Defer to the Deaf Person: Interpreters and Quality Control

The story about the charlatan “signed language interpreter” at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service raises awareness about a problem that’s received little attention in mainstream media. This is the problem of signed language interpreter quality control. This is a huge issue in many deaf communities, but I want to focus on the version of the problem that comes up for deaf academics, including deaf philosophers.

Highly professional signed language interpreters follow professional codes of ethics tenets stating interpreters should not accept assignments they aren’t qualified for.

From what I’ve been able to determine, the man who waved his hands around at Mandela’s service was not a signed language interpreter at all, but merely trying to pass as one.  That’s an extreme version of the problem of  ‘Bad Fit to the Assignment’.

The more common version of the ‘Bad Fit to the Assignment’ problem encountered by deaf academics is the interpreter who accepts an assignment for which she is not qualified.

Sometimes this happens by accident – perhaps vital information about the assignment was not supplied  to the interpreter when she made the decision to accept the assignment. Sometimes this happens by hubris – I’ve seen more than a few cocky interpreters who think they can handle anything melt down during philosophy colloquia, both during the reading of the paper and the Q&A. Sometimes this happens because the person handling the request for interpreter accommodations makes mistakes or bad decisions.

When a deaf academic decides to attend an academic event outside of her home community, the process goes something like this.

  1. See if the conference/workshop/annual meeting registration form lists a contact person for disability accommodations.
  2. If there is no conference/workshop/annual meeting contact person on the registration form or conference website, expect to invest some hours identifying this person. Seasoned academics with disabilities will recognize this as the point when one mentally allocates a portion of one’s free time to the ‘job’ of being disabled.
  3. After the contact person is identified, make the request for accommodations, providing as much detail as possible. E.g. if I’m requesting an interpreter for a conference in London, I make a special point of emphasizing that I will need an interpreter for American Sign Language (ASL)  (BSL) –English not British Sign Language-English. (ASL and BSL are two completely different sign languages, they use different alphabets, and don’t even come from the same language family!). The deaf academic should also inform the contact person that she expects to be involved in the process of identifying and vetting the signed language interpreter.

Once the request gets underway, this is where things fall apart.

How to avoid this?

Here’s what you can do as a conference/workshop/annual meeting/colloquium organizer to make a better experience for everyone.

  1. First, involve the deaf person. In particular, deaf academics often have networks of interpreters and other deaf academics who are familiar with the local pool of interpreters and who is qualified to interpret high register academic discourse. Do not brush off the deaf person’s offer of assistance by telling her that you or your university will handle this yourself — even if you happen to be fluent in the local community signed language. Ask us what we need and communicate with us about possible constraints (not just money, but local resources). Odds are good that we’ve encountered similar problems before and may have some solutions.
  2. Don’t try to save money by doing the legwork yourself, e.g. contacting your niece’s friend who interprets at her church every Sunday. Even if the niece’s friend is certified through say, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID is a US American professional organization for signed language interpreters), she may still not have the qualifications and skills necessary to interpret the assignment. Interpreting philosophy is both demanding and difficult. Many topnotch interpreters won’t take on this kind of highly specialized assignment for fear their skills may not be up to the task.
  3. Trust the deaf academic’s assessment. If the deaf academic turns down an interpreter, do not ignore this and substitute your own judgment regarding whether or not the interpreter is suitable for the assignment. This holds even if say, your home university tries to foist a specific interpreter on the deaf academic. Interpreters are NOT fungible. There may be reasons beyond skill level for rejecting an interpreter – sometimes it is a matter of concerns about confidentiality, sometimes there are reasons of gender preference, sometimes there are concerns about the interpreter’s professionalism.

Last but not least: a reminder, followed by a coda*:

  • Deaf and hard of hearing people have long been excluded from things that concern us – witness the frequency at which we see/hear the phrases “Never mind”, “I’ll tell you later” and “It’s not important”. This pattern also gets extended to our accessibility accommodations. Our expertise is often dismissed (implicit bias, anyone?) even when we are the best person on the planet to make such judgments. (As a personal aside, my professional judgment has been dismissed out of hand (ahem) – and I’ve created much of the ASL philosophical lexicon currently in use.)
  • If you want to be an ally to deaf academics, recognize us as experts in not just our academic discipline, but in our own accessibility accommodations.

*Insider joke for deafies.

5 thoughts on “Defer to the Deaf Person: Interpreters and Quality Control

  1. The more common version of the ‘Bad Fit to the Assignment’ problem encountered by deaf academics is the interpreter who accepts an assignment for which she is not qualified.

    This has been a very interesting discussion about a problem that _should_ be obvious, but I will admit I hadn’t specifically thought of. Translation of any sort is _hard_. Simultaneous translation (that is, where there’s not gaps in the communication for the translator to work in) is _very_ hard, almost always beyond the ability of even fully fluent multi-lingual speakers. Although I’ll admit that I hadn’t much thought of it, it would be very surprising if it was any different in the case of signers. Of course, the difficulty is only amplified when specialized terminology is used. The difficulty in simultaneous translation of any sort is often not obvious to people who have not tried it, but pretty clear to those who have to put up with a bad job of it. I expect that this is a very common phenomena for deaf people, giving all the more reason to take the issue seriously and rely on their expertise.

  2. My first semester as a TA I had a deaf student in one of my sections. It wasn’t until he came to my office hours to talk about the final exam that I realized how poorly he understood all of the technical language because his interpreter was translating phonetically and inconsistently. I’m sure this wasn’t his only problem (his grammar and style were terrible, which I suspect was at least partially because his high school kept giving him passing grades and hoping that someone down the line would invest the time to really teach him to write), but it was a problem that as a non-disabled person I had never considered.

  3. I’m wrestling with your first statement about quality control. I haven’t read the specifics about the imposter interpreter, but I’m puzzled (and a bit pissed off) at how that individual could have been allowed to: 1. feel compelled to do that at all, but 2. be allowed to do it for as long as he did. In my experience, interpreters tend to work in teams (to prevent one’s hands from exhaustion-as I’ve been told). So I’m wondering, where the hell was the team to pull him off the stage and take over?

    The other thing that’s hurting my heart (and perhaps that’s the point being driven here) is how an interpreter’s credentials can go unchecked. I’m ignorant of the behind the scene processes for hiring an interpreter. Where I work we basically put in a request through the interpreting department. But this is truly making me think about how easy it is to assume that a process instantly serves a need, without checking into the specifics of that need, or following up for feedback if the needs were met, or how to improve the service. To me that isn’t just about quality of service, but quality of care for the community served. And that’s what I think hurts the most about the story of the imposter. It isn’t just about him, but that no one stopped him, demonstrating a lack of care for the Deaf community tuning in. At Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Sometimes irony can just stop.

    Perhaps on the other side of the outrage, this incident is giving all of us room to think deeply about the fact that we can’t just assume a process works for convience’s sake, but that we need to ensure processes works for compassion’s sake.

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