Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

time, sightlines and the concept of visibility

March 5th, 2008

This semester I’ve had the opportunity to work at the extremes: one professor who has seamlessly blended me into her extensive use of the chalkboard, and another whose gaze apparently registers only empty space whenever she accidentally happens to glance my direction. The contrast heightens my belief that attempts to make ourselves “invisible” (while interpreting) are worse than “professional”: they are downright counterproductive.
For instance, the day I knew I could not possibly reconstruct the meaning for something uttered very quickly yet of obvious conceptual importance for the subject matter, and had to ask professor #2 (the one for whom language accommodation is nonexistent) for a repetition or clarification (I forget which), an expression crossed her face as if a voice had come from the woodwork. Her answer was curt (to say the least). However, I had established my presence (albeit momentarily). An interesting consequence of actually “being there” was that a non-deaf student requested my attention to a sight-line that I thought I was not blocking but, in fact, was. This had been going on for some time; the students had suffered simply because the non-verbal behavior of the professor indicated that I was to be ignored. I am always annoyed by teachers who assume that they have no responsibility for accommodating a bilingual situation – as if the interpreter wields some special magic that automatically transforms the laws of physics such that what you say is signed by me in fully comprehensible fashion before you’re even done saying it, so that you can pick up and go on without pause, without any need to confirm meaningful understanding!
It is this matter of time that seems to drive much of the refusal to recognize the presence, and unavoidable effect, of having a language interpreter involved in the interaction. Not that everyone does this!
But here’s the rub:

the time we experience bears little relation to time as read on a clock. The brain creates its own time, and it is this inner time, not clock time, that guides our actions.

This dilemma with time came sharply into focus for me while interpreting some one act plays. Occasionally a dialogue would be paced in such a way by the verbal turn-taking between the actors that the interpreters could replicate it in its entirety, building in the proper visual cues, creating pauses – fully mimicking the action instead of being in a constant rush to catch up to it. Yes, it may have been obvious that the interpreters were a turn “behind” the actors in the dialogue, but I can imagine that this would not appear so except at the beginning and end of the scene… if you were bilingual you could follow the auditory-and-visual languages in the echo or prelude, if not, you could focus exclusively on the accessible language and tune is as you wish to the additional layer of communicative spectrum. A sophisticated troupe could craft storylines that complement and replicate each other in ASL and English – neither audience would miss out nor find the process of interpretation distracting because the languages would be part of the weft and weave of the action.
It may sound abstract, but I’m closer to an articulation of such a bi-linguistic merger than I’ve ever been because of the experience working with professor #1 this semester. She was as surprised as most teachers are when I walk in on the first day of class and introduce myself, “Hi, I’m the interpreter for your class.” Usually there is not much time to talk about the how (and, in my experience, those conversations don’t usually mean much until we’ve actually gotten through a class or three). On the first day of class I’m usually a bit more concerned about where the Deaf person chooses to sit, and how that affects my range of choices for creating good sightlines between them, me, and the action. If a teacher uses powerpoint, I have to be near the screen, if they use the blackboard, I’ve got to be near where they are writing , if they lecture without visual aids, then I need to stick close by. Most teachers move, they pace, point things out on the board, may even drift among student’s chairs….I have to judge whether the talk coming from the person is most important, or the visual matter they are talking about (on the board or screen), and position myself accordingly.
Most interpreters plant themselves in one place, and deaf people are accustomed to this – they know the interpreter is always going to be in that location. But the ACTION is happening ALL OVER! The meanings move, the important stuff is not only the conceptual message that an interpreter repackages in another language – it is the relationship between those words and the person saying them, to their audience, with particular intentions in mind, and – especially in the case of teaching – with relevant symbols or concepts, a diagram or an equation represented in visual form. I don’t have to know how to do calculus, for instance. But I sure as heck need to comprehend the relationships between numbers, the rationale for procedures, and the ways different applications relate to each other! If I do not, then I cannot sign them in a meaningful way.
No one has ever said, “That looks like babble,” but it must. I know – plenty of interpreters say, “I just sign the words and they get it because they do know the subject”….I have even had this experience myself. One deaf student in an upper level math course on matrices used to love teasing that she could tell the difference between when I understood what I was signing and when I didn’t. How many deaf people just put up with us when we don’t understand because it’s better than nothing? ugh.
I know that it matters, now, for two reasons. One is that when I get a concept it enables me to sign it differently and I watch the deaf person’s mental lightbulb go off simultaneously. This is wicked cool. Obviously, there’s an argument to be made for specialist interpreters in the maths and other deeply-developed sciences. But here’s the thing, if the teacher understands that the interpreter must understand, and if the teacher realizes that there is no one:one correspondence between English words and ASL signs, and if the teacher is able to incorporate the added dimension of this extra mediator between them and one (or more) students in the class, then magic can happen.

I’m not kidding! I enter a math classroom this spring, introduce myself per usual, and the teacher and I have the usual brief conversation:

You’ll use the board a lot?
Ok, so I’ll try to stay out of your way but I need to be able to be in the same sightline with the student and whatever you’re writing.

After the first day, immediate debrief: “How did that work?” the teacher asked me! I can tell you I almost fell over. Very well, I responded, I think I stayed out of your way, eh? A few times I get into my head working on the puzzle of expressing a concept and can’t simultaneously move out of her path as she fills the boards from right to left….but no problem, she simply moves around me and we continue. Oh, I remember: can you explain this concept of differentiation? Because the sign in ASL for “different” implies that there is no relationship between the objects being described, but I figured out that in the math usage, “differentiation” is a process that can be reversed: in other words, there is a very definite relationship, which seems more like a transfer between terms rather than a categorical distinction. I showed her the sign, “BUT” which is also “DIFFERENT,” as we spoke. She began to wrap her mind around the challenge of translation.
We get easier over the next few classes as I find the positions that work best depending on whether she’s working the right, center, or left sides of the board. We pace back and forth, with me shifting from right-to-left of her, and sometimes lagging behind as I make the connection between what I’m interpreting and the part of the procedure she wrote on the board several seconds before. I keep myself within her field of vision as much as possible, as well as keeping her, me, and the board in the visual field of the deaf student. It’s a kind of choreography. She offers to meet with me to explain the trajectory of the course, help me get a handle on the conceptual flow. My questions are so basic it’s embarrassing.
But the meeting helps, and a rapport continues to develop. She knows she’s not teaching me, per se, but she is trying to provide the conceptual framework so that the particular lessons make sense. She has grasped that – in order for me to interpret well – I need to know not only the details of the immediate lesson, but especially how that lesson relates to the larger principles this course is all about.
The day I figured out how to sign anti-differentiation conceptually accurately, the deaf student’s eyes lit up. I could almost SEE her thinking, “Oh, THAT’s how those two processes are related to each other!” Meanwhile, it isn’t just my own comprehension that is improving. The teacher has been listening when I’ve spoken about sightlines, she now notices how far behind her I am in the interpretation and takes advantage of those moments to pause. “I’m sure the other students appreciate it too,” she said to me one day, “we are covering this material very quickly.” She’s gotten so good at observing the visual information that most non-deaf people never even register, that she is aware of when I am waiting for the deaf student to look at me so that I can interpret! I’ve never had this occur before; I think it is quite extraordinary. She’ll see that I’m not signing, look at the deaf student, and then make a judgment how long to wait until she continues. Sometimes she does start before I’ve delivered all the info to date, and of course I get lost somewhere and have to ask a clarifying question. No problem: immediate and precise repetition is provided.
Last week, some new concepts came up: convergence and divergence. I had convergence down but the way I was understanding divergence it was like the line never catches up to the limit, the limit is constantly receding. But I wasn’t sure and I kept listening for some hint about how to convey the concept within the three-dimensionality of American Sign Language. Finally, I asked for clarification. “For the interpreter,” I said, “I need to understand the concept of divergence so I can sign it accurately.” I showed her what I was doing for convergence, then, as I adapted to show the way I thought I was grasping divergence she jumped in, explaining that the line always crosses the limit, there IS no limit, not because the line can’t catch it, but because the line always exceeds it. Wow! I was excited. 🙂 Ok, I confess, some of it was selfish (I understand how mathematical divergence contrasts with mathematical convergence!) but the neatest thing was the simple 20 seconds it took, the natural flow we’ve developed where a question from the interpreter is obviously not a reflection on the deaf student, and all that is required is a precise, focused response: a genuine collaboration in guaranteeing conceptual understanding across two perceptually- and grammatically-distinctive languages.
Again, the deaf student’s nod of comprehension provided the icing on the cake.

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Categories: Interpreting, Language, phenomenology
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