Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

The kindness of interpreters

August 16th, 2010


Region 1 Conference
Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf
Albany NY

Rene Pellerin froze in motion when the interpreter placed her hand on his back. While telling his story, he had been rotating gradually toward his right, giving the camera his profile and making it difficult for those in the audience to his left to read his signing clearly. Rene thanked Regan for saving him from talking to a wall. The laughter from the audience was rich with appreciation.

Rene shared several anecdotes from his personal life and professional career with the State of Vermont. Rene uses normal, everyday events that anyone can relate to in order  to draw us into his experience as a Deaf person gradually becoming blind. His detailed explanations take full advantage of the linguistic capacity of signed languages to put you in your body. For instance, when Rene described his train ride to college, he included walking through the carriages to get a drink from the cafe car. I didn’t just remember my own struggles with those dang doors, trying to balance against the rocking motion, and how many cars they can string together – I re-felt the embodied sensations that generate those memories.

You can perhaps imagine how relieved we were, then, when Regan pulled Rene back from his slow migration toward the front edge of the stage! And how we winced when he described the drastic shifts in visual perception that accompany moving from well-lighted environments to dark ones and vice-versa. And how we cringed when he recounted some of his strategies for getting around without his flashlight or cane. And groaned upon discovering the mistaken use of baking powder instead of starch.

only connect

Maybe I am projecting Rene’s desire to connect with us, the audience, as the reason for his movement in our direction. This is what the skilled use of interpreters enables – relationships across differences that appear insurmountable. Selecting Rene to provide the entertainment program for the conference is in keeping with a decades-long trend increasing the prominence of providing interpretation services for deafblind people. Giving Rene the stage also shows the deep heart of many interpreters, especially those who invest long hours becoming skilled providers of tactile sign language and often develop strong bonds with some of the people for whom they work.

As I watched Rene give humorous accounts of difficult situations, I was struck by the tremendous commitment to the social aspects of being human that is lived out by people associated with this profession.

In the end,
Thomas Merton said to a friend engaged in peacework,
it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.[1]

why pie?

I attended the Closing the Gap workshop offered by Young Professional Interpreters hoping they would show me some cool technology that they’re using to build bridges among experienced and new interpreters and/or with members of the deaf community.  We talked mainly about the informal peer support model that YPI is using to encourage and motivate each other while getting established in the profession. We seemed to agree that the best way for anyone to build a peer group (whether experienced or new – to an area as well as to the field) is to participate in their affiliate chapter. It is crucial for interpreters to feel good enough about our work to be able to go back to the job everyday. But emotional support is only one part of the comprehensive network of support for the high quality provision of service that is required by a practice profession like ours. Other mechanisms are needed to constantly build skill, not only knowledge. Dennis Cokely made the point in his Closing Address that building knowledge at three- or four-hour conference workshops is not the same as subjecting our skills to regular assessment in order to target and focus attention on improving particular and specific areas of performance.

Time for Supervision

Informal support is great. I’m not knocking it; indeed I wouldn’t mind more! It is just that informality, comfortable though it is, is not enough to strengthen ourselves for the immense challenges of the next decade or two. As Dennis Cokely pointed out, more people want mentoring than are able to receive it, and less than a third of the organization’s members are willing to provide it. Peer mentorship and process mediation are useful tools, but they each rely upon personal preferences and a kind of interpersonal chemistry to be effective. These supports are a significant step up from the casual informality promoted by the YPI (and we need all these types of support), but – as far as I am aware – none of them are standardized enough to be implemented in a systemic way. And, like it or not, want it or not, RID needs a system that can be institutionalized. By “institutionalized,” I mean organized procedurally so that it can be delivered across the country in a relatively uniform way to practicing interpreters of any language combination, in any setting, at every level of competence.

If you were inspired by Dennis’ argument that our profession is right now in a state of crisis, bear with me while I try to explain the logic. My argument is teleological and interpersonal.  The roots of our profession tell us that the relationship matters most. But which one? Aren’t there many relationships happening all at the same time? Where we are stuck (imho) is that we keep trying to make the entire profession about only one of the multiple ‘relationships’ present and active in any and every interaction involving simultaneous interpretation. We’re asking the deaf-interpreter relationship to bear the weight of the sum-total, all-encompassing, complete and irreducible whole of interpreted interaction as if all the other relationships are simply irrelevant. This bias made sense in the early days of the field. In fact, our profession could have begun no other way. But acting on the belief that the deaf-interpreter relationship is the only justification of our being a federally-mandated profession disregards the most important lesson we’ve learned from working as professionals providing simultaneous interpretation:  context matters.

Transnationalism is the context

Language policies are being contested around the world. Minority languages continue to fight for survival against the imposition of national languages and the spread of dominant languages.  Immigrants are moving in droves from country-to-country and most will need access to high-quality simultaneous interpretation at one time or another. We know that cultural diversity resides in languages!  Yet, in the embattled way of weary soldiers who can only perceive the outline of the trench they’ve been trapped in for the last … 100 years? … we are still strategizing as if the conditions of the fight are identical to what they were four decades ago.

What transnationalism does is inject global economics into interpersonal relationships. It isn’t only the interpreting profession that has become corporatized. Nearly everything has. The cushy middle-class lifestyle of professional interpreters is under threat, or at least the fear of threat. Some traditional ways of Deaf cultural life are changing, perhaps even vanishing, but these old ways are being replaced by new cultural forms of deafhood, some of which need interpreters less than they ever did before! We grieve the loss of ‘the origins’ so much because that era – the personalities and relationships – is a point of clear focus amidst a maze of multiple losses.

Vision looks ‘ahead’ to the unknown,
memory looks ‘back’ to the familiar

As many people said in various ways throughout the conference, RID needs a coherent vision. The birth was grand and the adolescent years were rough. Now, the sea is turbulent, but we’ve found a pool of calm by re-forging connections in sync with the original raison d’être.  This must remain our touchstone, but we need to enlarge our imagination to take in the ramifications of being players on the international scale. Sign language interpreters in the English-speaking countries are not only experts in sign language interpretation; we are uniquely positioned to become experts for all forms of simultaneous interpretation. Rather than looking to the charitable ethos of spoken language interpreters laboring under the voluntary or underpaid conditions of (the bad part) of ‘the good ol’ days’, we should be figuring out how to bring their working conditions up to par with our own! Strengthening the use of interpreting in all situations, with any languages, is a possibility that will open more doors for Deaf people than anything else we are in position to do.

Why? Because as people learn to interact well during interpreted interaction, they build new skills for communicating when the flow is un-even. The more flexibility in skill, the more capacity for making connections across difference. Increased capacity for connecting leads to more chances for relationships. This is the gift our profession can give the world: a specific practice of intercultural communication that improves equality, promotes justice, and even enables democratic participation in a more fair – and still diverse! – society.


[1] Quoted in The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. Mario Beauregard & Denyse O’Leary. Harper Perennial. 2008, p. 250.

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