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September 8, 2007

Performing Research

I uploaded a five minute video of my brief introduction (in American Sign Language) to my proposed dissertation research.


The shaking in my hands and legs stopped about half an hour later. "Did you accomplish the effect you wanted?" a friend asked after class. No, I knew I had not created the simulation I intended, and I did not yet know what - if any - effect there might be. "Why so nervous? You do this everyday!" Yes, but...this was so obviously for show. Without live interpretation, did it make sense to still do it?

Later, when I watched the video for the first time, I noticed the errors. My idiosyncratic mixing of coded English and ASL, fingerspelling that was too fast, rushing through parts of the presentation. Was it worth making public despite these imperfections? Was it sensible enough? I had my doubts.

Then I received an email from a peer in the class regarding something unrelated, but she added:

I kept thinking about signing while reading over and over about how written language is inadequate and arbitrary. I was wondering, did you alter your performance at all for a non-deaf audience? I thought the most interesting effect was watching everyone struggle to choose between the written script and your performance.

Now I'm psyched! :-)

I did not alter my performance FOR a non-deaf audience, but it is obvious to me some of the ways the clarity suffered because there was not a deaf person in the room. I lacked the nonverbal feedback indicating comprehension/confusion. If someone literate in ASL had been watching, I would have known when I needed to repeat, embellish, or rephrase. Instead, I plunged on too rapidly. (Or at least, I'm worried that I did.)

One thing I definitely did do in order to frame the presentation for a (non-present) deaf audience is consider the opening carefully. The logical structure of discourse is different in ASL than in English; I really wanted to be comprehensible. Basically, I guess I did what I often do when I am interpreting: tune out the non-signing hearing audience! ( Should I be making this confession?!)

I was unaware of the struggle between choosing to read the text or watch the signing while I was giving the presentation. I mean, I did notice that some people were looking at me, others at the handout, and some looked back and forth, but I experienced this matter-of-factly. Not as an indication of "struggle" associated with the choice. Now I am intrigued as to what this choice meant! Some people did comment on this afterwards, about not knowing whether to watch or read, and about trying (?) to match up the signing with the written text. Was there more going on with the need to make that choice than the obvious? (The "obvious," in my mind, being one language is accessible/understandable and the other not.)

Here's a link to the handout, with the text prepared for the (hoped for) interpreters. Below is more background on how I came up with this idea and prepared for it.

Prior to start of this semester, the professor for this course, Language as Action and Performance, emailed us:

...it's important to hear what folks are working on these days in more than the AA style of introduction...Be prepared to take three-five minutes to sketch out your interests...

Somehow I read this to imply "be creative" with the intro. (Re-reading it now, my mind must have been already inclined to take liberties with meaning!) Since the concept of performance is central to the course, I wondered if I could generate a simulation ... could I place my classmates in the position of listening to me/my words as interpreted by someone else from a language that they do not know?

I did not have much time; only a couple of days. I knew finding someone to interpret with such short notice would be a major feat. I asked colleagues that I know work on campus, and made an official request through the Vermont Interpreter Referral Service. Then I waited . . . no, nope, no one....someone (maybe) but qualifications (skill) sketchy...maybe someone? But maybe not.....then, yes, the morning of that very day, two affirmatives! I had to get busy with prep materials: this is a graduate level course, and my research is specific with theoretical terminology.

It took me some three-four hours to compose 500 words that captured the gist and spirit of my interest without all kinds of extra tangents and unnecessary (at least for my immediate peers) explanations. I kept telling myself to imagine I was presenting to Laurene. I also told myself not to worry about the ASL - it would come. Focus on the English. After I had written the document to prep my peers, my mind was much clearer for me, too. :-)

I whittled the statement down to bullet points so I would have an outline to follow. Again, I had already decided to sign, to let go of the form of the written code and explain the ideas using the syntax of ASL. I knew my colleagues would go with it: whichever "Wanda" I ended up with had the text in advance, and would remember some of the specific English terms or use equivalents. (Any of my interpreting colleagues who make the blog because of work become "Wanda.") I turned my attention to the ideas and concepts with no direct equivalents in ASL. How would I convey them?

First, I remember seeing Deaf comedians and storytellers play around with looking inside people's heads. That helped me with the concept of "cognition." It took me longer to come up with a strategy for the transmission model of communication. What came to mind was a project I did in one of my very first ASL classes, taught by Ann Reifel. We had to investigate the flexibility of ASL by videotaping several people explaining how they would do a simple action. The goal was to prove that there are unlimited ways to say a thing; no one person says the same thing in the exact same way. I wanted to learn about classifiers, and selected the simple act of getting in/out of a car. I could not tell people that was what I was looking for, however, instead, I videotaped a dozen narratives of the commute to work. The best story was provided by my mentor, Evelyn Thompson. :-) She included a hundred hilarious details, including near accidents, long stretches of traffic, and the bumps of construction. (I have it, still, somewhere....)

As luck would have it, something came up for both of my colleagues (and they get teased about it, too!). I was faced with the choice of going on alone, not doing it, or - as the professor later offered - waiting until next week.

Well, with performance, you know what they say! The show went on....

Posted by Steph at September 8, 2007 9:09 AM


The Struggle was so telling--people wanted to understand you but felt they needed the written script for that. Others knew that they might 'get it' simply from watching a foreign language than might actually be richer and more legible than their own.

Silly me, I thought "Well, I can read this later, her performance is a one-time deal!" Then I remembered the camera, YouTube, blogging...Liveness a la Auslander!

Posted by: Cirilia at September 9, 2007 8:41 AM

Liveness: I did a quick google search on Auslander, and found something useful/interesting to me in a critique by Peitro de Simone of Auslander's book, "Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture." de Simone writes (nearing the end):

"Auslander [is] vulnerable to the criticism that he underestimates, if not misunderstands, the relevance and value of the performing action itself...would it make any difference to him at all that those who perform, say Pakistani qawwli, or improvisational theater, or Italian opera are repeatedly prompted, even challenged, by the presence of other human beings to go beyond memorization and technical repetition? And that it is precisely this fragility in performance which opens up the possibility for something unexpected and fascinating to occur?"

The only way I know to approach the ontological questions Auslander engages starts with phenomenology. I sense "liveness" when the audience responds. The meaning(s) or meaningfulness of language - its action - is being generated now. :-)

Posted by: Steph [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 9, 2007 9:07 AM

You say, "I was unaware of the struggle between choosing to read the text or watch the signing while I was giving the presentation. I mean, I did notice that some people were looking at me, others at the handout, and some looked back and forth, but I experienced this matter-of-factly. Not as an indication of "struggle" associated with the choice".

I am intrigued by this - it rings so true to me - especially when I put myself back on the stage, as an actor performing a role. There, I am aware that the audience is looking at me, watching me - but it is in a strangely "present" sort of way. I am aware that I have control of their attention (and sometimes no control...but that is also part of the process)- yet at the same time I am in a sort of timeless bubble - unable to analyze the moment, able only to move forward in my role. But it's the attention - dare I say "energy" of the audience that dictates my performance to a great degree. It's an inexplicable balance between presence and non-presence. To perform in front of an audience that "gets it" is so totally unlike an audience that does not. And different again from rehearsing in front of other actors (or, for you perhaps, with other interpreters), and different again alone, in front of a mirror.

I am unfamiliar with Auslander - but the quote you posted is exactly why so many actors are addicted to acting - it's unpredictability in the presence of others to allow for the possibility of something fascinating to occur.

I can see how your performance then, would be altered by the sole presence of a non-literate audience. But the very performative nature of ASL has something to it that I believe no other language does - and that is that is is purely visual. Oral language allows us "listen" to what another person is saying while looking in the other direction. In other words, our attention can be divided while in conversation. And in fact, it more often than not is divided. In the non-hearing world, when having a conversation in ASL (or any other signed language) - I would imagine that attention is relatively un-divided (visually, that is).

Not sure where I'm going with this - but see that there is a connection between meaning and performance that I have yet to explore and understand. Maybe I missed that and should have taken Stephen's class last year...

At any rate - I couldn't keep my eyes off of you and even though I only understood the meaning of your "thank you" at the very end of your presentation/performance - I "felt" as though I understood it all. In other words - it was almost as though I were back in that inexplicable space between presence and non-presence.

Posted by: Tary at September 9, 2007 10:52 AM

hi Tary,

I'm not familiar with Auslander either, and if I skimmed the critique correctly it doesn't seem as if he gets that "inexplicable space between presence and non-presence" which you also describe as a "timeless bubble." I finished reading Saussure yesterday (!) and the time dimension seems to me to be the site where meaning happens. In his terms, I would say I experience "liveness" when I sense I am acting out of (or in to) an evolutionary phase, diachronically, in a different way than I experience liveness (identity, presence) when speaking synchronically.

The preceding all depends, however, on whether I've got Auslander's definition of "liveness" accurately in mind or am off on my own interpretive tangent. ALWAYS a possibility! :-)

Posted by: Steph [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 9, 2007 2:15 PM

Great "movie!".. Informative, interesting, and I wanna hear more! Curious - so there was no one who knew sign in the room? :) I am amazed. im impressed cus i have a hard time signing real ASL if no one in the room can understand me.. What is the dominant language in the European parliament? is there one?

The question of power in interpreting situations is really key.. I've always felt that an interpreter has the "power" to alter the preexisting imbalance of power. If I have no interpreter, the others in the room have more power over me to determine the course of the discussion, or outside of a learning environment potentially the course of a work project, etc. And then, as you point out, interpreter has to choose Meaning which is incredibly powerful.. Fascinating stuff!

Posted by: amanda at September 9, 2007 7:27 PM

No signers in the room, you got that right. I did mucho mental preparation for that, which is one of the reasons I did not take the professor up on the option to delay a week or two to see if an interpreter could be arranged: I decided to trust my gut intuition that "now" was the right time, while everyone was doing introductions (join the group, steph!) and build on the momentum/energy that had accrued during the planning process.

Historically, French was the dominant language in the European Parliament but you would always hear all of the member languages. Since the big enlargement in 2004, English has become dominant because the eastern European countries have had more exposure to English than to French (that is what interpreters there told me). Polish is the closest common lingua franca for eastern Europeans in general, but apparently this is not supposed to be admitted... the "babble" of many voices is still evident, the difference being that the oldtimers used to recognize every other language in use (even if they did not know it well), and now there are just too many (or too many that joined at one time) to distinguish among them all. Or - that was the case when I was there at the end of the first year.

I am very curious about the relation of the users of interpreters in the EP to the question of their own and other's power. Interpreters know how sensitive this is, but have few channels to "do" anything about it. Codes of professional conduct, confidentiality rules, and the inevitable bureaucratizing that happens in any large institution prevent feedback and open discussion. If I'm very, very lucky, the research I do will ripple into the social fabric some kind of way, although there's no predicting which way (toward more or less interpretation, for instance) the effects might go.

Posted by: Steph [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 10, 2007 10:27 AM

A few thoughts on the ethics of accepting any kind of an interpreting assignment:

A gig requiring voicing of a presentation, particularly one including jargon specific to a distinct field of study, requires various amounts of preparation on the part of the potential interpreter. Preparation might include mentally organizing pre-existing knowledge of the topic -(tapping into schema),reading background material to become familiar with the presentation topic, learning about the various theories to be discussed or challenged, identifying key vocabulary (understanding its spelling, meaning, pronunciation), and anticipating audience feedback. One must understand the goal/purpose of the presenter and have knowledge about the audience. Further, to improve the potential of an accurate interpretation, face-to-face discussion time with the presenter is invaluable. Discussion of sign usage, English word choice, affect, etc., can and should be negotiated prior to the "performance".

Ethically, this interpreter could not have accepted this assignment, despite the desire to support this presenter's efforts. (I am reminded of my dream where it is opening night, I have the lead role in a play and I have yet to even look at the script... eek!!) Without access to a script, with insufficient lead time or prep materials, and with no opportunity to meet with the presenter, it would have been impossible to provide quality interpretation. By declining the request, I believe the presenter, and audience members, were better served.

Within this culture, in the world of consumers and ASL interpreters, anything less than two weeks lead time when requesting interpreting services is considered nearly-impossible. I hope if the opportunity arises again, you will give us fair warning so we can equivalently interpret your rockin' presentation. :-)

Posted by: one of the wandas at September 20, 2007 12:01 PM

Dear Wanda(s),

:-) A spirited defense! Of course you are correct. In an ideal world, and according to the values preached by the profession, everything you wrote is accurate.

We work in the real world, however, in which - as you well know - we are rarely provided with such luxurious consideration. Instead, we wing it. We PERFORM in the moment, live, irregardless of the amount of preparation or rehearsal or practice.

I understand the desire of the interpreter to know everything, to have depth of familiarity with the topic. I want it, too. I notice (whether or not my interlocutors are aware) when I am working with material I know well compared with material that is new or concerning which my understanding is only tentative.

The thing is, when we "know the script" as it were, we ourselves can lose the liveness of the moment. For example, the other day a colleague reflected on interpreting an explanation about Deaf Culture that she knows inside-and-out. At one point she wanted the presenter to "stop signing! Because I know this argument and all that information is confusing!" (Or something to that effect.) Her interpretation sounded like what I saw - I do not think she missed anything, however the sentiment caught my attention. We are (too often?) so sure we know what is going to be said, that IF there was a deviation we might well miss it.

Please understand me - I agree with the preparation factor, when it is possible. I disagree, fervently, with some of the assumptions behind the ideal. There are are implications that a) it is possible to have "full knowledge" prior to an event, and b) that such "knowledge" is desirable. I dispute both. We can never know what something will be until it happens. Events can always go in a direction different than we anticipate - unless we use our position to force them along the path we think they are destined to follow! Sure, the more flexibility we have to "go with that flow", the smoother the interaction will be - but what are we imposing by insisting our job is to make things smooth?

Worse, in my mind, because deeper and therefore more insidious, is how this ideal of interpreter preparation feeds into the myth that interlocutors no longer need to worry about communication breakdowns because the interpreters are taking care of them. The more "prep" we do, the less responsibility interlocutors have for interacting With Each Other. If things slide, well....the interpreter must think it's ok, otherwise they'd fix it, wouldn't they?

That's my general critique of this stance. Regarding this particular situation, I thought I indicated that the presentation worked out great. :-) The fact that two interpreters told me they would voice it gave me the oomph to actually plan the show. If they had "ethically" turned down the gig, my momentum would likely have been shot. (If this was unclear before, the idea/possibility did not occur according to the tidy timeframe of two weeks in advance. Real life!)

I hesitated anyway, as it was, with whether or not to go on. I was afraid. Was I overstepping the dynamics of the classroom? Did my presentation, in this form, even belong? By then the inspiration of the idea had taken hold and I chose to ride it out. I had done the necessary prep work to enable clarity of position in my own mind. That neither interpreter ultimately made it was a minor matter in the moment.

Anyway, this is a terrific and timely debate. :-)
The values and assumptions involved need serious deconstruction by our profession.

Posted by: Steph at September 28, 2007 10:45 AM

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