“Are you friends with the deaf person?” (Net)working with sign language interpreters in academic settings

Two weeks ago, I found myself in Barcelona for a Sociolinguistics Summer School. Being the only deaf participant, and bringing two British Sign Language interpreters, I wrote some things down about my experiences working with sign language interpreters in academic settings. These notes became this blog post. I thought it’s interesting to share, and I’m sure other deaf academics and interpreters will have additional tips and suggestions (welcome!). Also, if you attend the Deaf Academics conference in Copenhagen in August, I will host a workshop together with Hilde Haualand, where we’ll discuss many of the points below. This is another reason why I share this post, to invite feedback we can use during the workshop.

Happy reading and please feel free to comment!

Here are some of my tips. Please do not think that every single time I work with sign language interpreters in academic settings, I do and achieve all these things. I try to, but sometimes I fail, or the situation does not allow it.

Which interpreters?

  1. Choose interpreters who have an academic background themselves and/or often work with deaf academics. If this background is in the field you are working in, you are very lucky, but mostly this will not be the case. Use your deaf academic network to find out names of good interpreters for your specific needs.
  2. If the target language is English (as most often is the case), preferably work with interpreters who have English as one of their first languages.
  3. It is always a good idea to ‘groom’ one or two interpreters over time, so they can become your designated interpreters. This means investing time and energy and is easier said than done. But you won’t always be able to work with your ‘dream’ interpreters, you need to invest in new ones too.
  4. In any case, choose interpreters who are familiar with you as a scholar, know your scholarly publications, know the academic jargon, and do often work in academic settings but also, and importantly, choose interpreters who match you as a person.

Networking situations

One of the reasons you go to a conference is to access and share (new) knowledge but let’s be fair: the most important part of conferences is networking. It is how collaboration starts, how people decide to apply for grants together, to publish together, where they exchange ideas and gossip. If you do not or cannot network, you will miss out on many opportunities that enable you to build an academic career. It is easy and fun (and necessary!) to network with fellow deaf academics, this is how great things happen, but you will most likely have to network with non-signing colleagues too. With this in mind, choose your interpreters wisely:

  1. Do not choose interpreters based on their signing/voicing skills only; choose interpreters who match you as a person, who can be your voice during conference dinners, coffee breaks, and other networking situations. Of course it is important that you are voiced well during your presentation, but an interpreter is also someone who represents you, in different kinds of situations. An interpreter needs to understand how you network, needs to have an idea of your kind of humour, your way of engaging with people. He/she needs to know the names of your colleagues, needs to know your professional interests, some of your personal situation, etc. A note of caution: it is not self-evident to find interpreters who do match you as a person and do voice you well, so you will need some time and experiments to find your match(es).
  2. Give networking with an interpreter time. Often, people will not come to you during the first day because they are insecure about how to approach you (even with interpreters). When they’ve seen others doing this, they will feel more confident and by the second or third day you will be able to have more informal conversations. Needless to say, but do not wait till people come to you; be pro-active, catch your interpreter and go out and talk to people if you feel like it. If you are doing this, people will feel more confident to approach you.
  3. Do not feel indignant that most people at first will ask questions to the interpreters and not to you (“how did you learn sign language?”, “who is paying you?”, “are you friends with the deaf person?”, “is it hard to learn sign language?”). This is human, it happens. Do not feel bad about it – you are raising awareness!
  4. Something I’ve seen quite a few times with non-signing conference participants, is what I call “hearing guilt”. People come to the interpreters apologising they can’t sign and saying they find it such a pity they can’t talk directly to you. Sometimes, this means they will not talk to you at all. Not because they do not want to, just because they don’t feel at ease. This is not good. Approach these people, make them feel comfortable, maybe also try to communicate with them direclty in some instances (e.g. by sitting together and typing on your phones or laptops).
  5. Furthermore, within certain limits, allow interpreters to become part of the conversation when you network, or at least do not actively try to prevent this from happening – trying to do so often ‘breaks’ conversations, and leads to awkward situations. Allow this, not only when the conversation is about interpreting or sign language (see previous point: hearing people often have questions about this) but also when it isn’t. If you’re lucky your interpreter is a scholar too or has knowledge of the field you are working in. This does not mean that an interpreter has to become the main conversation partner or the star of any conversation, but interpreters are people, they are present and you can’t act like they are not there. Of course interpreters engaging in conversations does only work when you have two interpreters. Also, a professional interpreter should have a gut feeling of when this is permitted and when it is not.
  6. Think about strategies to network without an interpreter. Sometimes interpreters need a break or you will find yourself in a situation when there is no interpreter. Take charge of this; do not make it uncomfortable for yourself or your non-signing conversation partner (they are often more nervous than you!). People approach you because they are really interested in you, have questions, and want to talk to you. Write on your phone, on paper, gesture, speak, lip-read, whatever: use your full multimodal repertoire (and expect from your non-signing conversation partner to do this too).

Conferences, and securing funding for interpreters

I love life as a researcher (and going to conferences is an important and really nice part of it), but securing funding for interpreters is one of the things I’m not so fond of, to say the least. I have literally wasted hours and hours looking for and applying for funding, and e-mailing back and forth with organisers. Sometimes, in the end, I don’t achieve in securing funding. Fortunately, this is exceptional, but it happens. So, here are some tips which might reduce frustration (and increase success rates).

  1. First of all: do not give up easily. “We didn’t know there would be deaf participants!”, “I’m sorry we don’t have any budget”, “Can you pay for interpreters yourself?” are the standard replies here. Do not take these for granted. Be nice, but also firm. Securing funding takes some perseverance.
  2. Start organising access early on; do not wait until the last few weeks to start thinking about this. Interpreters need to be booked well in advance, and the conference organisers need to have time to organise access (most likely, they will not have thought about it).
  3. When you e-mail organisers, make clear that access is not only your ‘problem’ but also that of every conference participant. The interpreters are not just there for you; they are also there so non-signing people can have access to your knowledge. You could say something like “I am deaf and in order for communication to be accessible for all participants during presentations and networking, we will need sign language interpreters. I understand that the cost for this service will have likely not been forecasted, but I would kindly ask XX to cover this cost. I regularly work with interpreters X and Y/with company X, and I would be happy to put you in touch with them directly to organise the service.”
  4. What kind of budget? This is complex, and depends among other things on (1) how many interpreters you are bringing and where they are coming from; (2) if there are other deaf academics present, and their language preferences; (3) the financing and organisation of interpreter services in your country, whether these instances can fund interpreters while you are abroad, and for which sign languages and (4) the conference organisers and whether they are able to (partly) pay for interpreters (you should expect that they do this, if only nominal). In general, for one conference day you will ideally need three interpreters who will work alternately. I have had  two as well and this works, but then you might need to consider which lectures to skip, especially if you want to attend the evening social programme (networking). Otherwise it might be hard on the interpreters (and you).
  5. Think about other possibilities to network and follow lectures that suit you best and are cost-effective, e.g. you could use CART (Communication Access Real-time Translation or “real-time captioning”) services to watch lectures directly in the target language, and only bring an interpreter for networking. This is an alternative that I only recently became aware of because one interpreter asked me why I was not doing this. I haven’t tried it yet myself but it is worth exploring. (Do any of you have experiences to share?)

 Giving presentations and having access to other presentations

  1. For your own presentation: prepare with interpreters. This is not only their responsibility; it is also yours. Take charge of this. For example, you can send interpreters a video of your lecture or other sample videos of presentations you’ve given, so they can become familiar with your signing style. There is a lot more to say about preparation but I don’t want to make this blog post too long.
  2. For accessing spoken presentations:
    • Make sure interpreters (can) get in touch with the organisers to receive presentations or texts from other speakers so they can better prepare;
    • Discuss how you want the interpreters to sign, e.g. closer to the target language (so you can pick up specific terminology for example) or not;
  3. Establish clues and discuss strategies to ensure smooth collaboration between yourself and the interpreters, e.g. how the interpreters will let you know that they are behind and need time to catch up (without letting everyone in the audience know!), how you can let them know if you have not understood something.

I hope these guidelines can be helpful for other deaf academics, and we can amend and improve this list as we go along. Want to read more? See also this blog post by another deaf academic, Teresa Blankmeyer Burke. Happy conference season!



5 responses to ““Are you friends with the deaf person?” (Net)working with sign language interpreters in academic settings”

  1. Teresa Blankmeyer Burke Avatar
    Teresa Blankmeyer Burke

    This is an excellent list, Maartje! I am so disappointed I will not be in Copenhagen at the Deaf Academics conference this year to attend your workshop with Hilde. Since I am unable to attend, I thought I would offer two thoughts in response to the feedback you’ve invited.

    The first one is to reach out to scholars you would like to interact with at the conference before the conference by starting an email correspondence. I’ve found that non-signers sometimes have anxiety around how to interact with us, and so I developed a list of tips posted on my personal webpage that I direct them to before we meet face to face. Deaf academics are all different, and a personalized list provide a way to get this information across to best fit your own communication preferences. I’m a big fan of putting together as much information ahead of time as possible, so I have a similar one page document that I email to interpreters/interpreting agencies about my communication preferences for academic conferences. I’m happy to share these with you if you like — again they are personalized for my discipline and communication needs, but they might serve as a helpful template for others.

    My second observation is hopefully encouraging: after over a decade of pushing hard to get accommodations, I have found that it does get easier over time. Conferences tend to happen in the same cities, and one builds up a list of interpreters for these cities; I also tend to have several conferences that I attend on a regular basis, and have built connections with these organizations and their leadership over time. So it can become easier as one becomes a more seasoned academic. Unfortunately, the major investment of time that leads to this occurs during the most demanding period of establishing one’s career –in the U.S. this corresponds to searching for a tenure-track (permanent) post and the “up or out” nature of the tenure process.

    Wishing you all the best with your presentation next month!

  2. maartjedemeulder Avatar

    Thanks for your feedback, Teresa! Yes please send me your template or share it somewhere, I would be interested to see that! Good to know it becomes easier over time 🙂

  3. Maartje,
    I am so thrilled to see this blog and your suggestions. I come to this topic from a 33 year interpreter perspective. I spent many years working as a designated interpreter for various deaf professionals in academia and community settings. Some of my very best work as an interpreter has been when I worked day in and day out with the same deaf professional, for the exact reasons that you mention. We knew each other well, I was intimately familiar with the content and the intent of most interactions, as a result I was better able portray the deaf professionals’ intent and personality with more ease and precision than if we had just met only a few minutes before!

    I applaud you for recognizing this and in particular your statement “For your own presentation: prepare with interpreters. This is not only their responsibility; it is also yours. Take charge of this.” Thank you! As an interpreter, I am best able to do my part when we work in partnership together. When I receive little information about content, context, participants, intent of gathering/presentation, etc. etc. I will never ever be able to do as good a job as when I do get all this information. Unless we partner whenever possible, we interpreters are at an extreme disadvantage that will reduce the quality of the interaction. My belief is that we should partner in preparation as much as the circumstance allows. Thank you for recognizing and bringing up this valuable point.

    I would also like to add a few more considerations that I found extremely successful when working together with deaf professionals. Each individual has their own preferences, for example, some like to self advocate and explain the interpreting process themselves, others will ask the interpreter to take a minute and explain directly; some prefer I let them know when a “hearing” appropriate time to interject their thoughts might be before interrupting an interactive conversation, some don’t particularly care, the list of preferences is long. Please take the time when possible to let the interpreter know. I love working with people that keep giving me adjustments to make so that they become more and more comfortable with me. We are not mind readers and what is really successful for one can be perceived as an insult to another. If left unchecked, or not addressed can easily become a interference to the interaction.

    Lastly, (clearly, I can go on and on about this topic) it was always important for those deaf individuals I worked with that I interpret the conversations in the room that I could overhear, I guess you would call this eavesdropping. Just so that they could get the informal information that is shared as well. They frequently would ask me if I would become aware of any rumors circulating, or what was the “water cooler” talk of the day! I believe this is equally important information that is often missed my deaf participants, it is helpful in fully understanding sub contexts in presentations and interactions. Daily debriefings are extremely helpful in accomplishing some of these, by discussing: what worked, what didn’t, what as a hearing person am I picking up auditorily that the deaf individual may not be? When there is a comfort level and a sense of partnering to achieve full access to an event, it seems, from my experience, to be a much richer and satisfying experience for all!

    Thanks for bringing up the topic and best wishes!

  4. Maartje- Your tips are spot-on. You should definitely turn this around into a journal article or book chapter, if only for the reason that they tend to be more “permanent” publications than weblogs. I’ve written about this topic as have a growing number of other Deaf academics. These publications are useful not only as a resource for Deaf academics and the interpreters that work with them, but also serve to help educate administrators and conference organizers. I also agree with Patty about about the usefulness of interpreters “eavesdropping” on informal conversations they overhear. A lot of useful information can be gleaned there.
    At the risk of shameless self-promotion, Dr. Tom Holcomb and I are in the process of editing a book titled “Deaf Eyes on Interpreting” where only Deaf authors are contributing to the volume. Several points you raised are mentioned as well as a number of others about interpreters working with Deaf people in different contexts. Hopefully it will come out by Spring/Summer 2018. We hope this opens a lot of eyes to what is happening from a Deaf person’s perspective, literally.

    May you have a great workshop with Hilde next month!

  5. […] is a very interesting blog post written by Maartje De Meulder, herself a signing deaf academic. De Meulder’s post is interesting because it emphasises the […]

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