A Day in the Life of an Interpreter: Part 3

Consumer. What a strange word to describe a person who uses the services of an interpreter. But that’s what people seem to be using these days.

So you meet your “consumer”. You, dear interpreter, are taught to view Deaf consumers through a narrow grid. But real people don’t conform well to academic grids, so you are already set up to feel confused when a Deaf person uses initialized signs or verbalizes with a hearing colleague. There are good reasons for this: most research on ASL, and therefore most materials used in ITPs, has filtered out the wide variety of actual signing styles and only shown so-called “authentic” ASL. In any case, remember that while you consider yourself to be interpreting for a Deaf person, they likely have a broader sense of identity than just their cultural, linguistic or audiological “deafness”.

Deaf ASL users aren’t your only consumer. Remember that the role of an interpreter is to make communication possible for everyone, including non-signing people, too. This goes beyond just the time limits of the assignment, since the material you interpret will form the basis of your consumers’ background knowledge for the future. As an outsider in virtually every situation, interpreters can’t help but get noticed by others. Part of your service involves being a professional presence without letting your presence become a distraction. It’s a context-dependent fine line.

Then you’re interpreting! This is the part you’ve waited for, and we’ve finally made it. The meeting begins, the speaker starts speaking, class commences. And you raise your hands are your voice, and start interpreting. As I regularly say, interpreting is the most cognitively demanding task I’ve ever done. When you’re reading a dense text, you can always stop and think, back up, review, or check the sources. When you’re interpreting, time is the cruel warden of your mind. You have to keep up, you have to keep going, you don’t have time to stop. This is what makes interpreting fun and daunting at the same time.

In addition to doing the “language work” of interpreting, you also have to do “social work”. You have to constantly check in with the people in the room, the most direct consumer first and foremost, but everyone else, too. Interpreting a such a public activity and you can’t forget that. Of course, you also can’t let that control how you interpret, either. The goal of the interpreter is to enable communication.

At the end of an assignment, I always touch base with the consumers to see if there’s anything else I can do, and if there’s anything that seemed unclear. This is a good practice because it allows interpreters to fix things that we didn’t catch during the event or meeting. It also gives me a chance to establish a good relationship with the consumers and the staff of the business, because it’s very likely that I’ll be back again in the future.

After an assignment or a day of assignments, it’s important to make official notes somewhere about anything about the assignment that changed. It’s important for billing purposes, for personal records, and you should also send that into your agency if you’re working for one. Agency staff can’t follow you around and see what’s going on out there, so your feedback is extremely helpful.

Making time to decompress at the end of the day is crucial, too. Most days are either terrific or at least normal. But some days are rough, there’s no way around it. People get in arguments that you have to interpret, somebody can’t understand you or you can’t understand someone else, you get lost and arrive 20 minutes late. These mistakes end up looking very public and effect others more than we ever want them to. Whether you are thinking about becoming an interpreter, just getting started, or have been working for years, it’s important for us to take time to care for our emotional health.

[And that is a very (very) rough and sloppy sketch of what it’s like to be an interpreter. I’ll have to edit this intensely and some point and give a much better account.]


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