Talking to a brick the word 'wall' is spelled out in bricks: Do I interpret when nobody deaf is watching?1

David Bar-Tzur

Created 12/10/2003, links updated monthly with the help of LinkAlarm.

two faces staring out from a brick wall

All of us have experienced moments when our deaf consumers are not watching us. Sometimes we are in a situation where, although there are no deaf people there, we are asked to interpret anyway. I would like to share my perspective on when to interpret and when not to. Of course, there is no universal agreement on this topic, so everything I say should be taken with a grain of salt. Use this discussion as a stimulus to decide where you agree and disagree. If you disagree, see if you can find reasons of your own to show the weaknesses of my reasoning. I am not trying to convince you of my truth, but to help you reflect on why you do what you do, so that your practices will be reasoned ones.

If deaf people are there physically, but you are not in their line of sight, you must first determine for yourself why it is that they are not looking at you. I want to divide the possibilities into two major categories: on-task looking and off-task looking. These categories will become more clear as I elaborate, but on-task means the deaf clients are not looking at the interpreter in order to get full access to information that is part of the purpose of the event and off-task would be when this is not the case.

On-task looking

Sometimes students (educational settings are where this is most relevant) need to look at their books or notes to relate the information they are receiving with what's in front of them. When this happens, I pause while this happens and try to hold as much information as I can and inform them of what they have missed when they look up again. Some students want you to continue to interpret although they are looking down because they can use closure to figure out what the missing information was by context. For those students, I am happy to continue to interpret whether they are looking at me or not, but usually students would like me to hold some information until they can get back to me. I find that it's better if I don't interpret while the person isn't looking at me, because I will remember what was said but not yet interpreted better, but if I do interpret it while s/he isn't looking, I don't retain it as well.

Dan Parvaz made a comment that is a great addition to holding information. He said,

My favorite method doesn't require a recap at all. Since the instructor is constantly referring back to what was said either explicitly or by allusion (the 10-cent word for this is "anaphora") you have an opportunity to insert pieces of the missed discourse where they make the most sense, thus resolving the anaphora where it might otherwise "point" to nothing, since the student missed that part.

It does require some raw memory, but even more importantly, it requires the interpreter to understand and synthesize the information, which means knowing the source material, etc. We don't have to know it at the level of a student, i.e., application, but prep time (including the lifetime of prep we've all hopefully done) becomes crucial.

It may seem strange that some deaf students take notes even if they have a note taker. Some do this in case the note taker misses something; some do it to force themselves to pay attention, which may seem ironic. When I go to a workshop nowadays I always take diligent notes, but never look at the notes after the workshop is done. I do this because it helps prevent my mind from wandering.

Students also need to look past the interpreter to see the media that is used: videotapes, PowerPoint, projected computer displays, graphs, maps, things written on the board, overheads, models, and experiments that are being done real time. The interpreter should be as close to the visuals being used as possible so that the visual angle is small. It is sometimes necessary for the interpreter to move to another place to allow this to happen. I make sure to have pauses and even look at the visual myself to give the students time to look at it. If I see students look away on their own, I wait.

It is natural for people to want to see who is speaking. I always identify who it is, by name if I know it, or by description. Not only is direct communication preferable, but there are a lot of clues in a person's facial expression and body language that add to the total message. We should show these nuances in our interpretation, but must allow the students time to see for themselves. I was once interpreting for a teacher who was absolutely lambasting the students for their poor performance on a test they had taken. The teacher's face however remained quite placid as he used his considerable vocabulary to excoriate the students. The deaf student looked at me and looked at him and shook his head as if to say I was making it all up. I explained after class why I signed as I did.

Some interpreters put their consumers in the grip of their piercing eyes, never looking away from them. There are many grammatical reasons that out eyes should be moving around: role play, agreement with directional verbs, showing where objects are being spatialized, and the like. Give consumers breathing room to look away when they need to. They may be thinking about what you said. Have you every noticed that even in the middle of speech you may look away to retrieve some forgotten information? They may need an eye break. They may be daydreaming, but that's okay. If something important comes up, you should get your consumers' attention if you feel that they are attending in a normal fashion. If they just don't seem to care, I don't break my neck trying to get their attention. I just interpret it and don't worry more than they seem to.

When there is more than one deaf consumer, it often happens that they will speak to one another. This may be on-task or off-task. I once interpreted for a class in fiber optics. I had two deaf consumers: one very ASL, and one who was very flexible. When the first consumer didn't understand my interpretation, he would turn to the flexible one who would interpret what I said in a more ASL-like rendition. You better believe that I watched carefully and learned! I incorporated what I learned into what I interpreted subsequently. If there are no other deaf people watching, I would suggest not only stopping your interpretation in such a case, but watch what they are saying to see what you might learn.

Off-task looking

Here is a good segue into off-task looking. If you only have two consumers and they are conversing with one another, but clearly off-task (How was your date last night?) I would definitely stop interpreting. If there are still some deaf people watching, obviously I would continue. If not and the two told me to continue interpreting anyway (remember they are not on-task in any sense of the term) I would say it makes no sense to interpret if no one is paying attention. If they wanted to say something brief to one another I could hold the information for a little bit, but if they were not interested, neither would I be.

Here I will throw a monkey wrench into the works: If I am interpreting on stage, in church, in a large meeting where formal discourse is appropriate, I would continue to interpret whether I had any deaf consumer's attention or not. I would even interpret knowing that no one had arrived yet. Once I was in the front of a chapel interpreting for Yom Kippur, trying my best to be eloquent during a Yom Kippur service, when the deaf client informed me he would be back in a few minutes. It would have looked very strange of course for me to go sit down until he came back.

Another time I was to interpret for several hours for a Yom Kippur service and I had no idea if any deaf people were there. The problem was that it would have been difficult to know if a deaf person came in later. There were several doors and I couldn't run between them asking if each person was deaf. So I interpreted for several hours without knowing if anyone understood what I was doing. The next morning went the same way and in the evening of the next day it just so happened that I noticed a hearing aid and so I asked if he used an interpreter, he said he did. I said I was glad that he was there because I had already interpreted for four hours unsure that there was a deaf person there. He then told me that he had been at each of the services I had interpreted (sitting way in the back)! You can see how difficult it is to know if a deaf client is there at times.

There are other situations where the deaf clieny not care at the moment or not care at all. The person may be in pain at the message and have a hard time watching. We need to determine why the client is not watching us and make a decision what to do at the moment. If it is a one-on-one at the doctor's office where the patient may have a hard time dealing with the message, you may need to inform the doctor to hold on a minute while the client gathers his/her courage. Believe it or not, it may not register with the doctor that when patients are not looking, they may not be getting the message.

I will close with a story. In my first few years of interpreting I was told by a deaf student in a computer class that he planned to never look at me all quarter long: he was going to do his homework. This was before he had ever seen me interpret, so it wasn't an issue of me being a novice. I told my manager and he said to interpret anyway. It seemed stupid at first until I realized that this was a perfect time to learn computer signs. So I sat like some K-12 interpreters I have heard about with a computer sign dictionary in my lap and consulted it any time I needed a computer sign I had learned yet or didn't remember. It was very helpful for future assignments, but if it happened to me now I would be very resistant. Here's looking at ya!

Image credits

1. From (Wall spelled out in bricks) and (faces in the brick wall) which are no longer extant and .