Interpreters and "soft skills": Ethics and attitude

Chip Green

21 March 2003. Links updated monthly with the help of LinkAlarm.

If people ask me when it's the appropriate time to "teach" people about the use of interpreters, I might reframe the question: "Do you mean "share" with folks what interpreting is all about?" Or I might discuss ways of waiting for the "teachable moment." My perspective is based on the consulting I'm doing presently. While I seldom actually interpret, I do serve as a mediator in a few situations, and I do serve as an advisor to several organizations who work with interpreters. My window on current trends in interpreting alerts me to the fact that there is disparity between what some of the organizations want and what interpreters want. The businesses seem to be saying they want high quality service; the interpreters seem to be saying they want credibility as professionals. They are not mutually exclusive, but at most of the sites I visit, they're in serious tension. Let me expand a bit.

Remember the joke about the man who's searching the sidewalk for a lost contact lens? People stop to help him look for the lost lens until someone asks, "Are you sure you lost it here under the streetlight?" He answers, "No, I lost it in the alley behind you, but the light's better out here." What are interpeter's asking for? What comes up on this list again and again. What are we looking for? Well, the BIG one seems to be -- that the public sees us as professionals! So, people recommend that we get more credentials, that we are stricter in our insistence that only credentialed interpeters can work _any_ job; that we get degrees. THOSE trappings will, then, demand respect as professionals. From my viewpoint, friends, that's looking under the streetlight. You need to go back to the alley to the place where credibility was lost. Interpreters are not seen as professional because... well... they don't act like professionals!

When I do work with the businesses, it is only rarely that credentials or degrees are the issues that brought me to the table. It's not even the SKILL of the interpreter that's questioned. Maybe it's only one out of ten times that those issues caused so much constertation that the organization or Deaf Participant wants to get rid of the interpreter. No, indeed, it's not the paperwork; most of the time, it's what the business world is calling "the soft skills." It's the relational skills, the social skills, the ability to get along in that social setting, or more exactly, it's the ability to access THAT social hierarchy. Once ascertaining who's who, it's entering the situation on the proper social stratum.

Here's an example. Something like this happened to me a few years ago. I was representing an organization, not interpreting, at a function where lots of agency representatives where going to sit around the table to divide up several million dollars of money raised in the community. Several Deaf representatives were also there. The interpreter, to her credit, came dressed for the occasion. All of the men were in suits; all of the women in dressy business wear, and the interpreter was right on target with her choice of attire. Then, as the room noise was winding down, as the interpreter was finding her place at the boardroom table, one of the senior citizens, probably in his eighties, send something like, "It's so good to have deef and dumb representatives with us in the meetings; they always add so much to the proceedings. I have learned a lot from them." The interpreter, with unhidden restraint showing in her voice said, "Today we use only the word 'Deaf,'" as she taught this gentleman the right way to deal with the people she came to serve. My colleague leaned over to me and said, "Well, she just had her moment in the sun."

He knew as did I. She would never work for us again. Why? In the hierarchy that existed before she arrived, this senior citizen is king of the hill. He used to be chief surgeon at a prestigious hospital, and it was mostly on his decision that people received, or didn't receive, transplants. Today, his word moves thousands of dollars for us agencies represented. Everyone in the room defers to him; he is highly honored, and the occasional old-fashioned term he may throw in are taken with a grain of salt out of deep respect for the honor he's earned. She entered the hierarchy as his teacher! FAUX PAS! Beyond that, she inserted (or insinuated) herself into the hierarchy above the Deaf Participants who knew how he spoke and realized it would dishonor him by correcting his speech and perhaps make them look presumptuous as well. They knew "the ropes," and THEY chose to ignore the archaic term. She should have interpreted it "as is," and let them deal with it. They were sophisticated enough to know it was not in their best interest to confront him.

Rule of Social Interaction: The teacher is above the taught. The "teacher" is a "have;" the "student" is a "have-not." The interpreter, wanting to teach, advocate, inform, bestow her wisdom, was perceived as self-important. She violated the mores of the group that everyone in the room knew except her. She should have accessed the hierarchy first.

Here's another example: Four or five years ago, something like this happened to me. I was called to do some court work many miles away. This court system told me the name of the jurist who had recommended me and offered milage and an outrageous rate per hour. Something was fishy. When I got on site, I easily relayed that I'm not the best court interpreter and that an interpreter with her legal certificate was closer to the court's area. Those statements were immediately brushed aside with the assurance that, based on the referal from a noted jurist in the state, they wanted me. I had a few minutes to chat with the presiding judge and relay to him that I was not so good as others because court work hasn't been something I've done often. He sidestepped my comments without batting an eye. He spoke in such a way that I was impressed. He was very strong on justice, and he would deal with any hanky-panky the lawyers might throw at me. He was extremely protective of his reputation, a judge who demanded justice be dispensed in his court room. He absorbed my lack of background in court settings because HE wanted justice done.

As the proceedings wore on, and personnel felt they could talk with me during breaks, I heard what happened. The legal interpreter I recommended had already been there; she had worked some cases. But she always seemed to be balking or dragging her feet. To hear it from the court, she just wasn't a team player. I could remember, once I realized what was going on, times when I saw her surrounded by young interpreters oh'ing and ah'ing at her stories of how justice would not have been served if she hadn't been there to save the day. Many young interpreters are scared off from interpreting in court, and rightly so. But something else is true. At the center of each story as she regales the thirsty crowd, she's the hero. She has bestowed on judge, jury, attorney, lawyer, bailiff, or stenographer, depending on the story, that Golden Insight that abruptly turned the proceedings on its head, and to the sound of a hundred and one violins firmly established justice for Deaf People.

One of the last things the judge asked me as I recommended some other interpreters to work in his court was, "That woman wanted me for a story, didn't she?" Those other examples she uses? Are they for real? One was left wondering if she balked and wasn't a team player in order to create a moment in which she could save the day, be the top of the heap. In my story, she led the court to believe she couldn't, just couldn't, be simply a minor component in the proceedings because she wanted to glean another example of incompetence in the legal world, incompetence she had to set straight to insure that she, once again, established justice for Deaf people where they would have been none.

In summary, she appears to want to "TEACH" courts about Deaf people and legal issues. Had she waited to access the hierarchy before posturing as a teacher, she would have seen that this judge is admant about justice, and he expects the interpreter to be a rather insignificant cog in a bigger machine of justice. She should have honored that. She should have seen the hierarchy as it existed -- he's uncontrovertably in charge -- and gone along with it. Justice would have been served well without her input. Imagine that!

Another situation in the past few months. I was called to a business where a Deaf worker wanted to "fire" the regular interpreter and get another one. All the Deaf person would say was, "She's not professional." Since the company had a contract with this interpreter and the company was reluctant to break it; and since the DP had been satisfied for several years in the past, I was called to examine what the real issue was. All the DP could tell me was that the first interpeter "wasn't professional." When the story was unpacked it was this: at a big day-long meeting, the business had brought in a second interpreter. The second intepreter, lo and behold, was a friend of the DP -- at some level. During the breaks, this team interpreter pointed out to the DP the places where she felt the original interpreter wasn't professional. She took it upon herself to "TEACH" the DP what "professionalism" means. But, as I found out very quickly, the DP didn't take over "ownership" of the word. She merely echoed her friend's opinion. In examining the DP and the original interpreter, I found no SERIOUS breach of professionalism -- only a few judgment calls I wouldn't have made the same way. She was a good interpreter, qualified to do the job.

If the DP had spoken up earlier she would have adapted easily. (Or even if the team interpreter had spoken up, she would have taken it well. The team interpreter was silent for a reason, though. It served her personal agenda not to say anything, then acquire more "proof" with which to concine the DP.) The DP never spoke up (and most DPs won't for the same reason) because she was not genuinely bothered. At least it made no difference to her until she was told, under the mask of "empowerment," that it should! The end result? The original interpreter stayed on the job; the DP person acquired the image of being an airhead, and the team interpreter and his or her agency will not be working for that company again.

It's sad. I've been in social settings with that interpreter and she feels she is teaching DPs to be empowered. In the mental health community where I am connected, however, they see her more as a person without a strong core personality who merely wants to make disciples to follow her ideology. Her behavior leads one to guess that once DPs are "empowered," by her definition, they will make the same decisions she would have. She seems to be trying to make clones, not REALLY allow DPs to be self determining.

Lots of people have a deep need to "teach," to posture above someone, to be significant in some way that establishes a sense of self-worth. When the lack of social cognition shows up in interpreters; when something in them just has to teach, the whole profession is dragged down. Again, I don't see the need to be for more emphasis on credentials and college. They're more black-and-white, easier to assess. Personality is not an issue. Some people with really wretched personalities, deep dysfuntion in their backgrounds, have all kinds of credentials and degrees, but are contaminating the image of us as professionals. Sometimes by "teaching."

"Soft skills" are much harder to learn. From my viewing place, I find that affective relational talent is what will let the public know us as interpreters of excellence or not. But it's harder. It cannot be easily tested on a valid psycho-metric test. So some have avoided it to the detriment of us all. Is anyone doing anything to train interpreters with people skills and tell them NOT to posture as a teacher or advocate? To wait for the teachable moment if it ever comes.

In my opinion, we should be.