Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

on being an ally

October 7th, 2007

Anne Fadiman‘s “in” to a Hmong family’s view of their tragic encounter with the U.S. medical system was accomplished via two crucial individuals: an American psychologist and a Hmong-English interpreter. Dr. Sukey Walker explains why the Hmong community respects her:

“The Hmong and I have a lot in common. I have an anarchist sub-personality. I don’t like coercion. I also believe that the long way around is often the shortest way from point A to point B. And I’m not very interested in what is generally called the truth. In my opinion, consensual reality is better than facts.” (p. 95)

“Consensual reality is better than facts” strikes me as a way of articulating the value of intentional, conscious co-creation of meaning. Dr. Walker’s crucial advice to Ms. Fadiman is to find a qualified interpreter:

“…in [Dr. Walker’s] opinion,” writes Fadiman, ” someone who merely converted Hmong words into English, however accurately, would be of no help to me whatsoever. ‘I don’t call my staff interpreters,’ she told me. ‘I call them cultural brokers. They teach me. When I don’t know what to do, I ask them. You should go find yourself a cultural broker.” (p. 95)

May Ying Xiong was not trained by the interpreting profession, which might be why she was able to act more as a cultural broker than a code-of-ethics-abiding professional. ASL interpreters, for instance, are explicitly forbidden from giving advice during interpretation. The roots of this rule was the need to end paternalism between non-deaf interpreters and deaf individuals who were (and sometimes still are) stereotypically-perceived as less competent at understanding and/or negotiating their way through communication to good decisions. The rule has served to reduce paternalism, but – like many rules – prevents many of other actions too. For instance, answering such as question as “What do I do now?” would be a blatant violation of the national certifying body’s Code of Professional Conduct: “Refrain from providing counsel, advice, or personal opinion” (Illustrative Behavior 2.5).
Interpreters are criticized by institutional representatives for any kind of presumed advocacy on behalf of the minority language user. This dynamic is most visible in legal situations, and adversely affects immigrants much more so than members of established minority-language communities. The travesties of miscommunication which heap more violation, degradation, and pain upon refugees and asylum-seekers leap to mind. If only more members of dominant language groups would ask how to proceed, rather than assuming that they know!

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