Interpreting the interpreter

The latest Hanselminutes podcast is an interesting conversation with Jenny Lay-Flurrie. Jenny is deaf and has an interpreter, Belinda, present during the interview. Jenny speaks perfectly well in a beautiful British accent, but Belinda is there to help listen for her.

At one point Scott brings his microphone close to Belinda to pick up the sound of her hands moving, but she shakes her head “no.” A little later Jenny explains why. Interpreters are trained to not draw attention to themselves. They are supposed to be transparent. Scott was violating custom by paying attention to an interpreter, though for good reason: he was doing a sort of documentary on the process of interpreting itself and not just interviewing Jenny. I thought it was interesting that Jenny was interpreting for her interpreter. Though presumably Belinda has no physical communication disability, she was in a sense disabled by her position, forbidden by professional ethics from directly engaging with Scott.

6 thoughts on “Interpreting the interpreter

  1. Call me insensitive but I think interpreters should be acknowledged, we say hi and thanks to the bus driver who is just doing his job why should an interpreter be any different? Just because they are working for another person with a disability doesn’t mean they aren’t people too. I can see continued focus talking to the interpreter rather than looking at the interpretee(?) would be annoying but there shouldn’t be anything wrong acknowledging their presence, offering them a drink if you are getting one for the rest of the party etc.

  2. Similarly, those who work in the old-fashioned telephone Relay services have a very strict discipline of serving as an instrument of the client, letting none of their own purposes enter the process.

  3. That’s right, interpreters should always be impartial and neutral but it’s almost impossible to completely ignore them. It sounds somewhat strange somebody would want to put a microphone near moving hands though! The term physical communication disability isn’t an appropriate term to use for deaf people who are able to communicate as well as somebody speaking by physically moving their hands and arms, and use many other features of sign language which is a rich language in its own right.

  4. The Australian comedian and panel host Adam Hills has been using sign interpreters in his stage shows for many years (born with a lower leg missing he was a shoe in for hosting the paralympics) and frequently breaks the interpreter third wall, dragging in quirks of regional sign language accents and dialects (differences between ASL (Australian Sign Language) and Standard British (with Scottish twists thrown in).

    Adam Hills Stands Up Live:
    probably isn’t available in your country (free to air on 4oD in the UK and via iView in Australia), but probably can be readily found elsewhere.


    (warning: contains some mathematics)

  5. I think the key point to take from this is that the interpreter doesn’t want to be “ignored”, but she -shouldn’t- be ‘acknowledged’ when she is in the process of doing her job. If it is her job to convey a message, and she has some interaction with you that detracts from this, she isn’t conveying the message as expected. If the questions were directed at Jenny, it is not her place, or her interview, for the interpreter Belinda to respond. She is there to convey the interview with Jenny.

  6. Oh and missed from the previous…obviously if you are not in the process of asking the interpreted person a question, ofcourse you don’t ignore the interpreter. Asking the interpreter if she wants a drink, as a matter of general discussion to the group and not directed at the interviewee, is an entirely different situation.

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