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I'm in a course that is interpreted by two sign language interpreters in the US. I had a chat with one of the interpreters after one of the classes and she confided a deep contempt for the professor, which in itself kind of struck me as quite unprofessional. But I've been watching her more closely and I've noticed that her dislike for the professor is affecting how she conveys what she says. My American Sign Language is pretty shoddy, but I'm proficient enough to notice that she'll sometimes interject side comments into her interpretations like "What is she even on about?" Most frustratingly, though, the professor has a tendency to make exaggerated statements to highlight the absurdity of a certain theory or argument. If said without the clear sarcastic tone, they would be seen as highly offensive. I've seen that the interpreter doesn't communicate the irony of her tone (which in ASL is pretty standardly expressed through eyebrows and facial expression). The result is that the three deaf students in the class have the impression that our professor is just wildly racist.

As someone in the audience, do I have an ethical responsibility to address this? To whom? The professor? Should I speak with the interpreter herself? Do I contact Academic Resources to inform them that the deaf students in our course aren't being given the full message to the best of the interpreter's abilities? I'm very concerned, but unsure of what to do.

asked 06 Nov '13, 00:00

charlielee's gravatar image


edited 06 Nov '13, 10:22

Vincent%20Buck's gravatar image

Vincent Buck

Off course you do :-)

Just go and talk to the person being interpreted and tell her about it - and if you want to escalate, yes, talk with the interpreter's teacher so that the teacher can remind the interpreter of his ethical standards.

We routinely get feedback from people in the audience about interpretation problems and when they are minor we pass them on to the interpreter concerned, but when ethical issues are concerned, we tell the person who complains to talk with the "client" who will then pass it on to the person who hired the interpreters.

As an example, during a health conference in Uganda, we were informed that the Swahili interpreter was systematically translating "LGBT" with a slang term meaning "filthy perverts"... we questioned him about it and when he did it again (he was very religious) the organizer asked the interpretation provider to remove the interpreter.

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answered 06 Nov '13, 02:52

Gregor_Seither's gravatar image


Interesting. That sounds reasonable. Though these are not trainee interpreters or anything. She's been accredited for a good few decades.

(06 Nov '13, 09:50) charlielee

While I do understand Greg's advice and do agree that the things you describe have to stop, I'd tend to be more careful and wouldn't use a direct approach. For several reasons, the main ones being :

  • You're young. Questioning openly the competence of an elder colleague, especially one who doesn't seem to be very caring about professional ethics might be a foolish thing to do. If there's an assignment at stake, she'll defend herself. Make sure not to end up in a very uneasy situation where things get ugly.
  • It isn't customary to judge a colleague's ability to interpret when it comes to a language combination you don't work with yourself.

Keep it factual, don't point fingers and don't deduct intentions unless you can prove things and you're sure there are witnesses who will tell the same story as yours. If you're the only one to have noticed a substantial difference between the source and the target language, while it's not your language combination, things might backfire as soon as you start making accusations.

Try to identify what's really bothering you.

  1. Is it the fact that the message isn't correctly conveyed? if so, you could approach the students and hint that there has been a misunderstanding. Not bluntly saying that the colleague is incompetent, but hinting that there might be things getting lost in translation, and that the professor is a nice chap.
  2. Is it the fact that you believe that the inaccuracy is related to the deep contempt? In that case, make sure it's worth to fight for your values. Measure possible consequences before acting. Sometimes, as frustrating it is, not shouting out loud what you really think is the wiser thing to do, especially when the burden of proof matters.

If I were a student, I'd act discretely, just telling the audience my two cents about the colleague and her attitude. But I wouldn't engage in an open conflict nor formally question her competence.

You can also act dumb and ask the ASL interpreter questions, e.g. how one can convey irony and sarcasm as the professor did. Show much interest and pretend that your level must be quite basic, because you weren't able to understand it in her rendition. Maybe she'll watch her step if she realizes someone 'bilingual' is evaluating her performance. Tell her too how much you like the classes and that one professor. (:

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answered 06 Nov '13, 14:14

Gaspar's gravatar image

Gaspar ♦♦

edited 06 Nov '13, 14:21

That sounds a very reasonable approach. Discretion seems a good idea. I brought it up with another student who is hearing, but signs as his first language. He reaffirmed some of the things that were bothering me. I agree though that I don't have the ASL proficiency to back up my claims, so I think I'm going to sort of turn it over to him. I asked some of the deaf students about a part of the lecture and this is sort of when I realized that the message wasn't coming across. One student signed "she seems really racist." Sort of one of the very concrete issues that I've witnessed several times - a deaf student will sign a question and instead of interpreting her question for the professor and then the professor's answer, she just answers the student's question based on her knowledge of the content. The only person, though, that is truly qualified to critique this interpreter's performance is the other interpreter, and that seems even more unprofessional to approach her to ask her opinion of her colleague. So discretion and subtlety seems a good solution. I will tread lightly.

The interpreter, oddly, has sort of befriended me against my will. We chat quite often after class and she recently told me a story of being reprimanded by her agency for letting a personal conflict with another interpreter affect her work. The way she told the story, though, was meant to show how she stands up for herself and whatnot. So, this seems kind of like a pattern of hers. But you're right that my position as a student changes the situation and I should be careful. Maybe I'll try the question thing. Thanks Gaspar!

(06 Nov '13, 14:39) charlielee

"reprimanded by her agency for letting a personal conflict with another interpreter affect her work. The way she told the story, though, was meant to show how she stands up for herself"

Well,she'd probably get personal before she'd ever question her own way of working. Be subtle and use all the influence you can have in the given situation. Especially if she seems to like you, use it to your classmates advantage who deserve good quality interpreting. You might also hint them that they should insist that she puts the questions to the professor rather than answer herself (saying that they want to hear it from HIS mouth to be able to quote him again is usually a good argument).

(06 Nov '13, 14:57) Gaspar ♦♦ two cents - and let me congratulate you for caring about this :-):

  • particularly if you're a student interpreter- to-be, the 1st person you approach should be the SLI colleague, after hours and out of earshot, explaining your misgivings and asking for her input;
  • if you're not happy with what she tells you AND she does not mend her ways, as seen through your eyes, try to find out if you're the only one in that setting qualified to compare the messages being conveyed in English and in ASL; if you are not, discuss your misgivings in confidence with whoever else is, to determine whether s/he shares your views and consider joint action;
  • thirdly, I would go to your professor privately and explain that you understand enough ASL to have misgivings about the message being relayed through that medium - and add no further details in this regard, that you have approached the interpreter but saw no change, and that you felt you should bring this to his/her attention so that if, like yourself, s/he believes that state-of-affairs to warrant action, s/he CAN take action, eg by getting the University to call in - preferably through the local SLI association - a second qualified interpreter to discreetly monitor the work and issue a learned opinion, and then consider further options.

IMHO, you will thus have best served your own sense of ethics and the interests of the ASL users, your professor and the university... and our profession.

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answered 06 Nov '13, 15:53

msr's gravatar image


edited 12 Nov '13, 16:37

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question asked: 06 Nov '13, 00:00

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