Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Roving interpreters

December 10th, 2006

I tried the non-stationary method again, with one of my favorite Wanda’s as my working team, in a new setting with thirty-one non-deaf individuals and one deaf person. I arrived early enough to meet one of the event’s coordinators in the assigned room and arrange the chairs in a double concentric circle with enough room for us to walk the periphery.
I met the primary facilitator and a few key participants and explained the communication scenario to them. They were good with it, and cooperated by asking people to please keep the circle tight. Some latecomers or others who weren’t paying attention (?) did not comply, so there were a few bottlenecks. The room was barely large enough to accommodate this plan, but it was really only tight at the points where the circle’s edges came closest to the square walls. There was plenty of space in the corners (maybe we could have arranged concentric squares instead of circles?) &emdash; although this fact did not register with the facilitator or group scribe.
The dynamics are so fascinating! I know, in large part, that most people interested in accessibility have been trained to ignore the interpreter: “just do what you always do,” “don’t address us directly, address the deaf person,” and “pretend we’re not here.” Challenging the legacy of these admonitions is difficult &emdash; change is always hard, especially when one believes one is doing it the “right/best/proper” way. “But this is how I was told to do it!” I know (sigh). Additionally, though, are issues of linguistic privilege and the cultural/perceptual biases of sound-based communication that complicate attempts to include persons who relate and connect through sight-based communication.
The root issue, I think, is one of attention. I tell people the key feature of creating communicative access for a deaf person is the line of sight. For a deaf person to have a realistic chance of equitable participation, both the interpreter and the non-deaf speaker need to be seen. Non-deaf folk hear and acknowledge that this dual visibility makes sense, but they struggle to translate momentary understanding into actual practice. “Hearingness” gets in the way. The easy assumption that one can look at one thing and still hear whatever is being said is a communicative habit with potentially ruinous consequences. “Ruinous” that is, if one desires to forge an actual relationship across the sight/sound perceptual boundary.
Actually, given the constraints of time (for training) and space (for movement and personal comfort zones), I think this particular group did exceptionally well. 🙂 In fact, as I write this account, I realize that I can only criticize so specifically because the overall dynamic progressed so well. Turn-taking was paced, pauses were allowed to linger. If the deaf participant had wished to contribute, there were opportunities to do so in-the-flow, without an awkward interruption. This relative smoothness made the glitch with the note-taking of the brainstorming activity obvious.
When the scribe moved directly behind me to begin the recording process, I didn’t realize a sheet of newsprint had been taped to the chalkboard. Since the chalkboard extended around the room, I asked if the writing could be done “where there is more space.” I was thinking of my ability to walk to where I needed to be to maintain the line-of-sight with the deaf participant. The facilitator responded that they needed to use the flipchart paper; as I absorbed this information the notetaker started to peel off the tape to move it. Situation solved, I resumed active interpretation. The interaction took less than five seconds, a fleeting disruption, if that. Imagine my dismay, a moment later, when I turned and realized that the notetaker had moved the newsprint not all the way to the corner (where there was enough room for three persons to maneuver comfortably around each other), but to the exact point where the edge of the seats came closest to the wall!
Ah, the rub! No one noticed. Or, if someone did notice, they kept the observation to themselves. For me to have said more at this point would have been too much: disruptive, “out of role,” an interference with the group’s natural developmental process. Me and my team managed. It really wasn’t that bad. A few times I could not move to where I needed to be to maintain the dual line-of-sight; the group’s discussion continued. They accomplished their assigned task and &emdash; I would guess &emdash; were satisfied with the process. Indeed, as far as open group discussions go, my opinion is everyone performed very well. It’s just this tiny additional crux of establishing a wholistic foundation on the basis of two languages, not just one.
Talk about minority-majority power relations! Why should 31 people accommodate to the mode of one? How much change is necessary? Might the development of bilingual norms enhance the communicative possibilities for everyone? I don’t think many people know. I do not know, myself. I intuit. I have not seen bilingual/bicultural norms in actual practice very often. Habits are deeply-entrenched; questioning them as hurdles to be overcome is usually challenged as a deviation from the immediate work. I know non-deaf people ‘pay attention’ to the interpreter, but this attention is generally limited to the display of American Sign Language, to ‘the signing.’ Somehow, if that attention could be expanded to include the function of the signing, it might become easier to negotiate communicative norms that enable professional alliances and friendships to develop as an intentional outcome of interpreted interaction.
Without bringing the habits, customs, assumptions, and easy privileges of sound-based communication into question, what tends to occur in interpreted interaction is that accessibility is generated for the limited time-window of that event. If this goal is adequate to the purposes of the group, then the usual way of providing communication access does not need to change. If, however, there is a goal of continuing interaction, doing business-as-usual ruins the chance for effective future relationship. The reality is that such opportunities for connecting are rare. Deaf and non-deaf persons do not often have the resources or structures to create these chances. From this basis stems my urgency to identify and name the moments in each and every interpreted interaction when the absence of a bilingual/bicultural ethic become apparent, as well as to recognize and laud the examples when equitable inclusion does occur.


Categories: Interpreting

2 Responses to “Roving interpreters”

  1. DJ says:

    Hey, thanks again for interpreting. You guys did a fantastic job. It all went very smoothly.
    Also, I’d never thought about some of those cultural implications before. Thanks.

  2. Steph says:

    Hey DJ, you’re welcome. 🙂 I wonder, WHICH “cultural implications” had you not thought about before? And which ones are familiar? If you have time to answer, I would love to know.

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