Episode #3: Interpreter Identity with Dr. Steven Collins

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Steven will appear like this.


Hello, and welcome to the Wish You Knew podcast. I'm your host, Karen Bortvedt. First, I would like to thank all of you for tuning in for our third episode of the Wish You Knew podcast. Thanks to all of you who listened last week... For all of the likes on Facebook, the shares, the subscribes, the following of the newsletter. I can't tell you how much it meant to me to see all of those coming in. This week, our guest is following in the same theme from last week when we talked with Alex who represented a Deaf identity. This week, our guest is a sign language interpreter. His name is Dr. Steven Collins. And he is going to address many of the questions you sent to us about the job of an interpreter. So, let's go to Steven.


First, Steven, thank you so much for coming to share with us on the podcast. I am very excited to have you. I have a number of different questions for you today about interpreting in general, about deaf interpreting, some of them are questions that I came up with but many of them are from the people that are going to be listening to the podcast. Many of whom don't have much exposure to deaf culture or interpreters or Deaf Interpreters so there's a whole range of questions.



Yea, no problem. No problem. Go ahead, and I’ll try my best to answer them.


The first question is what is the job of a sign language interpreter? You've been in this profession for many years. Maybe you can tell us some of the changes you've seen in your time in the profession.


I mean in general, interpreters interpret from one language to another. Sign language interpreters usually interpret from a spoken language to a signed language and vice versa. And so just like any other interpreter, they’re interpreting between two languages. And actually just related to the previous question, part of the interpreter's responsibility is to also engage in what we call a cultural mediation where they help both parties understand one another through incorporating important important cultural information that makes the message understandable.


Well, actually, back to your second question. Interpreting has been around for many years, and sign language interpreting in the United States was sort of formalized when the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf was founded in the sixties, and they've been involved in professionalizing the profession, and they've helped to support efforts for deaf empowerment and this idea that deaf and hearing people are equal. And they have an opportunity to participate in society just like anybody else. And, I would say that the biggest change in the last several years, to the interpreting profession, has been the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA was passed about fifteen or twenty years ago, and that's been the most recent impact on the interpreting profession. And so our profession has developed and strengthened our ethical practices and procedures. And through the academic study of sign language linguistics, we now know more about what interpreters do and what they should be doing as a profession. And then, quite recently, video relay services became widely available on a nationwide level and so now interpreters and deaf people are able to call hearing people basically 24 hours a day using an interpreter to place that phone call. Sign language interpreters interact with deaf people through the VRS system and place phone calls for them, and so they’re experiencing types of sign language that they never would’ve seen before and experiencing accents that they wouldn't have seen and vocabulary and regionalisms that they wouldn't have known in the past, and so that's been a huge change.


You mentioned a formalizing the ethical practices around interpreting. What are some of the ethical issues that might come up when interpreting that many of us wouldn't think of?


Well in the old days, when interpreting was a very new profession, interpreters in the past may have, because they were usually interpreting for people they know and friends and family, they may have felt very comfortable inserting their opinions while interpreting. And so interpreters were very actively involved because they were part of the community and so they would sort of quote unquote “help" the deaf people who they were interpreting for, and now we know that isn't actually something that is beneficial. And so now the ethical practices are recognizing the fact that interpreters need to keep their opinions to themselves so that the participants in the conversation are actually speaking to one another without the influence of the interpreter.


Confidentiality for example is, is also a big issue. The deaf community is a small community and so if the interpreter leaves and talks about the things that they experienced during the interpreted interaction, that information gets out, and it violates the privacy of the participants who are involved. So now, the national interpreting organization, interpreting certification body, has a code of professional conduct, and it applies and protects both hearing and deaf participants and hearing and deaf communities. And so those are just a couple of examples about how the profession has raised the bar ethically, to make what sign language interpreters do more appropriate for the consumers.


We've been using the word “interpreter.” One of our listeners asked: “Is it a translator or is it an interpreter? Which word is correct? And are they the same thing?”


That’s a great question. Interpreter and translator are similar, but they’re very different functions. Translation generally suggests a process that’s done with the translator by themselves and moving from, usually it’s done between paper and paper, so it's, the translator has plenty of time to think and do research and get resources to understand more about the message that they're working with. And so for example someone might use an ASL video and type up an English version of that ASL message. That person, the translator, has plenty of time to work on that and consult with colleagues and experts and so forth.

An interpreter is generally interpreting between, I mean, and they’re always working between two languages, but there are two people there. So for example, you and I are working, communicating with one another, through an interpreter, so it's not a paper and pen process so to speak, so we are just speaking to one another in virtually real time, the interpreter doesn't have a lot of time to prepare and consult with someone else about the process. [This] often meant, people think that translators and interpreters are the same thing, but, it's often mostly a question of the time that it takes, and so a message is given to the interpreter and pretty quickly, the equivalent message in the other language is produced and it enables two people to speak with one another in virtually real time. Translation, again, suggests that more time was involved, a more polished product, and so forth.


And do you work as an interpreter, or a translator, or both depending on the situation?


I actually do both, and it depends on the situation. So myself, I’m a certified Deaf Interpreter. I’m a CDI they call us, and so most of my work is in interpretation. So I have someone there who is a deaf individual who gives me a message in ASL, and then, for example, I may be working with someone who is deaf and blind; I’m communicating with them through Tactile Sign Language, which is a form of ASL that's presented through touch. There’s a large population of deaf and blind people here in the community, and so that's my specialization. I have several other specializations, but you know many professions have that. Interpreters do as well; we have specializations. So most of my work is with the deaf and blind community. I do general interpreting as well in hospital settings or mental health settings, things like that. But you may be wondering, I’m a deaf person myself, and I work with other deaf people. And, it has to do with first and second language, so my first language is ASL. I was born deaf, and I grew up using American Sign Language, and it doesn't mean that hearing interpreters can't do a perfectly acceptable job interpreting. But because my first language is American Sign Language, I am able to understand deaf, and deaf and blind people, perhaps at a more in depth level than others.


And the same thing applies to people who interpret between spoken languages. If you are born as a French speaker, your understanding of French is going to be better than other people who may have learned English or Spanish first and became a spoken language interpreter later. I can give you an example of a couple of years ago, I was interpreting in a hospital setting, and I was interpreting for an older gentleman. And his ASL was just fine, but he had also recently suffered a stroke, and so his left hand was paralyzed. And I was able to understand him just fine but the interpreter who I was working with, the hearing interpreter, didn't understand him at all. And it's just because of the comfort level that I have as a first language American Sign Language user that I was able to understand him at a more in depth level, even though this person had experienced this medical situation that, that made his communication different. And so, for example, his finger spelling was quite different than the hearing interpreter was used to but I was able to understand him just fine. His facial grammar, that's an important part of American Sign Language, was different than the hearing interpreter would have expected. The hearing doctor was trying to make conclusions about the deaf individual's meaning through his facial expressions that weren't exactly what the hearing doctor expected.


And so my role was as a specialist in that setting. I might also work in mental health settings. You know, there might be a psychologist or someone who has a, a patient who's both deaf and blind. The hearing interpreter may understand them at a perfectly acceptable level during some parts of the conversation, but in other parts, I’m there as a specialist to help bridge the gap. Deaf Interpreters are often used in the court systems, for example. They often hire Certified Deaf Interpreters because of the nature of the communication - it's high stakes. It’s very important that it's accurate. And again hearing interpreters might do a perfectly acceptable job, but there may be moments when they don't fully understand what's being said by the deaf individual. There’s an element of American Sign Language called depiction that’s very visual, and in those moments, hearing interpreters may have a difficult time with some elements of the narrative. And so I’m able to be present and support the hearing interpreter. And often Deaf Interpreters are working with their hearing colleagues as a team. They’re usually not working alone. And even deaf consumers sometimes don't understand the role of the Deaf Interpreter, and so I’m educating both hearing and deaf consumers when I walk into a setting. And so Deaf Interpreters are really there for very specialized settings and work collaboratively with their hearing colleagues to make sure that the communication happens flawlessly.


Has the specialization of Certified Deaf Interpreter been around as long as the profession of interpreting? Or did it grow up later on?


So it's interesting, when the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf created the certification program for Certified Deaf Interpreters, that was in 1990's and it started with a small group of five or six interpreters. Now, there’s over 200 Certified Deaf Interpreters all across the US. Hearing interpreters have been certified for much longer. There was previously a different kind of certification for Deaf Interpreters, but, you know, it was something that was not really an interpreting certification, it was called the RFC. Those people actually did evaluations and other things, but the CDI as a profession was really established in the 1990's. Now, if you are talking about deaf people, who worked as Deaf Interpreters, they've been around for a long time. And I never thought of myself as a Deaf Interpreter, but me and many other deaf people worked as interpreters in the community just, you know, working the school system as teachers or just helping to clarify for friends and family. Many deaf people have done that throughout history, and they've served as intermediaries between deaf people and interpreters, or deaf people and hearing people, and that really deaf people have been serving that kind of role for many, many years even before certification.


K: You mentioned a growth from around five Deaf Interpreters originally up to about two hundred now, but you also said that some people in the deaf community don't understand the role of a Deaf Interpreter. Has the growth come because of a demand within the community, and is there a growing sense of understanding of the benefits of having a Deaf Interpreter working in a team with hearing interpreters? Or how do those different statements that in some ways conflict, lead to the change that you've mentioned?


I think many people have noticed in the past that there was something missing in the process, and it's not just the deaf community, it’s also professional interpreters, professional hearing interpreters, who recognize that there's something different and they needed support. So many people in the deaf community are still unfamiliar with what Deaf Interpreters can offer and what services they can provide. And it may not be until they experience something like going to a hearing at a court and realizing that they don’t fully understand what’s going on in the, in the court proceedings, and that might be the moment when they realize they would prefer to have a Certified Deaf Interpreter, so they can understand more about what’s going on in front of them in the court proceedings. And so things like that have served to increase demand for Certified Deaf Interpreters.


I’ve noticed there have been a number of Deaf Interpreters that have made the more mainstream news recently because they're serving as interpreters for press conferences related to the different storms or natural disasters that have been occurring. Is that a shift in the field to have them in that position, or is it just with social media we’re seeing it a lot more than we used to?


It had happened before but, I, you're right I think that the exposure is different now. I would say in the last couple of years we've seen Deaf Interpreters serve in that role more often. The nice thing about having Deaf Interpreters in a role like that is that the Deaf Interpreters are able to communicate in a way that is very crisp and clear and the message is very succinct, and it's just presented in a way that’s very easy to understand for the deaf audience. And so I wouldn't say it's all that new, but, I would say the last couple of years it's been the case. FEMA has started using Deaf Interpreters in the last couple of years more often, and I would think that probably the impetus was Hurricane Katrina. Right around the time of Hurricane Katrina a lot of deaf people in the audience just didn't understand the message presented in press conferences and things like that, and so they realized that they needed to have interpreters visible, and so FEMA has started working with Deaf Interpreters much more often, and so yeah, I would say it’s a phenomenon in the last couple of years.


I want to jump back to something you had mentioned that for Deaf Interpreters sometimes reading the visual cues or aspects is easier than for a hearing interpreter; you said they might would have a more challenging time understanding that aspect of the language. Someone had asked specifically if there are concepts that are difficult to translate or interpret from a sign language into a non-sign language and vice versa if you have any examples of those.


You know it's funny that you mention that, sometimes comedy is very difficult to interpret. Comedy is very culturally based, and it's often a play on words and so comedy is very difficult to present in an equivalent way. So the impact on the audience is not going to be the same. Anything that’s culturally based, it requires cultural knowledge to be able to understand it, whether it's comedy or not. If it's strongly culturally based, it's not going to translate. So there's a sign, for example, that is presented and looks sort of like a train, and the train having left the station; that sign is commonly interpreted as, you know, “it's too late” or “you missed the boat” or “you missed the train” or you missed, you know, something. It, it conveys the message that it's too late. The ASL that's used is the sign for train, and the train leaving the station and leaving you behind. And so coming up with the appropriate English for that phrase used in that moment, in that context, can be challenging sometimes. And so that's an example, that would be an example, of something that, that would be an idiom.


That's a great example. Another one of the listeners asked a question along the same lines. Apparently, Eskimos have many different words for “snow,” but in English we just have the one word for snow; regardless of the variety. Are there words like that in American Sign Language that maybe there’s only one sign for but there’s many English words, or vice versa? There's one English word but there's many different signs that express that same word?


I don't know if this is an example of this, but the sign for run, the English word "run" "R-U-N" in English it can many things. It can mean your nose is running, or or you're running like an athlete, or you run an organization, or you run for president as in running during the election. And so there are many uses of that word. And I don't know if that's an example of what you're talking about but in English, "run" just sounds like run. But in ASL those are all different signs. Another example might be "key." So in English, the word is “key,” but in ASL there is a sign that means "key" as in, “important”; “key” as in, “the key that opens your door.” Glass might be another example. So in English, the word is “glass,” but in ASL, there's a sign for the substance that your window's made out of, there's a sign for the object that you drink out of, as of a container. There's, you know, even your lenses in your glasses, and so I don't know if that is what you're referring to.


Yeah, exactly. Those are great examples. And I think for many people who have never learned a signed language, those may be very enlightening; that it's not “one word equals one sign.”


That's exactly right. That's exactly right. The process the interpreter goes through is they take the entire message, they're not looking at one individual word. And the grammatical structure of ASL isn't the same as the grammatical structure of English; it would be like thinking that the grammatical structure of spoken French and the grammatical structure of spoken English is the same. They aren't. They all have their own nuances, even though there are similarities across language. Spanish is different than English even though there are family connections across language families. So American Sign Language and English are not the same.


To me it sounds like being a Deaf Interpreter is a very unique skill set. Are there circumstances that make you feel like it's sort of like having a super power because of that skill?


I don't know...no I wouldn't say so, no. Not sure exactly how to say it... I really feel humble about the responsibility I have. I work collaboratively with the deaf consumer and my hearing interpreter team, and the hearing consumers. You know, I wouldn't say I have a super power. I think we're all working collaboratively to make sure the communication happens. We all show up and we have different skills to bring to the table, and we're all there with the one goal of making sure that the communication happens.


What from your job brings you the greatest joy?


Really I think that working with deaf blind consumers is my favorite things. It's not everybody's cup of tea, but I love it. So deaf and blind people I don't know, you know, it can easily sound like there's pity involved in helping somebody who's less fortunate. But really that's not what I'm talking about at all. What I'm talking about is: I love communicating with them; I love helping the message get from them to the person that they want to speak with, and vice versa; making them understand what the people around them are saying to them, and I just, I love it!


A number of people asked questions about what those of us who are hearing, that might not have exposure to deaf culture, can do. One person specifically asked, “what are things that we hearing folks do that are hurtful or offensive? That we might not realize are hurtful or offensive?”


You know that's a great question. I need to think a little bit more about that I'm not... that's really an outstanding question. I'm not sure. Yeah, I'm not sure... Just off the top of my head I would say that the idea that being deaf is an impairment. I think many people use the words “hearing impaired” and many deaf people who sign using American Sign Language, we refer to ourselves as “deaf.” And “deaf” is not offensive. And so, it's more offensive to us to say "hearing impaired." Often if you want to include people who are not culturally deaf and not necessarily ASL users, you could say "deaf and hard of hearing," for example, and that's also acceptable as a catch-all phrase for a larger community. But, yeah, “hearing impaired” has a lot of baggage, and it has it carries with it the medical view of hearing loss. That isn't really what we're talking about, and so I would say that. I can't really think of other examples but that is one that I can, that I would say is kind of offensive.


Another person asked: “What should I, as a hearing person, do if i don't have any sign language knowledge, if I meet a stranger who is deaf? What is the best way to engage if an interpreter is not available?”


Well, you could write back and forth; paper and pencil is always a perfectly acceptable thing to try. Sometimes I'll go to a store and I'll have a notepad with me, and I'll try to write with someone, and hearing people look scared or offended, or put off by that. You could also try and gesture. Sometimes hearing people are afraid to gesture. Pointing, using mime, acting things out, that's perfectly acceptable. There are things that are very easy to come up with on the spot, like the sign for flowers or the sign for “drink” or “to look for something.” Those things are things that most people can figure out. And so, just trying to gesture with someone, to engage and communicate, is a perfectly acceptable approach.


I believe it was the same listener also asked: “What are your recommended strategies for people who are outside the deaf community, to advocate to have a more inclusive community or a more inclusive environment for deaf individuals?”


Well, learning how to sign ASL I think is the number one thing. If I'm somewhere and I see people signing, I feel much more comfortable, much more welcome. If you have customers or neighbors, or whoever it might be, and you expect them to lip read, that's a big turnoff right there. But if someone is trying to finger spell or use whatever rudimentary sign language they have, or again like I mentioned gesture, that goes a long way in making deaf people feel welcome.


If someone is in a situation where an interpreter is present, how do you work with an interpreter? Or, what are your recommendations? That probably should have been my very first question...


Oh, really the number one rule about working with an interpreter is you speak directly to the deaf person. So you make eye contact with the deaf person and you speak to them as if they can hear you. So instead of saying "oh tell Steven... tell Steven... tell Steven.." instead of doing that, you just speak to me as if I can hear you, and the interpreter will interpret your message for you. And again, it’s really important to look at the deaf person, don't look at the interpreter, because you're really speaking to the deaf person. You're not speaking to the interpreter, you're speaking through the interpreter. So it makes sense that you might think that, but, you really want to look at the deaf person. It can be really disconcerting to have the hearing person looking at the interpreter all the time when they are really speaking to me, and so I think that would be the number one tip I would give.


So you've mentioned a lot of different strategies strategies, are there resources that you can think of off the top of your head where people can start looking, if they need an interpreter or if they would like  to learn ASL, or if they just want to get a better understanding of the field? Are there some places they can look?


If you're looking for a sign language interpreter, there are resources on the internet. You can go to www.rid.org. There are resources there that can help you find an interpreter, documents that help explain what an interpreter does, and if you just look at the menus and navigate through the menus, that can help you find an interpreting agency or an interpreter in private practice in your area. So that's one way to start. If you're wanting to learn American Sign Language, you can also start at the internet. Most community colleges all across the country have American Sign Language courses. We have American Sign Language courses here at Gallaudet University. There are some American Sign Language courses offered online. There [are] some courses that are offered in a hybrid fashion so that they're partly online and partly in-person in the classroom. So, and again, community colleges all across the US offer sign language classes. And so I think that is a really great place to start. And again, not every college or university is going to offer sign language classes, but community colleges are really an affordable and very convenient place to start. Most major cities have them and again if you just start with the internet and see what they have available, you'll find many community colleges that do offer American Sign Language.


You also mentioned getting more involved. If people want to get involved with the deaf community there's not one way to do it. There are many, many different ways, and there's not one place to go for resources. If you live near a residential school for the deaf - we have a residential school for the deaf on campus at Gallaudet University for example - one way to start getting involved is to contact the schools and find out if there are plays or sporting events. If you live in California, there are residential schools out there. The State of Maryland has a couple of residential schools, and so there are all across the country. So that would be one way to get involved and to just learn more about the community, by participating in community events. There are mainstream programs in different school systems, you could contact them and just see if they have a need for volunteers. Another organization you should be aware of [is] called the National Association of the Deaf, and so www.nad.org also has resources on deaf people, the deaf community, and deaf history, and that I think that would be a another great place to start.


Those are all great resources. Thank you very much. As we draw to a close, the idea of the podcast - the name of the podcast is Wish You Knew - so if you had to summarize all of this, if someone only listened to the answer to this one question, what would be one to three things that you wish we knew about interpreters or Deaf Interpreters?


I’d say that the important thing is that they should respect the community. American Sign Language is a language, just like English is a language, and one isn't better than the other. So it's been the case that I've heard people [have] showed video from the TV news and said “Oh this interpreter is so beautiful! I love ASL.” And really, the work that they were doing wasn't all that great. So I think that’s one of my, one of the things that I wish people knew, is that it's a language just like any other and that they need to know a language, and learn more about it, in order to really fully appreciate it.


K: Seems like a great place to end to me, thank you so much for being on the show. I know that we have all learned a lot from your answers. And, I hope our listeners got all their questions answered. And, if not, Steven gave us a lot of great resources where we can turn for answers. Thank you.


Yeah, no problem, no problem, thank you very much. I really enjoyed participating in your podcast.


Again, thanks to Steven for being on the show and thanks to everyone who helped to make this show possible. There is a long list of people so I won't name them all but you know who you are. Thank you also to our listeners who submitted questions. If you would like to have your questions answered on the show, you can go to our website. Wishyouknewpodcast.com and under the list of upcoming interviews, you will see places where you can click and submit a form with any questions you have for an identity that will be interviewed on an upcoming show.


Next week, we will be talking with someone who lost their house to a hurricane. These folks lived through Super Storm Sandy back five years ago. So, we are doing that episode to in anniversary of that storm and to remember all of those going through the same thing now throughout the US, throughout the Virgin Islands, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, all the places that have been hit by the recent hurricanes. So, if you have been watching that unfold on the news and you have questions you would like to ask someone who has experienced that and lost their house to a hurricane, please go on the website and submit your questions. We will try to get those answered on the show. So, be sure to tune in next week. Until then, remember people are people are people. Keep listening. Keep learning. Keep loving.