Only Deaf? Only hearing? – on the Limits of Contemporary Interpreting Frameworks

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.


6 thoughts on “Only Deaf? Only hearing? – on the Limits of Contemporary Interpreting Frameworks”

  1. I totally agree with you! I have noticed the same thing. I began talking about this in one of my workshops in 2011. See pp. 52–53 on my SlideShare presentation:

    I also talk about this in a workshop I teach called “Fostering independence: Getting out of the way when our consumers don’t need us.” I’ve tentatively called it a “Consumer Collaboration Model,” although I am not totally satisfied with that title. I am sure we’re talking about the same thing. I’m glad to see the idea popping up elsewhere!

  2. Austin, while I do see this tendency in some of what’s written by some scholars, I also see LOTS of evidence of a movement away from this paradigm and towards exactly what you are discussing here. Consider concepts such as:

    1. role space by Llewellyn-Jones and Lee ( check out this ppt – and this article –

    2. relational autonomy by Witter-Merithew and Nicodemus (check out this commentary at and this ppt

    3. the constellation of demands and teleological decision-making by Dean and Pollard (watch the three part series on DC-S and the dialogic work analysis at

    I’d appreciate knowing which texts you are referring to in this post, as my experience with more recent scholarship in our field is quite different from what you describe and what I teach my students is certainly far from this concrete chasm you mention. Even Mindess, in chapter 10 of her second edition, talks very explicitly about multiple reasons that an interpreter might NOT engage in “filling a void” or “bridging a gap.”


    1. I’ll keep this short, because I originally wrote a stupid-long response. Those resources you mention are great – thanks for sharing. When I say texts, I really mean the published texts on interpreting or Deaf studies that create a body of professional work – a true field – at a level beyond individual workshops. So in short: Ladd, Bauman, Lane, Mindess, Cokely, Wadensjö, Woodward, Schein/Cartwright/Shenk, Humphry/Alcorn, Padden/Humphries, some others. Although just to note, there seems to be a firewall between deaf studies research and interpreting research. I have no idea why. I will take a closer look at the things you sent, and try to provide more detail in a future post. But I totally recognize your point that not everyone assumes a dogmatic separation between Deaf and hearing. Here are some recent publications that could have an impact on how we conceptualize interpreting.

      Kusters, A., & De Meulder, M. (2013). Understanding Deafhood: In Search of Its Meanings. American Annals of the Deaf, 157(5), 428–438.

      Friedner, M. (2010). Biopower, biosociality, and community formation: How biopower is constitutive of the deaf community. Sign Language Studies, 10(3), 336–347.

      Myers, S. S., & K, F. J. (2009). Deaf Studies: A Critique of the Predominant U.S. Theoretical Direction. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 15(1), 30–49. doi:10.1093/deafed/enp017

      Brueggemann, B. J. (2009). Deaf Subjects: Between Identities and Places. NYU Press.

      1. Austin, I get the definition of text here. That said, Dean and Pollard have published quite a bit about the dialogic work analysis and I’d say their names belong in the list you mention above. In fact, they published an actual textbook just this year. I imagine they’d be horrified to be lumped into the dichotomizing pile you mention above.

        I realize that what I sent you was less “text”- like, primarily because I was looking for short, quick summaries of stuff that someone could read. Llewellyn-Jones and Lee have published a few articles and, as I understand it, are working on something more substantive, as are, I think, Witter-Merithew and Nicodemus.

        This stuff is newer, yes, but it’s having a huge impact on the field, on the way we are teaching interpreting,and on the way interpreters are thinking about their work. I understand that you want to focus on actual published texts, but it seems to me that if we want to take the interpreting field to task for this issue, we need to at least be fair and consider expanding the traditional notion of what gets to count as a text. This is the stuff I’m hearing and seeing people talk about, this is what’s happening at CIT, etc. Yes, our textbooks need to catch up and yes, I find myself having to do a lot of supplementing, but I’m concerned about overemphasizing a gap that isn’t quite as large as it seems to be in your original post.

        When I read the last paragraph, it seemed to suggest, beyond just a lack of texts, that this type of theorizing isn’t happening. It may not have made it’s way to the standard texts that RID requires for the NIC written exam, but it IS having an impact and it IS happening in some very interesting ways.

        Thanks for conversation and the references. I’m checking them out now:)


      2. Amy,

        This is great. To keep a good conversation going, let me add this.

        I promise that I don’t think workshop materials are irrelevant. Part of my larger project is to say, that for all the ideas out there that we could benefit from and contribute to, isn’t it strange how little interpreters have written? Written texts matter because they create a canon (for better or worse) that people can identify as a professional “field”. In this sense, it really matters what has been published regardless of whether working interpreters or trainers agree with it. Part of creating space for that is recognizing that we have work to do on this question. I would say that a lot of working interpreters (who are as much my audience as any) do not recognize this, or when they do recognize it they feel like there isn’t space to talk about it because it doesn’t conform to discussion over who has Deaf-Heart, and so on. If we are interested in identity and oppression – which I am – then one place to begin is to review how identity has been used in the field and to note existing shortcomings. I would proudly work with any of those presenters to think through different ways of talking about identity. Re-reading the post now I can see that I used some pretty expansive language. Point well-taken and I’ll think of how to parse this out in another post. That’s why I’m writing publicly – so I can stand corrected. 🙂 I’ll try not to make sweeping generalizations about “texts” in the future.

  3. I agree whole-heartedly that the canon needs to be addressed. None of what I mentioned shows up anywhere on the recommended reading lists that RID created for certification, and that is very telling. I think I’m just a bit more optimistic about the future of our canon based on what I’ve seen happening lately. Thanks for responding:)

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