Throwback: Do you remember Sidekicks?


When I first got involved in the Deaf community in Puerto Rico in 2002, a new technology had just emerged that changed the face of Deaf communication as we know it. The device was officially called a Hiptop, but I knew it as a Sidekick, complete with it’s own ASL sign. (non-dom. B-hs, palm up; dom. S-hs palm up, twist out into K-hs.) It was a hot item. The way it flipped open with a snap, had a large, comfortable keyboard (better than those Blackberrys), and had what seemed at the time to be an enormous screen. It was revolutionary, probably the only time Deaf individuals received technology ahead of their hearing counterparts.

Today I found a great article over on Medium written by Chris DeSalvo, one of the developers for Danger, the company that made the Sidekick. In it, he discusses the unique reception that the Sidekick received in the Deaf community. Here’s just an excerpt of the section on the Deaf community, but you should read the rest of the article because it’s really good.

With the hiptop you could get the same functionality without the extra hardware. Our TDD was software based and built in. Suddenly deaf and hard of hearing users could communicate with hearing users anywhere, anytime. A cell phone for deaf users. The letters of thanks we received at the office because of this would break your heart if you read them. T-Mobile did a great thing and offered a data-only pricing plan for deaf users since they couldn’t use the voice minutes. There is an official ASL sign for the hiptop.

(Click here to read the entire article.)

Adorno on the Institute for Deaf-Mutes


I ran across this passage by the philosopher Theodor Adorno in Minima Moraliaa collection of aphorisms and observations. That’s Adorno’s desk in a park in Frankfurt above, which I took the last time I was there. The passage is a remarkable comment on speech and human existence, but I will not provide any comments on it myself. (Rather busy at the moment, I’m afraid.) What do you think about the passage?

[90] Institute for deaf-mutes. – While the schools drill human beings in speech as in first aid for the victims of traffic accidents and in the construction of gliders, the schooled ones become ever more silent. They can give speeches, every sentence qualifies them for the microphone, before which they can be placed as representatives of the average, but the capacity to speak with each other is being suffocated. It presupposes an experience worthy of being communicated, freedom of expression, and independence as much as social relations. In the all-encompassing system conversation turns into ventriloquism. Everyone is their own Charlie McCarthy: thus the latter’s popularity. Words are turning altogether into the formulas, which were previously reserved for greetings and farewells. For example, a young lady successfully raised according to the latest desiderata should be able to say, at every moment, what is appropriate in a “situation,” according to tried and true guidelines. However such determinism of speech through adaptation is its end: the relation between the thing and the expression is severed, and just as the concepts of the positivists are supposed to be nothing more than placeholders, those of positivistic humanity are literally turned into coins. What is happening in the voices of the speakers, is what, according to the insight of psychology, happened to that of the conscience, from whose resonance all speech lives: it is replaced down to the most refined cadence by a socially prepared mechanism. As soon as this last stops functioning, creating pauses, unforeseen by unwritten statutes of law, panic ensures. This has led to the rise of intricate games and other free-time activities, which are supposed to dispense with the burden of conscience of speech. The shadow of fear however falls ominously on the speech which remains. Impartiality and objectivity in the discussion of objects are disappearing even in the most intimate circles, just as in politics, where the discussion was long since dispelled by the word of power. Speaking is taking on a malign gesture. It is becoming sportified. One tries to score as many points as possible: there is no conversation which the opportunity for competition does not worm itself into, like a poison. The emotions generated by the subjects being discussed, in conversations worthy of human beings, attach themselves pigheadedly to the narrow issue of who is right, outside of any relationship to the relevance of the statement. As a pure means of power, however, the disenchanted word exerts a magical power over those who use it. It can be observed time and time again how something once uttered, no matter how absurd, accidental or incorrect, precisely because it was once said, tyrannizes the speaker like a possession they cannot break away from. Words, numbers, and meetings, once concocted and expressed, become independent and bring all manner of calamity to those in their vicinity. They form a zone of paranoid infection, and it requires the maximum reason to break their baleful spell. The magicalization of the great and inconsequential political slogans is repeated privately, in the seemingly most neutral of objects: the rigor mortis of society is overtaking even the cells of intimacy, which thought themselves protected from it. Nothing is being done to humanity from the outside only: dumbness is the objective Spirit [Geist].

Is Culture the Solution or the Problem?

Just the other week, I wrote a post (here) on the importance of recognizing the problems with using the concept of culture to understand Deaf social relations. I just came across a great article about immigrant sociology that makes the same point called “Herder’s Heritage” for short. I will quote from it at length because the argument is much better than the one I made. The final paragraph is the most important one, and it corresponds to points #1–4 on my earlier post What do sign language interpreters need to accomplish? In other words, I think the framework that interpreters use to understand “Deaf culture”, and indeed the framework that has been taught to many in the Deaf community, needs massive revision. Andreas Wimmer explains why:

“In the eyes of 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, the social world was populated by distinct peoples, analogous to the species of the natural world. Rather than dividing humanity into “races” depending on physical appearance and innate character (Herder 1968:179) or ranking peoples on the basis of their civiliza- tional achievements (Herder 1968:207, 227), as was common in French and British writings of the time, Herder insisted that each people represented one distinctive manifestation of a shared human capacity for cultivation (or Bildung) (e.g. 1968:226; but see Berg 1990 for Herder’s ambiguities regarding the equality of peoples).

Herder’s account of world history, conveyed in his sprawling and encyclopedic Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit, tells of the emergence and dis- appearance of different peoples, their cultural flourishing and decline, their migra- tions and adaptations to local habitat, and their mutual displacement, conquest, and subjugation. Each of these peoples was defined by three characteristics. First, each forms a community held together by close ties among its members (cf. 1968:407), or, in the words of the founder of romantic political theory Adam Mu ̈ller, a “Volksge- meinschaft.” Secondly, each people has a consciousness of itself, an identity based on a sense of shared destiny and historical continuity (1968:325). And finally, each people is endowed with its own culture and language that define a unique worldview, the “Genius eines Volkes” in Herderian language (cf. 1968:234).  …

But I should first discuss Herder’s heritage, which has left its mark not only on his direct descendants in folklore studies and cultural anthropology (Berg 1990; Wimmer 1996), but also on sociology and history.

In the following review, I will limit the discussion—for better or for worse—to North American intellectual currents, which are a source of inspiration to many discussions in other national contexts, and to three sets of approaches: various strands of assimilation theory, multiculturalism, and ethnic studies. As we will see, these paradigms rely on Herderian ontology to different degrees and emphasize different elements of the Herderian trinity of ethnic community, culture, and identity. They all concur, however, in taking ethnic groups as self-evident units of analysis and observation, assuming that dividing an immigrant society along ethnic lines—rather than class, religion, and so forth—is the most adequate way of advancing empirical understanding of immigrant incorporation. …

In conclusion, we can gain considerable analytical leverage if we conceive of immigrant incorporation [or Deaf social relations] as the outcome of a struggle over the boundaries of inclusion in which all members of a society are involved, including institutional actors such as civil society organizations, various state agencies, and so on. By focusing on these struggles, the ethnic group formation paradigm helps to avoid the Herderian ontology, in which ethnic communities appear as the given building blocks of society, rather than as the outcome of specific social processes in need of comparative explanation.”

Wimmer, A. (2009). Herder’s Heritage and the Boundary‐Making Approach: Studying Ethnicity in Immigrant Societies. Sociological Theory, 27(3), 244–270.

Why ASL Matters

The intellectual history of ASL and Deaf studies is a fascinating one. It has yet to be written. But if I get to tell that story, here’s how part of that story will go.

Interpreters and hearing scholars, often working alongside Deaf collaborators, recognized that “Deaf gesturing” was much more than gesturing: it was an actual language. To legitimize calling it language, these scholars drew heavily upon the structural linguistics of their day to show that ASL could be studied and described as any other language, albeit without a written form. While Deaf advocates have always existed, this linguistic research drew upon the anthropological idea of culture to reinforce their claims that ASL belonged to a social minority and could be studied alongside a study of the everyday life of the Deaf community. A powerful idea was born, which, alongside the commodification of interpreting services and social service in general, created a relatively coherent and internally consistent argument about Deaf difference, oppression, and justice.

There was just one problem: much of this literature, for very good reasons, uncritically assumed the ideas of majority academic research and popular thought at the time. Until today, these ideas have been relatively unchanged. (I would argue that the early articles in Sign Language Studies are an un-mined source of new ideas for us today.) Much like geography departments today, interpreting programs and Deaf studies programs are under constant pressure to justify their existence. They must answer the question: why does ASL matter? Why do we need to know anything about the Deaf community? The usual response about Deaf people being an oppressed minority is true, but insufficient. I think Giorgio Agamben provides a very thoughtful way forward. This thought came to mind as I was reading selections from his book Potentialities (1999).

In his essay The Idea of Language, Agamben describes language as revelation like this:

“…the content of revelation is not a truth that can be expressed in the form of linguistic propositions about a being (even about a supreme being) but is, instead, a truth that concerns language itself, the very fact that language (and therefore knowledge) exists. … humans see the world through language but do not see language.” (40)

And in a later essay On Gesture, he describes

“If speech is originary gesture, then what is at issue in gesture is not so much a prelinguistic content as, so to speak, the other side of language, the muteness inherent in humankind’s very capacity for language, it’s speechless dwelling in language. … gesture is always the gesture of being at a loss in language…” (78)

These two quotes matter for the following reasons.

First, they show that despite many years of recognition, visual languages still haven’t made a strong impact in precisely the most important philosophical circles that they should. You can see that Agamben’s notion of human language is still very oral/aural.

Second, don’t be too harsh on Agamben, because within these short excerpts you can already see that there is great potential here to extend these arguments to ASL. In fact, I think we can start to see why visual languages have been resisted for so long. It’s not just longstanding prejudice against the body and against sign languages. It’s also about the historic understanding of being as the one who responds to the event of spoken language, even when one can’t decipher language. Philosophers have always been fascinated by sign language communities — if only marginally — because they represent the limits of linguistic communities.

ASL matters because it is the point where gesture, which is typically the loss of language, becomes language itself. We should not try too hard to equate visual languages with spoken language, but to demonstrate how they push philosophy beyond its ontological limits.

The Cost of Not Having an Interpreter, or the Loss of Alfred Weinrib

Sign language interpreters — most that I know, anyway — place a great deal of emphasis on professional qualifications and excellent skills. So when we see an incident like the fake interpreter at Mandela’s ceremony or the substandard services provided at the Seattle Men’s Chorus performances, we are outraged even when we are not necessarily surprised. Many of us are aware of the daily injuries that Deaf individuals face in the area of language access. We have seen other interpreters provide not-quite-100% access. If we are honest, we know that we have all had moments where we wanted our best to be much better.

To worry about the quality of sign language services implies that a sign language interpreter — or someone getting paid as one — is present. Just as dangerous, if not more so, are the thousands of moments where no interpreter is provided in the first place. The difference is, it is often much more difficult to identify when no interpreter is provided at all. It is difficult to do a survey of an absence. (“Please rate the quality of the interpreter not provided to you on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being unacceptable and 5 being excellent.”) And it is also difficult because these situations are often the result of more institutional problems outside of the interpreting field directly. But these situations still exist, and none more heart-breaking than a story I read today about Alfred.

Alfred Weinrib. You might not know his name. But Winthrop University Hospital, Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, and Good Samaritan Hospital should never forget the name of the man whom they failed to give even basic access to medical counsel by refusing to provide interpreting services. There is at least some indication that the timing of his death may have been different if he would have been able to understand his condition and his medical options. According to the NYPost, the family has filed a lawsuit against several of the medical service providers. You can see part of the actual filing here.

Now, I don’t want to be in the business of rating injustices. Injustice is injustice. But in my mind, if I were thinking about industry-wide priorities, I think a vigorous defense of the right to interpreters in medical situations is near the top. Compared to the media attention around the Mandela memorial service, Mr. Weinrib and his family will probably not attract the attention of international dignitaries, receive newspaper headlines, or be interviewed on national TV. But the situation strikes me as no less urgent. In fact, it is upon us to make this injustice perhaps even more urgent, for the lack of care under medical supervision is a heinous and egregious abuse.

What should interpreters do to respond to situations such as this? What strategies and tactics should our professional organizations use to defend the right to access to interpreters? How can one stand with the Weinrib family through the case?

I don’t have answers. Like any family, we may argue among ourselves about what kind of family we want to be. But when things like this happen, I hope we can muster the solidarity to speak with power against these pathetic abuses of human rights. And I also hope that we can extend this lesson to ourselves, too, and see the need to promote the rights of Deaf individuals in our profession.

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.


Introduction to Politics for Interpreters

Python Witch
“How do you know she’s a witch?” — “She looks like one!”

Today we are going to deal with how interpreters can and perhaps should think about politics – the politics of our own field and political action in practice.

Let’s start with one prompt and two interrelated problems. First, the prompt. The unqualified interpreter as Mandela’s ceremony has stimulated public attention on interpreters. The details of the incident are in many ways secondary. The real impact of the incident was to create a flash-bulb which illuminated the amazing, professional work that the majority of interpreters do everyday. But it also illuminated some central problems in our field.

Now, the interrelated problems. The first problem is that interpreters seem generally unprepared to respond to public attention with urgency and coordination. The second problem is that the interpreting field itself of marred by hostile politics. Neither of these problems are judgements of individual interpreters, but they are symptoms of the marginality of the field and the lack of strong leadership and collaborative discipline that marginalization engenders.

For instance, I posted a review of RID’s response to the events in Jo’burg as a way of applying discourse analysis (a common technique in our field) to political texts produced by our own organization. The RID statement is an important text which I  understand as an indication of both of the problems I outlined above. First, it indicates our struggle to respond effectively to an event that became politicized in the media. (By “politicized”, I mean that the event was turned into an object of political discourse.) Second, RID’s response was not, for me, an indication of the organization’s inherent moral worth or (in)competence, as many on blogs and Facebook took great pleasure in denouncing. Rather, RID’s response itself is an indication of the destructive horizontal violence that permeates the field of interpreting. The ability of RID to respond effectively was dramatically hampered by internal debates within the membership over who gets to speak for interpreters, what kind of ASL gets represented on video, who within the organization can make a statement on behalf of the organization, and on and on. These problems cannot be ignored as being specific to a momentary crisis. Rather, they are the product of years of contests over which various individuals – hearing and Deaf – have argued over the idea of an ideal “Deaf community” to justify particular professional opinions, or to create and defend insular realms of relative authority over other interpreters. This doesn’t automatically disqualify or undermine claims of authenticity. Nor does it mean that the Deaf community is only imaginary and not actually real. Of course the Deaf community exists; it’s just that every real community also has an “imaginary” aspect of it which holds it together.

What worries me is that  it seems like when we try to challenge oppression, the result is that we end up re-internalizing oppression within our professional community. (See crab mentality.)

To emphasize: none of the problems are specific to interpreters or the Deaf community. These problems have analogs in every marginal profession, every minority social group, every shade of political viewpoint. To be sure, there are specific aspects of the problem within the interpreting community which are qualitatively different. But we are mistaken when we think that these problems are the special ownership of specific people or even specific people groups.

What to do? I have some starting points or premises that I’m trying to work from.

1. Be cautious about using vague terms to screen each other. When I started in interpreting it was ATTITUDE. If you had ATTITUDE or make a public confession of the importance of ATTITUDE (often in ASL classes from one hearing student to another) then you gained authenticity. In some parts of the field, the current term is DEAF-HEART.  It’s not that these terms are useless. Often the power of such vague terms is that they provide a way for otherwise powerless groups to screen membership. But this can also become a way to justify  horizontal aggression. But Deaf and CODA interpreters deserve to know that these terms are frequently used by hearing interpreters to belittle each other.

2. Think beyond the level of individuals. Individual subject positions are the product of social and political contradictions, not the immediate cause. We cannot continue to blame underpaid and underrepresented interpreters for the failures of the profession, nor can we pretend that if we only had better leaders that we can resolve the fundamental problems we all care about. (As I often say to may students, “racism doesn’t need racists,” – i.e. racism can be an active social force even if individuals don’t expressly hate each other based on racial classification.)

As Zizek wrote in his book on violence,

“We should learn how to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible “subjective” violence…”

3. Pick a different starting point. I suggest beginning with understanding the political economy of interpreting. By political economy, I mean the economic position of interpreting services in late capitalism as one tiny part of social relations. This helps us to avoid blaming each other for problems that are endemic to global affairs, thereby lessening the horizontal violence in our field. And it might help us formulate a political agenda that creates practical, effective solutions for working interpreters.

This may prompt new questions:

  • what does it means to act “politically”?
  • what is the “political economy of interpreting” look like? (or should look like?)
  • where should we focus our scarce resources?
  • how radical we can be and still be successful?
  • what strategies and tactics will protect working interpreters and the Deaf community? or such a thing impossible?
  • what ideas should we draw upon to reshape our thinking about interpreting?

Ultimately, there’s more to say about all this. I will give what I have to work in this direction. I hope there are others out there who want to work on this project with me.

More Problems with Fake Sign Language Interpreter

When the news that the interpreter at Mandela’s memorial service came out yesterday, I tried to write up a quick analysis that pointed out the systemic problems that led to the now-famous incident in Johannesburg. Today, more information has come out about the interpreter.

Nelson Mandela's memorial service


In an interview, Thamsanqa Jantjie (the “fake interpreter”), made several important statements, which I want to think through. (Articles on CNN, Daily News, and USA Today.)

1. He claimed that he is a schizophrenic and he was suffering from a hallucinatory episode on stage, which explain why his interpretation was gibberish.

I am skeptical that Jantjie’s incomprehensible signing can be explained as the result of a psychological event. I don’t believe that hallucinations lead to apraxia (the inability to produce meaningful language). If anything, hallucinations lead to hyperactive language production. Also, a psychological event would likely impair much more than just language production, and I can’t understand how he could continue for so long on stage under these conditions as if nothing were going on. If we remember the case of the reporter who had the stroke on the air, that was a case where language production rapidly disintegrated into apraxia of speech (see video here). But this isn’t something that you can keep up for hours on stage.

2. He claimed that his hallucinatory episode resulted in temporary hearing loss, which effected his ability to interpret.

This explanation contradicts the last one. In this explanation, the hallucination impaired or conflicted with his ability to hear, in which case he couldn’t interpret reliably. As every interpreter knows, you don’t lose your ability to sign fluently just because you can’t hear your source message. Again, even during a hallucination, my understanding is that your language (spoken or signed) might not make logical sense to other people in the room, but that doesn’t mean that it’s grammatical gibberish.

3. He claimed that his he has interpreted often at public events and no one told him his interpretation was wrong.

The news outlets have already found evidence of prior complaints about this interpreter, so this doesn’t seem to hold up on factual grounds. But this explanation also seems to backpedal against the other two. In general, I’m not sure I can even begin to make sense of what happened on stage, how Jantjie ended up there, and if he even recognizes the gravity of the insult to the Deaf community and professional interpreters.

Bigger Problems than Jantjie

Let’s not get too distracted, however. As I stated in my post yesterday, this entire wretched debacle is not really about Jantjie. It’s about the socially acceptable level of ignorance and injury that the Deaf community is forced to live with regularly. How many times does this happen in South Africa when the cameras are off? How many times each day does it happen in the U.S. when a Deaf individuals shows up to school or a doctor’s appointment with an unqualified “interpreter” who took a few classes at a community library? The media will clamor for a few days over the details of Jantjie, government agencies will point fingers at each other until the spotlight shines elsewhere, and we’ll be back in a world where little has changed.

Will our professional organizations find a way to capitalize upon this moment to publicly point out the egregious ignorance about interpreters and the Deaf community? Can we be ready to use a public event like this to send a message here in the U.S. and everywhere in the world?

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.

Deafness in Film: How Not to Do It

The British website Limping Chicken has a great post on how not to represent Deaf people on TV. Or more specifically, how not to represent interpreters. If you read the post, you’ll find that a TV show portrayed a Deaf character whose 9-year old daughter interpreted for the character’s serious hospital visit. Major ethical problem, and it perpetuates the idea that childhood CODAs should be interpreters. (Yes, we all know they do it, but don’t you think it would be better not to give hospitals the idea that it’s okay?) The Chief Executive of Gloucestershire Deaf Association, Jenny Hopkins, wrote an outstanding letter to the BBC respectfully confronting them about their fumble. Hopefully they’ll take it to heart. After writing a post a few days ago about There Will Be Blood (which just published today), this story stuck out to me. Go Jenny!

Read Limping Chicken article here