Why We Sign


The basis for the post’s title is the title of the 9th episode for the epic WWII drama by Stephen Spielberg: “Band of Brothers”. As it so happens, the episode answers the question one particular soldier asked himself throughout the war: why did he fight and why did his friends have to die for it. He got a heart-shattering answer when he and his company discovered and liberated a concentration camp. It was probably also one of the most shocking and intense parts of the mini-series.

ISL school is fascinating enough when we deal with the origin and structure of this fascinating language, and with the tenets of translating and interpreting. Not surprisingly, it’s turning out to be more complicated than I thought. For starters, being a signer, apparently, does not make you a sign-language interpreter. Also, being an interpreter does not make you a translator. What’s going on?

To begin with, everyone in the program knows how to sign. It’s about 70% CODAs, so us CODAs obviously know Sign. There’s teachers and social workers and the occasional Interested Individual (probably my best friend in the program to date). On the whole, the sign-language part comes in-built in every one of the students.

So why do we need a program? Why 2 years?

Even though the rationale for interpreting has been clear to me all these years, I’ve never put it under the microscope. To me, signing was never designed to “act as professional proxy”. To me, signing always meant: “Do as your parents tell you”. I developed a relationship with Mom and Dad and I signed so I could help them.

Apparently, sign language interpreting does not focus, at least professionally, on helping the deaf.

Obviously, signing helps the deaf tremendously. They’re practically helpless, sometimes, without it (at least the old deaf population, which is far from being techno-savvy and isn’t going anywhere for the coming decades. Also, I’ve personally interpreted for techno-savvy deaf students. They’re not independent and aren’t going to be anytime soon).

But, and this is important, Cocoon (this is how I’m going to call the program administrator, a CODA whose husband is deaf) heavily admonished me for saying that I’m in this business to help the deaf. Cocoon says that such an attitude towards interpreting is not professional. A professional translator has to be 100% objective, with no bias towards the deaf nor the hearing. How do I reconcile that? In short, I don’t.

One of most pivotal issues in the program is Translation Ethics. An issue I’ve never dealt with and, says Cocoon, is of enormous import and is probably one of the main reasons for the establishment of a professional ISL-interpreters’ program.

It seems that I’ve violated the ISL ethical code when I stayed after class and helped my student with her homework, it appears that I’ve violated the code when I got involved, personally, with my clients and became their friend, helped them better understand the material, answered their questions before tests, etc. At one time, (and this, I admit, was wrong on every level), I even signed an answer to a question in a test when my deaf student looked at me with puppy eyes and begged me to help her with the test.

Well, I don’t know if I’ll have the minerals to say “no” to a deaf student in distress, but apparently, this is part of my professional responsibility. I might even lose my license if I do that when I go pro.

And here comes to the main point of the post, which is not why “We” (the interpreters) sign, but why “I” sign. I sign to help the deaf. It’s the reason I got into the program and without that reason, I have no place there. I come to impart my childhood habit of helping my deaf parents upon non-parenting deaf individuals. I come to reflect the love I had for my parents, deaf or not, upon all deaf individuals. It’s practically barbaric, in a way, but without it, I simply don’t know how to be so fatally enamoured with the deaf community as much as I am.

So this is a secret I probably should keep hidden from Cocoon, and it’s also reason enough for me to risk my license. I come to the deaf community in order to help them.

This does not mean that I’m going to be biased for the deaf as far as the contents of the signs is concerned. I am going to sign to them EXACTLY what the hearing person said, and I’m going to voice exactly what the client signs. I am, however, going to get personal with my deaf clients, and give them advice as far as I can. Not during the interpreting session, but as a friend. The certificate is only a bridgehead into the deaf community.

I will follow the ethics and rules to the letter, but I will not remove myself from the Deaf community itself. I will come to sign for them as a professional, hopefully model translator: Impartial to either Deaf and Hearing – but after the session is complete, I will address them as a friend of the Deaf, their hearing child as I’ve always been, and the de facto parent I always felt I was to the Deaf community.

I sign because I want to help.

I sign because I need to help.



  1. RS Said:

    Idealism is something so basic that come to our mind why we want to do certain thing. And it become our great motivation in doing it. I think you do not need to worry too much when you feel the ISL’s ethic doesn’t meet your idealism. However, rule is rule and it must be spoken and made clear for everyone involved in it. Just play it smoothly as time will learn you how you could combine this two things without damaging any ethics.

    Good for you Shai !

  2. jeffsdeepthoughts Said:

    I mentioned before taking that sign language class.
    I got into a fairly heated debate with the instructor. She was deaf. And also Deaf.
    At one point she took the position that Deafness is not a disabality or handicap. Her rationale was that theoretically everybody in the world could choose to sign, if they wanted to. The fact that they didn’t wasn’t the Deaf communities issue.
    There were many ways in which my hands were tied, a little, in this debate. Perhaps most importantly I’m not deaf, have never been deaf, and it was one of those cases where even if I was right, I was still wrong. (There’s also that little fact of wanting a decent grade in a subject that was not at all easy for me. Annoying professors isn’t exactly a path to academic success.)

    At any rate, I think she would have objected to your admirable motivations on the grounds that she’d have found them paternalistic. I would thoroughly disagree with her. I’m curious if the person running the program had similiar concerns.

  3. freidenker85 Said:

    A handicapped person can choose to be paternalistic and proudly stubborn, but on those same grounds, she’s not going to get anyone to interpret to her. A deaf person who denies the deaf problem with communication is a tremendously and sadly self-deluding individual indeed – and whether or not my motivation is paternalistic or not, anyone, deaf or not, who is not an utter idiot would understand my motivation as what it is – visceral projections of a doting CODA. There’s nothing patronizing about it, it’s nothing I can help. I can’t help feeling the way I do.

  4. jeffsdeepthoughts Said:

    I hope it was clear that I wasn’t suggesting your patronizing. I was just wondering if somebody who was militant about the whole thing might.

  5. freidenker85 Said:

    Of course you weren’t. I was just surprised to note that someone might be so antagonistically proud that he might actually not only reject being helped by a CODA, he would also pass judgment on a CODA’s motives. I’m pretty sure there’s a selfish underlying cause for all of our motivations, but that, really, is absolutely meaningless. A person who really enjoys giving and helping, or even a person with a pathological need to give and help is not a selfish person, even if he has selfish rewards for his actions. The “selfish underlying cause” is simply of no importance. That said, I think it’s absolutely idiotic to censure someone for being kind: it doesn’t change the fact that he’s still a force of goodness and all it does is piss him off a bit.

  6. galia Said:

    i agree with you and your reasoning. i think almost every person who works with handicapped people or any theraputic work is there for that feeling of helping, doing something significant for others and then feeling better with yourself because it gives your life more meaning. my best work (speech therapy) was always done when i had personal relationships or close relationships with parents and children i worked with. if it’s only proffessional, its too distant, it does not work as well.

  7. freidenker85 Said:

    Hi Galia! Well, it’s funny you wrote this just now. I just came back from another day at Sign Language school, and I think my view of the ethical code for sign language is evolving rapidly as the weeks go by. Today was the first Ethics’ class day, and I must say, I am much less resentful to Cocoon than I was, hmm, yesterday.

    Please stay tuned, my mind is currently racing with new ideas and knowledge, but rest assured that a post is forthcoming.

  8. watercat Said:

    Bureaucratic crap. They go too far in one direction in order to counter people going too far in the other direction, as you admitted to in your post ๐Ÿ˜‰ It’s not a problem. Just walk down the middle.

  9. freidenker85 Said:

    I’m starting to give in more and more as the course goes along. There really is a thin and fragile line in the sand between being an interpreter and being an accomplice. I think it might be for the greater good to “keep it clean” as far as possible. Maybe, in a way, the power to interpret has to be balanced with the price of friendship. A deaf teacher said that interpreters can’t be just like any other friend (deaf or hearing!) because of their “political leverage” on the deaf community.

    This is something I’ll have to think heavily about.

  10. jeffsdeepthoughts Said:

    Do you remember that scene in Jurassic Park when somebody said “This place has all the problems of a major zoo and all the problems of a major theme park?”
    It seems like a sign language interpreter walks all the same pitfalls of somebody who helps/supports assists the disabled and all the dangers of a foriegn language interpreter.
    On the one hand, there’s all the questions about healthy professional boundaries inherent in both. (As a Special Education Teacher to emotionally disturbed adolescents, I certainly appreciate these) as well as the ethical and even epistemological questions about the nature of interpreting.

  11. freidenker85 Said:

    To be perfectly honest, I’ve never watched Jurassic Park ๐Ÿ™‚

    Case in point, this Sunday made me do a lot of rethinking about my qualms with SL ethics. What changed my mind the most was actually what the Deaf teachers said and not the hearing. I’m frankly utterly exhausted at the moment, and simply can’t find the energy to put this into writing. I’m going to write a small post about biology (I had an interesting lesson about algae and plant anatomy and phylogeny today) and then pass out on my bed ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thank you so much for the thoughtful comments.

  12. Efrat Said:

    Helping someone cheat is not real help…
    Intersting blog btw

  13. freidenker85 Said:

    I know, I just couldn’t help it. It’s an easy trigger to pull on me: the distress of the weak.

    Do you have your own blog? What’s your relation to Endorphin?

  14. Efrat Said:

    He used to be my neighbour.

    It’s a community, not a blog

  15. freidenker85 Said:

    Your Neighbor?? Whoa. Could you tell me how he was like? I find his personality somewhat intriguing. Whatever could cause a man to be so utterly obtuse, while at the same time so devilishly gifted. It boggles the mind.

    I’ll pay a visit to that website of yours.

  16. […] past few weeks have been tumultuous for me. I’m constantly reshaping my view on sign language and interpreting for the Deaf. When I started studying ISL, I was determined to acquire the skills and credentials of an ISL […]

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