Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

managing time while learning to understand

August 13th, 2010

indexical timespace
Region 1 Conference
Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf
Albany NY

Where is your meaning?

Opening night at the Region 1 conference for American Sign Language/English interpreters featured two information-rich sessions on the strategic organizational development of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). The Government Affairs Program presentation by former RID President Janet Bailey illustrated RID’s progress in earning recognition as experts on interpreting with the federal government. The report from Tracey Frederick of the Strategic Challenges and Bylaws Review Task Force revealed intra-organizational schisms on issues such as the range and type of certifications authorized by RID, the extent of linkage between “certification” and “membership,” and the distribution of voting rights and limitations according to certification status. The question of control is at the core of both internally and externally oriented topics.

The historical inheritance of the sign language interpreting profession in the U.S. privileges the control of space over efforts to control time. The emphasis on controlling space parallels global patterns in communication technology since the invention of mail (the physical delivery of letters) and railroads (the industrial distribution of goods). Faster forms of travel (of material things as well as communicative messages) are a major contributor to the pace of today’s society. Control over territory (including the people within that area) is determined by the capacity to manage distance. Imagine a three-way chemical reaction: the further you can go, the faster you can get there, and the reliability with which you can go and return all interact to produce a desire for speed. The demand for speed is a result of attempts to control space.

Technological innovation changes everything

Janet Bailey gave a brief history of RID showing how, as an organization, despite funding ties with the Department of Education and some connections with Vocational Rehabilitation, we were essentially unknown to the federal government until video relay technology blasted onto the scene in the 1990s. The technological capacity to transmit two-way video signals in synchronous time allows the Deaf Community to communicate with each other as easily as non-deaf people have been using the telephone for the past century. Curiously, the obvious fairness of making communication access as available and everyday for the Deaf as it already is for the non-deaf is one of the institutional challenges of our era. Actually, I overstate the case. Deaf people have figured out very well how to use technology to communicate among themselves and with anyone who is fluent in a sign language. The serious challenge for RID is leveraging the intercultural communication skills of video relay simultaneous interpreting to helping people connect across significant language differences.

Building relationships is a matter of time

Connecting with other people is a function of understanding. Humans tend to become friends with the people we understand, and enemies (or emotionally indifferent to) the people we do not understand. If understanding comes easily we appreciate the flow. When understanding requires a process, most people do not seem to enjoy the interaction as much. Wait. Let me qualify that last statement: most monolingual people do not enjoy interactions that require effort in understanding. My evidence is both personal and professional. As a simultaneous interpreter, I am constantly under pressure to understand instantly with a level of accuracy possible only by telepathy. Failures to immediately grasp meaning are heavily criticized by all parties to the interaction. In contrast, anyone who seriously begins to learn another language develops individual capacity for handling difference. If you want to connect with someone who uses a different language, the first step involves accepting the fact of differences – whether they are cultural, grammatical, or perceptual. The second step in building a relationship with someone who is not the same as you requires learning how to manage the time of trying to understand them and their ways.

Recently I was privileged to attend a wedding between two amazing people whose combined network of family and friends is a microcosm of diversity. During quieter activities before and after the main event, I observed the bride and groom’s family members and friends communicate with each other. All of the Italians and Romanians who had learned a bit of English made efforts to connect with each other as well as with the Americans (and guests of other nationalities using English as the lingua franca). Since both Italian and Romanian belong to the Romance family of languages, Italians speaking Italian to the Romanians and Romanians speaking Romanian to the Italians supplemented (in some situations) limited vocabularies in English. Spanish is also a Romance language, unlike English, so Spanish also served as a communicative bridge.

The point is that no one with any degree of bilingualism was upset about making the effort! No one complained that communicating took “extra” time! What was important was the mutual desire to connect, and whatever language was available was what was used. The relationships were forged in-and-by the process of figuring out the meanings together. There is a special quality to connections based on conscious cooperation that distinguishes them from relationships that stem from the automatic flow of using the same language. This is the zone where the intercultural communication skills of simultaneous interpreters have particular importance and special use. No other communicative practice has as much potential for forging individual, cultural, and systemic capacities for the equitable embrace of diversity and fair treatment of difference.

Dynamics of Simultaneously Interpreting Signed & Spoken Languages

Tracey shared results of the 2007 member survey with us, including the dismal statistic that a mere three percent identified as Deaf. Although RID is officially invested in putting a positive spin to recent efforts at increasing and enhancing the Deaf role in the organization, this figure represents a drastic drop from the percentages at the organization’s founding in 1964. What I want to emphasize is the disproportionate influence of this tiny slice of the membership on the organization overall. The success of such a numerical minority to shape organizational goals, mission, and culture brings to mind Margaret Mead’s famous quote about small groups of committed people being the only effective agent of large-scale change.

One of the historical puzzles that Janet clarified is why the law requiring sign language interpretation as a reasonable accommodation uses the adjective “qualified” instead of “certified” to establish a baseline measure of interpreter competence. This is because, at the time of the public hearings, RID was a small organization (less than 5000 members) and only a fraction of those members were actually certified. The law could not be written with a requirement that would be impossible to satisfy. The result is a chaotic and contested terrain that contributes to some of today’s tension among interpreters working in different institutional fields.

A distinction I heard in Janet’s talk that I will continue to listen for involves a difference between “consumers” and “clients.” Janet mentioned consumers referring specifically to the Deaf, and clients in reference to who pays the bill. One of my criticisms of our field is the general disregard for the non-deaf, “hearing” participants in interpreted interaction. Until we bring all interlocutors into the overall professional discourse, we cannot resolve persistent problems nor achieve the promise of the field: the unprecedented capacity of simultaneous interpretation to contribute to multicultural practices of equality and democracy.

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