When they talk about you, the interpreter, do-do*?

In ASL, we have a sign that’s a lexicalized form of the letters D-O, repeated at least twice, glossed DO-DO. It means something like, “what to do?”, “how to cope?”, “what do you suggest?”, or any number of similar concepts.

One of the most uncomfortable things for me is when consumers talk about me while I’m interpreting. Here are some examples of things people say:

  • On stage: “I wonder how he’s going to interpret that. Let’s all watch the interpreter and find out.”
  • In a meeting: “This interpreter is very expensive, so we can’t afford to run overtime. I wish we could have gotten him for only an hour, but they insist on being paid for two no matter what.”
  • In a meeting where several people are coordinating schedules while I’m interpreting, and I don’t know whether I will be able to–or am willing to or qualified to–return for subsequent meetings: “It all depends on the interpreter’s schedule. We’re all waiting on him. If we can’t get him, we’ll have to look for someone else.”
  • “I’m sure the interpreter knows.”
  • “This is the worst interpreter I’ve ever had. Don’t ever hire him again.”
  • “This is the best interpreter I’ve ever had. Hire him again!”
  • On a VRS call: Hearing person: “Is the interpreter cute?” Deaf person: “Oh, yeah! Big time.”
  • And my most embarrassing moment ever:
  • In a sex ed class with developmentally delayed children: “Boys have penises and girls have vaginas”… Teacher going around the circle, naming kids and their parts: “Molly has a vagina, Jose has a penis, Billy has a penis, Monique has a vagina…” She’s making her way around the circle in my direction. Uh oh. “Tyrone has a penis, Guadalupe has a vagina…” Surely she’ll skip me?? I’m not one of her students!! “Daniel has a penis.” Oh, God. :-0

I know, I know– you may be wondering, “What’s the matter? Why so embarrassed?” That’s a fair enough question. I suppose part of it has to do with the “myth of invisibility” that we interpreters internalize even though we know it isn’t true. We really are visible. We really are there. We really are human. We really do have various ways of interpreting things, we really are expensive (but worth it), we really do have schedules (and probably have them with us), we really do possess knowledge, we really are the worst or best interpreter a person has ever worked with– in their perception at that moment, we really are attractive at any given moment to any given person, and we really do have boy/girl parts. So what’s the problem?

Well, I think it’s natural not to want to be talked about in front of yourself. It’s like the joke, “Um, I’m right here.” We are there to interpret, not to converse. When we converse, we have to put one party on hold while we talk to the other party, and then fill in the other party. It can be distracting and disempowering to the consumers who feel the interpreter is there for them, not to be the center of attention but to serve as a communication facilitator.

What do you think? What do you do? I would like to hear from interpreters/transliterators of all stripes, and I would love to hear from consumers of interpreting services as well. Do you talk about interpreters in front of them? What do you do when someone else does?

*In ASL, we have a sign that’s a lexicalized form of the letters D-O, repeated at least twice, glossed DO-DO. It means something like, “what to do?”, “how to cope?”, “what do you suggest?”, or any number of similar concepts.

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.

11 thoughts on “When they talk about you, the interpreter, do-do*?”

  1. Nice blog! lol. Some parts are funny. Especially when they were in Sex Ed class, yikes! lol. As for the video relay interpreters, some are really hot. lol. I would like to meet them in person and get to know them more. Haha. It’s pretty cool using VRS. I am Hard of Hearing btw.

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  2. I really enjoyed reading this! FYI, I am deaf, and I do notice whenever an interpreter, male or female, is attractive. But I keep it to myself until the interpreter is out of my sight.

    I didn’t know people actually say these type of things in front of you. I will not be comfortable with that! As for the penis thing, wow… I’m just amazed. Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised. Teachers with no experience with interpreters automatically includes them in their classroom activities, especially ASL interpreters. I do agree with you. No one wants to be talked about while they are present. It’s similar to a situation where hearing people are conversing AND looking at me at the same time. It’s really irritating. It’s like “I know you are talking about me. At least, include me or something. Ask me a question. If not, go somewhere else where I can’t see you.” I hate that self-conscious feeling.

    What do I do? Um, nothing, really. Sometimes, I will get irritated enough and just smile and wave “hey!” Just to let them know that I do know they are talking about me or that they are looking at me.

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  3. I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you. I interpret English-Swedish and also from French and Danish into Swedish. My worst moments are in court, when the lawyers try to depreciate the other party and using the interpreter to do it. E.g. It’s a pity your Swedish suddenly got so bat so we have to have an interpreter here; are you sure the interpreter is qualified; I’m not sure the interpreters understood/will understand that. I don’t think there’s any way around it. As they say in French “il faut assumer”, you just have to deal with it…

    I also had a fairly awkward moment with a client I knew fairly well, when he started making funny faces (secretly) as a reaction to what the speaker said (though me), and I had a very unprofessional giggle attack and had to take a moment to compose myself. I cannot tell you how unprofessional I felt at that moment.

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  4. Great article! Yes I sign it and move on, but I also feel your pain… some situations are stickier than others. 🙂

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Diane. I’m just wondering… I just sign it and move on too, but have you ever spoken to the client(s) afterward, or at a break? I once had a teacher who kept quoting the exact dollar amount “these interpreters make” (which was what the agency made, not what we made, but that’s somewhat beside the point). I asked him at the break if he would please not talk about how much we make in front of the class. He said, “You should be proud of it! I think you’re worth every penny!” and I said, “I appreciate that, but it’s none of their business and it pulls focus away what we’re there for–to interpret–and onto us as the topic of discussion. I just don’t like for people to think of how much money I’m making while I’m interpreting for them; I’d rather they just focus on the interpretation.” (Of course that’s not exactly what I said–probably not that eloquent, but something to that effect.)

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      1. Did the teacher stop after the confrontation?

        I interpret and move on, but don’t like it. If it were ongoing, I may confront like you did.

        I have had the case of the giggles like the other interpreter mentioned. Oy vey!

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