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You sign like a Deaf person!

Is that always a good thing for an interpreter?

Question: An interpreter writes:
The best negative review I’ve gotten as an interpreter was: “You sign just like a Deaf person.”
Isn’t that or shouldn’t that be the goal?

Signing like an average Deaf native" when interpreting is not necessarily "the goal."

Certainly in general it is a nice compliment to be told that you have the "ability" to sign like a Deaf person -- fast, efficient, clipped, streamlined, high volume at low energy. For example, signing KNOW on the cheek or starting the sign BROTHER from the cheekbone area instead of the forehead. Doing so saves time, is fast, and takes less work than doing citation or "full" (carefully articulated versions of signs).

Allow me to suggest two comparisons:

1. Suppose an ASL instructor stood up in front of an ASL class (to teach a new set of material) and proceeded to “sign like a Deaf native communicating with another Deaf native.” Would the ASL students be “appreciative” or instead would they be blown away and frustrated? I know the answer to this after having been an ASL coordinator and having served on tenure evaluation committees that read the student evaluations of instructors. Occasionally we hire a native Deaf signer to teach a class who has had little or no previous teaching experience. I’ve seen a mid-program ASL class taught by such an instructor drop from 24 students to 16 students by the second day of class. (Most of those remaining in class had actually had significant previous signing experience (CODA’s, Deaf boy-or-girlfriends, already took the class at a different college, took several years of ASL in high school, etc.) The eight who dropped out would likely have appreciated a teacher who signed like an ASL teacher -- *not* one that signed like a “native Deaf signer.” (Oh sure, it is nice when you can have a native Deaf signer as a teacher who understands their role and remembers to sign only at a speed which will make the students stretch but still be able to grasp the concept.) A skilled ASL instructor will engage in hundreds of small signing behaviors that benefit the students. For example the instructor will often turn their body at an angle that let’s students see aspects of a sign that are obscured if viewed straight on.

2. Suppose a news broadcaster became ill at the last moment and the station asked the janitor (or any non-broadcast-trained person) to “fill in” by sitting down and reading off of the teleprompter. The result would likely be a mix of entertaining and annoying to the audience. Newscasters are generally adept at speaking faster than normal people but making their words and message very clear. They blink fewer times than normal people. They rarely touch their face during a newscast. They use careful diction that is devoid of or minimizes any non-standard accent.

In both of the above circumstances “communicating like a native” was not the goal. Instead the goal was “communicating like a professional” (teacher or newscaster).

There is a reason why many interpreting agencies send two interpreters who trade off every 15 minutes. Good interpreting is (generally) labor intensive. Full signs, rapt attention to detail, appropriate expansion, occasional recursive translanguaging, contrastive structure when appropriate, role shift, clear fingerspelling, -- the type of signing that will give you carpal tunnel syndrome if you don’t switch off and take a break every 15 minutes. Hard work for an interpreter but a joy to watch as a consumer. It is not the sort of minimalistic signing we Deaf folks use when “chatting” with one another.

Being told you sign like a Deaf person is a good thing – unless you are being paid to sign like an interpreter.





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