Archive for Interpreting

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.