Most texts on ASL interpreting assume (rather than demonstrate) that a concrete, uncrossable chasm exists between Deaf and hearing people, and that interpreters must necessarily fill that void. In this metaphor, an impossible weight hangs on the back of the interpreter to do their job perfectly or risk oppressing Deaf people. Hence the constant chatter about the authenticity of individual interpreters to the exclusion of economic, structural, and theoretical conditions of interpreting as a social practice.
Yet consider this. At a recent interpreting assignment I was interpreting for a Deaf parent who was, as we say, Deaf-of-Deaf, and had a college education. There is a reciprocal relationship between English fluency (spoken or written) and educational attainment, such that this person was conversationally fluent in what I call “mouthed English”. That is, they could turn to another parent and mouth greetings, complaints, and short comments without my assistance. Equally important, they were familiar with the schema of being the parent of a school-aged child, and knew the right time to turn to another parent and eye-roll, feign a yawn, nod approval, etc. If you’ve interpreted for longer than a week, you know what I’m talking about.
Does this person need me to jump alongside them and interpret everything? No. In fact, my attempt to sign everything potentially interrupts their ability to have a face-to-face relationship with other parents. So I intentionally avoided interpreting side comments unless I saw them visibly struggling or when they called me over.
My point isn’t to debate the ethical aspects of my decisions. Rather, I want to emphasize how much this experience contrasts with virtually every major text on interpreting. Pick a book on interpreting and read it with this question in mind: Can two Deaf and hearing individuals have a successful conversation or relationship without the interpreter? Based on the definitions and descriptions of most texts, the answer is “no”. The DEAF-WORLD and hearing world appear to be mutually exclusive, and the only bridge, virtually the only one with any degree of agency, is the interpreter. Behind this model of interpreting is the (implicit and sometimes explicit) assumption that Deaf individuals are defined solely by their Deaf identity, and hearing individuals are identified by their hearing (non-Deaf) identity.
So what’s the problem? The problem is, these models have inexplicably glossed over the essentializing nature of this concept of identity, and therefore foreclosed the possibility that Deaf persons can have relationships with hearing people oriented around other forms of identity: parenthood, sexual orientation, educational level, economic position, etc. Instead, in nearly every chart and every encounter we are forced to interpret social interaction through the narrow lens of Deaf v. hearing.
At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, we will need to address the empirical and theoretical problems with this conceptualization. And we will have to develop a more sophisticated, albeit more practical, framework for understanding social relations that include – but do not limit us to – Deaf and hearing subject positions.