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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Video Relay Service Interpreters: Intricacies of Sign Language Access
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Deaf people are often isolated in a world of nonsigning people. Therefore, it is not uncommon for deaf people to use VRS as a way to interact with someone who understands their language. While in the break room, I heard many interpreters talk about the “sweet old lady who didn’t really have to make a call but wanted to talk with someone.” Nobody I spoke with ever told me that they told the caller they could not talk.

Types of Calls

During a shift interpreters interpret for a variety of calls: a deaf person calling a family member, an office manager of a doctor’s office calling a deaf patient to confirm her appointment for the following day, a conference call between executives. There is no guarantee, but calls of a business nature are more likely to occur, for obvious reasons, between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., and calls of a more personal nature (e.g., calling to ask someone out on a date) are more likely to occur after 5:00 p.m. Still, because interpreters are working with people all over the world and in varied time zones, “expecting the unexpected” is a terrific motto to adopt. In fact, the DO IT Center (2005) found that adaptability was one of the competencies necessary in VRS interpreting:

Along with experience, interpreters must be quick minded. [. . .] For example, calls may be made that are very familiar to interpreters, such as calling a doctor’s office to set up an appointment for an annual physical examination, or calling a secretary at a school to notify the teacher that their son, Pete, is sick and will not be attending school. Other kinds of calls are more difficult to interpret, for example, when colleagues are talking to each other using acronyms that are unfamiliar to interpreters. Or when several callers are on the line for a conference call, it may be difficult to identify who is talking, in addition to what they are talking about if it is highly technical or heavily laden with inside humor. (10)
Indeed, most interpreters who work in VRS have placed a call to a doctor’s office or a child’s school. And, most interpreters have interpreted a phone call between a deaf person and her boss. Interpreters have more than likely had both personal and professional experience in each of these settings; therefore, it is not difficult to conceptualize the contents of a meeting and use closure skills (defined below) to fill in when certain information is not presented. However, it is at times when interpreters do not have any experience or knowledge that they can use to fill in a context for the call that they typically struggle with providing a successful interpretation.

Closure skills, or what Oller refers to as “active hypothesis testing” (cited in Patrie 2000, 197) are perhaps an interpreter’s best friend in all kinds of interpreting situations. Every interpreter, indeed every person, uses closure skills, meaning the drawing on previous knowledge and common sense to fill in gaps in understanding. In interpreting, the gaps occur when the interpreter does not have all of the information that those for whom they are interpreting have. For example, a deaf person places a call to her doctor. The doctor answers the phone and says, “Hello Mrs. Smith.” The deaf caller states, “Hello doctor. It’s back.” The doctor then responds, “Oh. OK. Well, do you still have the ointment? Have you put it on it?” In ASL, the pronoun “it” does not exist. While the doctor and the patient both know what “it” is, the interpreter must wait until some clue is given to provide an accurate interpretation. Furthermore, because ASL is visual, the interpreter must know where “it” is on the body so that he can properly interpret “putting it on.”

In some cases, the interpreter will ask what “it” is. In other situations, the interpreter may wait until she can figure out what “it” is. If this is not stated explicitly, the interpreter must rely on her closure skills to interpret. Sometimes this is easy. The interpreter may remember that the call was placed to a podiatrist and therefore “it” is something on or around the feet. However, if the call is being placed to a dermatologist and the deaf person has severe acne on her face, the signed language interpreter could assume that “it” is some form of acne but where exactly on the body may not be clear. In this situation, the interpreter could guess or just wait until more information is provided. Either way, the interpreter uses closure skills to determine meaning not provided in the original statements.

Identity in VRS

The FCC aims to have a transparent interpreter. Interpreters are supposed to provide access without influencing the outcome of the situation. This ignores the fact that adding a person, even one who attempts to stay neutral, changes the dynamics of the interaction. At times, I have felt that compliance with the FCC’s drive to have interpreters remain “non-people” has been more disruptive than helpful.

People are uncomfortable when they are unable to get a name from someone they are talking to. In America, at least, it is a cultural norm to introduce yourself when you first meet someone. This is also a norm within Deaf culture. On more than one occasion, I have been asked by both the deaf caller and the non-deaf person for my name. For the most part, deaf people are aware that we are unable to give them any part of our names. However, there is other information that they ask for that we are asked not to provide. Karen, an interpreter, explains why she believes we should not give our names or other identifying information:

We could get stalked. We don’t want the deaf person to show up at the center and want to talk with the interpreter. You know how sometimes deaf people get attached to the interpreter and want to use them all the time for everything. If they knew we were in their city they may try to find us. Also, [our center is] open all night and that means that it could be dangerous for some people.
Karen states that there have been stalking situations, but she does not know any of the details. However, Margaret, who is a director of one of the centers, explains, “It is easier for you to not get involved if they don’t have your name. If all they know is your number you don’t have to engage them.” Jake, however, says that this practice is a “hold over from the text relay.” And it “doesn’t have anything to do with stalking.”

Even though interpreters have been told to refrain from providing specific information about ourselves to our callers, there are times when I feel it is a good idea to provide the information. In some cases, interpreters are interpreting in very private and personal situations. I would not want to divulge intimate details about myself (e.g., social security number, health status, financial problems) without knowing to whom I was talking. At times, however, providing personal information can tend to produce an “us versus them” alliance with the deaf caller. During my shift at Ease Communication in April of 2006 the following occurred:

The deaf caller is asking me what time it is where I am. Without thinking I tell her. She then asks where I am. I tell her I am in New York. She tells me not to worry that she will not tell anyone that I have told her where I am. She then winks at me.
This exchange occurred while the non-deaf person had placed us on hold. The breach of protocol on my part did not disrupt the rest of the call, in my opinion. Although Ease Communication was able to bill for the time in the example above, the practice of conversing with the deaf or non-deaf caller before or during the call about things personal in nature is prohibited. Furthermore, any discussion after one of the callers has disconnected is also prohibited.

Deaf people use VRS on a much more frequent basis than non-deaf persons. As such, non-deaf persons are often uncomfortable when they ask us our names and we give them a number. On the same day that I told the deaf caller that I was in New York, a non-deaf person called and asked me my name:

A non-deaf person asks my name. I tell him that I am interpreter number 9999. He asks me again. I explain that I am not allowed to give him my name but that he can use my number, 9999, to identify me if there is a need to.

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