A Fish Out of Water

Just keep swimming?

This Spanish interpreter got to attend a 5-hour workshop for interpreters–ASL interpreters! I felt like I was sneaking over to the other side, and I was really trying my best to fly under the radar. I got there early to introduce myself to the trainer, Josh Garrett. I quietly asked if there might be a seat in the back for me, someplace out of the way where I could discreetly observe. NOPE! There was a seat for me front and center. After all, that’s where the interpreter was, who would give me a whispered simultaneous interpretation of the workshop content that was in ASL.

As an interpreter trainer, I went to see what kinds of similarities and differences there are between spoken language and signed language interpreter training. The similarities surprised me. The differences fascinated me. I left feeling energized, and inspired to learn more.

Practice and feedback: Taking your interpreting to the next level includes practicing, but how do we practice? With whom? How do we give feedback? The trainer included specific ideas about how to practice with a partner.

Amazingly, the last 45 minutes of the training was spent on a small-group/class exercise interpreting about 5 minutes of video. I say amazing, because it was exactly like some of the exercises I did in my training–Interpreting, and stopping after every chunk of meaning to get feedback from a partner. That’s right, about 5 minutes of a speech will take nearly an hour to practice.

Lag time: The trainer named short lag time, or processing time, as the number one culprit of errors. Same for spoken languages! When we stick too close to the speaker, we parrot what’s being said, and it comes out as a string of words that may or may not make sense. We know this. But if we all know that shorter processing time leads to errors, why do we continue to breathlessly run right behind the speaker? Same reasons across the board: We’re nervous we’re going to miss something, and/or we don’t trust ourselves and our short-term memory.

Interestingly, apparently spoken and signed language interpreters have the experience of the speaker beginning, and then the listeners or Deaf consumers immediately looking at interpreters as if to ask, “Hey! Are the interpreters going interpret, or what?!”

Reformulation and interference: There was a lot of talk about un-sticking yourself from the signs and the individual words. This really resonated with me, as we focus so much on interpreting the meaning, not the individual words. Which leads us to dynamic equivalence.

Dynamic equivalence: I heard this term being thrown around a lot, and it was new to me. Dynamic equivalence is not just taking a sentence and finding the equivalent words in another language, but takes into account relevant cultural and setting-specific demands. The goal is to not share a literal interpretation, but rather to accomplish the goal of the speaker in both languages. An easy example would be, “I feel like a fish out of water”. Although this is a widely understood idiomatic phrase in English, it would be an incorrect interpretation into ASL to literally sign, “FISH-OUT-WATER”. Obviously the goal of the speaker is to make a point that she feels out of place.

We strive to accomplish this in spoken language interpreting, but I don’t think we have a term for it. My experience is that we describe it as “natural speech” or “reformulation”.

Interpreting humor: Equally challenging in all languages, I think. Especially challenging is the cultural context, the cultural baggage. If the audience laughs, you gotta find something that will make your listener or Deaf consumer laugh so they don’t feel left out. That is indeed the point of interpreting–To include people who would otherwise be excluded.

A big similarity between signed and spoken language is this: We want the person we’re interpreting for to be able to participate in the same way as everyone else. That means a Spanish speaking mom can participate in her child’s care. That means a Deaf student can access her education. It means a French speaker can participate in his legal proceedings. A Japanese speaker can participate in a business meeting with non-Japanese speakers.  Interpreters work upon a foundation of equality.  And that’s something we share across languages. How we accomplish that?  Well, I’m still learning.

An interpreter for an interpreter: I had a wonderful ASL/English interpreter who intuited when I might need extra context to fully understand the material, and so I was really able to access the content. As an interpreter myself, I understand how difficult that is to accomplish and I appreciated it. Experiencing an event through an interpreter also made me appreciate when “adding” content actually helps the person you’re interpreting for. When the participants did work in small groups in ASL, the interpreter was also able to look around the room and give me brief overview of what everyone was saying. Fascinating! This could never happen with spoken language.

This experience left me wondering, why don’t spoken language and signed language interpreters collaborate more? We have so much to learn from each other! In spite of worrying that I might be a fish out water in a room full of ASL interpreters, I was made to feel included. What’s your experience been?

image1This post was possible thanks to the collaboration of ASL interpreter Stephanie Scramlin, NIC. Stephanie has a Bachelors of Science in American Sign Language/English Interpreting from IUPUI. She has been interpreting full time for six years in the Indianapolis area and works in a variety of settings including medical, work trainings, conferences, and post secondary education. 

Connect with Stephanie on LinkedIn!

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