Correcting the Message

A while ago, a colleague of mine made an interesting interpreting choice that got me to thinking about how much we should “correct” the signed messages we voice in English. As my team person was voicing, the deaf client misused an English idiom, and my team person voiced the English idiom in the same “broken” way the deaf person had signed and mouthed it. The hearing people in the room softly chuckled, not only because the deaf person had said something funny, but because the way s/he said it was funny as well. I will point out here that the deaf person was taking a turn speaking in a group in which the register was casual, and the deaf person was using a combination of ASL and PSE with a good deal of semi-audible mouthing. “Interesting choice!” I thought to myself, as my ears pricked up when I heard this “broken” English coming out of the interpreter’s mouth. Why did the interpreter choose not to “correct” the deaf person’s English? Is it our job to interpret any and all signed messages into perfect English, no matter how they are signed? Perhaps not, I thought, and I’ve been thinking about this issue ever since.

Let’s take the above scenario and place a hearing immigrant in the deaf person’s place. Let’s take the interpreter out of the picture as well, because in the above case I believe it can be said that the deaf person did not need the interpreter so much to bridge languages as to bridge communication modes (from aural/oral to visual/gestural). The immigrant is likely to speak English like a foreigner and occasionally misuse English idioms (sometimes to charmingly humorous effect) just as the deaf person did. The native members of the group might softly chuckle and might, perhaps, offer the correct English idiom to the foreigner, so as to teach them the right way to say it. Or perhaps they will try to be polite and not correct the foreigner’s speech. The immigrant either learns the correct idiom or not. Either way, a natural process has occurred among people whose respective languages have come into contact with each other. The natives acquire a natural understanding of the foreigner’s level of familiarity with English, and the foreigner may or may not acquire a better familiarity of English through the feedback s/he receives from the natives. There is no intermediary present to smooth out all imperfections and create a false sense of the foreigner’s fluency in the natives’ language. Without the intermediary, mistakes come to light, and the participants are empowered to make choices based on this knowledge.

Back to the original scenario, although the hearing group members did not correct the deaf person’s misuse of the English idiom, they could have, and the deaf person could have learned something that s/he might have found valuable. Suppose, at some future date, the deaf person were speaking in front of an audience in a more formal setting and happened to misuse the same English idiom again. Suppose the interpreter didn’t correct it, and the audience laughed at a time when the deaf speaker was being serious. The deaf person might wish that every interpreter they had had up to that point had not glossed over their errors, giving them a false sense of mastery in English. Of course, this whole scenario might go without a glitch if the interpreter, once again, corrected the deaf person’s English for them, erasing any indication of the deaf person’s status as a foreigner to the English language. But can we as a profession be sure that every interpreter is always going to chose to correct a deaf person’s English? Can deaf people expect everything they sign to come out of an interpreter’s mouth in perfect English, regardless of how they sign it? I beg to suggest that fixing broken English and voicing perfect English is not our job as sign language interpreters, and that neither hearing nor deaf consumers should expect this from us.

I, as a hearing person, am not the only one to suggest that it is not an interpreter’s job to vocally correct the English we see on a deaf client’s hands or mouth. In fact, I have seen several instances in which deaf consumers did not want their English to be altered in any way. I recall one story in which an interpreter was interpreting a doctor’s appointment. The deaf client signed and mouthed, “I have a hurt in my ___” and the interpreter voiced, “I have a pain in my ___.” The deaf client—a skilled lipreader—caught what the interpreter said and insisted that the interpreter say, “I have a hurt in my ___.” The interpreter informed the deaf client that people didn’t say it this way, yet the deaf client insisted on being spoken for exactly as s/he had signed and mouthed. Clearly, this was not even an argument over content; it was merely a question of diction and style. Yet the deaf consumer felt strongly enough about it to insist on being voiced as signed, right or wrong. I’ve seen this happen more than once. Keep this example and others you might know of in mind, lest you think I am merely saying, “I don’t want to correct deaf people’s English because I’m lazy and I want to make deaf people look bad.” What I am saying is that, for the purposes of faithful message transmission, we have an ethical imperative not to correct deaf people’s English, or even to clarify the way they express themselves in ASL, as I will argue below.

Take, as for example, a deaf person lecturing to an all-hearing audience about Deaf culture. The deaf person knows the audience has had no prior contact with the DEAF-WORLD, yet throughout the deaf person’s lecture, s/he fails to contextualize any of the culturally Deaf terms s/he uses, and continually forgets to take into account the hearing audience’s lack of familiarity with Deaf culture. For example, s/he mentions Gallaudet University without explaining that it is the only university in the world for deaf people, and s/he introduces acronyms like ASL and PSE without spelling out what they stand for. Is it really the interpreter’s job to do this? I do not think so. If the interpreter were there to provide access for a few hearing people attending a DEAF-WORLD conference where a Deaf speaker were addressing a majority Deaf audience in ASL, then the interpreter might want to expand and contextualize for the sake of the minority hearing audience. That’s where our role as “cultural mediators” might come into play. But at some point, when a deaf client is communicating to a majority hearing audience, I think it is the deaf person’s job to be the cultural mediator. This is what is expected of anyone who teaches ones language or culture to a classroom of foreigners.

Another obvious example would be a deaf person presenting a speech in a speech class. It is absolutely our job to convey every instance of mumbling, fumbling, stuttering and stammering that we see in the deaf speaker’s signing. If we present a perfectly coherent, loud and clear auditory message in the face of a choppy, weak and “mumbled” delivery then we are doing a disservice to everyone in the classroom. What difference should it make, then, if you take the deaf speaker out of classroom and put him/her in the real world? Should we say to ourselves, “in a speech class, it is my job to convey every flaw in the deaf person’s delivery, but in the ‘real world’ it is my job to gloss over every flaw and make the deaf person sound great”? Is this ethical? Does this really serve the deaf and hearing consumers, in the long run? I’ve heard interpreters use the “cultural mediator” model as an excuse for glossing over everything from unpolished discourse to rudeness. How happy is an employer going to be when you make a deaf job applicant sound eloquent and polite during the job interview, but once the deaf person starts the job, s/he proves him/herself to have poor communication and interpersonal skills? And how happy is the deaf person going to be when s/he’s fired, and has to go through job training and search all over again?

I understand that some of the opinions I’ve posited here may be controversial, and I will be the first to admit that I may be wrong. Nevertheless, I believe the issues I have raised are real, and the questions important. Whichever side we take, we interpreters will face all kinds of anomalies in the sign language we voice-interpret, and must make educated choices about how to handle them. I may not have all the right answers, and I may not even be asking the right questions. However, I hope that this article will open up a productive dialogue about the questions we need to ask ourselves and the answers that will help us to serve our deaf and hearing consumers in the best and most ethical ways possible.

This article was originally published in InTouch, the newsletter for the San Diego County chapter of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, in June 1999

Author: Daniel Greene

I facilitate communication between Deaf and hearing people, and I teach people American Sign Language (ASL) and interpreting. Apart from doing the work I love, my greatest joys are family & friends, entertainment, food, photography, and travel.

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