Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

all kinds of neat stuff

June 8th, 2006

One of the most amazing elements of being an interpreter is the way we get to peek in so many of society’s windows. It is a somewhat voyeuristic job. Not that every job is exactly intimate, but one is trying to be “in” other people’s internal space – to sense and convey their intentions and desires, their thoughts and their feelings. All without getting drawn in, of course!
I’ve interpreted in court, college math, mental health, various graduation events, a technology training, and a dance class all in one week. I see the workings of the legal, educational and medical systems as their employees interact with consumers of all ambitions – from those who just want the service to activists for social change. I experience individuals who take to the interpreted situation like they’ve been doing it their whole life, and others who are discombobulated to the point of dysfunction.
It’s thrilling (you can choose whether or not to take this as a commentary on the rest of my life!) when a non-deaf person and a deaf person engage each other deeply around a subject. It’s also cool when interpreters collaborate regarding meaning. The 20 minutes we spent coming up with the distinction between “variable” as a general concept, and “a specific variable” was well worth it; as was our revisiting the notion of symmetry repeatedly until we fell upon a sign (perhaps it fell upon us?!) that captures both the reflective, mirror qualities and the reverse parallelism.
[I know there are Deaf mathematicians, ASL scholars, and interpreters who have developed vocabularies for these technical terms. It seems many people revert to a code instead of doing the hard work of discovering an equivalent concept in the target language. Have I written about this already?!]
There’s also the question of movement. There is the obvious interactional quality that is evoked when the Deaf person(s) actually have to turn their head (!) to locate the speaker/interpreter but more deeply than this is, I believe, something that happens with the language of the group. This time, when I say “language”, I don’t mean ASL or English, I mean the particular vocabulary and ways of talking that each group establishes over the course of group development. Do we tease or stay on topic always? Are asides allowed? Can we interrupt? Some folks call these norms. The issue with norms is how rigid or flexible they are; this varies from group to group, and within groups from time to time.
I have an opinion that if the interpreter physically moves to “follow the sound” of the English, the language is less restricted and norms can develop that are more inclusive and egalitarian. When the interpreter “plants” our butt in one spot, we essentially “force” all that moving, flowing interactive linguistic output to channel itself through us. This heightens our power in a nonproductive way – it grants us much more control but not necessarily in a way that generates more accessibility. I also don’t think it does much for building relationships among deaf and non-deaf interlocutors because too often the non-deaf person is out of view.
[Note: I just did a google search to define interlocutor and it’s a bad word in terms of diction: not the best choice because too many of the definitions emphasize speaking for someone and having no power….it’s more of an interpreter’s role.] Darn!
Linguistic puzzles in math persist:

model” can refer to various things, including to ENVISION or IMAGINE;
in math, models are representations in the form of equations, including linear, quadratic, and exponential.
We had to distinguish between an equation and an expression (like a sentence fragment or phrase); among perpendicular, intersect (at any point) and intercept (specific to the x and y axis) ~ we did this by plane (using the vertical plane for perpendicular and the horizontal plane for intersect and intercept; distinguishing intercept by always specifying x/y).
Some shortcuts? “m” is always the variable of a slope; K is always the variable for a constant of proportionality. I invented (?!) a triangular type sign for DELTA (change).
At the interactional level, one must consider the function of particular comments. For instance, most teachers have a pedagogical intent even with comments that seem like asides or tangents. As interpreters, we need to glean this function and provide an interpretation that produces this effect (or at least allows the possibility of the effect). Some comments are irrelevant and may be dropped (gasp!) but only when doing so facilitates the contextual, communicative task.
We also have to coordinate timing in several dimensions. Most commonly interpreters bemoan the difficulty of “breaking in” to verbal (english) conversations where the turn-taking is rapid. The moment when a Deaf person begins to sign something is almost always “lost” on the non-deaf members of a group as the interpreters attempt to coordinate our speaking with an appropriate gap/silence between non-deaf speakers. Equally challenging, however, is coordinating eye contact with the deaf person(s). If they’re not looking at us they’re not receiving the information! This is why Deaf parents discipline their children by saying, “Watch me!” instead of “Listen to me!” ­čśë
Finally, another element of the interpreting process is the layer of affect. Often, I think we are working so hard mentally to convey the meaning as best we can that the strain of this shows on our faces, masking the affect or personality of each particular speaker.
Hey – if you’ve got something to say (and you actually read this far!), please do! I’m studying for a “comprehensive” test question applying interpreting theory to a case study (which I won’t know in advance) – so push me, baby! I’m gonna need all the nudges I can get!

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