Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

“our job”?

January 30th, 2007

As always with the start of the semester, there are myriad new interpreting jobs, new groups, new group dynamics. I remain of the opinion that one strategy for creating the possibility of bilingual/bicultural interaction is to be more overt and open about issues and challenges we face – as interpreters – trying to maintain open flows of communication between two languages and across two different modes of perception (auditory and visual).
A common problem in groups that are mostly non-deaf (thus, communicating with spoken English) is creating “space” for the deaf person’s vision-based interjections. While it is politically-correct for interpreters to talk of “process time” (while our brain is absorbing meaning, unpacking its linguistic wrapper, and rewrapping it in a new wrapper), the felt experience of people in the group is that of a delay, of waiting, of a lag between modes. To what extent can interpreters mediate this dimension of time, and to what extent can – should? – we encourage the group to figure out how to do inclusion considering the unalterable fact that these modes will sometimes come into conflict?
The most common way this “problem” shows up is when non-deaf people are talking and turn-taking at their usual pace, with anticipation of when someone’s turn will end and someone else can begin – often leading to overlaps and/or simultaneous utterances from two or more speakers who negotiate (through volume, persistence, surrender) who will continue to speak and who will wait. When a deaf person wants to get in on the action, their signed comments often intersects with someone’s speech – the deaf person has SEEN a pause in the interpretation indicating a turn-exchange and jumps in. If the interpreter voices naturally for the deaf person – asserting their right to participate in an unmonitored, spontaneous conversation – it could be taken as the deaf person (or the interpreter!) being rude, impolite, or inconsiderate.
I admit to being frustrated numerous times in my “early” career (!) with non-deaf people who simply would not make room for deaf people to participate. It isn’t that I would LOOK for opportunities to break into voicing, but I thought of the act of “interrupting” a non-deaf speaker less as an interruption of an individual’s talk and more as an intervention into an oppressive group dynamic. Ok, ok, I’ve gotten easier over the years and no longer consider these situations the best mode for cross-cultural instruction. But I do wonder, where is the line between the time and turn-taking boundary that we can manage to maintain as smooth a flow of communication as possible, and the responsibility of all the participants in a communication situation to make sure everyone can contribute?
Case-in-point: a deaf student asks (in sign) a question of a teacher. The interpreter voices it (in speech), interrupting the teacher’s response to another student’s question. The teacher responds to the deaf student’s question.
De-brief: something about the interaction felt bad/wrong/off to the team interpreter, the interruption was too harsh or otherwise not positively representative of the deaf student.
Question: Do we interpreters solve this on our own?
Result: In this instance, the interpreters approached the teacher, who encouraged the interruptions because that is the style of all the students in the class. The teacher took the responsiblity to decide when to ask for a more formal turn-taking system (such as raising hands), and when to let the give-and-take continue.
Outcome? More questions. 🙂 Is this a concession to “the hearing way” of talking in overlaps, or is it an act of inclusion? As inclusion, the deaf student’s voice is embraced as importantly as any other’s – meaning the interpreters should be less concerned with finding “the right moment” and more concerned with getting the deaf voice “out there.”
What do you think? 🙂

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