#030 Interpreting and Team Science

This episode of Structures of Interaction is an excerpt of Steph’s responses to an interview about sign language interpreting with Emily Ayshford, a journalist for the science magazine, Symmetry. Symmetry is a publication for the global community of scientists and engineers exploring high energy particle physics, which includes a Deaf physicist, Giordon Stark. Giordon is profiled by Emily in a December, 2019 article called A Matter of Interpretation.



Steph: Maybe it’s a mutual use kind of thing? [Emily said yes.]

Yeah, I just was the one of the interpreters, the lead interpreter, for the team at UMass where they did the U S ATLAS team annual meeting,

I’ve been interpreting probably going on 25 years. I guess I’ve had exposure in the Deaf community and been learning sign language for almost 30 years.

I did research studying interpreting processes. I’m really interested in the dynamics of interpreting and the models that are put forward for what it means to be a good interpreter: What is the criteria for that? Where does it come from? And then how do we help people be easier in the process? Because it is an awkward process. And as a profession, I’m not convinced that we have been giving people the best idea about how to work with us.

So I’m a critic in that respect, but also finally am starting to feel that I’ve got enough exposure to offer some new ideas or some prescriptions for how we could make this a more productive communication process for everybody involved.

I guess I’d even back up one step and say, I mean my experience with Giordon was great, but that’s the smallest part of the story. Deaf people know how to work with interpreters and interpreters know how to work with Deaf people. That’s very normal for us. The problem is all of the hearing people who are unsure and awkward and uneasy about how to utilize this technology, this different way of communicating. Which you can’t pretend you’re not in an intercultural situation if there is an interpreter.

But in fact people try to pretend that nothing’s different, which is– it’s obviously different! So then there’s this kind of disconnect between, “Well, I’m supposed to pretend like this is normal, but it’s not normal.” You know?

And that’s, to me, where the issue is.

And if you’re doing a profile, the benefit is about the community. How does the community do these dynamics in a way that makes it work?

So that the community can get the full benefit of the expertise that Giordon brings. Because he is smart. Right? He’s in the conversation, he’s making contributions. So his difference is real and can be a benefit in and of itself to the team dynamics, to the process of ‘how do we do this hard work’ of research and analysis and interpretation and creativity in designing all the systems, both the mechanical and the analytical sides.

So interpreting can serve that process. And I think that’s what’s important for the ATLAS community and businesses in general to realize.

So the formal presentation format has certain challenges that are where it would be of benefit to the ATLAS program to have a core of interpreters that they come back to time after time after time because then we do learn the jargon.

And we are able to maintain the pace of interpreting in such a way that Giordon is able to be right up there in the conversation. Instead of missing things and maybe having to go back and look at the PowerPoint later or follow up with somebody in person or through email to clarify something which he could have done and made that contribution in the meeting if he was working with interpreters who knew the internal jargon, right? So that’s a structural or a systemic investment that the program would have to make, but it would elevate his participation and thus make his contribution more timely and more lively and maybe spark more growth.

When you come together, there’s a reason that you come together. It’s because you want to take advantage of that ability to spark each other’s talent.

So by bringing in new people every single time or people who only do it once every three or five years, you prevent that from ever happening. And that is going to constantly keep Giordon at a bit of a remove. Now he’s skillful and he has workarounds for that. But that’s the thing, the burden is on him to do the work around instead of the organization saying, “There’s a way that we could make this equitable. There’s a way that we could maximize what he has to give us and this is that way.”

So that’s the structural level. And then at the interactional level, like in the poster session, there was this pretty fascinating moment, for me, where Giordon was expressing interest in different posters and we walked up to one where a couple of young men– grad students, I think. Both of them were talking. One of them had made the poster and the other one was asking questions about some of the data on it. And I started interpreting their conversation for Giordon and both of the graduate students expressed awkwardness, both verbally and in their body language.

And it sorted out. But it was clear, and I even made a comment as we walked away, to the poster maker. I just kind of gave him a little acknowledgement. I said, “You survived this.” Because it was obvious that it had been awkward. And what he said to me was, “I don’t know who to talk to.” And it’s such a simple thing, but it’s such a common experience that people don’t know how to talk to this Deaf person through an interpreter who you think you ought to be addressing, but they’re not really who you’re talking to.

It’s like people just get lost in that. That’s the awkwardness of the interaction.

So being able to have some training about, or a little bit of experience or a little bit of, I don’t know, a 10 minute video that orients people through the process in this way. Again, that could be something that helps people and it could be part of pre-conference materials.

…if you prep people and you’re like, “You’re going to be in a intercultural communication situation utilizing interpreters and here’s a little bit of etiquette on how to do that.” That’d be a nice gift that the ATLAS community could give. And not just to yourselves. It actually could be something that could be spread across all kinds of team science contexts.

I think one of the misconceptions about interpreting is that it’s only about information and that language is transparent. That you take something and it just means what what they say, but everything can be interpreted differently. And that process of ensuring that there’s mutual understanding is really relationship building.

…there’s a lot of stuff going on. It’s why I enjoy interpreting so much. Because all of the social dynamics of oppression, power, privilege, authority, knowledge, everything is there all the time. Gender. And the interpreter has so much ability to influence how things go. But we have so little authorization. (Laughter.) Right?

So it’s a real, constant challenge of representation. Both at the level of this immediate whatever-is-being-said in this exchange and in the context of ‘what’s the culture here’?

And are we playing in to a culture…are we colluding with a culture that is subtly and yet unavoidably being oppressive? Or are we contributing to a culture that is trying to figure out how not to do that and what to do instead?

I think that it’s a culture shift, right? So we live at a time in human history where speed is valued over almost anything else. And we’re fed the need for speed all the time. And that plays out in our interactions. And typically, at least my experience as a white American in all of the contexts that I interpret in, the vast majority of those contexts, what people say, what people like is this kind of automatic understanding that you can just go really fast and there’s no….. everybody just understands each other perfectly. And maybe they do. And that’s smooth and that’s a value. That’s a good thing.

And I challenge that because I think that what I observe as an interpreter is that in fact people think they’re understanding each other, but they’re not. Or they’re understanding each other 90% but in that 10% is something really important that they’re missing. And I don’t know where it would go if they got it, but it might go somewhere important. So I think part of the education is there is value in slowing down. And there are groups and there are people that I have interpreted for who have commented on how helpful it is to slow down and how much more thoughtful the conversations become. And a range of benefits to changing the culture to be a little bit more moderated. But I think people have to be encouraged and convinced and have some experience of that before they believe it. And then you still have to kind of undo your programming with hurry, hurry, hurry.

I will say this. I was excited, from my vantage point as a researcher and as social scientist, that the burden is on the diversity committee. I also happened to be at a conference that ended the week prior in Boston. And in both the Boston conference and the UMass conference, I was present when he did the diversity presentation. And the people that are in that conversation, I felt encouraged by.

…in those sessions I thought, “There is something really cool happening here that is about communication and it is about being part of a scientific endeavor that has some clarity about its boundaries.”

I went home and told my partner how jealous I was. Because the field in which I work as a social scientist, I’m aligned with other people mostly on the basis of methodology. So I’m an ethnographic communication researcher, and I lean in this direction called action research. Those two don’t necessarily go together, but the ethnographers are my home base. And when I go to an ethnography of communication conference, I’m like, “Okay, these are my people.”

But we are not working on the same thing. Everybody’s applying the method to their own disparate context and projects. And as a discipline, we’re not trying to solve anything.

And I’m so jealous of this group, you know, the ATLAS team and the field of particle physics that has a problem that you’re trying to solve.

…that automatically lends itself to a certain kind of collaboration. And then there’s also the beauty of the field actually already being so diverse. Because you’re working with the scientists from so many different countries, so many different languages. And you’re using English as the lingua franca, but people already have to cope with people who are using English as a second or third or fourth language and introduce elements of their own grammar. Right? So it’s not a standardized English. The jargon of physics is standard, but the way that each person from each culture and each language background might say a thing differs a lot.

So folks already have a certain kind of, I call it “pluralingual competence.” It’s already there. The basis for understanding language as not a fixed thing, but as a flexible thing that you can work with together to generate new, innovative thinking and problem solving. That’s already established. So adding the layer of an interpreting team is– the precursor is already in place. The foundation is there.

You have ways of communicating already that general society could benefit from if they just understood what those skills are.


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