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Twice recently I’ve come across sign language interpreters who have very seriously crossed professional boundaries as far as I’m concerned. I have many years’ experience of both lipspeakers and sign language interpreters across many different settings and personal and professional context, which I admit makes it sound as if I’m applying for a job . . . however, with this experience, I can still be taken by surprise.

Both interpreters were new to me, and they offer an interesting case study into what can sometimes happen. In the first case, I was chatting away with my opposite number as I walked into the meeting room before the start. One interpreter was already there and immediately started re-voicing what I was saying to my colleague – it felt intrusive and broke into the animated conversation we’d been having, leaving my colleague somewhat startled and puzzled.

I would rather have had the simple question: “Do you want me to start by interpreting this?” It felt as if an assumption had been made about me and my needs before I’d had the chance to explain them first. It’s important to suss out your clients (and if you’re doing a presentation to, or including, deaf people, your audience) and I was just a bit surprised that that initial snapshot of me interacting with my colleague hadn’t made an impression.

My “diagnosis” would be that firstly, the interpreter wasn’t really “listening” – their observational skills hadn’t picked up a vital clue in that first impression, and secondly, the job was asserting itself before I’d had a chance to actually articulate anything beyond greetings. In short, the interpreter neither observed the client nor allowed them to begin a proper briefing. It gave me an impression of over-assertiveness.

Now I do “get” that many interpreters have to be assertive on behalf of their clients, and that’s fine – and I also “get” that many clients don’t necessarily do themselves any favours with interpreters, but that’s another story, and neither was in question here. Please let me talk to my colleagues in my own way, I don’t want to be forced to be someone I’m not, and if you allow me to brief you, you’ll see that I have included that in my briefing. My remedy on this occasion was to continue with the conversation and explain as I did so that I did not need intervention in that on-to-one interaction with my colleague, but that it would be a different story in the full meeting.

The second occasion took place at another meeting concerning disability issues. One of the interpreters afterwards jumped straight in and asked if I had a regular pool of interpreters for these meetings and whether they could join that pool as the topics discussed were very interesting and they themselves had a personal interest in disability issues. Whoa! Whoa! Hold your horses! (Haad your ‘osses, as the Bear says when he wants to speak Geordie.)

Did you ask me first if I was satisfied with your interpreting – particularly pertinent where I had asked you to follow a particular style of interpreting, which, based on my experience of these meetings, works best? (Actually, you did follow that style, after a fashion, but it would’ve been nice if you’d checked with me first that you’d met my needs before expressing an interest in follow-up work.) While I applaud your interest in disability issues, your role here is not to follow your own interests but to facilitate my participation in these meetings, which are confidential anyway. So if you learn anything from these meetings, you won’t be able to make use of it, so what’s the point?

What were you trying to do here? Were you trying to expand your domains of interpreting? I do occasionally speak to interpreters who are interested in broadening their experience either generally or within a specialist field, and I’m all for encouraging breadth and depth of subject matter and interaction with a wide variety of clients: it allows interpreters to stretch themselves and find where their talents truly lie, so yes, I am happy to encourage this where appropriate and where the interpreter is keen to ensure that they are working in the best interests of the client.

I’m not so sure here that was exactly what the interpreter concerned was attempting to do. My “diagnosis” on this occasion was a blurring of the boundaries between the personal and the professional – a personal interest in disability issues and a professional career in interpreting suggests to me an immersion that means it’s difficult to step back and get some perspective. In this case the personal took over and the client was left out of the equation, just as a means of facilitating this leapfrog into a domain attractive to the interpreter. It felt as if I, the client, counted for less than the interpreter’s ambitions and personal interests, and it also called into question their objectivity. The other interpreter who was present caught my eye during this interchange, and I could just tell that they knew their colleague had dropped a clanger with me.

I spoke to the Bear, who grasped the issue immediately, without requiring elaboration. “They’re there to do a job, end of.” The people I call ‘disability allies’ are great folk to have in our lives – hearing people, able-bodied people, friends, family, colleagues, professional support – who just get the issues we have and treat them matter-of-factly and us as equals. They are greater allies than interpreters who forget to listen to the client (patronising or what?) or use us as stepping-stones to further their interests (nobody likes feeling used).

It comes back to something known as rapport – that indefinable something between two people, in this case a professional chemistry that just works. The other interpreter’s skills suited me better, and their tacit acknowledgement by catching my eye confirmed this, really – the rapport was present and unspoken. For me, rapport is a two-way thing, based on mutual respect and a degree of ‘professional friendliness’, for want of a better term. That’s something which is really hard to pin down – interpreters and lipspeakers aren’t your personal friends, but you have a warmth of relationship that’s more than just ‘getting on’ in a professional manner (and, for what it’s worth, it’s something very valuable in colleagues generally – ‘professional friends’ are huge assets). Such a rapport is enormously valuable when someone is doing something as intimate as facilitating communication for you, and it’s a genuine bilateral relationship when that happens, even if it is only for a couple of hours and you never see them again.

And good interpreters and lipspeakers have to have a very rare balance of skills and traits. By the very nature of the job, they need to have sufficiently strong personalities to ensure that the client’s voice gets heard when their role becomes difficult – when people talk over each other, too softly, don’t understand their role, and so on – but at the same time the ability to recede that personality into the background without dominating proceedings – again, so that the client’s voice can be heard, questions are addressed to them and not directly to the interpreter.

So I want to end this blog on a positive note. The Great British Public does make me laugh sometimes – they don’t always understand the nature of the interpreter-client relationship either! I sometimes work with an interpreter I have known for a good few years now and whose skills I really trust. On one occasion he was interpreting the questions during and after an event I was running. Afterwards one of the audience was curious about the nature of sign language etc. and asked all the usual questions about whether sign language was international, etc. etc. – you know, the usual stuff you’ve probably been asked a gazillion times yourself.

Then it came out of left-field: “Are you two married?” I can tell you that we both maintained a professional demeanour while my interpreter interpreted this. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding that people who do this are “carers” or have some personal relationship with the client, and are not professionals. I’ve even had a random member of the public come up to my lipspeaker on a guided tour somewhere, wring her hand, and with tears in her eyes, say “How wonderful it is that she (meaning me) has SUCH a good friend to interpret for her,” leaving us both with our toes curling and exchanging meaningful looks once Idiot Woman had gone. However, this really weird question shows that on this occasion our rapport was apparent to the audience, they were really comfortable with it, and were happy to keep asking questions and interacting with me. It made the event, and allowed me to be myself.

Yes, we howled afterwards. We just had to.

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