Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

questioning the functions of team interpreting

April 6th, 2007

I had the most phenomenal conversation with a team interpreter recently, which carried into revelations during my next working gig with another peer.
The topic was the moving around (while interpreting) instead of sitting-in-one-place experiment that I’ve been doing for the past year and a half. I was able to do this with a very experienced interpreter who had never done it before: she discussed her resistance to standing and following the turn-taking of non-deaf interlocutors, while acknowledging that at least one source of her resistance was never having done it before, admitting, “this is not a good reason not to do it!”
Before she agreed to do it, she asked the opinion of the deaf interlocutor, who responded, “it would be nice” for us to physically move to be near the actual speaker. We did note some periodic confusion as the deaf person looked to see which one of us was “on”, especially when the turn-taking jumped from one side of the room to the other. (My team and I experimented with moving together, in order to preserve the ability to whisperfeed, but wound up dividing the room: one of us sticking more-or-less to one half-circle and the other one to the other half-circle of participants.) My own guess is that
a) this is a matter of the deaf person’s visual practice and breaking old habits (of looking to a stationary, fixed location for the interpretation) and/or
b) an area for skills development in the team to indicate when the teams switch (because this occurs more frequently than the standard 20-30 minute blocks of time).
What this means is that both members of the team really are “on” all the time, and feeding does not happen in the usual way. (Getting support from one’s team has been the most common complaint from colleagues that have tried this style with me). An effect of all of this is an actual shift in the philosophy of communication governing the delivery of interpreting services. Instead of privileging the transmission model – which insists that accuracy of message is the highest value (hence, why a team is necessary to monitor and “guarantee the accuracy of the message”); physically moving to follow the flow of the actual turn-taking privileges the identity-enactment model of communication, described by James W. Carey as “the ritual model.” (Much more detail: Communication as Culture.)
My teammate was not only game to try out this new system, but thoughtful about what this change did to our work as a team. She concluded, “it changes the distribution of tasks in the team.” Later that week, I worked with another interpreter who was reluctant to change. As I watched her sit and work, I realized I have not actually been in this situation for some time (all my other teammates and the interlocutors involved have been willing to humor me, smile). My ideas about how sitting (as the interpreter in an interactive group) stops the flow were completely confirmed, especially after having considered how the functions change from the mode of sitting close for backup and moving around to physically mirror the dynamics of the communication process.
I will need to do some focused research to confirm my hunch, but my mind jumped to what seems to me an inevitable conclusion: by fixing a stationary location for communication to be filtered through (sitting in one place to interpret many different voices), sign language interpreters establish a visual object of worship. The deaf gaze is restricted, confined to the narrow (sacred?) space established by the interpreter’s management of the communication process.
This is power.

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2 Responses to “questioning the functions of team interpreting”

  1. amanda says:

    you already know im a big fan of the movement.. for me it keeps me much more engaged. i m curious about the impact on the teachers. I have heard of other students and professors sometimes thinking interpreters aren’t really signing whats being said; they could just as easily be sharing personal stories, no? And I would think that the level of engagement with moving — moving to whomever is speaking would combat this kind of thinking (not that the thinking is necessarily all that common).
    on another point — aside from feeling more engaged (even just the act of having to move my head keeps me more alert than if i were to stay with my eyes in one “place”) – it allows for a better relationship with my colleagues. being able to make eye contact with them as i shift from interpreter to speaker impacts the relationship I have with them. if interpreters arent standing next to them, i will choose to look at the speaker every once in a while ANYWAY and risk losing information just to establish that human connection with the speaker. it also saves time i think – instead of the interpreter having to say “uhh its the guy in the red shirt”, its evident.
    obviously room shape and size is a big issue and prevents this kind of scenario in many cases.. but where doable, its my preference! i also personally feel like interpreters who are sitting tend to decrease their level of performance. not ALL interpreters have this problem sitting and not ALL the time, but the body slouches quicker than when standing.. i think its better to ask for a break than to start sitting to rest and then lose that composure. (obviously im more forgiving if there’s only one interpreter available and thus no chance to take turns).
    as for taking turns, one interpreter on each side of the room — i’ve definitely gotten confused with that sometimes.. sometimes its not clear to me that its time to look to the other interpreter. and it often interrupts the process, for me at least. it makes me think more about “who what where do i look” than about what’s being said. i think there are some situations where this is a great idea — ie: debates! but other situations where its just not worth it; especially if there’s a real chance that the interpreter will need some support – because i find that some interpreters seem uncomfortable about interrupting the class (or its just not really feasible) and then the information is just lost.
    hope i was clear in my thought. juggling too much right now.. but i absolutely agree about the question of power. and i think moving around really changes the power dynamics. by the way, have a story to share with you…. am curious to hear what you think. will email or wait till in person. gosh one whole week?!

  2. Steph says:

    Grin! Amanda, it will be MORE than a week, actually. I’ll try to be patient, waiting for your story. 🙂
    Interesting your comments about performance decreases while sitting – I had not considered that before, although I wonder if that has been part of my own motivation? I know that *I* am more alert if I’m moving, too. Somehow, it feels more possible to “get inside” the group, to join its flow so that I can represent it better.
    The confusion, where to look, aspect is a problem. I’m wondering about how deaf people signal turn-taking among themselves; it is eye gaze, often, or even overt pointing, yes? Maybe interpreters can work on using those indigenous signals? I want to believe it is a matter of developing the code and then the familiarity with use, but it might be more complicated than that. Especially when turn-taking is rapid….if the turn stays on the same side then I can continue signing while moving to position near the speaker, and switch back-n-forth as I have to – you still get the feel of the dynamic and have less distance (possibly not even out of peripheral vision) to see who is speaking.
    When the turn jumps to the other side of the room where my team might be located, if the pace is reasonable, then I can finish the interpretation and indicate the shift of interpreters without impinging on the team interpreter’s ability to retain information and give you a smooth start to the next person’s comments. If the pace is fast…I know sometimes we interpreters get caught up in the speed and just take the turn even if it did jump (sorry, you lose out on the person but still get the info)… but can still turn it over at a natural pause…of course, one never knows if the next turn will “stay” on that side of the room or return to the other side. 🙂 Of course, this is part of the fun!

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