Deaf-Centered Topics Lamplight

Ready or not, ASL interpreters?

Art by J. Parrish Lewis. All rights reserved.
Art by J. Parrish Lewis. All rights reserved.

At some point in time, whether it has already happened, or it will happen one day, you decide to be an ASL interpreter (or if you’re in another country, whatever your country’s signed language is) and you hopefully feel a spark of excitement. Perhaps you are a CODA, a child of Deaf adult(s), and the language is so familiar to you that it feels like home. Or you’re a student, learning the language and seeing all the possibilities.

Perhaps you just want to be of service, knowing how important it is. Perhaps money factors into this equation, which is not a bad thing because every profession deserves fair pay. Perhaps you just love the language and love the community and want to spend your life connected to us in this way.

Perhaps so many of these reasons are true, or none, or all. You are not all the same, but you are all important.

The beginner with that first spark of interest in becoming an interpreter is important, because we need more of you. We need you to take that spark and kindle it into something more. We need you to stay inspired, and we should contribute to that. We need you to remember what it is like to be a beginner. Even if you’re a CODA who already had a grasp of the language, we need you to remember being a beginning interpreter, because as you grow into an experienced professional, we need you to stay in touch with that earlier self. You are valued. You are not ready, but that is okay. You will be, if you care enough.

The recent graduate of interpreter preparation programs is important, because you’ve put in the time and the hours and so much heart into your passion, and you’re really going to do this. You’re going to be a bridge for communication and that’s a noble profession. You are valued, without doubt. You might be nervous, even scared. You might be wondering if the promises for job opportunities were real or exaggerated. We do need you, truly, because we need qualified interpreters, and these programs are designed to prepare you. You are ready for some assignments, but not all. That is okay. You will be, if you care enough.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: To all the experienced and professional interpreters who have devoted countless hours of your services to our community, worldwide, we really do appreciate you. You have chosen a profession that meets a need, that makes a difference, sometimes a greater difference than you may realize, and we must always honor your contributions.

This article is for the beginner, the graduates, the professionals, and the non-professionals alike. It is for everyone who dreams of interpreting and everyone who already interprets, no matter the assignment. It is for the certified, and the non-certified. This is a call, just one of many, because I know I am not the first to say this, to ask you to ask yourself if you are truly ready for whatever assignment you are thinking of accepting.

Perhaps you are. Perhaps you have no doubt, and you feel confident. I only hope that you listen to the feedback you get. Even the best of interpreters, the most skilled ones, should stop and take a moment to do some introspection. We must always shine a lamplight upon ourselves, to assess where we are in our fields, and see where growth may be needed.

If you are full of doubt, there may be a genuine reason to feel that way. I don’t want you to feel bad about yourself, even for a moment. Actually, I want you to feel good. I want you to recognize that looking inward to try and decide if you’re ready is a sign that you care. If you have doubt about your ability to effectively interpret an assignment, I want you to turn down that assignment. There will be others. I want you to ask deaf professionals that are not your friends to be honest with you. I want you to be open to their guidance. I want you to seek out the closest interpreters who are masterful in this field, who likely hold the top interpreter certification. I want you to be open to their guidance.

You might not always get the answer you want. You might be told that you are not ready yet for specific kinds of assignments. Take heart. The story is not over unless you put down the pen, unless you walk away from the keyboard. The story can still continue.

There is a danger in leaping forward with overconfidence, in going full steam ahead with interpreting assignment that you are not ready for. I see people spending decades interpreting without true growth, because they started out with that overconfidence, without being ready, that they don’t have the same drive to challenge themselves to grow.

We in the deaf community do need you, but we need you to be careful. We cannot have our lives disrupted by interpreters that are not ready. No one should lose a custody battle, a house, a job due to miscommunication. No children should get a watered down education due to an interpreter that is not truly ready to interpret in the schools. We should never settle. We should never, even for a moment, get stuck in the trap of thinking unqualified interpreting is better than no interpreting at all, when the stakes are high. I think you can tell when the stakes are high.

It’s not that difficult to recognize the situations where it counts the most. You would not want your child to have a teacher that tries to teach English, who doesn’t have mastery of the language. You would not want your child to have their own education become this puzzle with missing words they have to fill. You would not want your child to just settle. The stakes are too high.

You would not want your parents, your children, your siblings to go to the doctor and only get part of what the doctor is saying. You won’t settle for even 90%. You want it to be 100% understood. You want the doctor to understand your loved ones 100%, not have some of their words misunderstood and misrepresented, leading to some unfortunate consequence. A misunderstanding of how to heal, how to take medicine, how to live. The stakes are too high.

You have to know when it’s time to say, “You know what? I’m not ready. But one day, I hope to be.”

Then find ways to practice where the stakes are low. Make deaf friends and interpret the news at their homes. Roleplay. Go to a baseball game with a friend and interpret what the announcer is saying. Practice, in every way you can, with people who have the eye to see the truth and the integrity to be honest with you. You want honesty and nothing less, because then you can grow as an interpreter.

If you can do that, you’ve really got a chance of becoming one of the best. Don’t give in, don’t settle, because if you settle, then you risk becoming too comfortable with where you are that you inhibit your own growth.

And we don’t want that, we really don’t. We are rooting for you, more than you know.

Let me end this post with a note to my fellow deaf community members. I know that this topic brings out a long of strong feelings in us. We’ve got a lot of history, you and I, that fuels how we feel. We’ve got passionate ideas about how change needs to happen. I ask that the discussion not get lost in negativity, hurtful language, harmful words. We will not win allies to our cause with such actions, and change is hindered. Anger can serve a purpose, but I’d rather we enlist all interpreters to our cause by being positive, offering constructive and heartfelt criticism with kindness and respect, and yes, being firm with our resolve that change must happen with everyone’s participation.

Let us go from here in solidarity, deaf community members and interpreters united.

Please join the discussion at my Munky Mind Facebook Page, and let’s keep it civil, positive, and productive.

CLICK HERE to go on over there. You are welcome to join us.

By J. Parrish Lewis

J. Parrish Lewis was born and raised in Maryland. In his youth there, he and his brother had many adventures in the dogwood forests near his home. His nostalgia for these adventures has strongly influenced his characters, their relationships, and their perspective on the world they inhabit. He moved to California’s coast to earn his degree in communications and now lives with his family in the San Joaquin Valley. Lewis is profoundly deaf and uses American Sign Language to communicate. He enjoys hazelnut coffee, captioned movies, and walking his dog.

2 replies on “Ready or not, ASL interpreters?”

Sight of Hand

Written for an aquaintance who is pursuing a career as a Sign Language Interpreter:

Sight of Hand
bRYgUY – 14Feb2016

Of hand, she graces words in art,
To Vocals, such language, worlds apart.
Yet, to many, they do plainly see,
The meaning within such complexity.

The practiced, learned, gesture of hand,
Communication so delicate, yet so grand.
Finger-spell at times, full words even more,
A rhapsody of silence to behold and adore.

While, oft-times, it speaks, yet never heard,
The heart from within, the unspoken word,
Such is the same in Language of Sign,
She does for others on the Video Line.

Interpret with certain, prose nar bespoke,
Across the country between non-vocal folk.
As well, of those, not of the Signed,
The Vocal, their communication combined.

Tis seen in thee, this, more than a career,
To labor such lingo to the absent of ear.
In thy pursuit, in the air, while yet of sounds,
Your Sight of Hand, others blessed, colloquy abounds.

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