Fragmentation of (Interpreter) Knowledge

This is an installment of my recent presentation on “Making Research County” from the 2014 OCRID conference in Columbus, Ohio.

Making Research Count (Recovered)

We cannot avoid the problem of fragmentation when we think about the history of interpreting. I have tried to advocate for a less individualist view of the history of interpreting, i.e. less focus on person A did B or law X was passed, then things got better/worse/stayed the same. Instead, I like to think about the “conditions of possibility” for interpreting becoming  a profession.

One condition is that an educational system had to exist which allowed for specialized, technical training. Most interpreter training programs began (and remain) in two-year technical and community colleges. This institutional situation cannot be easily ignored. Yes, it is common to recognize this as a problem in training duration. As in, “There’s no way we can train someone in a language and also in interpreting skills in two year.” Absolutely true. (Although in my recollection, the teachers who complained about this most often also seemed the least organized, least committed to developing a strong curriculum, and wasted the most time during class.)

But there’s another aspect to specializing in two-year programs. Although I am glad that education has been, to some degree, more democratized, it has also become less about education and more about training. Education provides you with a broad skill set for reasoning that one uses to interpret constantly changing worldly experience, while training teaches you to perform a particular skill set with the boundaries of a professional position. Yes, there is plenty of overlap. But there are also important gaps in what training can provide, especially when it comes to answering important question such as, “why is there poverty, and how does poverty impact the Deaf community?”, “how should interpreters think about sexism?”, and so on.

Most importantly, the move towards economic specialization through technical training should be seen as a product of changes in 20th century capitalism, in particular the movement toward service economies that preceded alongside outsourcing labor to the developing/third world.

Antonio Gramsci made such an observation long before interpreting was a profession. It’s important for us to ponder how this change has impacted us.

Flashback: Does anyone remember Laurent, South Dakota?

When I moved back to Ohio in 2004, I remember hearing a lot about Laurent, South Dakota. Laurent was intended to be a planned community near Sioux Falls where American Sign Language would be held on par with English and where Deaf and hard-of-hearing families would be welcomed. It didn’t work out. Laurent failed to materialize. But that doesn’t mean Laurent was a failure. We should remember Van Cleve and Crouch’s research on Deaf communities in the U.S. in their excellent book  A Place of Their Own. These planned (but never executed) towns have symbolic value within the Deaf community as an “imagined community” in the flavor of Benedict Anderson. (See previous post on this topic.) They are the imaginary geographic solution to the everyday existential distances experienced by many Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. You can see a timeline compiled by DeafWeekly here, and some images below from the original plans.

Just for fun, what elements of the town plans signal that this is a “Deaf town”?





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.

The Task of the Interpreter and Walter Benjamin


I have always had a nagging feeling that interpreting is one of the most important human activities. Interpreting is valuable not only for the participants immediately involved, but its also a fascinating demonstration of the human capacity to do things with language.

Language is interesting because virtually no part of our human existence can be fully understood or thoroughly appreciated without language. Indeed, over the past 100 years philosophers as different (and in some ways as similar) as Bertrand Russell and Martin Heidegger have spent the better part of their professional lives trying to explain just how language structures the experience of being human. Central to these thinkers – and the many who followed them – was the notion that humans have a unique and extremely flexible capacity to assign meaning to the objects and experiences we encounter in the world. Our individual and collective role in assigning, negotiating, and contesting meaning in the world can be summed up in one word: interpretation.

Loosening the Boundaries of History

Therefore it is likely no accident that interpreting – and sign language interpreting in particular – became a profession in the 20th Century. We tend to focus on the historical events that define our profession (the Ball State meeting in 1964, let’s say) or the individuals who invested their labor into moving us forward (Lou Fant comes to mind). It’s clear why. Their stories are our stories handed down through mentorship or gleaned from the pages of textbooks or from the VHS cassettes we used in my interpreting program.

However, I’d would like to make a very simple suggestion: that we zoom out from our individual profession – if just briefly – to put ourselves and our collective history into a larger context. My is strategic. I am suggesting that we widen the scope of our own history, and in so doing recognize (and advocate for) the larger significance of interpreting in society. My imperfect example is to take a look at an essay written in 1923 by Walter Benjamin.

Walter Benjamin was a German literary critic, philosopher, and translator whose life of influence and tragedy is too dense to tell here. What is important for us is that in 1923, Benjamin wrote an introduction to his translation of a collection of works by the French poet, Charles Baudelaire. The introductory essay was called The Task of the Translator, and in it Benjamin lays out his approach to the nature of translation and some of its main challenges. One caveat: it’s true that the pragmatic considerations of translators appear very different from what we think of as interpreters. But a closer look at Benjamin’s text reveals language issues that transcend practical differences.

Walter Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator

I would like to focus on two main examples that I find especially relevant in Benjamin’s essay.

On the Limits of Fidelity

“…no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original.” – Benjamin

The fundamental principle of translation and interpretation is the notion of fidelity. But Benjamin suggests – and working interpreters know – that strict formal fidelity is part of the problem, not part of the solution. We’ve all seen this, haven’t we? Those moments when we interpret something with undue literalness. We say things like, “that was too English” or “you’re talking in ASL” to indicate this simple concept. Awkward literalness isn’t a result of simply choosing the wrong variable in an otherwise balanced equation, like systematically replacing the red blocks in a Lego house with otherwise identical green blocks. There is something about interpreting which escapes formal calculation. And yet when we see amazing interpreters at work, we feel that “click” that something has come together in an entirely original yet accurate way. We recognize that provisionally – in the moment, in the set of circumstances at the time – a great interpretation performs the function it was intended to have. What Benjamin argues clearly (and more elaborately in his essay) is that fidelity, strictly speaking, is not always the best way to evaluate the success of a translation or an interpretation. This may seem obvious to us now. But remember: he was writing over 40 years before RID was came into existence, and still long before any systematic work had been done in interpreting theory.

On the Impossibility of a Final Interpretation

“…all translation is only a somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages.” – Benjamin

Even the best interpretations are always partial. In the everyday life of interpreters, there is a common (but under-analyzed) practice of commenting on the ways that we would have interpreted something that another interpreter signed or voiced. Yet have we fully appreciated the fact that this common practice is only possible because interpretations are indeed always partial, always “provisional”? Indeed, we always could have signed or voiced something different, and yet there is no need to imply that the first interpretation was inadequate. There are always openings for other interpretations which add something unique or relevant. This is not simply the result of peer violence, where interpreters belittle one another’s work (although it is sad when it stoops to that level). Instead, this is an indication that interpreting is our slippery attempt to make sense of the linguistic and social situations that we find ourselves in. A word of caution: this does not mean that all interpretations are equally valid. Benjamin is very clear that “bad translations” (his words) exist and perhaps dominate the world of translations. But it does suggest that even our best work will need to be refined over time, and that no interpretation can claim a superior finality.

Relevance Today

The conclusion I draw from this difficult essay is rather simple. Benjamin remains a significant literary and theoretical figure today – probably more so than when he was alive. There is great value for us in realizing the affinities between our work as interpreters and aspects of Benjamin’s work 100 years ago. Not only do we open up new opportunities for us to think about our own work, we can also open up dialogue with other fields of study. I recognize that this may not be attractive to all interpreters, nor does it make us better skilled or better paid interpreters overnight. But for some of us who are trying to meet new educational requirements for certification or trying to expand our professional knowledge base, this might provide new and useful opportunities.

I believe Benjamin’s essay is relevant today because it shows that the history of our profession is not simply our history. Rather, we exist today in part because of a number of social, political, and – yes – philosophical conditions the 20th century. What is at stake in interpreting is not only the important role of language mediation between the often-marginalized sign language community and the non-signing majority. Interpreting is intimately connected to the most profound and fundamental shifts in economic organization and philosophical thought in the past 100 years. With this recognition in mind, we may be able to argue forcefully that while our numbers may be small, we are nonetheless significant and deserve more than passing attention. It is to the benefit of society at large – not only to working interpreters – to recognize our important place in history.

*This is an incomplete short piece I started writing over a year ago and never quite finished. I present it here so I can just move on.


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.

Deaf Community as Imagined Community?

Imagined Communities

Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities should be required reading at all interpreter training programs. (I just added it to the Interpreter’s Library.) The thesis is quite simple. The idea that you and I belong to a community called a “nation” is an enormous stretch of reason, given that we can’t possibly be in daily relationship with the other people in this “national community”. Yet, this is precisely the ideology of nationalism, which seeks to collectively represents people on the “inside” against people on the “outside”. Anderson never says that imagined communities aren’t real simply because they are imagined. On the contrary, imagined communities have even more power because they are imagined. If this seems trivial, take a quick glance at the news coming out of Crimea this morning.


Politics of Language

Language is central to Anderson’s argument. The bulk of Imagined Communities is about how nationalism took off and where nationalism got its start (spoiler alert: its not just about Europe). One of the major players here is language, because language became such an important element of nationalism. Even in the U.S., where the dominant language of English is hardly owned by U.S. citizens, English-only policies have been regularly introduced for well over a century to distinguish so-called “assimilated” immigrants and foreigners from “native” residents. Yet, Anderson reminds us that what is truly at stake in the politics of language is its ability to create a strategic boundary around a political community.

“It is always a mistake to treat languages in the way that certain nationalist ideologues treat them — as emblems of nation-ness, like flags, costumes, folk-dances, and the rest. Much The most important thing about language is its capacity for generating imagined communities, building effective particular solidarities. (133)

Why should interpreters care?

Here’s why I think this is important for interpreters to think about.

First, we know that Deaf communities have always experienced social oppression in various forms. What hasn’t been sufficiently explored is why much of this has taken place within the field of language. In my view, the literature in Deaf studies and interpreting studies has over-emphasized the direct anti-Deaf discourse by people like A.G. Bell, but hasn’t sufficiently challenged the nationalist ideas that makes language discrimination possible in the first place. When the English language is used as a “national bond” for U.S. citizens, it justifies the exclusion of non-English speakers (Deaf individuals included). In other words, the U.S. as a “nation” is an imagined community – it is not simply “real” in any everyday empirical sense. (As a side note, it is fascinating to me how many Deaf and hearing ASL users have made anti-immigrant comments to me, always failing to recognize that every argument against immigrants in the U.S. – true or not – has been used to discriminate against Deaf people, too.)

Second, the politics of language isn’t just about hearing English-speakers. As I said in my previous post, Deaf consciousness in the U.S. emerged alongside ideas of culture and nationalism in the 1880s. Sign language in the U.S. (even before it became “ASL”) became a signature feature of the U.S. Deaf community, and for very good reasons which my readers probably do not need explained to them. But the story isn’t quite as clear-cut as it seems. If we want to take Anderson seriously, we should recognize that language identity is always a political strategy, not just an empirical reality. And like all strategies, it includes some things and excludes others. ASL research — again, for very good reason — has tended towards ASL purism in the confines of a media room with Deaf-of-Deaf participants. No significant research exists on the everyday diversity of language use in mixed Deaf-hearing workspaces, for instance. So I wonder how this imagined community that Anderson talks about also applies (as he says it does) to minority social groups like the Deaf community. It’s not just about dominant groups; it’s about the conditions of political recognition for minority groups, too.

Third, this starts to provide a more interesting context for understanding Deaf advocacy. The value of the strategy of rigid Deaf cultural distinction (see Mindess 1999) and ASL purism is that makes it possible to advocate for recognition of ASL as a real language at a time when many people are still ignorantly skeptical that ASL should count. ASL has justifiably been seen as probably the marker of the Deaf community, or as Anderson says, an “effective particular solidarity”.  But in doing so, we should always be cautious about believing in the idea of linguistic or cultural purism itself, an idea that is tied to the conditions of Deaf oppression in the first place.

Deaf Community as Imagined Community?

Calling the Deaf community an “imagined community” sounds risky. Many people have lobbed misplaced and ignorant criticisms at the Deaf community for not being a “real” culture, a “real” social group, not using a “real” language. The reaction has been to dig our heels in to the slippery soil of the “real”. And we respond. Yes, Deaf people are a “real” culture. Yes, Deaf people use a “real” language. Yes, Deaf people are a “real” oppressed social group. Indeed, much of the research on ASL, interpreting, and the Deaf experience has defended this position. This is somewhat unfortunate, in my opinion, but entirely understandable. But the side effect is that we are less and less capable of challenging oppression on its own conceptual grounds. We end up playing a game in which the rules are already set against us. Suggesting that we understand the Deaf community as an imagined community (per Anderson) doesn’t compromise the credibility of Deaf advocacy. Instead, it advances advocacy a step further by suggesting that not only do Deaf individuals not need to justify themselves to hearing individuals, hearing critics themselves don’t have a foundation for judging what a “real” language, culture or social group is in the first place. But it may also mean that as interpreters, we need to let go of simplistic divisions between what we think of as “Deaf” and “hearing”, what we view as “pure” ASL, and to challenge the ideas (such as some versions of nationalism) that make Deaf oppression possible.

Why is ASL so important to Deaf culture?



This post cannot answer the title question thoroughly. Nor is this a “study” of Deaf individuals’ narrative frameworks for understanding ASL and culture. (Interestingly, no such research exists.) Rather, this is an attempt to understand how ASL and Deaf culture have been conceptually linked, and how this particular link between language and culture is a double-edged sword.

In his 2005 article on “Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World”, Harlan Lane provides a well-argued critique of applying the term disability to Deaf individuals. Lane suggests that hearing people should view the Deaf community as an ethnicity, and he provides long list of properties which are intended to demonstrate that Deaf people are an “ethnicity”: language, kinship, “the arts”, social structure, values, knowledge, customs, etc. In the short paragraph describing language, Lane quotes well-known linguist, Joshua Fishman, in defense of language as a primary ethnic marker. I’ll quote the entire paragraph:

“‘The mother tongue is an aspect of the soul of a people. It is their achievement par excellence. Language is the surest way for individuals to safeguard or recover the authenticity they inherited from their ancestors as well as to hand it on to generations yet unborn’ (Fishman, 1989, p. 276). Competence in ASL is a hallmark of Deaf ethnicity in the United States and some other parts of North America. A language not based on sound is the primary element that sharply demarcates the Deaf-World from the engulfing hearing society.” (Lane 2005)

Anyone with a week of experience in the Deaf community will grasp the common sense of this statement. As Mindess quotes in an epigraph on page 110 (a quote from Schein 1989) of Reading Between the Signs, “For many members of the Deaf community, they and ASL are indistinguishable. Their self-concept is based on being Deaf and being Deaf to them means using ASL.” Interpreting students learn this simple fact from Stewart, Schein, and Cartwright (1998), too: “ASL is the language of the Deaf community.” (134) Minor quibbles aside, these are rather incontestable observations as far as I can tell. And they are – or should be – foundational knowledge of sign language interpreters.

But there is something missing for me.

Something is Missing

What’s missing for me is a history of the ideas that make the Deaf community a community – or ethnicity, or culture, or linguistic minority – and which therefore make interpreting a profession in the first place. I hope the following illustration explains what I think is missing from our current literature and creates an opening for further discussion within interpreting in the future. (See post What Do Interpreters Need to Accomplish?)

If we could summarize the above quotes in a brief assertion that sounds like anthropology 101, it would go something like this: “Language is one of the primary markers of distinct social groups.” This has been true for as far back as the historical record shows. But there’s a twist. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that language took on a particularly powerful role in defining social groups in the sense that we think of it today.

What is language and culture?

The main figure in this evolution is Johann Gottfried von Herder (according to Peter Watson in The German Genius). Locke claimed that language was a natural phenomenon, not a divine gift – a transformation in thought that interpreters should certainly revisit. But it was Herder who gave language a new power it didn’t have before. It’s worth quoting from Watson’s book at length:

“Language identifies a Volk or nationality, and this, the historico-psychological entity of the common language, is for him ‘the most natural and organic basis for political organisation… Without its own language a Volk is an absurdity (Unding). … A Volk, on this theory, is the natural division of the human race, endowed with its own language, which it must preserve as its most distinctive and sacred possession.”

Herder should also be known for his advocacy a rather new idea at the time: culture. For Herder, “whatever the ‘collective consciousness’ of a Volk was at any particular time, was its culture.” (The term Zeitgeist – the spirit of the times – was Herder’s neologism.) For Herder, these concepts of Volk, language, culture, and nation are all intertwined. Ultimately, all of these features reach their height in the establishment of a nation-state, a political organization which has the authority to represent the political will of the people – in fact, the state itself is the political will of the people.

Why does this matter?

First, I think Herder’s original writings are more philosophically robust than most of what we find in interpreting literature today. This is not a criticism of books about interpreting, but it suggests that there is much to be gained from reading the original texts of thinkers who we often think of as old and irrelevant. This may not interest most working interpreters. But working interpreters deserve to know that it hasn’t interested scholars in Deaf studies and interpreting either. In other words, despite about 50 years of scholarship in our field, we still don’t know where our ideas came from. This is no small matter. And it would be a great topic for a MA thesis is anyone out there is thinking of going back to school. (See post All Interpreters are Philosophers.)

Second, I think we can detect in these excerpts the double-edged sword that is about to fall on Western civilization. This is a bit more complex, but it is very important. When Herder argues that language is the most natural, authentic characteristic of social groups, he is lending support to the idea that “natural divisions of the human race” exist, and therefore can’t be challenged. This is known today as essentialism. And he is lending support for the newly-formed nation-states of Europe. By 1945, these European states and their many counterparts in the Third World will have experienced a century of nearly unending conflict and war precisely on the basis of these “natural” human divisions. Horkheimer and Adorno will later call this the “triumphant calamity” of the enlightenment. (See The Culture Bargain post.)

Third, this is the time (late 1700s, early 1800s) that what we now call the Deaf community was beginning to take its modern form in Europe and the U.S. Notably, early texts written by Deaf individuals refer to themselves as a “nation”, not as a culture. Culture didn’t take on its modern meaning in English until the 1860s, and didn’t fall into common use until the 20th century. Interestingly, when it did enter English in the 1860s, it was introduced by German-trained anthropologists who were trying to identify and categorize Herder’s “natural divisions of the human race”. In other words, the term culture has a particularly colonial ring to it. Culture, like Herder’s theory of language, is going to but both ways against the emerging Deaf community. The Deaf community will see itself as a “nation” during the 1800s, and by the late 1960s, see itself as a “culture” (with the aid of hearing academics, no small matter, indeed). But culture and language are also going to be the tools of oppression. Deaf people do not have Herder’s nation-state to back them up. Quite the contrary, it will be the ASL users themselves who will later be seen as deviating from the national cultural model. (See Anthropology’s Culture Problem post.)

Our ideas using us more than we are using our ideas

Lane was right: ASL matters to Deaf culture. But when we claim, as we often do, that language and culture are inseparable, it can make it seem as if this is how it has always been since the beginning of time. Or it seems that this way of thinking is “natural”. In fact, this idea is relatively recent. And this idea has cut both ways, sometimes hurting the Deaf community, sometimes empowering the Deaf community. Without attention to where these ideas came from, I can’t help but think that we are captive to these ideas. When we are captive to our ideas, it becomes hard to imagine a different world and our options for advocacy are stunted, hampered, restricted. Our ideas using us more than we are using our ideas. It is worth our time to excavate these ideas and enrich our ability to be excellent interpreters and strong advocates.

This is not a definitive answer to the question, “Why Does ASL Matter to the Deaf community?”. But it is an often-overlooked part of a larger answer.

List of references:

  • Lane, H. L. (2005). Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 10(3), 291–310. doi:10.1093/deafed/eni030
  • Mindess, A. (1999). Reading Between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters. Intercultural Press.
  • Stewart, D. A., Schein, J. D., & Cartwright, B. E. (1998). Sign language interpreting: Exploring its art and science.
  • Watson, P. (2011). The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century. HarperCollins.

Apache ASL Trails and the Problem of Deaf Space


Apache ASL Trails* is an independent living center in Arizona, one of the few places for sign language users to retire with others who speak the same language. Apache was built in part with stimulus money and opened in 2011 with 75 apartments and a suite of amenities. Early last year (2013), the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) decided to investigate Apache (a story also covered by Limping Chicken) claiming that the complex violated what seems to be fair housing law by specializing in a single “disability”. Here’s what I think this means: if you take federal money for disability-related residential construction you can’t make those homes specifically for individuals who are deaf, autistic, of any other federal category of disability. Just  last week, HUD exercised discretion and dropped their investigation and it looks like Apache will be free – for now – to run the living center as intended. In my view, this is definitely the right choice for HUD and for Apache, although no one should consider the legal problems resolved. An aggressive (or bored) HUD director could cause more trouble for Apache in the future.

While the storm seems to have blown over, I though this an opportune time to reflect on the relationship between Deaf space and the state. Deaf space was probably first solidified as a term at Gallaudet University when architects, professors, and students began to ask the question, “What would a distinctively Deaf space look like?” One of the central conclusions of this question was the recognition that architectural spaces are designed with the assumption that the users of those spaces are hearing, speaking individuals for whom sound is a fundamental element of social experience.

Now, Deaf folks are not, as many presume, unaware of the physics of sound, nor are individuals in the Deaf community ignorant of sound as a social phenomenon. Sound and speech are much more complicated than their physics suggest. The result of this study was the development of architectural principles that have been used to construct buildings that are more photo-centric (I just made up that term, I think). A similar discussion happened in Columbus, Ohio where I live during the design and construction of the new parts of the Ohio School for the Deaf. This is all kind-of mainstream in the Deaf community at this point.

But this is not entirely new. Social space has been central to the identity of the Deaf community as long back as we have record. In fact, Mike Gulliver wrote his MA thesis and PhD dissertation on this topic. Such spaces include, famously, Deaf clubs, Deaf residential schools, Deaf sports teams, (a) Deaf university (Gallaudet, of course), and so on.

The challenge that Apache ASL Trails faced from HUD illustrates an important, often overlooked element of Deaf space: the state. There is a strange tension between the state and the Deaf community. On the one hand, states such as various levels of the U.S. government have cruelly targeted members of the Deaf community for sterilization, forbade immigration of individuals with hearing loss or who used sign language, and wrongfully imprisoned individuals within what used to be called “insane asylums” for their signing. Yet federal and state administrations have also funded Deaf residential schools, provided funding for places like Apache ASL Trails, provides the disability classification that enables many Deaf individuals to receive social assistance, and passed laws requiring interpreters in public  school and college. None if this is as neat as I’m presenting it, but you get the point: the Deaf community and the state have a love-hate relationship to say the least.

Yet this complicated relationship with state goes almost entirely unmentioned in Deaf studies literature. I think it’s important to remember that communities don’t just “exist”, but that they are formed, in part, through their relationship with the state. This is certainly true for the Deaf community, as is evident in the recent Apache ASL Trails situation. And that’s all I want to point out.

*”Apache” seems to be a strange term to use for the facility. It feels like one oppressed group is appropriating a term of identity from another. Imagine a residential center for Native Americans called “Deaf Apache Dorm”. Just saying.

RID Response to Fake Interpreter Lacks Urgency, Misses Opportunity? (Updated and Corrected)


This post broadens our analysis of the fake interpreter episode by looking at responses from interpreting organizations, especially RID here in the United States.

I felt devastated and frustrated when I watched the interpreting disaster Mandela’s funeral last week. To me, it symbolized the systemic, global, unequal treatment of Deaf persons. But when I watched RID’s Dawn Whitcher’s response to the interpreter scandal, I felt a disappointment of a different kind. Sort of how I felt to watch the undefeated OSU Buckeyes lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game the other week.

Dawn is the president of RID, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, the organization that represents over 12,000 interpreters in the U.S. She is a talented and passionate interpreter, and I respect her commitment to RID. It takes courage to put yourself online with a public statement. However, the statement that RID released on YouTube and on their website struck me as a missed opportunity. I want to explain why I feel that way, and also present some counter-examples and solutions.

RID Official Statement on Fake Interpreter

Let’s start with the video. Several years of research on undocumented immigration enforcement have made me sensitive to the way that political issues become represented in popular media. Let me remind everyone that sign language interpreters haven’t received this much attention since Marley Matlin won the Oscar for Children of a Lesser God in 1986. This is a crucial moment for RID. Click here for the English statement, and here’s the video statement:

Here’s my impression. I wonder if you feel the same. First, I thought the video was emotionally flat, which contrasts sharply with the utterly outrageous circumstances that RID was responding to. I think this is an outcome of the overly-reflective nature of the content. I understand that we are all trying to be patient and understand exactly what happened. But from an organizational perspective, we need something punchy. Let’s see some passion!

Second, the statement wandered and compromised its own authority. I waited and waited for something specific until the president started signing “…and now RID wants to offer our OPINION, too”. I went livid in my chair. Opinion? RID is supposed to be the premier interpreting organization in the U.S. RID is our organization of representation because they are experts in providing, managing, and certifying interpreting services. RID doesn’t have an “opinion” (in my opinion). RID has an authoritative statement based on 50 years of experience, on behalf of 12,000 (oops, that’s AILA, got my orgs mixed up)  16,000 members, and in support of (about) one million Deaf people who use interpreting services in the U.S. Now is not the time to be circumspect. Be bold!

Third, there didn’t seem to be any direct point to the video. RID says it was “SHOCKED”, but there was nothing substantively shocking about what they had to say in response. The signed version has some thoughtful comments about language as a human right, but even when the statement is signed “VIOLATED THOSE RIGHTS”, it is signed with an uncertain tone, that reads like this: “Well, I guess this guy probably violated the language rights of Deaf people?” (rising intonation at the end). For a good counter-example, see NAD’s YouTube statement on protecting Deaf schools – you really get a sense that we need to respond urgently to the needs of Deaf student now! I’ve also searched RID’s English translation for a single strong affirmative statement. Instead, it’s filled with waffling, equivocating, pensive sentences that reads like a meditation on some minor insult from the distant past.

[Added: As Zizek claims in the Guardian, this depoliticized appropriation of Mandela is symptomatic of the act of ignoring the ongoing crisis around the world and in South Africa today: growing inequality, ongoing racism, environmental degradation, etc.. In other words, drawing on Mandela’s quotes in isolation without drawing on his fervent activism is the central contradiction of the politics of Mandela’s memorialization.]

Most important, RID’s statement announces a big question, How can we prevent this unfortunate and oppressive situation from happening again? Exactly what we all want to know. But the statement itself can’t seem to identify the problem or a point towards a tangible solution. [Added: Again, just to be clear: this is not a fault of RID or of Dawn. But it is an indication of the crisis of meaning in late capitalism. See my posts on Judith Butler and Gramsci for related material.]


I don’t intend for my comments to be harsh. My criticism is out of my deep desire to see RID wildly succeed as the collective face of interpreters in the U.S. The stakes are high and the opportunity is unique. It’s important for all of us – not just RID – to be ready to respond to moments like this.

We can do better

Someone once told me that pointing out a problem without identifying a solution is complaining. I wouldn’t write this critical public statement about an organization I love without pointing out what we can do better. Let’s start by looking at statements from other organizations similar to RID.

EFSLI (European Forum for Sign Language Interpreters) opened up their snappy, one-paragraph statement with this sentence. Think about how it contrasts to RID’s statement, and how EFSLI prioritize a major point from the beginning.

“The world is at last taking notice that untrained and, as in this case, incompetent interpreters are denying Deaf people access to important events that the rest of us take for granted.”

Slam! A reporter can easily put that into a column. No beating around the bush, no hedging, no waffling, no pensive meditations on a quote by Mandela. And whose fault is this “scandal”? EFSLI answers:

“…it is the fault of the policy makers who often don’t think it is important that those who work to give Deaf people access to the essential services we take for granted are properly trained.”

Ouch! Heads up elected leaders – we expect you to do better. And EFSLI is doing better. They wrote their statement alongside the “the European Parliament launching its ‘Learning Outcomes’ for interpreter training programmes. The initiative, which has been fully supported by the European Commission, is just the latest example of EFLSI’s commitment to raising the standards of interpreting across Europe and, with it, the ideal of full citizenship for Deaf people.”  Knockout! EFSLI is doing something about this problem as we read the statement. We need to learn from this. We need to have a short, snappy statement that is backed up by meaningful, direct action.

Let’s turn to ASLI (Association of Sign Language Interpreters), our sister organization in the UK. They quote from the WASLI/WFD statement (which I think is a little soft, too). But then open up with this:

ASLI strongly advocates the use of appropriately qualified interpreters in all domains. The sad incident at the Mandela memorial is not a one off occurrence. In the UK unqualified or inappropriate individuals are often used in place of trained and qualified interpreters. This has been central to many of our campaign messages.

There are two examples here that could be incorporated in the the RID statement. First, they have a clear statement of what they advocate for, and what they advocate against. Second, they bring it back to how ASLI is creating programs right now to solve this problem. The ASLI statement goes on to mention a specific program they are working on now to make sure that “only appropriately trained and NRCPD registered interpreters are used in health care domains.” In contrast, RID’s statement doesn’t take a clear stand for and against, and doesn’t mention any of its own programs by name. It might leave the reader wondering, is RID doing anything to improve the quality of interpreting in the U.S.?

Why does this matter? I mean, it’s just a little public statement, right? Wrong. We interpreters should know better than anyone how important it is to say things accurately and powerfully. Press releases may seem irrelevant. But press releases are often what drive news articles, get cited in academic research, and preserve the history of the profession in the permanent record. Especially at a time when interpreters have more public attention, we need to get this right.

How Would You Rewrite RID’s Public Statement?

Here’s my attempt to rewrite the statement. It’s not perfect. But I hope that it provides an example of a more assertive, powerful statement – the kind of statement I would have liked to see from RID. It’s not too late. RID could edit their statement to make it stronger.

“The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) strongly condemns the disgraceful quality of sign language interpreting services provided at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg, South Africa on December 10, 2013. Mandela’s life-long fight for justice should have been commemorated by being accessible to the South African Deaf community as a linguistic and cultural minority. Instead, allies and members of the Deaf community suffered an injustice at the hands of an unqualified and unvetted interpreter who failed to provide even a minimum level of access for sign language users. Yet we recognize that this unfortunate event is not the result of one individual, nor is this an isolated incident. Unqualified interpreters are frequently hired out of convenience rather than based on professional credentials. We hope that this raises the public awareness of the systemic injustice to the Deaf community and the detrimental effect this has on businesses and federal agencies who mistakenly or willfully hire unqualified interpreters. RID has worked hard for 50 years to raise the quality of sign language interpreting services. Today we administer the most widely recognized professional interpreter credential, the National Interpreter Certification, in partnership with the National Association for the Deaf. We stand with our over-12,000 U.S. members and the global Deaf community in this moment of disappointment. We call on our elected leaders, leaders in the business community, and the wider concerned public to work with us to make sure this situation doesn’t happen again.”

Update (12/17/2013): I noticed that RID was mentioned in a news report was today on the PBS “Lost in Translation” article, and the this NYT article. I’m glad to see coverage.

The True Meaning of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a strange holiday. The U.S. has two main national holidays: Independence Day and Thanksgiving. Compared to the explosive patriotism of Independence Day, Thanksgiving is rather quiet. But it’s no less political. What makes Thanksgiving so challenging is that it creates an ideological link between the genuinely warm feelings of family and our unsavory national history. I think we should give thanks for the good things we have and spend time with family. But when the background to family time is the U.S. state, it reinforces what Michael Billig calls “banal nationalism”. In other words, we tacitly reinforce the idea that the state exists for us and protects us – even though the “us” that it protects is clearly not all of us, but only some of us.

Yet, Thanksgiving is not only about national history. The idea of giving thanks for a seasonal harvest is one that dates back to ancient civilizations. Giving thanks for the season was practiced by Europeans long before it became a national event, and long before it was associated with the “Pilgrims'” (i.e. colonizers) survival in the rugged New World (i.e. depending on the few Native Americans left on the continent to help feed them). Therefore, I think we should not be overly-enthusiastic about the national history part of Thanksgiving, nor should we see Thanksgiving too narrowly as being a celebration of Native American genocide. The two became linked in U.S. history, to be sure – but it needn’t be so.

There is another way to think about Thanksgiving. It seems to me that modern consumer-based capitalism has brought with it all the more individualistic and self-directed way of interpreting our lives. A main theme of this blog is encouraging us to think beyond our “self” as the unit of analysis. If “thankfulness” means recognizing that we do not – by ourselves – create our own history, and if Thanksgiving is a time to recognize this simple but profound truth, then Thanksgiving is a celebration worth keeping. But this “thankful awareness” should be accompanied by a “critical recognition” that others may well have been disadvantaged in the creation of our own advantage. We should commit to keeping “thankfulness awareness” and “critical recognition” in tension with one another.

If Thanksgiving is an opportunity to do this in the community of family and friends, then it’s a worthwhile occasion indeed.