intervening to clarify – when?

When my team, “Wanda” glanced at me uncertainly and signed what she thought she heard, I immediately cast my attention into short-term memory: what had I just heard? I thought I’d heard, “making the visible invisible” but what I saw signed was the other way around, making the invisible visible. Shoot! Did it matter? Was it a crucial concept? Could I ask to clarify? The speaker went on, so did Wanda. I perseverated. When and how could I ask? Should I ask or let it go?
Last week we’d had a moment where we had both misheard a term in the same way. “Kenyan” did not seem to fit the situation, but then again – this group regularly (several times a day) refered to a wide range of ethnicities and nationalities; it could have been a new example that interpreters weren’t familiar with but members of the group knew. We’d let it go until after the meeting….and then the speaker couldn’t remember the context (and neither could we, fixated only on what the single word might have sounded like instead of the context in which it was said).


So today I wondered actively about whether to seek clarification or not. The whole notion of making obvious things disappear is of immense interest to me, how is it that “the elephant in the living room” can’t be seen? I was so busy attending first to what I’d heard and seen, and second to my own process about whether or not to ask, that I missed an important communicative exchange between Wanda and the Deaf interlocutor (participant), who indicated that the goof was no big deal. I didn’t find out that the two of them had “resolved” this between themselves until we discussed it at break, after I had found a moment to ask for the clarification. (Oops.)
So, here I am, the back-up interpreter. My team has cast a look my way for help and I didn’t have it to give in that moment. As happens almost always, the group carried on, either unaware or trained not to be too curious about what the interpreters are doing. The person speaking couldn’t have seen the hesitation as Wanda was behind her, so she kept on talking. While she spoke, I pondered: is this my question or a legitimate question for the group? No one else is asking – but they all read the material being summarized. We hadn’t. (Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we get away with not reading, sometimes we don’t.) So the other non-deaf (“hearing”) members of the group probably heard what they expected to hear, but if we heard and therefore interpreted differently than it was written, would that throw off the Deaf member of the group? Unless she knew what was written, recognized the goof, and – knowing what the speaker intended – just moved on with the overall discussion. Or, she could have not been clear on what was written and a misinterpretation here could lead her down a path of misunderstanding…
Wanda and I had both felt a pang of guilt for not clarifying the “Kenyan” comment the week before. It was probably just an adjective describing a case that was one particular example among a broad pattern. Not vital. But then again, “just an adjective” – whoa! What if that adjective clued a group with a unique experience that everyone knew about, except for the Deaf member who never got the reference because the interpreters were puzzling between ourselves….did she say “Kenyan”?
I mulled, what’s the difference between asking in one instance and not the other?
In the “Kenyan” instance, it did seem like “just” a descriptor; not the main point. In the “visible/invisible” instance, it seemed more like a general concept that could be generalized and needed to be understood. So I justified to myself that I ought to ask. When the presenter finished speaking, there was a brief pause:
“Can I ask a clarification for the interpreters? It’s been awhile back, but we’re not sure we heard it correctly, was it the making the invisible visible or the visible invisible?”
The presenter clarified, it was making the visible (the obvious) invisible (unspeakable, hidden). She then went on to expand on what this meant, maintaining eye contact with me. I was, after all, the one who asked the question! Even though I’m not supposed to be part of the group. That ol’ conundrum! When she was done, one of the instructors built upon this point, so it served as a segue (although probably a different one than would have occurred if I hadn’t asked).
During the break a half-hour or so later, I asked the non-deaf speaker how it felt for me to ask. She was fine with it, and another non-deaf person added that if we (the interpreters) didn’t get it, probably someone else didn’t either. Ah yes, but then is it our responsibility to ‘fix’ that for the group or theirs? Oh gosh! If it’s theirs, I should have kept my mouth shut! When I asked the deaf person her point-of-view, she said she had known, in that instance, what was meant, but that if she hadn’t it could have been a problem not to have the clarification. So – my bad for missing the cue that all was good. However, the deaf person went on to say that a) she liked how I asked because I was very clear it was for the interpreters, and b) that the speaker’s expansion (all that additional information) was quite good and useful.
Which brings me to my last point, that part of the judgment about whether to intervene or not may have to do with some expectation or assumption about what the person being clarified (an act usually experienced as a form of interruption) will provide in response.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *