Encountering bigotry on interpreting jobs

The people I interpret for display bigotry toward each other occasionally, but the worst bigotry I have encountered has had nothing to do with the cultures and languages I was mediating, and instead has been a kind of “environmental” bigotry I just could not stand.

I have encountered bigotry in the workplace as an ASL-English interpreter, but I must stress that it has come from both Hearing and Deaf clients, and has not always transpired between the clients I was interpreting for at the moment.

I usually gloss over the well-meaning paternalism of some Hearing people, especially if the interaction is brief and I sense that what is being communicated is more important than how it is being communicated. Many of the Deaf people I interpret for are familiar with this paternalism that sometimes borders on oppression, and they can handle it themselves. If they don’t handle it, it is usually because they don’t want to waste their time. One of the common errors I see among people who use interpreters is saying, “Ask/tell him/her.” This is a fairly innocent mistake. I will usually interpret it the first time, and see if the Deaf client corrects their hearing interlocutor or not. If they don’t, I usually just change the third person address to second person address in my interpretation.

However, I have experienced situations of bigotry that created a hostile work environment for me. Here are two that stand out:

  1. A boy in a high school class bullying another boy by calling him a “faggot” and carrying on in that vein deliberately and relentlessly during study time. The Deaf client was not paying attention.
  2. A Deaf client who used old, deprecated signs for Chinese and American Indian (pantomimes of mockery, pulling the eyelids to the sides with the forefingers while bowing up and down for Chinese, and raising one hand and patting the mouth with the other for Indian) and carried on about hating “faggots” in the waiting room at a doctor’s office

In both cases, my longterm solution was to no longer interpret for those people. My short term solutions to cases like these vary. The first situation I listed was the last straw after hearing occasional homophobia from this student over the previous few months. I chastised the bully, told the Deaf student what happened, and went to the vice-principal’s office. When neither the vice-principal nor the classroom teacher supported neither the bullied student nor me, I walked off the job with an hour to go because I was too upset to carry on. In the second situation I listed, I didn’t bother to say anything. In both cases, I let the interpreting agency who sent me know that I would no longer interpret for these people because I could not tolerate their bigotry.

In 24 years of interpreting, my encounters with insufferable bigotry have been extremely rare. More often, what I see is paternalism among hearing people toward deaf people, and I usually let it roll off my back. I just interpret and let the clients work it out themselves.

Yes, the people I interpret for display bigotry toward each other occasionally, but the worst bigotry I have encountered has had nothing to do with the cultures and languages I was mediating, and instead has been a kind of “environmental” bigotry I just could not stand.

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When the interpreter faces a bigot.

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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