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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Interpreting in Multilingual, Multicultural Contexts

Rachel Locker McKee and
Jeffrey E. Davis, Editors


Rachel Locker McKee and Jeffrey E. Davis

Kotahi te kowhao o te ngira i kuhuna ai te miro ma, te miro pango, me te miro whero. There is but a single eye of the needle through which the threads of white, black and red must pass. (Mead & Grove, 2001, p. 246).

In this Māori homily, the white, black, and red threads of traditional weaving are used as a metaphor for the joining together of people from different cultures to form a strong social fabric. In this volume, we cast the sign language interpreter as the “eye of the needle” through which a plurality of languages, cultures, and identities of various hues are delicately passed to weave positive human connections.


Linguistic proof that signed languages are distinct from spoken languages has supported a narrative of oppositional contrast between Deaf cultural identity and social norms and those of hearing people. In turn, the discourse of the sign language interpreting profession has tended to characterize consumers and languages in a binary distinction as Deaf or hearing, at times perhaps implying that these social categories are homogeneous, mutually exclusive, and all-encompassing primary identities. While the Deaf-hearing contrast is obviously central in defining the context of our work, this dualism potentially dulls our perception of the multiplicity and fluidity of identities, allegiances, and language resources that Deaf and hearing participants (and interpreters) bring to interpreted interactions. This volume probes the multiplex nature of interpreted interaction involving Deaf and hearing people of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and the contextualized interpreting practices and considerations that transpire from this diversity.

Contemporary studies of variation within and contact between signing communities are building a more detailed picture of the linguistically heterogeneous profile of Deaf communities and showing how variation in language use correlates with dimensions of social identity and context (Branson and Miller, 1998; Brentari, 2001; Lucas & Valli, 1989; Lucas, Bayley, & Valli, 2001; Metzger, 2000; Quinto-Pozos, 2007). Social scientists have also drawn attention to the spectrum of ethnic and social identities within Deaf communities, observing how Deaf elements of identity interact with other contextual variables such as family, race, place, and ethnicity to manifest in plural constructions of “Deaf” (Ahmad, Darr, Jones, & Nisar, 1998; Aramburo, 1989; Breivik, 2005; Christensen & Delgado, 1993; Foster & Kinuthia, 2003; McKay-Cody, 1998/1999; Monaghan, Schmaling, Nakamura, & Turner, 2003; Parasnis, 1996; Paris & Wood, 2002; Smiler & McKee, 2007).

Demographic data in the United States show that ethnicity in the Deaf population is rapidly diversifying (Leigh, 2008, p. 24). Leigh emphasizes that Deaf people are increasingly likely to interact with up to four communities: the majority hearing community, the larger deaf community, the ethnic hearing community of their family, and their ethnic deaf peers. In each of these contexts, Deaf and hearing people use language and other means of self-representation in fluctuating ways to construct identity and connection with each other. The multiplicity of identities in the Deaf world challenges the sociolinguistic repertoire of interpreters who are called upon to mediate communication across multiplex combinations of culture and language.

It is widely noted that the interpreter workforce is less diverse than the profile of Deaf populations: The majority of sign language interpreters in Western countries tend to be white, majority-culture females, and sign language interpreters are more commonly bilingual than tri- or multilingual. It can therefore be difficult for consumers from diverse backgrounds to find an interpreter with overlapping social characteristics and thought-worlds, or the ability to work in a third language that would connect them to the minority language community of their family. Few training programs and professional accreditation systems address multilingual/ multicultural competencies in sign language interpreting; the National Multicultural Interpreting Project (Mooney, 2006) is an example of a pedagogical initiative in the U.S. that focused on preparing interpreters for the demands of cultural diversity in their work.

The first section in the volume focuses on the growing specialization of American Sign Language (ASL), English, and Spanish trilingual interpreting in the United States. Some contexts involving two spoken languages and two sign languages require quadrilingual interpreting (e.g., Mexican Sign Language (LSM), ASL, English, and Spanish). In Chapter 1, Ramsey and Peña explore the convergence of the Mexico-U.S. border with the Deaf-hearing border and the complex dynamics of this physically close but culturally distant interaction mediated by tri- and quadrilingual interpreters. In particular, they examine sociocultural and competency considerations for three- and four-language interpreting in this context, including disparity of language status and interpreting education between these countries.

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