When I wrote about the Seven Deadly Sins of Sign Language Interpreting, I was totally unprepared for such a huge response from our readers.
So many of you said “That’s happened to me!” or “That’s exactly what needs to change.” And plenty more of you resolved to be even better interpreters, which I think is just awesome.
The response was so strong that I immediately knew I needed to write part two. Because the interpreter is only one half of the equation. Interpreters have a huge impact for good or bad—but so do their clients.
How we think about and interact with our interpreters can make all the difference in the quality of service we receive and the work that interpreter goes on to perform. Because the truth is that deaf clients have a bigger influence than they realize. And if you’re easy to work with, you’re going to have a much better experience with your interpreters across the board.
To show you what I mean, here are seven additional deadly sins that deaf clients like you and me are often guilty of committing.
Disclaimer: Keep in mind that I’m talking about good interpreters throughout this article. If you come across bad interpreters or ones breaking laws, please don’t hesitate to report those individuals. But for the purposes of this piece, let’s focus on the good ones, whether brand new, experienced, or somewhere in between.
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1. Take Interpreters for Granted
This one is far too easy, folks, and I’m pretty sure we’ve all done it. We live in a time when qualified interpreters are easier to find and hire than ever before. As a result, we can forget what a huge benefit it is to have someone there to work with us. It’s an absolute blessing that we can request access and accommodations by law.
But often we forget to acknowledge this. We get frustrated when things go wrong. We feel entitled to interpreting services and expect them to be there no matter what the circumstances or how late the notice. Simply put, we feel entitled to great interpreters even if we don’t act like great clients. And that needs to stop.
So what does a great client look like? Well for starters, thank your interpreter, especially when they do a good job. Showing gratitude is the polar opposite of taking someone for granted, and this small step can really make a difference. I recently read Dale Carnegie’s famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Everything in that book applies to the interpreter-client relationship because if you’re nice to an interpreter, that interpreter will pay it forward.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that interpreters want to work with me simply because I would say thank you. It was easy for me to get the interpreters I wanted simply because they liked me. Later when I became an interpreter, I learned that I could see who the clients were before accepting appointments, and how they treated me definitely decided whether I accepted the job or not.
Bottom line: sign language interpreters who have positive interactions with deaf clients are more respectful, more motivated, and nicer to work with in general. Make sure you’re a client who makes interpreters you’re working with feel good about themselves instead of torn down.
2. Expect the Interpreter to Figure Out What You Want
Interpreters are not mind readers. They’re just regular human beings trying to do their job, but as deaf clients, it’s all too easy to expect the interpreter to just know what we want. Instinctively.
I remember an experience when I went in for a job interview. I fully expected the interpreter to be qualified and know me, so for the first 15 minutes, I made eye contact with the interviewer and didn’t pay attention to the interpreter at all. When I finally glanced over, she was doing a decent job but not catching my quips or unique humor at all.
I scolded myself for expecting a stranger to know me in 10 seconds then quickly changed my approach. I focused on the interpreter to help her capture my voice, and the interview went a lot more smoothly with more laughter too. This small experience made me realize that I should focus on working with the interpreter rather than putting all the burden on them.
But too often we get frustrated instead of calmly explaining what we need and why. Instead of getting mad or silently resenting the interpreter, let’s just communicate openly. If you need something, TELL THEM. Don’t sit around and see how long it takes them to read your body language. It’s easier for everyone to just mention it now instead of later. Sometimes the interpreter just isn’t qualified to handle a specific type of subject matter, so if that happens, kindly say that the interpreter is not a good fit, and move on.
Also keep in mind that not all communication is created equal. The way you bring up a problem can be the difference between a great interpreter who will help you with anything and a frustrated interpreter who’s no help at all. Which brings me to my next point . . .
3. Give Scathing Critique
It’s true that it’s important to educate your interpreters, but ripping them limb from limb isn’t just rough to handle. It’s also counterproductive.
Often when I use VRS, I start using sign names and locational signs, and the interpreter stares at me like he’s been hit by a truck. Then I realize what I’m doing and change my approach to explain everything. I can’t tell you how quickly an interpreter will relax just from this small bit of effort on your part.
Whenever possible, be nice to your interpreter and be gentle about giving feedback. At the end of an assignment, let them know about specific things they did well before explaining what they could have done better. Feeling like a failure never motivated anyone to make positive changes, and you really can help your interpreter do that. The key is to give encouragement and critique hand in hand.
If you’re not quite sure how to give effective feedback for sign language, this article has some useful insights that apply nicely to interpreters.
4. Target Your Anger at the Interpreter
The temptation to do this one is strong because we’ve all been there. We all get caught in frustrating, overwhelming, and even hostile situations when we feel misunderstood, ignored, or even attacked for our deafness. This is part of being in a world that wasn’t built for people like us. Sometimes Deaf people get tangled up in terrible situations we didn’t even create, but we have to resist the urge to point fingers and accuse the interpreter of representing audism society.
Obviously this is hard, but it doesn’t give us the right to blow up at our interpreters either. I once had an experience at a post office when I found out that a very important package got lost in the mail. Instead of keeping calm, I got extremely angry. And all of that anger got aimed straight at my interpreter, even though he was genuinely trying to help me find my package.
Whatever the situation, we can’t make our interpreters the face of our anger. All of us have experienced difficult situations directly caused by our deafness and people’s lack of understanding—but that’s no excuse to lash out at the one person attempting to be our voice.
Interpreters are not the enemy, and treating them that way is only hurting our own situation. Instead, we need to do whatever it takes to stay on topic, stay calm, and be respectful in these heated moments. And if you do snap at your interpreter, take a moment to apologize afterward for letting your emotions get the best of you. These people really are our lifeline in this crazy world, and they need to know that we’ll treat them with respect.
5. Forget that Interpreters Have Rights and Rules
Many deaf clients—myself included in my younger years—don’t realize that interpreters have a defined set of professional rules that they’ve committed to abide by. And if they don’t uphold these rules, then they’re not honoring their profession.
As a client, it can alleviate a lot of frustration for both you and the interpreter if you know their official rights and rules. This way you can avoid putting your interpreter in sticky situations and manage your expectations of what they should be able to do for you. Interpreters can’t do everything, and it’s not because they’re being lazy or difficult. It’s because they’ve got to stick to their professional standards, which frankly benefit the clients as much as the interpreters.
To be clear, I still stand by my stance that interpreters should be human and not robots. But we should be aware of situations where it’s not a good idea to ask them to do something that might be unethical.
The best possible thing deaf clients can do is educate ourselves and know the rules. There’s a great article from StreetLeverage on interpreter’s rights, and the Office of Disability Rights has also put together a handy guide on interacting with sign language interpreters. Knowing all the little nuances will help you navigate any situation with confidence.
6. Expect Interpreters to Have a Double Standard
This is an interesting one for me, and I am definitely guilty of it. We all need to make sure we understand the double standard of communication so we don’t cause problems.
For example, it’s annoying and oppressive when two people use English and not ASL, thereby leaving you out of the conversation. Now think of it the other way around: two people using ASL and leaving the English user out . . . that’s a double standard. Sure, this second situation happens far less than the first one, but honestly it doesn’t matter. Either way somebody is being left out, and if we can fix the situation, we should.
If we follow the golden rule of treating others how we want to be treated, then the best option is to see your interpreter as your mediator or the middle person. Not as someone you can use ASL with and not worry about the other person in the room.
Of course, if it’s just the two of you in a waiting room, that’s a different story. But if there’s a third person or more in the room that don’t know ASL, don’t be a hypocrite. As deaf clients, we all know how painful and frustrating it is to be left out. Try as much as possible to work with your interpreter to include others, communicate openly, and make the people around you feel as comfortable as you’d like to feel in any situation.
7. Look Down on Your Interpreter
This one can be a bit sensitive to discuss, but I’ll try my best. I’ve noticed many different situations when deaf clients harbor a certain level of superiority toward their interpreters. If I hired you, then you work for me and I’m the boss, right? The result is that we often make the mistake of looking down on the interpreters working with us.
This viewpoint has always made me uncomfortable for several reasons. First, interpreters are a unique line of work. Even though they’re technically “working for us,” they’re also most definitely our voice. They’re our way to communicate with the hearing world, so in that sense they aren’t just a hired hand. They’re an extension of us in public, and in some cases they guide us through situations we could never navigate without them. And if we don’t treat them with respect, sometimes we run the risk of losing them altogether.
I remember one time I was working with a coworker and an interpreter simultaneously. The coworker kept telling the interpreter what to do and what signs to use, almost like a parent telling a kid how to behave. I could see the interpreter getting more and more angry at my coworker and building hatred toward him to the point that the interpreter didn’t come to that workplace again until my coworker moved on to a new job. The tragedy is that that guy was my favorite interpreter by far. All because of that one experience, I had to settle for other interpreters who were okay but not great like him.
That whole situation could’ve been so easily avoided. Personally, I think someone in an interpreter role deserves to be looked at as an equal. Whenever possible, we need to recognize our interpreters not just as real people but as honored counterparts who make our lives better. Instead of looking down on them, let’s all make an effort to treat them with kindness and encourage others to do the same.