered and their rightness confirmed by how they are received. Sometimes words are “wrong” because of inaccurate diction, skewed perception, or incomplete information. What matters at this point is the choice made by communicators about how to address the misunderstanding &emdash; does one openly note that understanding has been missed or does one turn the error into a missile? How does one recognize something has been missed, and what does one do about the missing? Interpreters are trained &emdash; consciously or otherwise &emdash; to anticipate potential misses and attempt, if possible, to avert them. A difference between sign language and spoken language interpreters may be the relative degrees of power each has to mediate the misses that inevitably still occur.
While spoken language interpreters at the Parliamentary level have an enormous amount of prestige, they are tightly constrained by a bureaucratic system and traditional codes of professional behavior. Because they usually work in an environment with numerous colleagues, the work of spoken language interpreters is under constant evaluation and their conduct under steady surveillance. There is little room for innovation or creativity in the performance of the work for fear of community censure. Indeed, the spoken language interpreters I spoke with disagreed whether or not there is any creativity in interpreting at all, with some minimizing specific translation decisions and others lauding them as potentially art. Sign language interpreters, on the other hand, often work alone or &emdash; at most &emdash; in pairs. Occasionally there are more complicated venues that require larger teams (such as conferences with breakout sessions), or a large enough population of individuals with disparate communication needs that require specialized access services (for instance, persons who are deaf and blind require tactile interpretation). These events are usually cause for celebration &emdash; the chance to work with several peers on the same job is a treat for sign language interpreters. The trade-off in power to affect the actual communicative situation, however, is significant. Because sign language interpreters are often the only ones present who know both languages, their decisions are generally not questioned: this opens up a range of options for dealing with misunderstanding &emdash; including interrupting, asking for repetition or clarification, requesting time to work with a concept to be sure it’s clear, and sometimes even designating turn-taking.
Conference interpreters are under much tighter control. The boundaries of professional etiquette circumscribe the mediation or negotiation of a misunderstanding. Because they are constantly being watched and listened to, there is little room for experimentation, let alone actual deviation from the established norms. Indeed, spoken language interpreters are often physically prevented from intervening because they are stationed in a space apart from the direct communicators: they speak of being “behind the glass” and “in the booth”. Sign language interpreters have historically been in the room with communicators, and with no one to criticize their choices, can essentially act in whatever way they think is best for the situation. This can include switching between simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, clarifying confusing exchanges, providing salient background information, even asking communicators to rearrange seating, lighting, or the pace of interaction. In other words, sign language interpreters have more local or immediate power because of the freedom granted by working either alone or with only a few peers. Spoken language interpreters, by contrast, have hardly any power within the constraints of conference interpreting. It is almost a paradox, except that there is nothing that holds these limits in place besides convention.
And so . . . ! Therefore . . . ? help! 🙂