in Access to Work

The Access to Work ‘staff’ interpreter – we need to start a conversation! (Part Two)

20130512-100044.jpgJules Dickinson is a BSL/ English interpreter, consultant, trainer and practitioner-researcher based in the East Midlands. She has a strong interest in office/ Access to Work interpreting, which led to her PhD research at Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, completed in 2010. The research takes a Community of Practice approach to examining the ways in which signed language interpreters impact on the interaction between deaf and hearing employees in workplace settings, focusing specifically on humour, small talk and the collaborative floor.
In Part One, I highlighted the feelings of depersonalisation and objectification I had experienced whist working as a ‘staff’ interpreter. I referred to two of the unique features of workplace interpreting, namely the regularity and consistency of the contact we have with deaf and hearing clients, and the shift in the power dynamic from deaf ‘client’ to deaf ‘boss’. In Part Two, I want to consider how interpreters can change their practice to ‘humanise’ their role in workplace interpreting and how we can begin to open out the issues for discussion with deaf and hearing clients.
Not being ‘seen’ or ‘heard’- the tension created by ‘being invisible’
In his recent article on Educational Interpreters Doug Bowen-Bailey talks about interpreters stepping out of the shadow of invisibility and maximising their effectiveness by bringing their ‘full sense of humanity’ to their work. He asks us to think of a situation where there is a greater power imbalance than when one deaf student is in a mainstream school totally designed for English speaking students who cannot sign. I suggest an equivalent is where there is one deaf employee in a workplace entirely staffed by hearing people. It therefore seems appropriate to echo Doug’s call for interpreters to be more active and visible- the question is how can we do that without impinging on the relationship between the deaf and hearing client?
One way is to consider what Robert Lee and Peter Llewellyn Jones (2011) refer as the interpreter’s role space, this being the degree to which an interpreter is present in any interaction. They describe role space as being a combination of three elements, namely:
• presentation of self (behaviours where the interpreter speaks/acts for and/or about himself/ herself)
• interaction management (behaviours that the interpreter uses to manage the interaction)
• participant alignment (the extent to which the interpreter directs their communication to, or seems to identify with, a particular participant/ group of participants. This can also include how the interpreter reacts to utterances made by a participant)
They state that these dimensions of the interpreter’s role space will contract or expand according to the setting and participants. This idea of being able to maximise and minimise our presence according to the situation in which we find ourselves is helpful in allowing us to break away from rigid role descriptions. It enables interpreters to begin to explore what they can do, rather than focus negatively on what they feel they shouldn’t be doing. For example, in a situation like a team meeting, the interpreter may need to accentuate the elements of interaction management and presentation of self, and devote less energy to the element of participation alignment. By managing turn-taking more ‘overtly’ and by projecting more of their ‘self’ into the meeting the interpreter may be able to register their presence and reduce their objectification. This in turn may enable more effective turn-taking, thus allowing the deaf employee to participate on an equal footing with their hearing peers.
In some situations the interpreter may need to increase the extent to which they align with individuals. Hauser and Hauser (2008), refer to the designated interpreter’s role, describing someone who is a dynamic and active participant in the deaf professional’s environment. The designated interpreter is both interested in and committed to the deaf professional’s work (Cook, 2004), and positively aligns themselves with the goals and aims of the deaf professional (Hauser & Hauser, 2008). This is a fairly large step away from our understanding of our role as impartial and neutral, and may initially make us feel uncomfortable. However, if we can understand and reflect on our rationale for this shift, with a focus on the successful outcomes of the interpreted event, then we can begin to move away from a fixed view of our role.
Understanding the system we work in
Interpreters can draw on the concepts and approaches described above in order to bring a more human presence to their workplace role, but they also need to contextualise their position in the workplace environment. One way of doing this is to gain a deeper understanding of the ‘system’ (Bowen-Bailey, 2013) they are working in. Peoples’ behaviour in the workplace environment is underpinned by a vast tract of unwritten rules and norms. As interpreters, we need an in-depth awareness of these norms and must continually make decisions about the extent to which we can or cannot accommodate them in our role. Deaf and hearing clients will have certain expectations of how the interpreter will behave. Hearing employees may expect us to relate to them as fellow employees, whilst the deaf employee may expect an interpreter who is ‘on their side’. It seems clear that if we continue to operate in the workplace according to the conduit model we will continually run into conflict with these expectations. We therefore need a much clearer and detailed awareness of the norms of the environment we work in, so that we can adjust our role accordingly.
Making changes
Interpreters need to think about how they can work more positively with both deaf and hearing clients, moving away from the old disengaged, non-involved model to begin to open up new working practices. We can effect some change ourselves:
How we talk about ourselves- if you continually refer to yourself as either ‘the interpreter’ or ‘just the interpreter’ then that is how you will be treated. Experiment with different ways of emphasising your presence, e.g. ‘My name is Erica and I will be interpreting this meeting today’ has a different impact compared to ‘I am the interpreter today’.
How others talk and interact- Helen Gillespie and Caron Wolfenden (2012) refer to the need for the interpreter to ‘integrate’ themselves into the specific work culture of the deaf professional, blending in so as to provide access for the Deaf professional to do their job to the best of their ability. This is not possible unless interpreters are fully cognizant with the environment in which they are working. So, observe how other employees relate to each other. Consider their vocabulary, register and tone. Note the patterns of behaviour in a particular Community of Practice or workgroup and try and mirror some of these behaviours yourself.
How we talk with each other- we need to start that conversation! If we want to address some of the uncomfortable tensions that exist as a result of deaf people moving into positions of power, we must acknowledge those tensions and begin discussions with deaf clients. We have to be open and honest about what affects us and how it impinges on our work. We also need to be talking with hearing employees, explaining both the flexibility and limitations of our role. Appropriate training about working with interpreters would benefit both deaf and hearing employees.
Finally, interpreters need to be talking to each other, exploring the difficulties (and positives) of interpreting in the workplace, and working together to devise better, ethically-sound practices suited to this specific setting. One way of doing this is through the ‘professional’ supervision process whereby practice and decisions can be explored, challenged and reflected upon in a safe and supportive space.
Moving forward
This discussion is just the beginning and hopefully will raise more questions than provide answers. How do interpreters create ‘space’ for themselves? What does an ‘interpreter/ employee’ shape look like? How do freelance interpreters manage some of the issues experienced by staff interpreter colleagues? Let’s start that conversation.
Bailey-Bowen, D. (2013) ‘Ethical Choices: Educational Sign Language Interpreters as Change Agents’ (Street Leverage Blog)
Cook, A. (2004) ‘‘Neutrality? No Thanks. Can a Biased Role be an Ethical One?’ Journal of Interpretation, pp. 57-74
Gillespie, H. & Wolfenden, C. (2012) I think you’re my client, but you think you’re my boss!’, In Dickinson, J. & Stone, C. Developing the Interpreter; Developing the Profession, ASLI Conference Proceedings, Doug Mclean Publishing: Gloucestershire, England pp. 118- 140
Hauser, A. B. & Hauser, P.C. (2008) ‘The Deaf Professional- Designated Interpreter Model’, in Hauser, P.C., Finch, K.L., and Hauser, A.B. (eds.) Deaf Professionals and Designated Interpreters: A New Paradigm, Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press, pp. 3-21
Lee, R.G. & Llewellyn Jones, P. (2011) Re-visiting Role: Arguing for a multi-dimensional analysis of interpreter behaviour, Supporting Deaf People online conference 2011

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  1. Very nice to read a pleasant and forward-thinking article about practicalities, thank you for writing this. Some of the trickiest interactions I have had in workplaces are issues around whose turn it is to make the tea.
    As part of my critical reflections in my interpreter training, I also wondered about the parallels between designated workplace interpreting and interpreting in education – particularly Higher Education. Both settings benefit from having consistent interpreters who have deep knowledge of the topics, and if you spend any time in working in a university, you need to form a wide range of relationships with receptionists, lecturers, security, managers and (most importantly) the canteen staff. Those relationships must be regular “human” relationships or they will fail, even (especially?) when you are actively interpreting, with the worst case scenario being that your dysfunctional relationships will inhibit your work and the work of the student. Places of education ARE workplaces.
    Can a Code of Conduct or any other “stone tablet” describe workplace relationships?