Interpreter’s Library: Reading Between the Signs

Anna Mindess’ Reading Between the Signs (1999) is probably the single best known book about interpreting on the market. While I have never met Anna Mindess, her reputation and website (here) suggest that she is as interesting and enthusiastic as they come. And the fact that she has even published a book about interpreting puts her in the very small company of six or seven interpreters alive today with published manuscripts.


So what about this book? The subtitle to the book tells the story: intercultural communication for sign language interpreters. Mindess introduces interpreters to the field of intercultural communication, itself an overlap of anthropology and communication. The book accurately claims that linguistic knowledge is only part of the skill set that interpreters need to do their job. Interpreters are also cultural mediators, and therefore need to be familiar with Deaf and hearing cultures. She gives concrete examples of interpreting conundrums that have more to do with cultural mismatch than technical linguistic differences. And she provides strategies of how to negotiate and mediate these conundrums with sensitivity and professionalism. The presentation is thorough, cited, and well-written for an audience of working interpreters. In my view, every working interpreter should own this book and have read it.

The book is not without its problems, however. The concept of culture is central to the entire book. Yet the definition Mindess uses for culture comes from Edward B. Tylor’s 1871 book Primitive Culture. Here it is:

Culture or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society

His definition of culture is straightforward enough. But in my reading, there are three problems with using Tylor.

  1. Using Tylor ignores a century and a half of extremely useful work on theories of culture. I’m thinking of the Burmingham school of cultural theory, the Frankfurt School in Germany (and the US), postcolonial studies, and the critical turn in anthropology itself. See Raymond Williams’ Keywords, Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectics of Enlightenment, and Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture. These texts refine, critique, and extent the 19th Century’s notion of culture/Kultur.
  2. Tylor’s definition is overly broad. Culture seems to be a bucket that you can fill with whatever you want, an “empty signifier” by virtue of its nearly unrestricted flexibility. Williams says as much in Keywords.
  3. Anthropological research in the 19th Century was largely a colonial affair, and Tylor is no exception. It seems awkward to return to the colonial era to find our language for talking about our work with the Deaf community.

The other main figure of the book is Edward T. Hall, whose research on intercultural communication can be seen as a solution to the problem of U.S. hegemony in the Third World following World War II. This can be seen in the opening montage, which illustrates a major interpreting error during the Vietnam War. A critical reader might ask, “and what is the U.S. doing in Vietnam in the first place, where they need interpreters?” This is not necessarily Mindess’ fault. But it raises the troubling history early on that professional interpreting has some of its roots in the modern military apparatus, from the courtrooms in Nuremberg to the fields of Vietnam. Mindess isn’t responsible for investigating this, but it might behoove some of us to think about it. (As a political and legal geographer, this is my area of study, so I can’t help but think about these things.)

Hall’s other writing on intercultural communication, while excellent and widely cited, sometimes depend on awkward stereotypes, such as between “Arabs” and “Westerners” (bringing to mind Edward Said’s critique of such distinctions in Orientalism). Mindess inherits some of these problems through Tylor and Hall, and the reader might sometimes feel that the differences between Deaf and hearing are overemphasized in order to keep Tylor’s and Hall’s ideas functional. For instance, even though Mindess brings critical awareness of hearing, North American culture, her examples of culture tend towards other-ness, including “igloos” and “ASL”, but not spoken English or the suburban housing developments. There is much more to the book than this, so don’t see the book narrowly through these comments.

None of these issues compromise the value of the book, nor should they undermine Mindess’ expertise. Quite the contrary. Her book, like all books, are a product of a specific historical moment. It is not just a book about Mindess or about interpreting; the book itself tells us something about the field of interpreting. Groundbreaking books require authors to step bravely into unexplored territory. Mindess has done this. Those who come after Mindess must engage with her work – we have no choice. We should neither ignore it nor passively yield to it. We must honor her work by working through her ideas, building on them, and moving her spirit forward. Nor do we have to either tacitly accept her definition of culture or jettison the term altogether. Instead, we should be inspired by Mindess (as I have been) to make our mark on the field by adding depth and breadth to the concepts we use.


5 thoughts on “Interpreter’s Library: Reading Between the Signs”

  1. I remember being very excited about Mindess’ work when I first encountered it.

    Then, after a few years, I read it again – and saw many of the things that you’ve mentioned. I was disappointed. But also pleased that I was now seeing those things, and not just blissfully unaware.

    But, as you say, it was a ‘first’ – and we all progress with our thinking. It was an interesting yardstick for me to hold myself against and measure how far I’d come in particular directions.

    An interesting question for me is how has Mindess progressed? Where has she taken it? Sure, she’s published a second edition and a workbook, but has she remained reflexively open to changes in cultural theory and addressed these in her own work?

    The best thinkers leave themselves open to evolution… you can trace Foucault’s thinking (for example) from his early days through stages, to his later writings.

    I think, for all of us, it’s a good lesson… don’t be afraid to publish even though you know that your ideas will ultimately end up being out of date. But then don’t stop working on ideas.

    1. Thanks, Mike. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one, too. Well… as far as I can tell, she’s not really developed much theoretically. She’s taken her Deaf culture expertise on the road with Holcomb and written a Deaf culture awareness book that belongs to some line of books for business folks. Naturally, I’m generous towards her project since I’m not doing it. But I wouldn’t call it growth in the way you’re talking about. That means there’s an opening for us, though. 🙂

  2. As for the Tylor “old definiiton” of culture, it may be interesting to note that that Tylor’s writings include a reference to what he calls the “universal language of signs.” This is from my article on International Sign in the RID Journal of Interpretation, 2002:

    Tylor (1895), an English anthropologist, writes of the exotic primitive [hearing] peoples being brought to London on exhibit being “comforted in their loneliness by meeting with deaf-and-dumb children [who must have been British], with whom they at once fall in conversing with delight in this universal language of signs. This ‘gesture-language’ is universal not only because signs are ‘self-expressive’ (their meaning is self-evident) but because the grammar is international” (cited in Woll 1990).

    Also, a pretty old-fashioned point of view… while the claim of some signs being “self-expressive” is doubtless true (mime, after all is fairly self-expressive, at least among people sharing basic cultural values, and both Deaf people and so-called “primitives” may in fact be pretty adept at mime), the claim of an “international grammar” at the time is certainly false (except in the very rudimentary cases of directional gestural verbs, like “I-give-you-something” or “I-give-him/her-something”, when the referents are, in fact, present. I doubt that his enthusiasm was warranted… but, in fact, an International Sign did in fact develop in the 19th century, at least in Europe, in the battle between the oralists and manualists, during the numerous international Deaf meetings which were called to gather the Deaf troops to fights for linguistic rights between 1834 and 1900, and beyond…

    1. Bill,

      Thanks so much for the useful excerpt. Hopefully you can share the article, because I can’t find it through the RID site. I appreciate your 2011 article on fidelity, too.

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