Interpreting Services Insights

By Gwen Walton

Over the years, I’ve seen all kinds of different reactions from people when I walk up to them for the first time and say, “Hello, I’m your sign language interpreter today.” Most people are excited and eager to exchange information in a new way. American Sign Language is a beautiful and remarkable language, after all. Yet there have been a few times when a person, confronted with something unknown to them, has reacted less than amicably. I’ve seen people annoyed and confused at the disruption to their routine and clouded by their misconceptions about Deaf people. First times can be awkward. Sometimes just fitting an extra person in a small room entails some dancing around and literally stepping on toes. And while it may be easy for me become frustrated as well and think, “Get with the program!” this is equally unfair. Armed with basic knowledge about the interpreting process, any professional working with Deaf people will find his or her interactions not only successful, but natural as well. Here are some tips and things to keep in mind when working with interpreters:

  • Speak directly to the Deaf person. Look at them when you speak and avoid saying “Tell her…” or  “Ask him if…” etc. Remember the interpreter is assuming your voice and directing the interpreter to interpret is unnecessary and has the unwanted side effect of diminishing the connection between you and your Deaf client. If you do say “Tell him…” the interpreter will likely say “Tell him…” in Sign Language. 
  • Expect everything you say within earshot of the interpreter and Deaf person to be interpreted. This includes side comments and conversations (in most cases except when doing so would violate HIPAA regulations) as well as environmental noises. Asking an interpreter not to interpret something would breach the interpreter’s ethical commitment to provide full access to communication to the Deaf person(s). 
  • While in the midst of communicating with your Deaf client, avoid addressing the interpreter directly. This can become confusing in regards to who is speaking and the interpreter must sign his or her response to you. 
  • Expect some information to take a bit longer to interpret. While much of spoken English can be transmitted at the same pace in Sign Language, you may notice some lag time or the interpreter taking extra time to explain certain concepts. The same can be true from Sign Language to English. It is also common for an interpreter to ask for clarification from you or the Deaf client (spelling of certain proper nouns or explanation of specialized words, for instance). The interpreter may ask you to repeat yourself. This is all done to ensure accurate and faithful interpretations. 
  • Be mindful of positioning and lighting. The most optimal arrangement is when the Deaf person can see both you and the interpreter at the same time. Good lighting is also necessary for a Deaf person to see information. If the situation requires low lighting, such as an eye doctor appointment or xray, explain beforehand what the Deaf person can expect or agree on a code (i.e. tapping the patient on the shoulder when you want him to hold his breath).
  • Use specifics whenever possible. While English uses generalizations often, American Sign Language relies heavily of details and examples. For instance, instead of saying, “Take this medication twice a day,” say instead, “You can take this medication in the morning and at dinner time.” 
  • Provide preparation materials to the interpreter whenever possible. If you are doing a presentation, print a copy of the PowerPoint for the interpreter. Provide the interpreter with agendas and other printed materials that you may utilize. For events that include presentations and songs, provide scripts and lyrics to the interpreter. This information can be provided at the time that the interpreter is scheduled and an agency will be happy to coordinate that with you. These materials are effective and sometimes essential tools for accurate communication. 
  • Be yourself! Speak at a natural pace and volume to the Deaf person and the interpreter will take the responsibility of interrupting you if he or she needs to catch up or clarify. 

My final recommendation is to remain flexible! It can take a few tries to get everything right. But Deaf people can recognize when someone is willing and open minded, qualities that go a long way in establishing connections. And the remember, the interpreter is not only there for the Deaf person, she is there working for you too. Using her effectively can create positive experiences for everyone involved.

One of the most common questions I am asked on the job is, “Why are you [the interpreter] not sitting inside the room with the Deaf person?” Actually, our professional policy that dictates that the interpreter not be in a private room alone with Deaf clients can be big source of confusion for hearing and Deaf people alike, and often I find myself doing a little bit of explaining. I’m going to try and explain the policy again here, and hopefully with more eloquence than I have done in the past when put on the spot (Trying to be thorough and detailed while simultaneously trying to respect a busy person’s  time is hard!

Partnership Deaf Service has their own explicit policy stating, “Interpreters shall not sit inside a private room with a Deaf consumer(s) unless communication is occurring between medical staff and patients.” But it’s also worth mentioning that there is consensus on the national level that policies similar to this demonstrate best practices for the interpreting profession. In other words, the Big-Wigs in the Deaf and Interpreting communities all over the US agree that interpreters should not wait alone with the Deaf client. And despite this consensus, many areas are still transitioning and working to adopt this policy, Chattanooga included. That’s why you may remember a not so distant past when the interpreter would stay in a hospital room all night with a patient, and yet is now asking for a chair in the hall.

The justification for this practice comes down to two things: Understanding the role of the interpreter, and avoiding mental fatigue. 

Understanding the Role of the Interpreter

As a Sign Language Interpreter my number one priority is to provide equal access to Deaf consumers. Within that giant task of providing equal access is the idea that not only are we providing access to communication, but also working to provide an equivalent experience to the Deaf consumer. It is true that people without hearing loss don’t have an extra person in the room when they go to a doctor’s appointment or job interview, and we cannot eliminate our presence and provide a service at the same time, but we CAN work to minimize our impact on the situation as much as possible. That’s why an interpreter won’t have a side conversation with the doctor while the Deaf person waits  her turn, nor omit or change what a speaker has to say. Interpreter’s also won’t give Deaf people advice, won’t provide our opinions, and basically take on the attitude of, “Aside from this whole communication/interpreting bit, just pretend I’m not here!” 

The point is, an interpreter’s role is to bridge a communication barrier. If you are not in the room trying to communicate with your Deaf client, there is no professional need for the interpreter to be there. To provide an equivalent experience for the Deaf person is to not be in his or her private room. Keeping professional boundaries is advantageous for everyone. 

Afterall, interpreters are experts in language and linguistics and cultural mediation. They are NOT experts in comforting patients, and since they are not qualified to provide their opinions or judgements, interpreters cannot watch or monitor a patient or privately discuss personal situations. These functions should be performed by the doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, and other experts. 

There is, as always, a legal justification as well. Professional liability insurance covers interpreter only if they are performing their professional duties, and as we’ve already established, hanging out with Deaf clients alone is outside an interpreter’s scope of practice. Additionally, an interpreter may be held accountable for and accident that occurs with no other professionals around, or liable for litigation should a Deaf person make a conduct accusation against an interpreter when there were no witnesses. As your lawyer, I advise you to have the interpreter wait outside the room. Just kidding, but you get the idea. 

Avoiding Mental Fatigue

I know that we interpreters look relaxed up there, effortlessly signing away, maybe smiling, at attention, executing what looks like a perfectly choreographed dance. Perhaps you’ve found yourself getting lost in the unicorn magic of the signing interpreter or deaf person instead of paying attention to the lecture…Busted!...don’t worry, you’re not alone. But, take it from me, it may look easy, but there is a lot happening behind the scenes. Our brains are throwing down to get the work done! Interpreting, especially simultaneous interpreting, is cognitively demanding. 

Imagine listening to a speaker and in your head at the same time, repeating every sentence in your own words back to yourself… for one hour straight. Does that sound like it might fry your mind a bit? 

Well, that’s what we are doing. We are listening, analysing for meaning, changing the language mentally, and then expressing it in the other language, all on loop and at the same time. This is why interpreters should take regular breaks. The mind needs a breather when it’s been working hard. Unfortunately, when an interpreter is in a private room, his or her brain is busy with conversation and/or processing information and still remaining “on” as a professional in the presence of a Deaf consumer. Depending on the situation, personal conversations can be emotionally draining as well. It is important that the interpreter not be fatigued when the actual interpreting does occur. A mentally exhausted interpreter might not be as effective as a rested one. When you leave the room, it is an opportunity for the interpreter to reset. 

What about possible HIPAA violations?

I have encountered some medical offices where the staff is concerned that an interpreter in the hallway compromises what would otherwise be private information and conversations passed between staff members. The good news is, Partnership interpreters are HIPAA trained. We are familiar with rules and regulations as it applies to interpreters in a medical setting. We are also bound by our own ethical code though our certifications that stipulate strict confidentiality of all information encountered while working, including personal medical information. If you still feel that your environment is just too sensitive for and interpreter to be in, we are happy to wait in a nearby room, away from desks, or even in a waiting room. We are flexible creatures used to adapting to all kind of situations. Talk to us about your needs, and we’ll work with you. 

Team Interpreting

September 17th, 2018

By Kevin Slater

       On occasion, an interpreting agency might recommend two interpreters be sent to a given job or assignment. Have you ever wondered why this might be? Shouldn’t one interpreter be enough to convey whatever message is being presented between yourself and the Deaf client? The answer is simple: the work of interpreting is mentally strenuous. In most cases, one interpreter is sufficient (think doctor’s office visit, a one-on-one meeting between an employer and their Deaf employee). Occasionally, though, two interpreters might be recommended due to length of time or complexity of the topic being discussed. An interpreter’s product is only as good as their mental capacity allows. Imagine one interpreter trying to keep up with someone presenting on nuclear fusion or on the way a computer sub-system is supposed to run. A professional interpreter would prepare beforehand, researching as much as possible. Oftentimes, information is not readily available, making it difficult to learn anything substantial prior to an interpreting job. This is where a second interpreter is useful. Colloquially referred to as a “team” of interpreters, these two individuals (and in rare cases more than two) will break up the work in chunks of time, switching between active and support interpreting. The active interpreter is the one you see signing and/or speaking, as needed. The support interpreter is usually seated, facing the active interpreter, attending to the message and providing “feeds” (information that the active interpreter might have misheard or misunderstood, as well as information the active interpreter might not be able to see, such as information on a PowerPoint). Breaking up the work into chunks of time, usually 15-20 minutes before switching between active and support interpreting, allows the interpreters time to mentally recuperate. Because the work of interpreting is mentally taxing, these team interpreters are vital, working together to provide the clearest interpreted message to those that need it.

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