Interpreting for Wil Haygood – Photos

I was really proud to interpret for Wil Haygood, author of The Butler (that became a movie), as well as his most recent book about Justice Thurgood Marshall called “Showdown“. The photographer, Paul Rehg, was kind enough to share these with me. As usual, it’s impossible to look dignified when you’re interpreting.




Billing Software for Interpreters

When I first started interpreting I designed an invoice in Apple Pages, and used that to do all of my billing for a long time. It was simple, clean, and it worked.

About a year ago I got tired of typing my hours into a Word document and decided to try one of several online billing apps that would allow me to track hours and generate invoices.

I tried Freshbooks, Zoho Invoice, and Harvest. I ended up choosing Zoho Invoice because it has a free option and seemed a lot more intuitive overall. I can enter hours each day into my timesheet, and then generate an invoice form un-billed hours whenever I need. Then I download a PDF of the invoice and email to my agency.


There are a lot of great options that I don’t use, such as emailing from within the app and allowing clients to pay online through a bunch of methods.

I’m curious. Do you use billing software as a contractor? If so, what? If not, how do you do your billing?

2014 in Review, 2015 in Prospect

Chihuly at the Columbus Museum of Art.
Chihuly at the Columbus Museum of Art.

The Interpreting Report is alive! I took a four-month hiatus during the fall semester, but I’ll be back in 2015 with regular posts again. 2014 was an interested year for me in terms of interpreting. I didn’t work a ton of hours in 2014, but I made progress in a few areas that are interesting to reflect on.

First, I started using Zoho Invoice to manage billable time. This was a great enhancement and I wish I had done it years ago. The invoicing system allows me to log time as I work, then generate an invoice with a single click. I used to use some weird system that I devised when I started interpreting – very sloppy. Also, as long as you only have a few clients, Zoho Invoice is free. And free is a price I can always afford. (Should I do a review of invoicing systems on here? Let me know.)

Second, I presented a workshop on research at the OCRID conference in Spring 2014. The workshop was generally well-reviewed, and it was the first time I had presented on a more, let’s call it, “social theory” approach to analyzing interpreting, i.e. understanding the social context of interpreters beyond process models or individualistic ethical models (the CPC, etc.). Which led to…

Third, I developed (am developing) an 8-week course called “Introduction to Critical Interpreting Studies”, which is an extension and clarification on the OCRID workshop. I will offer it to educational interpreters in 2015. More details to come. But I am very excited about this prospect.

Fourth, for the second time, I changed the blog template to improve ease of reading. The trend in blog templates seems to be towards very large font text and hidden-away page menus. This requires a lot of scrolling to get through even a single blog post, and it can be tricky to find the archive page, popular posts, etc. As an online reader, I prefer to be able to skim a blog post quickly and also to see other blog information at a glance. After much frustration with the last two templates, I came across this yesterday, which seemed to give me renewed inspiration for writing. Do you like it? Let me know in the next poll.


– Austin

New Multi-Use Touch Technology Allows Deaf Customers to Talk to Bartenders

Cutting edge technology available today! There has been a slew of technological “solutions” that claim to allow Deaf people to talk to hearing people. But no device so far has the flexibility, convenience, and affordability of this device that I saw in use at an ASL social a few months ago. The device — pictured below — allows Deaf customers to communicate their drink options and simple questions to the bartender. Best of all, the device has a built-in “learning” capacity, which preserves previous questions and drink orders for easy repeated use. The device also works with state-of-the-art “touch” technology: users can navigate to their desired text and touch it with their finger, indicating their preference to the bartender. The device is now available in stores for less than $0.01 each, and often sold in packages of 500 for convenience. Get yours now before they run out!


OCRID Conference is Next Weekend!

The Ohio (OCRID) state conference for sign language interpreters is just next weekend – May 16-18. I’m excited and nervous at the same time. I love being involved in the planning process, and I’m grateful for the entire OCRID team. Good people, them. (See the program overview below.)

I’m excited about three major things.

First, I am looking forward to seeing this year’s batch of student research posters on the first night of the conference. I organized this session last year hoping that my belief in the power of ITP students would pan out. The students did not disappoint. But second acts can be difficult. Fortunately, we have five excellent participants who are ready to share their original thoughts and make a very smart contribution early on in their careers. Kudos to them.

Second, I’m getting some nervous energy about presenting my own three-hour workshop called “Making Research Count”. I’ve resisted doing a three-hour session in the past because I’m more comfortable with research-style presentations which last between 15 and 45 minutes. Plus, even when I do properly teach, my classes are up to 80 minutes, less than half the time. Teaching a workshop is a different beast. But now that I’ve had a little over a year to work on it, I think I’ve boiled it down to the right mix of theory, practice, hand-on work, and discussion. After the conference, I’ll put pieces of the workshop on the blog for your feedback. Oh yeah, and I’ll be signing it, too.

Workshop description: The term “research” – like travel to a foreign country – provokes mixed reactions among sign language interpreters: beguiling to some, terrifying to others. Yet as sign language interpreting grows as a practice profession and more working interpreters earn graduate level degrees, we cannot ignore the increasing importance of academic research. But how can we make research count? Workshop participants will be introduced to core research concepts and current thinking in interpreting research, followed by hands-on training in the art of reading and evaluating interpreting research, applying research to daily practice, incorporating research into workshops and presentations, and improving academic ASL skills. We will learn how to pack our intellectual suitcase for the journey, visit the must-see sights in the current state of interpreting research, learn how to talk with the academic locals, and navigate back to safety. (.3 CEUs)

Third, I’m eager to see us support the Mahoney family during the Saturday evening fundraiser for Audacity to Exist. It’s terrific that Shalene Germani made the event happen. I’m interested in seeing how the audience conversation goes. It’s open to the public, so I hope we see community members of all stripes present for the trailer and the discussion.

I hope to see some of you there.

OCRID new conference schedule

The Deaf Church on Calle Alhambra (or an Exploration of Religious Deaf Space)

In my early days of learning sign language, I occasionally visited a Deaf church in Hato Rey on Calle Alhambra near the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico. The school I worked at was religiously-affiliated, and the Deaf and hearing staff often attended together. The church occupied the first floor of a two-story concrete building in a residential neighborhood. An enormous tree sheltered the limited on-street parking and refracted the evening street lights in yellow splotches across the pavement. The slim doorway opened up into the first of two rooms. Brown, plastic-molded school chairs lined three walls. An indestructible wooden table sat low in the middle of the room where children could play with minimum risk of breakage. A short hallway connected the front room to the sanctuary. Metal folding chairs, easily put away and taken out again, formed six rows, front to back, arranged to minimize the visual barriers of two load-bearing columns, inconveniently place there by the building’s architect long before anyone knew this would become a Deaf space.

On Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, church members would filter into the first room and chat, some enthusiastically, some with trepidation, in what I can only summarize for the unfamiliar as a Spanglish version of sign language. This hardly does justice to the politics of sign language in Puerto Rico, since, like many places in Africa and Latin America, the spread of ASL by missionaries such as those called to serve this small church, has frequently displaced local signing conventions. Nonetheless, an ASL user, even one determined to eliminate all initialized signs and preserve the purity of the language,  will quickly learn with great interest how many English conventions have been incorporated into ASL. Initialized signs such as YELLOW are signed with a Y hand shape, even though amarillo begins with an “A”. Red and rojo conveniently share the first letter. But Christmas, signed in ASL with a C, becomes navidad with an “N”. Even simple phrases such as, “how old are you?” (YOU OLD HOW-MANY?) is often signed YOU YEARS HAVE HOW-MANY?, following the Spanish Cuantos años tienes? (How many years do you have?). Regional sign differences also abound: grade level looks a bit like KILL, search (buscar) is signed more horizontally looking down than looking straight ahead, and graduate looks a bit like signing the initialized sign for WEIRD backwards.

So varied were these signs that when I moved back to the U.S. and went through an interpreting program, I spent the first year discovering what these differences actually were. I’m pretty sure my teachers thought I was making things up even though I seemed to sign them with perfect confidence. The lobby of that little church was one of many spaces of language immersion before I knew that the term existed. People from all over San Juan came to the church in buses, shared cars, by foot, and in the back of the white, unmarked church van. They came for community, came to have their souls washed clean, but I suspect even more importantly, came for conversation in .

Of all the people who have remained rooted in my memories over the years, one man sticks out. Having grown up on the margins, I somehow always feel drawn to back to them. My experience with the Deaf community reminds me of that nearly universal truth, that even the margins have their margins. This man was in his late 40s when I met him. His name may have been José. I say “may have been”, because I think that was his name, but I also have a pitiable time remembering names. I still remember the speed of light in metric and standard, which I memorized on a boring day in high school chemistry (299,792,458 miles/sec or 186,281.7 meters/sec). I still remember the words to Ice, Ice, Baby, and a 16-character cheat code to Castlevania II for Nintendo (CTMVW26KR5KNSIBK), both of which I memorized in 5th grade on the 7 minute bus ride from my house to school. But if you introduce yourself to me at a party, wait two minutes, and ask me what your name is, be prepared to have your feelings hurt. José, then. Not much was known about José except that he seemed to understand sign language although he never used it, and there was at at least some indication of him being hearing.

One Wednesday night when I dropped him off at his house on the way back from church, he asked me a question about how I learned sign language, then said “thanks” with a handshake as he left. This might be conclusive evidence that he was hearing. But during Miranda’s (my wife) graduate school training in language disorders, I learned about a number of forms of selective mutism and autism that impact language in socially-mediated ways. I’m totally against reducing people to diagnoses. But I have often wondered if there was a psychological or medical context for the way that we knew José. I imagined – then and now – that if José was different in some way, he might have been ostracized in school, ignored, or worse yet, ridiculed by his teachers and peers for the way he spoke – or for not speaking at all. I wondered if the members of this Deaf church, with their relatively more accepting spectrum of language styles, was a logical, if unconventional, social fit for José.

Like all memories, one cannot remember without re-membering, dis-membering, and trans-membering the very people we wish to remember. Memory is an act of fidelity and infidelity at the same time. This picture of José is inaccurate and insufficient. Likely factually wrong in some way. But it’s in the inconsistencies – the inconsistencies that I produce through the act of re-membering, as psychoanalysis suggests – makes this memory interesting to me and productive of my present.

It is with at least some embarrassment that I think about this early experience. I feel unease today about the relationship between missionaries and Deaf communities around the world, and self-consciousness about the fact that my formative signing years overlapped (though not exclusively) with these missional spaces. I’m not naive, about this, of course. Whatever one says about religious missionaries, they cannot be easily dismissed as fanatics or interlopers. Many of them were former farmers and working class laborers, who carried out long-term commitments with a dedication unmatched and  unimaginable among today’s social justice volunteers. In fact, the time may soon come when we would gladly take a reformed missionary education over the individualizing consumerism of global capitalism, though the two don’t stand entirely at odds. Yet, I can’t help but blush when I think about the condescending side-comments made to me about Puerto Ricans (to which I probably acquiesced), and the tacit Anglo-centrism of their particular form of fundamentalist theology. But there’s no sense in angrily snubbing people with whom we have profound differences, even when that person is a former version of ourselves. We must make peace with the person we embodied in the past as much as we must make peace with others in our present.


How to become a sign language interpreter

So you saw Lydia Callis interpreting for Mayor Bloomberg or you saw Marlee Matlin’s interpreter, Jack Jason, on Dancing with the Stars and you thought to yourself, “I wanna do that!” What’s next? Here’s what it takes to become an interpreter.

  1. Develop fluency in your local sign language and Deaf culture: That’s right – sign language is not universal. You will have to learn your country’s or region’s sign language. If you’re in the United States, much of Canada, and some parts of Latin America and Africa, that will some dialect of American Sign Language. If you’re in the U.K. that will be BSL, QLS in Quebec, and so on. Developing fluency will require a mix of college-level course work and community interaction.
  2. Develop explicit knowledge of your dominant language and dominant culture: Yes, you may have spoken English since birth, but that doesn’t mean you are knowledgeable about its morphology, syntax, and pragmatics. Since you are using your dominant language at least half the time, you need to be as knowledgeable about it as you are about sign language.
  3. Develop interpreting skills and knowledge: Being bilingual isn’t enough. Interpreting is a whole other skill set. You need to be able to recognize how language works in theory and in practice, and be able to think quickly in two languages. This, too, will involve college coursework, skill development, and on-the-job training.
  4. Attend and Graduate from an Interpreter Training Program: In the U.S. and many parts of Europe, steps #1, #2, and #3 are combined in what we call an ITP – interpreter training program. This is the most direct path to becoming an interpreter, but I mention it separately to let you know what you should be getting out of your ITP. It’s not enough to get a piece of paper – you should take charge of your education and make sure you get what you need.
  5. Get Qualified: Just because you have an interpreting degree in your back pocket, doesn’t mean your actually good at what you do. Interpreting is largely skill-based, which means if you can’t do it, you can’t do it. Qualified means a lot of things to lots of people, but let me put it like this: being qualified means being able to do the job someone hires you to do. You might be a great medical interpreter because you used to work in a hospital, but that doesn’t mean you’re ready to interpret a three-day workshop on government accounting procedures. Getting qualified means attending advanced workshops, developing industry-specific knowledge (accounting terminology, for instance), and teaming with more experienced interpreters.
  6. Get Certified: Certification is important, as well. Many countries have an interpreting organization or government agency that has developed a standardized test for certifying interpreters. Think of it like the ASE certification for mechanics: it tests your basic, general knowledge and skills of your field and is nationally recognized. In the U.S., the test is administered by RID (the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf) and involves a written portion and performance portion, both of which you must pass before getting certified. Do this sooner rather than later. There are also a few states with state-led certification, and there is an education-specific certification.
  7. Get Work: I strongly advise against going it 100% alone. Find an agency to work with, get a full-time position (rare, I know), or work in a school system. This will keep you connected to the profession and give you a network of colleagues for support. Of course, always keep your options open. Learn how to drum up work on your own without undercutting other interpreters, and learn how to manage taxes and contracts as a freelance interpreter.
  8. Grow. Grow. Grow: Let’s be honest, no one respects a colleague who tries to do the bare minimum. This is especially true in the language services field where language, the economy, and the social groups we work with are changing all the time. Workshops are a great way to stay on top of the game. But I actually believe that peer study groups, college coursework in closely-related fields, and volunteering are better ways to develop as a professional. — Following blogs like this one is a good way to keep abreast of new ideas, too. 🙂

So that’s what it takes to become an interpreter. This isn’t much different than a lot of professions. We could be talking about becoming a lawyer, a welder, a teacher – lots of things – and it would easily map onto this list. I love interpreting and I’m sure if you go down this path, you will, too.

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.]