The well-being of sign language interpreters in rapidly changed and ever changing times

If we have ever been challenged and have needed to resort to strategies to cope with the everchanging day-to-day life, it has been in 2020, and it continues to be the case in 2021. Finding a healthy balance to navigate the “new normal” requires strategies and coping mechanisms. I wrote the following article on the well-being of sign language interpreters during the pandemic for the WASLI Newsletter, inspired by a workshop offered by Lianne Nap:

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2020 has ended and what a strange and challenging year it has been. It has also shown us how resilient we can be and how we, no matter what, are and stay connected. Our profession had to respond and adapt to the new reality of interpreting during a pandemic where we find ourselves “locked down”. And whereas we have tackled the practical and technological challenges, turned our homes in interpreting studios and trained ourselves in becoming tech-savvy, what have we done to make sure that we are coping with these changes on a personal, psychological and emotional level?

In November, WASLI Secretary, Isabelle Heyerick as the founder and Vice-President of Tenuto vzw (an organisation offering continuous professional development for Flemish Sign Language interpreters) co-organised and attended a webinar on reflection through the concept of mirror play facilitated by Lianne Nap ( The webinar invited colleagues to reflect on how the physical and technological changes impact their overall energy and how they can tip the scale to the positive. 

At the end of this webinar the impression remained that signed language interpreters have addressed the technological adjustments but are neglecting the mental strain interpreting from home is posing. It is necessary to know the technological and practical ins and outs of interpreting during a pandemic: the technology and equipment we need to be able to do our job. However, it is also necessary to know what we need to safeguard our mental well-being. Lianne pointed out: we are our own tool, there is no replacement if we break. This is especially true when professional and personal boundaries are blurred and our work enters our private homes, and vice versa. We are currently not only interpreters working from our own home, we are also all the other facets of our person in that home, managing our personal, private and professional lives (and the ones we interpret for and with) in one space. The impact of this changed reality should not be underestimated and should be addressed so that we can continue to do the job we love.

“We are our own tool, there is no replacement if we break!”

WASLI encourages interpreter associations and organisations to explore opportunities to devote attention to this topic and ways to address it. For instance, some of our regions have established closed Facebook groups where interpreters can discuss the challenges and support each other. 

Below we gladly provide other examples of what organisations have offered or are offering to their members, which can serve as inspiration. However, if an organised approach is not (yet) possible, getting in touch with your colleague(s) to have a “we are in this together and we will get through this together” chat might be simply enough.

Want to know how colleagues all over the world have experienced and dealt with the professional changes and challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic? Have a look at the results of the surveys carried out by dr. Maartje De Meulder, Oliver Pouliot , and Karolien Gebruers; research report in English , interview in IS, and article in Dutch

* While writing this blog the amazing Twitter account @VirtualNotViral organised a Tweet chat on the subject of well-being with guest Narelle Lemon with some great tips and resources, which they allowed me to share in this blog. You can also read the full archived Tweet chat.

Inspiration for well-being:

ASLI (UK) has a Well-Being fund and offers mentoring opportunities.

NUBSLI (UK) has a buddy scheme, which has been introduced in Belgium, Flanders by Tenuto vzw and BVGT vzw.

AFILS (France) invites interpreters to reflect on the practice of online interpreting. Dossier avec le point de départ de réflexions à mener plus largement sur les pratiques d’interprétation à distance

CIT has an article on “Teaching interpreters about self-care”

The Lean Podcast. With a dedicated episode on Self-Care and four episodes on Remote Interpreting including a session about boundaries

Marjory Bancroft webinar “You’re Worth It! Self-care for Remote Interpreters an Urgent Priority”.

360 supervision has a dedicated area with blogs from various contributors, some focussing on well-being of SLI during the pandemic:

Dr. Narelle Lemon is a self-care advocate who started a daily mindful exercise since the start of the pandemic called #meditation5431. Give it a try!

#BlackLivesMatter, also in the signed language interpreting profession?

This is not about strategies. But it can be, if we want to. This is about what is happening now in the world. Not the biological virus, the other virus: racism and the protests against that virus #BlackLivesMatter.

Vlaamse Gebarentaal versie van deze blog.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown, huge changes in our daily lives -social and professional-, insecurities, being unable to see our family, travel and enjoy the little things of life, we are facing something much bigger. We are facing ourselves. We are facing our history. We are facing what we thought we knew, what we know, what we wish we did not have to know and what we should know. All of us have been in situations where we did not speak up when discrimination happened, when racist remarks were being made, when sexist “jokes” (why do we call them jokes?) were laughed away. I do not want to talk about the personal experiences. That is a journey each of us has to undertake in our own time and at our own pace. I do want to talk about the lack of diversity in our profession: signed language interpreting. 

When we talk about signed language interpreting, we almost immediately think about multiculturalism, multilingualism. However, we tend to limit our conversations, education and knowledge to what this means on to the bicultural axis of deaf culture & hearing culture (whatever those entail) and to the bilingual/bimodal concepts of spoken and signed languages.

Where however are the conversations about the diversity, multicultural knowledge, religious variation we see in society? And I am not only talking about that variety in the deaf communities. What about the hearing people we work with? What about our colleagues? I think that is the sore spot. Where are our interpreter colleagues of colour? Where in Western countries are the Black signed language interpreters, the Asian interpreters, the signed language interpreters from a Muslim background, the Jewish signed language interpreters? When I look at my region in Belgium, Flanders, the society is multicultural, but the Flemish Sign Language (VGT) interpreting community is white and female. Like me. There is no representation of the diverse communities we work with. So how can we expect to serve them adequately?

I have started to educate myself. It’s something each of us can do: learn, start to understand and do better. At the moment I am reading about Black American Sign Language – English interpreters (free download) and I follow the conversations of Black deaf people, educators, researchers, comedians and Black signed language interpreters on Twitter and Instagram. I take in the systemic issues they point to, such as access to education, access to signed language interpreting programmes, ignorance of multicultural topics in those programmes, access to professional associations, underrepresentation in those organisations, racism by service users, racism by colleagues, being “type casted” for only “black” jobs, having to deal with prejudice from educators, colleagues and clients. And I ask myself how can I do better? How can we do better?

I believe signed language interpreting programmes need to have a closer look at the society signed language interpreters work in, the people they work with and the diversity in that society which lacks in the training programmes, the staff and the students.

I believe we need to step away from our binary thinking when it comes to culture and bring the full-scaled multicultural conversation into our profession.

I believe we need to talk about representation of service users through interpreters and what it means if the vast majority of the interpreters are white and female, while the service users are not. 

I believe we need to see, acknowledge and accept that we have long ignored that power imbalances in our profession do not only cut along the deaf – hearing distinction. A lot of “voices” are not being heard.

I believe we can change this. And so maybe this can be about strategies at last.

Each of us can start a conversation: 

  • if we are a signed language interpreter, we could start talking about the lack of diversity in our profession with colleagues and service users
  • if we are a member of a professional signed language interpreter association we could strive for more diversity amongst board members
  • if we are signed language interpreter educators we could start actively recruiting staff from minoritised groups, look for collaborations with spoken language interpreting programmes that address multicultural realities of interpreting, review the current curricula and actively recruit students from underrepresented groups
  • if we are signed language interpreting researchers we can make diversity in our field more visible by addressing these topics and putting them on the research agenda

Let’s get to work. 

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