Integrating the interpreting service models

David Bar-Tzur

Created 3/25/1999, links updated monthly with the help of LinkAlarm.

Helper model

The helper model came about before interpreting was a profession. Most interpreters were Codas, clerics, or social workers. Codas were often called into "duty" at an early age which made both the hearing children and the deaf adults feel that deaf people are lacking if they have to depend on young children to get along in a hearing world. Clerics often felt that they brought salvation, the ultimate help, to many other cultures and minorities, showing the world the right way. Social workers sought to fix the pathology of deafness, thinking themselves essential for deaf people's functioning.

Pathological treatment led to internalized oppression, where deaf people themselves felt that they needed help to survive in the world. The major relationship was with the Deaf community. Interpreters were often involved by birth or through side needs of their occupation. For some there was a cultural obligation to attend Deaf events. This pressure lead to shunning Hearing events to identify with the Deaf world. Interpreters used consecutive interpretation and would often summarize and edit out what they thought was beyond deaf people. In order to help, interpreters would share confidential information with people in authority. The positive thing was that Deaf people were being given access to information that had alluded them for years; the negative thing was that deaf people were not making their own decisions. For a particularly eloquent warning on the perils of helping, see Remen, R. N. (n.d.) In the service of life. "Serving is different from helping. Helping is based on inequality; it is not a relationship between equals."

Conduit/machine model

With the birth of RID at Ball State, and as a reaction against the helper model, the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme and interpreters felt that they had to be invisible, neutral, and uninvolved. They were only a telephone wire that served as a conduit for information flow. The intention was to avoid the injustices that happened under the helper model and to return control to deaf people, but when people are invisible, their humanity is not recognized, and so they feel worthless. When people struggle to be neutral, their opinion is suppressed about even matters that would make the interpreting process run more smoothly. In an effort to be uninvolved, interpreters disengaged their concern.

The "9-5 attitude" arose, where interpreters did not socialize with deaf people and thereby were seen as cold fish. Lack of cultural understanding led to alienation from the Hearing World and the Deaf World. The major relationship was with the hearing community, since this was the interpreter's default community and a machine does not interact while working. The positive thing was the institution of standards and ethics; the negative thing was that deaf people were getting a representation of the words, but not of the meaning.

Communication facilitator model

The pendulum started to swing back as both interpreters and deaf people came to realize that something was missing. Interpreters started to assert their needs. They would take responsibility for introducing their role, lighting, seating, meeting the deaf person before the assignment, and interpersonal skills. The positive thing was that these things were appropriate to take charge of since it allowed interpreters to do their work; the negative thing was that interpreters still didn't take on responsibility for the communication.

Bilingual bi-cultural mediator model

Next interpreters sought to understand both cultures and find equivalence in as far as possible to get both sides to see the other's perspective. They become culture brokers, but there is a danger in trying to be the expert in either world. This could be visualized as a double-helper model were both Deaf and Hearing people need help and the interpreter is the one to give it to them. The major relationship was with the Deaf community for non-Codas, trying desperately to catch up and become an expert in ASL and the Deaf community. The positive thing it that interpreters can find greater semantic equivalency; the negative thing is that interpreters may overstep their bounds in trying to be the expert in everything. These are the traditional four models. More recent ones will be discussed next, but as Dan Levin has said to me:

Marty Barnum from Minnesota has spoken of the models (the 4 [helper, conduit, communication facilitator, cultural mediator]) in workshops -- one of them I attended -- and the point she made that I like a lot is that we have not "graduated" from one model to the next casting the previous model aside, but rather, the 4 models are there to choose from to fit the situation, client, circumstances, and goals of the interpreting event. Any one of them can be appropriate, including the helper model -- such as in the case where there is "a deficit" besides the deafness (children, mentally handicapped, injured, etc.) Conduit being appropriate most times when interpreting for a Deaf leader. (Personal correspondence, December 2002.)

The Ally model

The Ally model has grown out of a movement in education that has been exemplified especially in Paulo Freire. Allow me to quote excerpts from an excellent web site on Freire called Issues in Freirean pedagogy by Tom Heaney:

In the early 1970's, Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, visited Harvard and published an English translation of his best known work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. . . . He argued that any curriculum which ignores racism, sexism, the exploitation of workers, and other forms of oppression at the same time supports the status quo. It inhibits the expansion of consciousness and blocks creative and liberating social action for change.

Freire's pedagogy for freedom, exemplified in his work in South America, found ready acceptance among many community-based, popular educators who organized adult learning outside established schools and institutions. For such educators, Freire's critique of traditional schooling validated their own conclusions that schools were part of the problem, contributing to the marginalization of minorities and the poor. Education for liberation, in Freire's view, would challenge the "givenness" of the world and enable learners to reflect on their experience historically, giving their immediate reality a beginning, a present, and, most importantly, a future. It would awaken in adult learners the expectation of change--a power which, once awakened, seeks expression in collective, transforming social action (Mackie, 1980).

In Freire's view of education, learning to take control and achieving power are not individual objectives, as in a "boot strap" theory of empowerment. For poor and dispossessed people, strength is in numbers and social change is accomplished in unity. Power is shared, not the power of a few who improve themselves at the expense of others, but the power of the many who find strength and purpose in a common vision. Liberation achieved by individuals at the expense of others is an act of oppression. Personal freedom and the development of individuals can only occur in mutuality with others. . .

Collegiality is a form of social organization based on shared and equal participation of all its members. It contrasts with a hierarchical, pyramidal structure, and is represented by a series of concentric circles. Authority resides in the center-most circle, not over the others, but equidistant from each, so that authority can listen and reflect the consensus of the whole.

Education which is liberatory encourages learners to challenge and change the world, not merely uncritically adapt themselves to it. The content and purpose of liberatory education is the collective responsibility of learners, teachers, and the community alike who, through dialogue, seek political, as well as economic and personal empowerment. Programs of liberatory education support and compliment larger social struggles for liberation.

The dialogical approach to learning is characterized by co-operation and acceptance of interchangeability and mutuality in the roles of teacher and learner, demanding an atmosphere of mutual acceptance and trust. In this method, all teach and all learn. This contrasts with an anti-dialogical approach which emphasizes the teacher's side of the learning relationship and frequently results in one-way communiquˇs perpetuating domination and oppression. Without dialogue, there is no communication, and without communication, there can be no liberatory education.

Freire's concern was with the way that traditional education had lead to a "marginalization of minorities and the poor" as stated above. Now it is not the duty of interpreters to become Deaf rights activists, either in the interpreting situation or outside of it. Rather they must avoid inadvertently oppressing Deaf people by perpetuating some of the build-in features of mainstream (Hearing) culture in which they were raised. This is one of the meanings of being an ally.

There are a number of ways that interpreters oppress deaf people, whether they are aware of it or not. Most interpreters are hearing, and they must become aware of their own enculturation with its oppressive perspective. When a deaf person raises their hand to participate, interpreters often tell them by their affect (if not directly!) that they are uncomfortable interpreting from ASL to English, in effect discouraging the deaf person from participating. The deaf person also loses trust in the interpreter which will affect the entire communication process.

Many interpreters are not skilled in reading the back-channel feedback of deaf people. Even when they directly ask for clarification, the interpreter may feel too overwhelmed to go back and clarify. This means deaf people are kept from information. And in our society information is often power. Just the fact that an interpreter is not clear may feed into the deaf person's perception that hearing people know everything and it is the deaf person's fault that they do not understand.

Interpreters who swing towards Signed English, even when the consumer needs more ASL, may send a message that ASL is not a true language, not a language that is sophisticated enough to convey technical or abstract ideas. Interpreters who make up signs also show this, as well as saying the deaf people don't own their language. A spoken language interpreter would not dream of making up a word to convey the message.

By the way that an interpreter tells a deaf person (outside of an interpreting situation) to keep their voice down, that their laugh is too loud, or that they are signing too large in a public place, the interpreter may convey that Deaf culture is not acceptable among the hearing public. The use of Sim-Com in conversation can be oppressive insofar as the English spoken is usually monitored more carefully than the ASL, implying that English is more important.

When an interpreter informs deaf people that their voice is not understandable or their hearing aid is giving off feedback (in an interpreting situation), they should be careful to show by their attitude and language that they are merely informing them, and that the deaf person can decide for themselves what to do about it. It's best if the deaf person tells the audience to let them know if they are not understanding their voice.

When an interpreter positions themselves slightly behind and to one side of the hearing person, it may convey that the interpreter is identifying and taking sides more with the hearing person. It can empower a deaf person if they discuss positioning beforehand and if the deaf person takes the lead in introducing the interpreter to the hearing consumer and explaining the basic function and logistics of communicating through an interpreter.

Certainly interpreters that edit what a speaker says, because they feel the message is politically incorrect, religiously unacceptable, or impolite, are shielding the deaf and hearing people from one another. It's not our role to gatekeep and decide what the two groups should know about one another. On the other hand, if the deaf person asks for clarification about something cultural (who's Barbara Streisand?) or a brief clarification of the intent of the speaker (does he sound mad?) and it is obvious that they are speaking to the interpreter, it is not necessary to embarrass the deaf person by "interpreting everything you see". It's an interesting question whether the same would hold true for things said in confidence by the hearing consumer when the deaf person is present.

The conduit model has led many interpreters to try and stay out of the communication process, which of course is impossible. The goal of communication is usually (but not always) to convey information that the receiver will understand as clearly as possible. In trying to be professional, we may seem to be saying that we know what's best for all parties concerned. More dialogue is needed between interpreters and deaf people about how to work as allies. The positive thing is an increase in sensitivity to oppressive behavior; the negative thing is the interpreter may be too zealous in liberating the deaf person.

The sore thumb model

This model has been lectured on extensively by Gary Sanderson who uses the name a bit tongue in cheek. Here is a summary of my notes on one such presentation. As we grow individually as interpreters, we mirror the growth of the interpreting profession. In evolutionary biology, it is said, "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." This refers to the fact that the development of the fetus in the womb resembles the fetus of at first lower and then higher forms of life, as if evolution were happening in a microcosm.

The first stage is altruistic (helper model), where we learn sign language so that Deaf people can have better lives. Soon we become audiophobic. We now think of ourselves as Deaf: avoiding music and hearing things and making smacking sounds when signing to appear more "deaf". Spoken conversation is peppered with "pah", perhaps we use Sim-Com with hearing people even when no deaf person is present. Certain words are dropped when speaking to hearing people only, and are replaced with signs. We claim we can explain things in sign that are simply inexpressible in spoken English, although English is our native language. We swell with pride when deaf people tells us they thought we were Deaf when they saw us sign, but they may just be doing it to get us interpreters-to-be to interpret something for free. We think we're not like those awful hearing people who have oppressed deaf people for all these years.

We graduate from our IEP and we enter the ethical stage (conduit/machine model). We follow the Code of Ethics to the letter. We do not lift our hands now until we are paid $30/hr to do what we love, or whatever is the going rate. We are careful to insure that Deaf people do not appear rude with their "different" way. We warn them if they are making noise with their voice, signs, or hearing aid. We desire invisibility. Everything must be absolutely equal. We tell the hearing consumers, don't change anything you do, and then proceed to interrupt them in mid sentence, to slow down, not to walk in front of the deaf person, and help us prep. We try to get our guilt out of the way, telling the deaf or hearing person, "I've never interpreted this before. Help!" We could after all simply say that it's a challenge instead of shooting ourselves in the foot. We go to every workshop in creation, whether it's what we need to work on at the moment or not.

The next is the experimental stage (communication facilitator). We now have some experience under our belt and start to use it. We are ready to stretch our boundaries, but hope no interpreters are watch us, in the language or the ethical department. We start to have a common sense approach to ethics.

As seasoned interpreters, we arrive at the plateau stage (facilitator or bi-bi model). We have been interpreting for years. We feel we can handle cultural differences in ethical situations and final linguistic equivalence in our attempt to bring across the message. We start to get cocky: "I'm certified and she's not." "You're NAD, and I'm RID, but he's QA."

There's also a negative side to this stage. We may fear our success and how we serve as a model for other interpreters. We don't want to fail in front of our peers. We are afraid to disagree with our profession, our peers, and deaf people. The latter would be oppressive. We may become so ego-inflated that no one in the community wants to work with us. We start to brown-out and become frustrated. After all these years we have lived through, deaf people are still oppressed! We just get one person trained in how to communicate with a deaf person, and they hire someone new! We don't want to volunteer interpret for anything. At this point something has to give. There are three options: (1) leaving the profession, (2) resignation, or (3) recycling yourself through another learning process.

We have the right to leave the profession if we feel it can no longer offer us fulfillment. In resignation, we think it's not worth it to try and get certified, or to maintain CEU's. We claw for two hour minimums that run 15 minutes; we are back to a 9-5 attitude; we don't want to be observed; we are inflexible. If we recycle ourselves we can arrive at the next stage, which is realized or self-actualized. We now stick out like a sore thumb. We try to find what it was we liked so much about interpreting in the first place and resurrect it. What happened that made interpreting stop working for us? Where can we go to get fresh insight: Deaf people, motivated and seasoned interpreters, other disciplines? Baby interpreters may give us inspiration with their fresh naïveté. We need to go back to the Deaf community and see it with new eyes: Deaf rights movements, Deaf interpreters, a new assertiveness that we welcome and fear. The positive thing is a way to refresh one's enthusiasm; as yet I don't see an negative, but only time will tell.

Feminist-relational approach

In "Feminist-relational approach: A social construct for event management", Lynne Eighinger and Ben Karlin proposed another "model", which they call the Feminist Relational (F-R) approach. The approach is relational in that "[r]ather than considering only the language and culture of the participants, the F-R approach adds the relationship of the actors, their relationship to the interpreter and the relationship of this triad (majority language used, minority language user, a and bilingual interpreter) to society." (All quotes in this section are from the article link in this paragraph.) Furthermore, "[t]he F-R approach is built on feminist values. . . . Feminist thinking. . . is now recognized as a group of related philosophies and approaches not the exclusive province of women." These values include: listening, consensus building, cooperation, empowerment, social justice, and experience (as a supplement to a pure scientific method). I would comment that these values run counter to traditional masculine thinking in America, especially as exemplified by business.

Often when wives speak to their husbands about the obstacles they encounter to achieving personal goals, the husband tries to problem solve. Often the woman is really looking for support and active listening rather than answers. The old business world (need I add male?) operated through competition and undercutting rather than consensus building and cooperation. This has changed through increasing numbers of women in the business place as well as influence from the success of Japanese firms whose culture has fostered consensus and cooperation even among males.

The second three values are less understood. "[E]mpowerment is understood as giving the support needed to allow individuals to use power that is naturally their own. . . . A commitment to social justice requires action and understanding oppression and inequality. It requires one to act as an agent for change. . . . Experience is linked to respecting individuals and valuing their stories. It takes into account the unique perspectives of people who, although sharing an event, experience it differently. It conflicts with purely rationalist thinking that an event occurs independently from the experience of the event and is best explained as an objective truth." It occurs to me that this may be why there have not been many female scientists. It goes against their intuition to view the world in this way.

Much that transpired in the 20th century led the West away from objectivity and absolutes. As different cultures studied one another, they came to see that no one perspective was sufficient. Science saw that various scientific models were successful in one setting but failed in others. Art broke away from realism into greater and greater individual abstraction. The interpreter needs to get inside the head of each speaker and represent it in terms of the listener's world. This means understanding other cultures and subcultures that a given speaker/signer may be a member of. I may be reading my own hermeneutical bias into this, but this is how I view the authors' statement: "Any change in the participants' setting or social context would give rise to a different event."

Now comes what is in mind the most insightful comment of this article: "Rather than forcing interpreters only to work for the actor's goals, interpreters also work toward their own: to involve the actors as communication partners with opportunities for self-expression." At this point I would like to tie together the various models we have discussed, which is in line with the authors of the F-R approach, who comment that the models "are often conceptualized as a series with the most recent supplanting those prior. Actually they are contemporaneous and reflect differing systems of evaluating success in interpreting." As interpreters we are there to help, but not at the expense of either party. In the days when American society tried to force every member into a common mold, it was natural for interpreters to try and compel Deaf people to see things from a Hearing perspective.

Later, when interpreters tried to back away from this, which was seen as unjust, they became conduits, which was less paternalistic, but since Deaf people did not have a Hearing perspective to begin with and no attempt was made to couch this in terms of a Deaf perspective, it was like lecturing on American culture to a new immigrant without explaining it in terms of the immigrant's previous culture. S/he might feign comprehension, but none is achieved. The interpreter needs to help, but not by forcing a Hearing perspective on the Deaf person (or even vice versa), but by couching the Hearing message in terms of Deaf culture and the Deaf message in terms of Hearing culture. The interpreter will be a conduit in that the message will be conveyed from one person to another and the conduit is not adding his or her personal perspective to it, but if there is no bilingual-bicultural mediation then an unprocessed interpretation leads to a muddled message. Crudely speaking it is like a well-known joke:

Finally it was completed, a computer program that could translate English into Russian and back. Now it was time to test it out. The following Bible quotation was used: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak". This quotation was translated into Russian, but a test had to be made if the translation was correct, so the Russian version was translated back into English. The computer said: "The vodka is attractive, but the meat is rotten."

We are now left to deal with communication facilitator, ally and sore-thumb models. We sometimes feel bad about asking a Deaf person to hold their comment while the Hearing person comes to a point in his discourse where it would be culturally appropriate to interject. This can also happen when we ask a Hearing person to hold on until the Deaf person is finished, which we should not hesitate to do in the spirit of fairness. If we are going to be a communication cop and stop one lane while the other one proceeds, we better be ready to get the stopped lane going again, by saying something on the order of "I have something to say." It is better not to say, "I have a question", since this may not be accurate. We may feel we are being a sore-thumb by managing the process, but we are there to allow free communication, after all. In the same spirit, we do not have to say "I'm sorry" when we ask for clarification; "excuse me" will do just fine. These sorts of things were "allowed" under the communication facilitator model, but how can we be an ally?

The liberation perspective of Friere led to attempts at constructing an ally model for interpreters, as mentioned above. Friere had focused on teachers who are more at liberty to package their message in such a way as to allow for students to be active in the learning process, a more Socratic approach. But as interpreters we are not at liberty to alter the message in such a drastic way. Here lies the strength of the F-R approach, which allows us to "involve the actors as communication partners with opportunities for self-expression." This person would be a true communication facilitator. Sanderson's sore-thumb model says we are there; there is no point in trying to be 100% invisible. So now the questions is: how do we involve the actors as communication partners, which seems to involve the role of ally? We need to "manage the event in such a way that the actors are, as fully as possible, satisfied" in achieving their communication goals. Now comes the F-R perspective: "This management is guided by the interpreter's commitment to assuming that one actor does not dominate or oppress the other during the event. Techniques for management include regulating turn-taking, checking for understanding before allowing an event to progress, and making sure that there are opportunities for agreement as the event progresses." It is interesting to note that working to avoid oppression will conflict with a previously mentioned value, listening, in so far as it is described as "an active process, giving non-judgmental attention to what is expressed and what it reveals about its author." Here is a conflict that deserves more thought.

Finally, the article discusses actual applications of this approach, which is most helpful, since it is crucial to see an ally-like model in action. The first scenario is a Deaf patient in a psychiatrist's office where it is determined that a change of medication is in order. The psychiatrist asks if there are any questions, and the patient doesn't seem to have any. "The interpreter says aloud, 'Let me just ask if she wants to know about side effects,' then asks the patient, in sign: 'Do you want to ask about side effects of the medicine?' Although the interjection is not generated by any expression of of either of the actors, it moves the event closer to satisfying their goals which relate, neither to form or content of individual expressions, but to the service provided to the patient by the psychiatrist: to the relationship." I must admit I don't see how the interpreter determined that this is something that needs to be asked. If it was an intrinsic part of any meds change, then the psychiatrist should automatically tell the patient this.

Another scenario is one where a hearing student tells a Deaf student that he liked the comments she had made in class. The Deaf student says nothing and the interpreter says, "Thank you." The authors comment, "The addition was neither oppressive nor patronizing of the Deaf student; it was not done in a way that indicated to him that he should have known and initiated an appropriate, courteous response." I have in fact done this myself since I knew that the hearing student would feel slighted if his feedback had not been acknowledged. This reminds me of the role of an escort interpreter. When a diplomat or politician goes to another country, the escort interpreter is expected to guide the client as to how to behave in that culture and if the client says something that will be a faux pas in that culture, the interpreter will warn him or simply alter the way something was expressed to keep it within the bounds of the culture's etiquette. Such a story is dealt with in the article when the Deaf person asks the hearing person, "Who did you vote for?" The interpreter signs to the Deaf person, "Hearing people don't ask that. Do you want me to voice that?" Notice that the interpreter doesn't decide for the Deaf person, but does warn them of how the question will come across.

In a much more serious case, "[a]n interpreter visited a Deaf friend who had recently been released from a hospital that had not provided appropriate accommodation. During the visit, nurses came to teach self-care. The interpreter refused to interpret the session. This would have meant accepting an obligation to hold confidential all information. Instead the interpreter allowed the interaction to occur at a ponderously slow and frustrating pace, frequently stopping to check that his Deaf friend understood the instructions. In doing this, the interpreter retained the right to file a complaint against the visiting nurse service with the Office on Civil Rights." Here we see an ally in full bloom! The article definitely deserves to be read in the original, but I did want to add its ideas to my discussion of the interpreting models because it is a fresh and exciting approach. I hope interpreters will examine the model(s) that they use for making ethical decisions, discuss these with others, and come to an understanding of how they best can serve both the Deaf and hearing public.

Articles to ponder

Baker-Shenk, C. (1985).

golden marble bulletCharacteristics of oppressed and oppressor peoples: Their effect on the interpreting context. In McIntire (Ed). Interpreting: the art of cross-cultural mediation, Proceedings of the 1985 RID Convention. Silver Spring, MD: RID Publications. pp 59-72.
golden marble bulletThe interpreter: Machine. advocate, or ally? Expanding horizons, Proceedings of the 1991 RID Convention. Silver Spring, MD: RID Publications. pp 120-129.

Bar-Tzur, D.

golden marble bulletProfessional development: Web sites - Deaf oppression.
golden marble bulletProfessional development: Web sites - Deaf advocacy and politics.

Bélanger, D-C. (2004). Interactional patterns in dialogue-interpreting. Journal of Interpretation, 1-18. "Our findings highlight two features specific to the interactionist framework... 1) the communicative context is a trilogue rather than a dialogue, within which we find six different interactional patterns; and 2) interactional patterns that vary in nature and purpose can overlap."

Eighinger, L. & Karlin, B. Feminist-relational approach: A social construct for event management.

Green, C.

golden marble bulletLanguage of the heart.
golden marble bullet(21 March 2003). Interpreters and "soft skills": Ethics and attitude.

Jankowski, K. A. Deaf Empowerment: Emergence, Struggle, and Rhetoric. This shows the complete text.

Harvey, M. A. Shielding yourself from the perils of empathy. Interpreters are typically highly compassionate people who are besieged by a hundred echoes of Deaf peoplesÕ pain. As Donna Š the interpreter who we met in chapter one - put it, "we have a built in over-sensitivity to oppression of Deaf persons thatÕs installed into our psyches before or during our interpreter training." While the components of this "installation" are quite intricate and often elusive, I will artificially demarcate some of them for clarification.

Heaney, T. Issues in Freirean pedagogy.

Kinsella, T.

(n.d.) On liminality. Undergoing a shift in cultural identity.
(25 Februray 1996). A way of responding: Some thoughts on the Allies Conference.
(Fall 1996). X-factor plus. . .

Smith, T. B. (n.d.) "The allies model: An editorial" which appeared at, but is no longer extant.

Translation and interpreting: A meeting between language and cultures.