Interpreting Conundrum: ASL & English Communication Norms
August 26, 2019
Hello everyone This is my first VLOG…I don’t often share my thoughts however, I thought this perspective might be worth sharing so I’m going to put it out there and see what discussion may come of it Let me introduce myself, I’m Su Kyong Isakson and I’m an interpreter educator, from the east coast. I came across a VLOG recently discussing an interpreting situation where the vlogger proposed that in interpreted meetings where you have two sets of participants, most using spoken English, and one or a few using American Sign Language (ASL), and an ASL participant wishes to add to the discussion, but doesn’t see a opportunity to jump in, the interpreter should just interrupt the speaker. This should be done whether or not there is a natural break in the conversation. Interpreters often may feel like they can’t interrupt, recognizing there isn’t an opportunity to do so, and may keep trying to negotiate the ASL participant’s desire to interject, but wanting to do it at the right time. It is this proposed idea of interjecting the ASL participants contribution, regardless of whether there is an opportunity, that I’d like to explore further. The vlogger states that, an interpreter interjecting the ASL participants commentary, is an act of allyship An act that gives equal standing to the communication of both ASL and English participants to which, I agree. However, I want to focus my discussion on what I believe to be a key issue and that is communication norms. The communication norms of spoken and signed language communities. When signing communities gather, how do they determine turn-taking? It may come in the form of physical cues such as eye gaze, or the movement of a hand In spoken language communities the cue may be a word, or a pause that allows the next speaker to begin As interpreters, we are often stuck in-between these two different communication norms! The question becomes, are these two language communities willing to accommodate one another? Should the interpreter be the sole mediator of these differing norms? If each community adheres to their own norms, then how is an interpreter expected to integrate these two very different norms in their interpretation? This can pose a problem for the interpreter. Let’s say the interpreter does interject, a consequence is that the English message isn’t interpreted The ASL participant may be fully aware of the consequence, and choose to proceed anyway Which is totally fine by me, it’s up to the client to weigh those options. So each language community, with their respective communication norms will naturally pose a conflict for the interpreter! So again, the question becomes how does the interpreter integrate or incorporate these norms into their work? Let’s suppose an English speaker wished to join an ASL conversation But found it difficult to find the right moment to jump in, instead decides to just interject It would be a noticeable interruption to the flow of conversation, and rightly so It would be just as disruptive and noticeable if an ASL user were to interrupt an English conversation. Because in each case they did not adhere to the communication norms of each language community Is it the intent of the “interjector” to be disruptive? No! They simply wanted to join in the conversation, but couldn’t figure out the most appropriate way how. This leads me to two thoughts, First, could ASL and English users come together, recognizing each others communication norms and decide upon some middle ground where both agree to use both norms? Or perhaps, each makes accommodations to create a combined set of norms? Rather than the interpreter being solely responsible (and blamed) for the communication faux pas committed by the ASL participant or for the resulting disempowerment and disgust felt by the ASL participant if interpreters choose not to interject? I suggest that the interpreter is not the only person responsible for communication, every participant in the room is also responsible for communication as well. Secondly, in the past I have used an interpreting approach that splits the interpreting task by modality. That is to say, one interpreter is solely focused on working into ASL, and the other solely into English. So, in a situation with majority English speakers, and one ASL participant, one interpreter is solely monitoring for cues that the ASL participant wishes to add to the conversation. Doing so allows the interpreter to insert the ASL participant’s message in a timely fashion while still utilizing the communication norms of the majority language community. I have found in the past that approach to work fairly well. While it does mean the interpreting team sacrifices a certain amount of support for one another, it results in creating an environment where ASL and English contributions *feel* more equal in status. Well! I just thought I’d throw out a couple of ideas for us to consider. I’m curious as to your ideas on the topic. What do you think? Why couldn’t ASL users engage English speakers about communication norms, and agree to a new set of norms that incorporates both? Have other interpreters out there used a split modality approach? Would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for watching!