Monday, February 8, 2010

What does an interpreter do? She uses both cognitive and physical processes to transfer a spoken language into a visual language. While an interpreter simultaneously translates, she is using, according to research, over 300 processes in the brain. Wow. No wonder after an hour, her wrists and shoulders ache and she’s mentally fatigued in need of a break before the next hour.

An interpreter has a lot to do. She is not only working for the deaf person, she is also working for the hearing person. It is the hearing person who doesn’t have the visual language; yet, this gets lost somewhere.

At an assignment I introduce myself to both the deaf and the hearing speakers and receivers. In talking with each person, I quickly evaluate their language. The hearing person: Speaking pace, does he mumble, vocabulary choices, tone—is he sarcastic? Is he jolly? The deaf person:  Does he use many idioms, his sign style, his speed, his sentence structuring to name a few. It can be knee-knocking time when walking into a situation cold.

My experiences are many. In one assignment, after introductions, I began interpreting. The hearing person didn’t appreciate the distraction and asked me to sit in the back. The deaf person explained the reasoning why sitting in the back or even outside the room, as the hearing person would have preferred, wasn’t feasible. As the deaf person signed and I put their visual language into spoken language, the hearing person walked up to me and asked: “You talk? Why are you talking?” Working conditions can be exasperating.

American Sign Language is different from spoken language in specific ways. Spoken language is linear—one sound can be made or received at a time. Visual language shows a whole scene at one time. ASL is about handshape, palm orientation, location, movement, non-manual expressions, classifiers, inflection. It has a topic-comment syntax structure. A mistake in any of these can mean the difference between Japan and vagina. Imagine the deaf person wondering why the hearing person has asked him if has toured the vagina.
Can you also see why a deaf person would stand back some when an unfamiliar interpreter walks into his meeting with his tax auditor? It isn’t only the interpreter who wants this profession to matter; it is also the deaf person who has to negotiate this whacky profession.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

An Interpreter? Part 1

What is wrong with the interpreting for the deaf profession? Plenty. An interpreter—educated, experienced, ethical—has a fight for validation and integrity in her hands. The profession suffers from quality: quality interpreters and quality, life sustaining jobs.

I have been in the profession for decades—I have still to find that job which gives me a standard of living I can count on to sustain me, health benefits, vacation, sick time and retirement. I went through an accredited interpreter training program; I have attended workshops and conventions lead by the top researchers in the field. I study ASL. I have a BA in literature and an M.F.A. because a message cannot be rendered correctly without English and critical thinking skills. I have a plethora of experience. Yet where is the recognition?

There is a standardized Code of Professional Conduct I follow: Confidentiality, turning down an assignment above my skill level to name a few examples. Qualified interpreters know about this ethical document.

The issues are external and internal to the profession. Why is it an interpreter can work for three years in an office and no one knows her name? She is definitely not considered part of the team. Why do companies and agencies balk at paying an interpreter for their work?

The interpreting profession itself has shoddy requirements. There is a professional organization called R.I.D. which has a certification system in place. However, it is full of holes and some wonder if it’s all a scam. There are no minimum requirements. One can be a high school drop- out. I have seen many learn some signs, interview for an interpreter position and given the job. These people, the ones who hire in this slapdash manner, and the ones who get hired keep the profession in the —this is a joke—category.

To belong to R.I.D. without certification costs $90 a year. The dues gives the member a magazine: “Interpreting Views.” Anyone can join. The certification testing is expensive and out-of-pocket. The pass rate is about 50%, and then the interpreter must pay a fee to retake it. Once she is certified, her dues increases; she has to attend expensive workshops to keep earning credits to be able to keep certification.

But what does certification give an interpreter? An educational interpreter without certification can make $23 an hour whereas one with certification can make $25 an hour. Those hours are not guaranteed and benefits do not come with it more often than not.

My point is that an interpreter who has training, skill, education and ethics is lumped in with the ones who have no idea what being an interpreter really entails. She not only has to face being discounted among coworkers, but also has to bear responsibility for the messes unqualified interpreters who work among them always make.

Often the interpreter is seen as an annoyance, as a wasted expense, as peculiar, as someone who isn’t held in any esteem. The odds of getting respect are next to zero. So why am I an interpreter?