Happy Bloomsday, Interpreters


Today is June 16, the day that Ulysses Joyce uses to chronicle one day of Leopold Bloom’s fictional life in his famous book Ulysses. June 16 has become known as Bloomsday, a celebration of that wonderfully erratic, nonsensical novel of linguistic hyper-flourish.

Bloomsday is important for interpreters, though, not just for literarily curious – although I should hope that many interpreters love literature, as well. Bloomsday is important because Joyce pushed the boundaries of language and literature, by slamming grammar against the page until grammar itself shattered into fragments throughout the book. Many have called Ulysses a prank, or even the epitome of senseless post-structuralism. But interpreters know better. We know that Joyce usefully and productively crossed the line between fiction and reality, by showing how nonsensical language often is in everyday life. Interpreters are often called in to make sense of the senseless, and to fill the impossible gap between two languages with something like a provisional, rickety, already-decaying bridge that creates the possibility of situational understanding against all odds.

Happy Bloomsday to us all.

What is empiricism? (And why should you care?)


Empiricism. Now that’s academic-speak if I’ve ever seen it. Yet the idea of empiricism – whether we know it’s name or not – is one of the strongest ideas of the 20th century, the century in which, by the way, what we now call “interpreting” and “Deaf studies” became viable fields of study. It is no small matter, therefore, to consider what this terms means and how it might effect us today.

In 1974, economic geographer David Harvey asked, “Why is it that so-called neutral studies of population and resources often end up with such conservative prescriptions?” The answer is one most people would accept today: science is never completely ethically neutral. But that only gives us an assumption to work from. It doesn’t answer our question.

Harvey suggests that part of the answer lies in the methods of 19th Century scholar Thomas Malthus, best known for his claim that (to put it simply) population growth will surpass resource growth. Harvey shows how Malthus’ relies on scientific empiricism to whitewash his own anti-socialist and anti-revolutionary bent.

Here’s how Harvey describes empiricism:

“Empiricism assumes that objects can be understood independently of observing subjects. Truth is therefore assumed to lie in a world external to the observer who job is to record and faithfully reflect the attributes of objects. This logical empiricism is a pragmatic version of that scientific method which goes under the name “logical positivism,” and is founded in a particular and very strict view of language and meaning.”

Skipping over a detailed argument about Ricardo and Marx, Harvey goes on in the conclusion to explain why this empiricism mattered:

“The political consequences that flow from these results can be serious. The projection of a neo-Malthusian view into the politics of the time appears to invite repression at home and neo-colonial policies abroad. The neo-Malthusian view [based on empiricism] often functions to legitimate such polices, and thereby, to preserve the position of the ruling elite.”

I can’t think of a more concise statement about empiricism and its potential consequences.

I point this out for two very simple reasons.

First, I think it is relevant to notice the fundamental relationship between empiricism and language. Interpreters are language professionals, and we cannot help be influenced by ideas about language, even those ideas we don’t know we have. It is worth pondering the relationship between empiricism in the century and the influence of this conceptual framework on the interpreting profession. (See article: Language, Power and Models of Interpreting.)

Second, if Harvey is right that empiricism often justifies repression, then it is important that we understand how our ideas about language and politics may have repressive effects. As Harvey indicates elsewhere, the role of thought in social change is to “formulate concepts and categories…which we can apply in the process of bringing about a humanizing social change.” (See article: All Interpreters are Philosophers.)

This year we celebrate 50 years of RID. We remember, as we should, so many important Deaf and hearing leaders in our history who have helped make this profession a viable — although far from perfect — way for providing language access for Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Alongside that celebration, it might not be a complete waste of time to think about the growth of the interpreting profession within it’s larger historical and conceptual context. (See article: What do sign language interpreters need to accomplish?.)

Some questions for pondering:

  • What ideas – recognized and unrecognized – did/do interpreters bring with them into the profession?
  • Where do we see empiricism today, and does empiricism have the negative political effect that Harvey suggests?
  • Which conceptual frameworks are dominant in research on interpreting and sign language?
  • What positive and negative political effects has research had on the recognition (or repression) of the human rights of Deaf communities?

For my part, I tend to think about how contemporary literary theory and authors such as David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon provide at least some provocation for different ways of thinking about language. See article: The unGishable David Foster Wallace.

Interpreting for Judith Butler

Interpreting can mean to facilitate communication between two languages, and to analyze a text to produce a useful and appropriate reading. In reality, these two activities are one and the same. Today I will rely on the second meaning of interpret to see what Judith Butler might add to the field of interpreting captured in the first meaning of the word.

Interpreting is both unteachable and teachable. It is unteachable in the sense that  all language work depends on a dialectic relationship between understanding and misunderstanding that cannot be formally outlined in advance of the communicative event. It is teachable in the sense that though normative models of language we can transform this dialectic into an apparently stable object of study that can be taught to students. In the attempt to make interpreting intelligible, however, we always run the risk of treating our methodological distinctions and actual distinctions, of treating our contingent identities as transhistorical identities. [Footnote: this is not specific to interpreting, but is a general problem of teaching language, identity, culture, etc.] For that reason, my contribution to interpreting, if I ever have one, will be to incorporate theories of instability, misrecognition, and indeterminacy into the field of interpreting.

Let’s look at identity. We live in an age of demographic surveys, victim interviews, and narrative non-fiction where we are encouraged to discover or to create the truth about ourselves. We feel – or are made to feel – anxious over the ambiguity of our own identities, and we try to stabilize that by developing coherent narratives. I do this all the time. But we should also tarry (a great Middle English word if there ever was one) on the topic of our own incoherence and learn to accept our inconsistencies rather than gloss over them. In doing so for ourselves, we learn to do so for others.

Judith Butler wrote this helpful thought (Giving an Account of Oneself 42):

Suspending the demand for self-identity or, more particularly, for complete coherence seems to me to counter a certain ethical violence, which demands that we manifest and maintain a self-identity at all times and require that others do the same.


What does this mean for interpreters? I suggest the following:

  1. It means that there are times when we must question our assumptions about identity. Not just that we think someone is identity A, but they are really identity B. Rather, we have to embrace the idea that we may never know how identity is operating in a given space.
  2. We must remember that the desire to see identity as coherent and stable is itself a historical product. Insofar as interpreters have depended on stable assumptions of identity to interpret the meaning of words and signs, interpreters are also part of making that partial history into an accepted reality.
  3. “Ethical violence” includes both the act of, say, pejorative gatekeepers to screen out your (Deaf, Somali, Jewish, low-income) client, AND the act of interpreters assuming that we know what Deaf, Somali, Jewish, low-income means for that person if anything at all. When we act on behalf of a client as a “Deaf” client (and not a Somali, Jewish, low-income client, etc.), we are making a strategic choice, which we must account for, and not an objective one, which we can simply assume is correct.
  4. Finally, interpreters may be in one of the best possible social positions to analyze and extend Butler’s analysis, given how much language, identity, and social space is a part of our daily experience. In short, interpreters already know Butler. We just haven’t read her yet.

I suspect that this is all rather obvious to working interpreters, and you can find examples of this in some working models of interpreting. But I would suggest that even when we recognize the ambiguity of social identity, we haven’t been able to fully theorize that ambiguity. It should bring us some excitement that so much recent work in philosophy and critical theory are in the area of ambiguity, identity, subjectivity, and language. I think if we incorporate these ideas into the most current research on interpreting, we will find that we are better able to understand interpreting and better able to talk about our profession with others.

For more on this, I invite you to read related blog posts:

All Interpreters are Philosophers

Interpreters deal with language everyday, and are therefore in an exceptional position to analyze how people think about the world. This is why I love interpreting. And since we are translating and interpreting between two languages, we can’t help but create meanings that reflect our own worldview.

Take gender, for instance. Many forms ask the applicant to fill in gender. Speakers may often say gender. How do we interpret this? In ASL, there is no superordinate word for gender. I suspect that is true for many other languages. The textbook way of signing this is probably to sign: “MALE FEMALE WHICH?” But there’s the problem. Is gender really a question of male or female? From a normative perspective, yes, most people probably think that gender is about male or female. So the interpretation does meet a general dynamic equivalence. But on the other hand, if you recognize that gender is a social category (not a biological one) you may also recognize that the male-female choice is reductive and incomplete. To sign MALE FEMALE WHICH? is a way of perpetuating the heteronormative myth, a myth that gains validity each time we repeat it through language as if it were objectively reality. What a lot to think about!

Interpreters, therefore, can’t help but make language choices that have philosophical baggage. Is there any way to theorize the role of interpreters as philosophers? Enter Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), an Italian Marxist who was imprisoned and later died for his protest of the Italian fascist regime. Here’s an often-circulated picture of him.


In his best-known work, the prison notebooks (literally a bunch of notebooks he wrote in prison), he says this about philosophy:

“It is essential to destroy the widespread prejudice that philosophy is a strange and difficult thing just because it is the specific intellectual activity of a particular category of specialists or of professional and systematic philosophers. It must first be shown that all men are “philosophers”, by defining the limits and characteristics of the the “spontaneous philosophy” which is proper to everybody. This philosophy is contained in: 1. language itself, which is a totality of determined notions and concepts and not just words grammatically devoid of content; 2. “common sense” and “good sense”; 3. popular religion and, therefore, also in the entire system of beliefs, superstitions, opinions, ways of seeing things and of acting, which are collectively bundled together under the name of “folklore” (SPN 1971, 33).

Rather than do the work of explaining what I think about this passage, I simply leave it to you, dear interpreters, to think about this passage today. Some questions to ponder:

  1. What does this passage mean?
  2. What does it mean to interpreters?
  3. Why is language at the top of the list of things that make us all philosophers?
  4. What belief systems are you encountering today, and how does that influence your interpretation/translation?
  5. What powerful systems of language are beyond your control?
  6. When do you have the ability to transform language? When don’t you?

I’d love to see your thoughts and feedback!

Only Deaf? Only hearing? – on the Limits of Contemporary Interpreting Frameworks

Most texts on ASL interpreting assume (rather than demonstrate) that a concrete, uncrossable chasm exists between Deaf and hearing people, and that interpreters must necessarily fill that void. In this metaphor, an impossible weight hangs on the back of the interpreter to do their job perfectly or risk oppressing Deaf people. Hence the constant chatter about the authenticity of individual interpreters to the exclusion of economic, structural, and theoretical conditions of interpreting as a social practice.

Yet consider this. At a recent interpreting assignment I was interpreting for a Deaf parent who was, as we say, Deaf-of-Deaf, and had a college education. There is a reciprocal relationship between English fluency (spoken or written) and educational attainment, such that this person was conversationally fluent in what I call “mouthed English”. That is, they could turn to another parent and mouth greetings, complaints, and short comments without my assistance. Equally important, they were familiar with the schema of being the parent of a school-aged child, and knew the right time to turn to another parent and eye-roll, feign a yawn, nod approval, etc. If you’ve interpreted for longer than a week, you know what I’m talking about.

Does this person need me to jump alongside them and interpret everything? No. In fact, my attempt to sign everything potentially interrupts their ability to have a face-to-face relationship with other parents. So I intentionally avoided interpreting side comments unless I saw them visibly struggling or when they called me over.

My point isn’t to debate the ethical aspects of my decisions. Rather, I want to emphasize how much this experience contrasts with virtually every major text on interpreting. Pick a book on interpreting and read it with this question in mind: Can two Deaf and hearing individuals have a successful conversation or relationship without the interpreter? Based on the definitions and descriptions of most texts, the answer is “no”. The DEAF-WORLD and hearing world appear to be mutually exclusive, and the only bridge, virtually the only one with any degree of agency, is the interpreter. Behind this model of interpreting is the (implicit and sometimes explicit) assumption that Deaf individuals are defined solely by their Deaf identity, and hearing individuals are identified by their hearing (non-Deaf) identity.

So what’s the problem? The problem is, these models have inexplicably glossed over the essentializing nature of this concept of identity, and therefore foreclosed the possibility that Deaf persons can have relationships with hearing people oriented around other forms of identity: parenthood, sexual orientation, educational level, economic position, etc. Instead, in nearly every chart and every encounter we are forced to interpret social interaction through the narrow lens of Deaf v. hearing.

At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, we will need to address the empirical and theoretical problems with this conceptualization. And we will have to develop a more sophisticated, albeit more practical, framework for understanding social relations that include – but do not limit us to – Deaf and hearing subject positions.

The Interpreter’s Library: Sign Language Interpreting by Melanie Metzger


One of the first (and only) careful and thorough accounts of the interpreting process is Melanie Metzger’s Sign Language Interpreting: Deconstructing the Myth of Neutrality.

I read it enthusiastically for the first time in 2004 and I was moved by its vivid and grounded analysis. In its simplest form, it’s a close analysis of two interpreted interactions (one mock, one real) between a doctor and a patient. The driving question is, “do interpreters influence communication in interpreted situations? And if so, how?” You already know that the answer is “yes”. But what Metzger gives the reader is a more careful analysis of how that happens. The purpose of the book (in my view) is to show how one could go about  studying the interpreting process in action. It’s a book that demonstrates research methodology and attempts to answer a straightforward question.

Four notes on the book.

  1. The term “deconstruction” is included in the subtitle of the book, but the book has nothing whatsoever to do with deconstruction. Deconstruction is a specific philosophical approach introduced and popularized by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. The word deconstruction has achieved that strange place in popular vocabulary as a term which many use and few understand. A book on deconstruction in interpreting would be excellent, but this is not it. Instead, Metzger’s book is a relatively traditional analysis of interpreting done much better than most. (See this NYT article for a primer on deconstruction.)
  2. The book is well-cited, to Melanie’s great credit. Contrary to popular perceptions, citations are not about academic pretension. Citations situate research within a broader field and let the reader know where to look to learn more about the assumptions that guide the research. In my view, many popular texts in our field, including Mindess’ Reading Between the Signs and Cokely’s chapter on interpreter positionality, could be stronger if they engaged more directly with relevant academic literatures.
  3. I have heard some interpreters suggest that this book insufficient because it only includes two interpreted situations. In Metzger’s defense, it is not the number of analyses that are as important as the quality of the analysis. For some reason, interpreters are obsessed with large surveys. This is probably due to the lamentable dependence of surveys by sociologists and political scientists, which has gained a public reputation for being “the way you do real research”. Interpreters have to get over this.
  4. Despite the excellent study, I can’t help but notice that what drives the book is an assumption that interpreters disrupt otherwise “authentic” communication. The idea that there is real communication between two people and that interpreted situations “deviate” from these is a misplaced assumption. I don’t think we should view any mode of communication as authentic or inauthentic, closer or further away from “natural” communication, and so on. See other posts on hermeneutics for some hints on other ways of thinking about this.

This book remains one of the best in our field. You should read it. And it is hereby inducted into the Interpreter’s Library.

Why Theory Matters

When interpreters find out that I am working on a Ph.D., they often respond with a nod of vague affirmation and say, “yeah, we need more research on interpreting.” Do we really? Do we need more research on interpreting?

When Americans are faced with a complex social problem, the name that we commonly call our approach to solving the problem is “research”. The enlightenment has passed on to us what Horkheimer calls “instrumental reason”. That is, we assume that when we are faced with a problem, that the basic feature of this problem is that it hasn’t been sufficiently illuminated with reason. In other words, the problem isn’t the problem itself, but our scientific ignorance of the problem. If we could only understand the problem scientifically then the problem would simply reveal itself to us. “Research” is the name that we give to this rational process of analyzing a problem and revealing a solution.

What’s wrong with this? Well, if we are trying to cure malaria or find medication to alleviate suffering from AIDS, perhaps there’s nothing wrong at all. But the majority of the world’s problems – including malaria and AIDS – are not mere technical problems. They are complex social problems. And when dealing with social problems, we cannot assumed that  the problem is just “out there” in an objective, empirical sense. You may be able to isolate the virus that causes AIDS, but you can’t simply point to the social prejudice that repressed the global recognition of AIDS early on before it spread so catastrophically.

To understand social and political problems, therefore, it’s not enough to conduct a technical investigation of the simplest components. Instead, we have to understand how problems are created and imagined by people. This is not something you can discover by conducting a survey. It requires us to analyze the unacknowledged epistemological frameworks that allow us to recognize the problem as a problem. And since we aren’t individually in control of these frameworks, we often don’t rationally know where they came from. We are like hikers walking around with heavy backpacks, but we don’t know where the contents came from.

This is why we need theory. We need theory because we need to understand our world, and we can’t do so with it. Theory is not the opposite of the real world, but the conditions of the real world.

The Culture Bargain (excerpt)

[The following is an excerpt from the conclusion of a presentation I gave at last year’s OCRID conference called the “Culture Bargain”. The guiding question for my talk was, “Did we (interpreters) get the idea of culture right?”. The conclusion is: well, sort of, but not really.]

I want to make two big picture conclusions. First, what we call culture is really just one particular idea of culture, and one that causes some problems for us. We should be willing to look for other approaches to understanding culture. There are some real examples, but I don’t have time to go into it now. Second, these views of culture overlook the crucial role of power in understanding social differences. It’s not just that deaf and hearing people are culturally different, but that the difference are very often formed through economic inequality, marginalization, and privilege.

I just want to show you how scholars who are studying colonialism and race talk about culture and identity. I’m doing this just so you can see that there really are some alternatives. I also admit that these quotes are a little dense. But I will just summarize why they are important.

“The representation of difference must not be hastily read as the reflection of pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set in the fixed tablet of tradition. The social articulation of difference, from the minority perspective, is a complex, on-going negotiation that seeks to authorize cultural hybridities that emerge in moments of historical transformation.” – Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture

Here’s what I want you to get from this quote. Bhabha is Indian and writes about British colonialism in India. He is saying, to paraphrase, “you might think that culture is just something that makes Indians different than the British. But if you do that, you will ignore the fact that those differences were formed through a violent history between British and Indians.” Don’t think about culture as something you have or don’t have. Culture is ongoing negotiation, a constant power-struggle. If you think culture is just simple differences between hearing and deaf, you are actually helping to mask that actual history.

The next quote is on identify from the race scholar Stuart Hall.

“…the ‘unities’ which identities proclaim are, in fact, constructed within the play of power and exclusion, and are the result, not the natural and inevitable or primordial totality but of the naturalized, over-determined process of ‘closure’.” – Stuart Hall, Who Needs Identity?

Here’s what I want you to get from this quote. Hall is saying, “if you think that identity is just one thing” – like being black, being deaf – “you are missing the fact that your identity is not just a natural part of you. Identity is always formed through power and exclusion.” In the U.S., for instance, white identity has been formed through the exclusion of blackness, and Black identity has been formed through the exclusion of whiteness.

The process of identity formation is not an innocent process. Our job is to understand how each of us, at any given moment, is in the process of negotiating and re-negotiating our identity.

How a Simple Math Problem Taught Me Poststructuralist Linguistics

The Story

There I was teaching addition to a Deaf student one day. The math problem as stated in the workbook was 7 + 2. I held up my hands with the sign for 7 on top and the 2 underneath, just like in the book. The boy looked at my hands for a few moments, then gave the answer.


I looked at my hands to make sure I was signing it correctly. (This happened early on in my ASL-learning, so I could have made a mistake.) No, my hands were correct. I asked him to try again. He did. And came back with the same answer. Five.

One more time, I encouraged, and this time work through it more slowly. He began. He started at one and counted the vertical fingers on my top hand first — one, two three — then the vertical fingers on my bottom hand — four, five. Five.

Aha! The error only makes sense if you know the ASL sign for seven (touching your thumb and ring finger together to make an “o”). He was taking the sign for 7 too literally and counting the vertical fingers as he was probably taught (by me?) to do with the numbers one through 5.

This story is partly about my sloppy math-teaching skills. Also, the boy quickly corrected himself and we moved on.

The Moral of the Story

The story is also an example of how the signifier (the ASL sign for 7) and the signified (the concept of “7”) are only loosely linked. Ferdinand de Saussure, the fellow who is most often credited with the signifier-signified relationship, suggested that signs are only arbitrarily hinged together into a single sign. Seven (written in English) doesn’t have to mean the number 7 any more than the ASL sign does. Furthermore, all you can do with signs is to relate them to other signs; you can’t get behind them to something intrinsic, authentic, or pure. This claim seriously undermines the value of the intent of an author. In short, I really wanted that “7” hand shape to mean the concept of “7”. Yet try as I might, it wasn’t working with this student at this time.

Roland Barthes extended Saussure’s claim to suggest that if signs fall apart this easily, and if we can’t trust the author to simply convey or provide meaning, then we had better stop reminiscing so much about “the author’s intent”. In other words, we can’t think that the author of a text – even if they are right in front of us! speaking! signing! writing! –  can provide us with the authentic meaning. Every explanation requires more signs, more signifier-signified relationships, more slippery language — and therefore every explanation is also an interpretation.

Barthes gets us a little further down the path of the first blog post, namely trying to understand why ASL interpreting is important far beyond our field. And also, this gives us directions for improving our own understanding of the interpreting process.

Can you think of some examples of why these ideas are practically important for working interpreters?

If you want more, check out this video.