Using an interpreter: What not to do.

I’ve recently taken up doing something that will probably drive me bananas.

A small education about interpreters, ADA, and why taking sign language classes does not mean you can interpret.

It is against the law to offer anything unless you are willing to make it accessible to everyone. That’s why there are ramps to most stores, and guide dogs are allowed in places of business.

Something a lot of people may not realize though is that this law (The ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) also stipulates that any place of business must hire interpreters if the Deaf client needs one for communication. This applies to hospitals, companies, schools, and pretty much any place that is not a “non-profit” organization. If you make money doing it, then you are required to make it accessible. Sometimes this means Deaf people are discriminated against, because hiring an interpreter is expensive. The average hourly rate for an interpreter varies, but generally it can be between $30 – $50. (I’m not in this price range, but I’m also not up to “average” yet, as I haven’t been doing this very long).

The reasons for hiring an interpreter vary. For doctors it may be tempting to pull in the nurse from down the hall who took a few sign language classes. Unfortunately, much like some one who has taken a few German or Spanish classes, having a vocabulary does not mean you can speak the language. ASL is a very different language from English. It has its own nuances and grammatical structure, translating between the two nuances can be very difficult.

One example I can think of is, if you were at the Doctor and they said “Your prognosis is not good, you may want to get your affairs in order.” What would that mean to you? In English, it means you’re probably going to die. Soon. But, translate this sentence in signs (with out taking into account the nuances of ASL) and you might just be telling the Deaf person that literally “this future is not good” (which could mean a large multitude of things) and the phrase “Get your affairs in order” does not exist in ASL. So you would be telling them to do what? Organize their life? Translating word-for-word is not the same as interpreting. A professional interpreter would be able to handle a situation like this, leaving the Deaf person with the appropriate message.

Consider the language we use in English. In colleges, doctors’ offices, banks, and churches. The language used in each of these venues varies greatly. You would never hear some one say “Jesus is the light.” in a doctor’s office, where as you would never ask some one is they’ve taken any drugs recently (“drugs”, by the way is difficult to interpret because to hearing people this could mean prescription, OTC, and illegal drugs, where as in ASL there isn’t a sign to cover these categories together, so it requires listing. Should the interpreter not include a label the include “cough syrup” the Deaf person might not think it counts in the list. Tricky Tricky.).

In Tennessee, before moving to Virginia, I did a bit of Church interpreting. Not for my own church, but at a local non-denominational church. I was paid for my work as well. Much like if the church needed to hire a plumber, they wouldn’t expect the plumber to come in a work for free – interpreting is my job. It puts a toll on my mind, and on my hands and elbows.

What I really wanted to talked about before I started ranting on about being an interpreter:

I know that my church does not pay interpreters. Some churches are not considered non-profit because the pastor (or other people involved in the management of the church) are paid by the money collected during offerings. The LDS church though is non-profit. The money they collect through offerings and tithing goes towards helping the community, and helping during disasters. The people “in-charge” of the chuch (bishops, stake presidents, etc.) are not paid for the services. This also means that the LDS church is not required to provide interpreters.

This is a bad thing. A very bad thing. Very very very bad. For many reasons.

  1. They take volunteers. Now generally, I am all for volunteering. Considering I currently volunteer 3 hours every Sunday to interpret, I can’t say volunteering (the action) is bad. But sometimes, when you rely on volunteer… you get what you pay for. Many of the interpreters I have worked with at church are under-qualified, and not really able to do the job well.
  2. They expect too much. Three hours is a very very very long time. The Deaf people we are working with are used to using interpreters, and have come to expect that they can say “I prefer *this type* of sign language” and that’s what they get. If you have little experience in interpreting, you probably don’t know the different modes of sign language, and even if you do… it is stressful.
  3. They don’t give you anything to prepare with. Where I work now I get the outline for the meetings the day before the meetings. I am able to prepare, and perform better because of it.
  4. They don’t know how to use an interpreter. An interpreter is a tool. This is a problem in this church setting for three reasons.
    1. Volunteer interpreters don’t know their place in this process. It is not appropriate for an interpreter to interject their own thoughts into a conversation they are interpreting.
    2. If I am focused on translating from one language to the next language with the best of my ability, I am focusing on the conceptual meaning, and not on the spiritual meaning. This defeats the purpose of me going to church. I do not leave feeling spiritually uplifted, rather I leave feeling worn out. I don’t get to listen to, and internalize, the meaning of the lessons taught because I am too busy processing the words in a different way. The sense of community is lost to me because I am bust being some one else’s ears and voice. If I am there to interpret I can’t be in the hallway meeting people when the Deaf person is in the classroom, waiting on me to make it accessible. And vice versus.
    3. People don’t know how to use interpreters. This is a matter of education. When a hearing person is communicating with a Deaf person, they should be looking at the Deaf person. They should talk to the Deaf person. They should say “How are you?” instead of saying to the interpreter: “Ask them how they are doing.” or “Tell him I said….” or “Tell her that this is happening.” Some Deaf person can read lips, and combine that with the signs they are seeing. If you are turning your head, it makes it difficult for them. It is also rather demeaning to the Deaf person. I also hate the the other interpreters will go searching the building for the Deaf people. THEY ARE GROWN ADULTS! If the interpreter goes to Sunday school, and the Deaf person wants to go to Sunday school… they will. It is not our job to coral them into the room.
  5. Interpreters are held to certain standards. If a Deaf person tells me “My husband didn’t come to church because he’s sick.” I can’t say anything. If I were a friend, and the Deaf person and I were just chatting and she told me that, and then some one asked me later “why wasn’t Mr. XYZ here today” then I could say, “oh, his wife said he’s sick.” But as an interpreter, I would not be allowed to answer that question. Interpreters are held under the same type of client confidentiality that Doctors are, but even more so. Even by court order I can not divulge what I have interpreted, or anything shared between myself and the client, because, had the person been hearing and not Deaf, I wouldn’t have been there. I am expected to turn down jobs I know I cannot do, I am expected to respect confidentiality, I am expected to not be involved in whatever activity I am interpreting in. This means that, as an interpreter, if the Sunday School teacher asks me a question, I’m supposed to decline. It is distracting, and difficult for me to interpret and speak at the same time any way.

This situation is unfair to both parties involved. The Deaf people are not receiving the quality of interpret that they deserve, and thus they are not getting out of the situation what they potentially could. On the other hand if the interpreter is under-qualified then they are being given too much responsibility, and too much stress. If they are qualified then they are being used, and under appreciated. The interpreters are also missing out on valuable lessons and community that they deserve.

I have recently had to start attending church TWICE (that’s 6 hours of church) because I am not getting anything spiritual out of the situation.

I know this sounds really whiny – but to be honest, it’s a huge challenge for me. Having struggled a lot with elements of the church in the last few years, before moving up to Virginia we had been attending church very sporadically. Moving up here was good for me, and motivating. I was really starting to enjoy church again. But now I am torn between continuing to reconnect with my religion, and doing a good job at interpreting.

Continue the fun!

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  1. Well, this is obviously stressing you out. The one thing I could think of is to volunteer every other week or so. That way you get to give to your community but also get a chance to benefit from the spiritual experience.

    Maybe you should talk to some people in church who are responsible for organizing the interpreting and see if you can come to an agreement, let them understand how you like to help but it's difficult and all.

    In the end I think it comes down to what matters more to you, beging spiritually happy and working on your spirituality or helping others? It's sometimes hard to find the right balance.

  2. I think by posting about this, you're definitely headed in the right direction! This is something that people just don't know about. Talking about it, explaining the process (and legal issues, etc) to the people utilize volunteer interpreters I think would be really helpful. I don't know sign language beyond a few random words here & there, but I LOVE to watch people sign. It's a beautiful language, but one I don't know much about. Thanks for sharing this–It has given me a new appreciation for the language and for your job as an interpreter.

    1. Perhaps one day I'll write a real "how to use an interpreter" post. I'm glad you learned something though! This situation is putting a lot of stress on me. We are encouraged to share our gifts, and sign language is definitely a gift to me, but at what expense to I continue to help other people? It's quite the predicament for me.

  3. Ugh, this sounds frustrating.

    It's not related to sign language, but have you ever heard of the book "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down"? It's about a Hmong family in California who doesn't speak English and their daughter who has a seizure disorder. It's really interesting, and you would probably find the discussion of interpretation problems interesting.

    1. I'm always getting awesome books suggestions, so I will add this one to my list! Thanks! I can imagine that some of these problems are applicable to any situation that requires special accommodation, but especially across interpreting in general.

  4. This post was really eye-opening. I always imagined being an ASL interpreter would have distinct challenges… But I had no idea about all of this. Thank you for sharing!

    I hope you find a way to both volunteer AND get spiritual guidance. But I think if it were me, I might feel like I should stop volunteering. If I had a job that I loved, that I felt bound by ethics or morality or whatever to do, and it was affecting my health, I would feel okay about stopping. And your spiritual health is just as important.

    Obviously, you will make the best decision for you. In the meantime, hang in there!

    1. Some times I'm surprised that I get any comments because of how wordy my posts can be. I think that I will write another, less emotionally charged, clearer post about how to use an interpreter, and focus on the positive things people can do, instead of the "don't…s" (multiple do nots? lol).

      I guess I just feel bad because these people deserve equally access, and why should I get to chill and enjoy church if they can't? I'll figure it out, maybe I'll only be available every other Sunday or something like that. This group is still very new, so the logistics haven't been worked out yet.

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