The self-reflecting interpreter

Original article in Dutch by Lisa Hinderks. Translated and posted with permission.

During our studies Anthropology, we have constantly been urged to be conscious of our own position. Who are we, what kind of environment are we in? What kind of experiences or knowledge do we possess, and in what way do our experiences affect our views? And in what way do we affect these environments that we are in, with our own views? When you do research as an anthropologist about a certain culture, and you are trying to understand a culture, you are to understand yourself first. When you understand yourself, and know your weaknesses, know what your opinions and visions are based on, that is when you are able to (partially) understand a different culture or community. It is even so important to be aware of your own prejudices, privileges, and conceptions. But the fact that you are a woman or a man, a white person or a Black person, and deaf or hearing, will always have an influence on how people react to you.

In what way do we affect these environments that we are in, with our own views?

I am often very conscious of how people react to me as a deaf, white and female researcher and journalist. Which part of my identity is put in the spotlights, depends on the situation. And it is not always fun to be so self-conscious about myself. When I am in a group with just hearing people, I am aware that I stand out as the only deaf person in the group. Suddenly, it matters less that I am a researcher or a journalist. At that moment, I am also conscious that whatever I say, will affect their thoughts and views about the whole Deaf community. I know people react to me in different ways, depending on their own knowledge or experiences with deaf people they have already (or not) met. Do I keep that in mind? Always. I am (almost) always conscious of my being deaf, except when I am among the Deaf. When I am in a group that solely consists of men, either deaf or hearing, then I am (sometimes) a little more conscious of my being a female. Even more so when it is called out by those present because of their gender-related remarks. Some men will act differently, solely because I am in their presence. Do I often think about this? Yes. Constantly. Always. Who am I? And in what way do I affect my environment? But also, in what way does my environment affect me?

Now, on to the sign language interpreting profession, a peculiar, yet important profession. Which role do you have as an interpreter? You are part of the Deaf community, but at the same time you are not. You are interpreting between a language of a minority group and a language of the dominating majority group. You are interpreting for a group whose language has not been recognized until recently, and even has been forbidden for a while in the past, a language that has been ridiculed or mocked (and sometimes lauded or idealized). For a community that has often been disadvantaged, discriminated against, and hardly taken seriously. For people who are constantly preoccupied with how to present themselves, and are often concerned about their own deafness. For a group for whom information has been inadequate, inaccessible, unknown, or just never touched upon at schools. There are people who are so tired of fighting, that the frustration of asking for accessibility every time, shows clearly on their faces. You are interpreting for people who have been disregarded as less in some situations, and as a consequence thereof disregard themselves as less (which is absolutely not true). You work for a community that struggles hard to be heard, but often remains unseen. Being the interpreter, you are an access portal to the hearing community, and vice versa.

You work for a community that struggles hard to be heard, but often remains unseen.

To be able to deliver a good interpretation you have to understand who you are working with, and which group they identify themselves with. What pain have they been through? And also what accomplishments did they achieve? How do these people who can’t hear, experience a society that is based on sound? How does it feel for us to have to communicate through you? Do you recognize our pain, our feelings, and our daily struggles? Therefore it is paramount to be aware of your own position. Are you a hearing interpreter? Then you have the privilege that you grew up as a hearing person in a society that works for you, and that you are many steps ahead of your fellow deaf person. You have the privilege to have grown up with information that has almost always been accessible to you. You have the advantage that you can make a phone call, easily approach someone on the streets, and that people are more willing to approach you. You are not judged for not being able to hear.

The fact that you are a male interpreter, or a female interpreter, that you are a Black interpreter, or a white interpreter, already affects how people behave towards you. And not only this, what knowledge you possess, will also be a crucial factor. Your presence greatly affects the interpreting situation. Depending on both your interpretation and your presence, your deaf client will get a better or worse exam result. They will get the job of their dreams or not. Depending on the way you interpret our signs into the spoken word, we are judged as more intelligent than we are, or indeed the opposite. Because of your presence, we sometimes get treated differently. Sometimes you are seen as an helper, or people think that you speak on our behalf, instead of interpreting for us. In some cases it is frustrating and painful for us that we have to communicate through an interpreter and still don’t get understood correctly. Would we have preferred a different way? Certainly. Not all interpreters realize that we do. And not all Deaf people are aware of this option either. And for hearing people, this is just unimaginable. In what way do you affect your environment? And in what way does the environment affect you?

In what way do you affect your environment? And in what way does the environment affect you?

As an interpreter, you are in a difficult position. You are on the very boundary between the hearing people and the Deaf people. And it is of the essence to be conscious that you are not the (figurative) voice of the Deaf community, because the Deaf are perfectly able to express by themselves what they want. This is often misunderstood by the dominant majority, who don’t, or barely know about the Deaf community. “You know about the community, right? Can’t you talk about them?” For many hearing people, you are the easy way, because conversing with the Deaf can be “so troublesome” sometimes. That is yet another privilege of yours. So how can you aptly use your privilege, without hurting the Deaf again (who have been hurt by their fellow hearing people time and time again). If you still speak for the Deaf, nonetheless, then you are the umpteenth hearing person stealing our spotlight. And at some point in time, enough will be enough. It is time for self-reflection. Which position do you have inside, or around the Deaf community? What kind of background are you coming from, and how does this affect your job? Which experiences have shaped you, and which experiences shape your view of the Deaf community? Who are you for us, for yourself, and for your colleagues? And in what way do you use your privileges for us? What kind of interpreter are you? And more importantly: what kind of interpreter do you want to be?

What are your thoughts?