Is the signed language interpreting profession strategic by nature?

Karolien Gebruers

The first guest blog (English)/ vlog (Flemish Sign Language) on this platform is by Karolien Gebruers (Belgium). 
Karolien Gebruers has been working as an interpreter Flemish Sign Language/Dutch since 2012. She trains interpreters in the postgraduate interpreting training programme at KU Leuven in Antwerp and is the president of Tenuto, a Flemish non-profit organisation offering continuous professional development training to interpreters. Karolien has a background in Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences (BAs from Lessius University College) and Interpreting (MSc from Humak University of Applied Sciences). She’s on Twitter as @KaroGebruers.

Karolien Gebruers – VGT vlog “Is het beroep tolk gebarentaal strategisch in haar ontwikkeling?”

This guest blog post is related to the thesis I wrote completing the European Master in Sign Language Interpreting (EUMASLI) programme. EUMASLI is a 2.5-year international study programme initiated by Humak University of Applied Sciences (Finland), Heriot-Watt University (Scotland) and Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences (Germany). My thesis explored Flemish Sign Language/Dutch Interpreters’ professional self in times of professionalisation. I did this by studying their self-perception as individuals as well as them being part of a larger professional network. 

There are several developments in Flanders suggesting that the signed language interpreting profession is currently going through a professionalisation process. Two of those are quite significant. First of all, in the last decade a university training programme for interpreters has been established and secondly, the number of interpreters who made interpreting their main and full-time profession has slowly increased.
If we want to understand how the professionalisation process might shape a profession in the future, it is important to study the current state of the profession and its practitioners. By applying the sociology of interpreting framework (Brunson, 2015), I looked at the daily experiences of individuals at a micro level, while taking into account that those individuals are part of a greater network of social relations (cf. Roy, Brunson & Stone, 2018). 

This study did not focus on (linguistic) interpreting strategies as such. However, following the definition of a ‘strategy’ as“a plan, method, or series of manoeuvres or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result” (see earlier blog post), the findings showed that interpreters make decisions and apply strategies when it comes to the profession as a whole as well. I will briefly explain the way in which I collected the data for this research and will subsequently discuss the findings in terms of strategies. 

Collecting and analysing the data 

My study took on a qualitative approach and engaged six female interpreters (aged between twenty-four and forty-three) with different training backgrounds and levels of work experience. All of them were full-time interpreters and had at least one year of experience at the moment of the interview. The semi-structured interviews I conducted were inspired by two visual methods: autophotography and egocentric sociograms. Autophotography was used to study the self-perception as individuals. The participants were asked to take photographs guided by the question ‘Who are you as an interpreter?’, which they would explain during the interview.
Egocentric sociograms , on the other hand, were used to study the self-perception as a part of a larger network. The participants were asked to list the names of people and organisations belonging to their professional network on post-its. Then, they positioned these post-its on the sociogram template, which consists of concentric circles with the interpreter in the centre (figure 1). Participants explained whom they positioned where on the template and why they chose those positions. For those interested in the methodological approach of autophotography and egocentric sociograms, you can read more about the what and how in this blog post.

Figure 1: An egocentric sociogram
Figure 1: An egocentric sociogram

Both the visual data and the interview transcriptions were uploaded to the software tool Nvivo 12. I mainly focused on thematically analysing the interview data, but also made some observations related to the visual data. 

Strategies related to the signed language interpreting profession

Based on the results of the analysis, it appears that strategic choices related to the interpreting profession occur before, during and after interpreting assignments.

Before assignments

Two of the participants in this study, not coincidentally the more seasoned interpreters, expressed that their years of experience enables them to better assess if they are the right interpreter for certain assignments. One of them illustrated this idea with a picture of the ocean (figure 2) saying that although she thinks interpreting can be compared to ‘diving into the deep end’, she sometimes decides not to ‘jump’. 

Figure 2: A jump into the deep
Figure 2: A jump into the deep

Similarly, another participant took a picture of a tree with ‘broken branches’ (figure 3) and explained how some branches were cut off: 

“Those are the branches that grow in all directions, and from time to time you think ‘No, not this branch’.”

Figure 3: Cut off branches tree
Figure 3: Cut off branches tree 

Considering whether one is suitable for and capable of carrying out an interpreting assignment successfully is a principle that is included in the ethical code for Flemish Sign Language/Dutch interpreters. Hence, strategically examining if your professional self is the right match for a specific interpreting assignment is something all interpreters should consider. 

In terms of representing and promoting the signed language interpreting profession, one participant, working in educational settings, emphasised the importance of making a good first impression. She illustrated this with a knock-on-the-door picture (figure 4) and explained that she is conscious of paving the way for interpreter colleagues when she is in a situation where teachers and students have no prior experience of working with an interpreter. 

Figure 4: Knock on the door
Figure 4: Knock on the door

Again, applying this strategy is adhering to the code of ethics, which states that the interpreter should conduct herself in such a way that respect is shown for herself, the client and the profession. As the work of interpreters is by nature embedded in social relationships (cf. Brunson, 2017) it is expected that strategic decision making is not limited to the individual professional level. The example above indicates that, at a collective level, interpreters take into account their professional network as well as the profession as a whole. 

During assignments

As all participants expressed, not one day is the same in the life of an interpreter, which is seen as enjoyable and challenging at the same time. Being flexible is key. The “expect the unexpected” part of the job is illustrated with a roadwork’s sign (figure 5) by one of the participants, stating: 

“You have to do something other than you have planned before, sometimes you think ‘Yes, it will be something like that’, and then you arrive and it’s something completely different.”

Figure 5: Roadwork sign
Figure 5: Roadwork sign

Similarly, another participant took a picture of a fridge (figure 6) and compared interpreting to cooking, as every interpreting job can be seen as making a dish, requiring specific ingredients and recipes. She explained that getting the recipe right is a challenge for each assignment: 

“[…] sometimes you feel like ‘Wow this was perfect’, and other times it’s like ‘No, I shouldn’t have added this [ingredient]’.” 

Figure 6: The fridge

I would argue that constantly taking decisions and making strategic choices of all kinds during an assignment could be seen as one strategy at a macro level in order to successfully complete this assignment according to its goal. 

After assignments

All participants referred to the heavy workload because of the shortage of interpreters in Flanders. One of them expressed it is difficult to manage work-life balance by stating:  

“Sometimes you need to take a break, I think we are literally being overloaded with demands, at the moment the demand for interpreters is too high, but sometimes you have to say to yourself I am taking a break, I am going to take care of myself now, after which the quality of my work will improve […].” 

This interpreter consciously takes the decision to practice self-care, which will enhance her work in the long-term. 
In the realm of self-care, the importance of having colleagues was expressed extensively. All participants added colleagues to their sociograms and positioned them close to themselves, as exemplified in figure 7.

Figure 7: Example of a completed sociogram
Figure 7: Example of a completed sociogram

The participants emphasised their need to feel they belong to a group of colleagues. While continuous professional development trainings are seen as moments in which interpreters can share experiences and talk about challenges, the participants also want to have informal encounters with colleagues to debrief and relax. The decision to take a break with a colleague and enjoy coffee and cake in between assignments was illustrated by the following picture:

Figure 8: Coffee and cake
Figure 8: Coffee and cake

So, is the signed language interpreting profession strategic by nature? 

The cases explained above are just a few examples of strategic decisions Flemish Sign Language/Dutch interpreters make. Although I did not explicitly look for strategies in my study, the participants provided me with eligible examples illustrating that they do apply strategies in order to carry out their work as an interpreter in a professional way benefitting themselves, colleagues, interlocutors, and the profession in general. The use of strategies appears to be an intrinsic part of the signed language interpreting profession. Therefor, I am encouraging interpreters to reflect on their strategies and to believe in ‘the butterfly effect’, as small actions can have a great impact. If we, as interpreters, want to elevate our profession it starts with every individual that is a member of it. Every interpreter can make a difference. I am ending this blog post with an image – what else – that aptly illustrates the butterfly effect: 

Figure 9: Butterfly effect
Figure 9: Butterfly effect by Charlie Hankin

Brunson, J. L. (2015). A Sociology of Interpreting. In: B. Nicodemus & K. Cagle (Eds.), Signed Language Interpretation and Translation Research: Selected Papers from the First International Symposium (pp. 130-149). Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press. 
Brunson, J. L. (2017). Consumers, colleagues, and certification: Exploring the politics of interpreting. In: C. Stone, & L. Leeson (Eds.), Interpreting and the Politics of Recognition (pp. 99 – 115). London & New York: Routledge. 
Roy, C., Brunson, J.L., & Stone, C. (2018). The Academic Foundations of Interpreting Studies. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press. 

Any questions or remarks, feel free to leave them here or get in touch with the author:

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Isabelle Heyerick

My area of expertise is signed language interpreting and my research is situated on the intersection of (applied) linguistics, intercultural studies and language ideologies. I hold a PhD in Linguistics, a MA in Linguistics and a MA in Interpreting. My PhD is a first exploration of which linguistic interpreting strategies Flemish Sign Language interpreters use and why. My postdoctoral research investigated how discourses and ideologies about deaf people and signed languages prevalent in both the majority society and in the Deaf communities influence the linguistic decisions signed language interpreters make in their actual practice. Currently I am an Assistant Professor in Applied Sign Linguistics at the Centre for Deaf Studies at Trinity College Dublin (Ireland). I am the secretary of the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters and the vice-president of Tenuto, an organisation offering continuous professional development for sign language interpreters.

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