blowing it :-/

It has been some time since I made an error in judgment (while interpreting) that sent a deaf and non-deaf person into a spin of communicative confusion. I hope I can explain this clearly, as I realized immediately what I had done ‘wrong’ but could not un-do. Perhaps, by putting this in writing, I’ll be able to catch myself before making this faux paux again. It is familiar, if not common.
It is a classroom setting with the typical many-to-one ratio: one deaf student, a non-deaf teacher, and several non-deaf students. This deaf student has solid verbalization and strong lipreading skills, so it is one of those situations where I only work from spoken English into American Sign Language; the deaf person speaks for herself and occasionally does not even watch my interpretation. The teacher was explaining the difference between compound and complex sentences. One of the non-deaf students asked how a complex sentence is different than a comma splice. The deaf student was taking notes when the question was asked, and by the time she looked up at me I was interpreting the middle of the teacher’s explanation.
Two different ‘realities’ co-occurred. The teacher saw the deaf student appear puzzled, and asked if she was confused. The deaf student asked a question by voice and lipread the teacher’s answer. As I listened to the teacher’s answer, I thought she was answering a different question than the deaf student had asked. I assumed this was because the question the deaf student asked did not make sense in relation to the previous student’s question about comma splices. I said directly to the teacher, “but I was just interpreting the conversation about comma splices.” I thought this would clarify the context for the deaf student’s question. For the next few minutes confusion reigned as each of them tried to figure out what the other one wanted to know.
Interestingly &emdash; perhaps you’ve noticed? &emdash; I do not recall the deaf student’s question, even though all the other details of the interaction are clear! This is because I was confused about the difference between grammatically incorrect comma splices and grammatically correct complex sentences! My attention was on the other student’s question and the teacher’s answer, hence, I did not make the mental shift to the fact that the deaf student’s question was on another topic altogether! The teacher, not aware of my need to process the distinction, heard the deaf student’s question accurately, and responded appropriately. My “intervention” un-did the meaning the two of them had mutually constructed without me.
Eventually, the student inquired, “What question did you ask me?” to which the teacher replied, “I didn’t ask you a question. I thought you looked confused and asked if you had a question.” “I’ll let you know if I’m confused,” responded the deaf student. What I realized is that when the teacher asked about the deaf student’s puzzled expression, the student was working over some issue in her mind. Whatever it was (since I don’t remember what the deaf student asked), it had nothing to do with the question about comma splices. Being assertive, the student accepted the teacher’s invitation to ask a question and did so &emdash; about what was important to her in that moment. It was my inability to let go of the other student’s question that inspired me to intervene.
I can rationalize my decision, as I did in the moment, that the other student’s question was important and the answer included information that the deaf student needed to know and might otherwise miss. However, the student is the one who is learning, and the student chose to pursue the question that was most immediate in her own mind in that moment instead of being curious about someone else’s issue. Normally, I would go with this flow, adapting to the deaf person’s change in topic instead of holding on to a non-deaf person’s topic. What got in the way of my judgment this time? I wanted to understand the differences among a comma splice, a complex sentence, and a compound sentence! Conveniently then (I am embarrassed to admit), the teacher’s invitation to the student to ask a question opened up a window for me to ask my question &emdash; all under the guise of clarification for the deaf student.
Yep. I have been in this situation before. This is the first time I have been able to perceive the subtleties so well. The ‘reality’ I acted from my ‘best instincts’ as an interpreter was actually a mask for my own desire in the communicative situation. The ‘reality’ that the two primary interlocutors experienced (the deaf student and non-deaf teacher) did not even include me. Based upon my role, however, and the expertise assumed to accompany it, the teacher tried to incorporate my intervention into her conversation with the student. She believed that my saying I had just been interpreting something different than what the deaf student asked was meaningful and responded accordingly. In other words, the teacher privileged my information as the communication professional over her own immediate experience of direct conversation.
Now this is power.

2 thoughts on “blowing it :-/”

  1. Dear Steph,
    It is me. I liked it alot because it made so much sense to me when I was reading your story. It made me giggled alot but on the other hand you got it right to the very end!:) I will be showing this to molly and other friends if that is ok with you. Anyway, Let me know if you have other stories to tell beside I am eager to hear some more!:)
    Thanks again!
    J.D.

  2. Hi Jason. I’m glad the story made you laugh instead of making you mad! We interpreters really mess things up sometimes, don’t we?
    Please do share with anyone you want. I posted lots of stories before in the category “Interpreting”. I’m sure there will be more, also.
    I thought it was interesting that the teacher mentioned the confusion again in class today. This showed how strong an impact it had (was not forgotten), and also makes me wonder: would the important information have come out anyway, eventually? I think so. Sometimes – whether for selfish reasons (like mine this time) or other reasons we believe are legitimate in that moment – we interpreters feel very anxious about … something missing. SOMEthing missing. SomeTHING missing. Something MISSING. SOMETHING MISSING!
    see ya!

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