Why shouldn’t I let my consumers do my work for me sometimes?

Some interpreters just hate it when they’re trying to interpret from ASL to English and someone in the audience who knows sign language blurts out a word the interpreter missed or is trying to think of. I had such an interpreting experience recently, and it made me think about my willingness to let my consumers help me with my interpretation. Looking at it now, I think it is a question of humility, not laziness, but that is the wisdom of hindsight talking. Let me bring you back to the not-so-wise moment when I had a conflict with my audience.

The deaf speaker, presenting to an audience of people who knew ASL pretty well but not fluently, fingerspelled a number I wasn’t entirely sure of. I thought I got it, but wasn’t 100% confident in my perception. I didn’t have a team interpreter to support me in voicing. Someone in the audience said the thing I wasn’t sure of, and it turned out I was right. Yet, after they did that bit of work for me, I asked the presenter to reiterate the lexical item. I was doing consecutive interpreting, and while I was watching the deaf signer, yet another audience member said the thing I wasn’t sure of. I said, “Just a moment. I’m getting this.” And then I said the thing we all thought the deaf person said, only this time I was sure of my interpretation. The dialogue between me and the audience members was quiet, and it didn’t seem to be a big deal for anyone, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it after the assignment.

Why did I do what I did? Was it the most appropriate and effective behavior? What could I have done differently? Why didn’t I just let it go when the audience member guessed rightly? And, even if they had guessed wrongly, would it have mattered? These are the questions that nagged me this morning.

I think I did what I did for several reasons I’m not necessarily proud of:

  1. I didn’t trust myself.
  2. I overestimated the importance of the little thing I missed.
  3. I wanted to control my work.
  4. I didn’t want to set an unfavorable precedent.

Notice I said, “not necessarily proud of.” That is not to say that it’s never okay to do these things. It is just to say that, in this case, I don’t think any of those “intrapersonal demands” in Demand-Control Schema (Karasek, 1979; Karasek & Theorell, 1990; Dean & Pollard, 2001) were well founded. First of all, I need to get better at trusting myself when I’m 90% sure I’m right; second, I need to get better at realizing when something’s just not that important; third, control is an illusion (or so they say); fourth, and the point of this post, is what is so wrong with letting consumers doing our work for us once in a while?

Could two different members of the audience both be wrong about something I’m 90% sure I’m right about? Unlikely. As far as precedent is concerned, there may be times we want our consumers to let us do our job because we are the interpreter in the room; they are not. It is sometimes not a good thing to have more than one person interpreting at once. And it is not a good thing if the “peanut gallery” gets the interpretation wrong. But we have to look at each case individually and not be rigid. In this case, I don’t think it would have done any harm at all to allow what happened to happen and let it go. It would have modeled good interpreter behavior, acknowledged them for their linguistic ability, and let the speaker go on unimpeded. If I had it to do over, my “control” in Demand-Control Schema would be either to say nothing or say something funny like, “what she said!” Next time, next time…

Incidentally, after I analyzed this interpreting scenario this morning, I read this today in a book by one of the world’s foremost experts on interpreting:

It should be noted that in interpreting, unlike translation, all parties concerned are aware of the communication situation, including possible difficulties associated with the interlingual and sometimes intercultural transfer. Since generally all parties wish to communicate, more cooperation can be expected from them than in translation…. Cooperation may also be forthcoming from listeners, especially in consecutive, where they can help the interpreter with word equivalents and generally listen sympathetically, though this is not always the case. In other words, although the interpreter essentially works alone, he or she may be helped through on-line interaction with both Sender and Receiver, while in translation such interaction is rather rare (Gile, 1995, emphasis mine).

It was so great to read something this afternoon that reinforces the reflections I had this morning! We interpreters should always strive to do our best. One way we can do our best is to be humble enough to let our consumers do our work for us sometimes.


Dean, R. K. & Pollard, R. Q (2001). The application of demand-control theory to sign language interpreting: Implications for stress and interpreter training. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 6 (1), 1-14.

Gile, D. (1995). Basic concepts and models for interpreter and translator training (p.24). Philadelphia: John Benjamins.





4 responses to “Why shouldn’t I let my consumers do my work for me sometimes?”

  1. Marla Hatrak Avatar
    Marla Hatrak

    As a deaf person, I dislike it extremely that the deaf speaker would have no clue that all of this happen. It’s only appropriate that the interpreter ask the deaf speaker to repeat what the interpreter just missed. Never mind whether the interpreter in the audience was correct.

    Why should the deaf speaker be left unimpeded? A good and professional deaf speaker doesn’t mind to be interrupted and would be mindful that interpreters are human and would occasionally need clarification.


    1. Daniel Greene Avatar

      Hi, Marla! I remember you from San Diego. Just to clarify, the speaker was looking down at her notes while the first part of this happened. I was doing consecutive, so I was saying what she had just signed while she was looking down, and I think I forgot one of the details she had said. When she looked up and I asked for clarification and the other hearing person in the room helped me, I didn’t bother telling the deaf presenter this because I didn’t want to throw her off track. Normally, though, I do understand that presenters are happy to clarify things when interpreters miss them. And I do appreciate your support of that cooperation!! 🙂


  2. Ian Smith Avatar

    I have had this happen to me recently (as the consumer), I was in a class, trying to get an interpreter to voice a question on a technical topic; one of the other students in my class – an interpreter herself, though not in that role at the time – voiced a feed to my terp. (And later apologized; apparently it was just an impulse, not a deliberate thing.) In retrospect, I think *this time* it was a good thing. I’d attempted to express the same phrase a few times, and was not being understood, and I think it reduced everyone’s frustration – mine, the terp’s, the classmate who gave the feed, maybe even the class and professor, wondering why I’d interrupted to ask a question and then wasn’t asking it! But I definitely think it would be problematic if it occurred repeatedly.

    I’ve also been in a similar but also contrasting situation where I fed my own interpreter. I’m a CI user; how well I handle speech varies a lot from person to person, topic to topic, and moment to moment. So I do rely on my interpreters; on the other hand, I do pick up a lot aurally. Terps I work with regularly know that I’ll occasionally give them a feed if they seem to be pausing, or if I catch a mistranslation. (It “helps” that I work and study in two fields with a lot of very specialized vocabulary.) But it’s definitely something I find myself repressing – or trying to repress – until I have a relationship with an interpreter, and I can trust them to realize that this doesn’t indicate that I don’t need interpreting services!


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