How to improve Cultural Awareness for interpreters

How to Improve Cultural Awareness for Interpreters

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Robin Byers- Pierce is a VRI Manager for Bromberg & Associates and a professional American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. In this piece, Robin offers her perspective on how to effectively communicate to people who are deaf and limited English proficient (LEP).  Check out our interview with Robin about her work with the Silent Network, the first cable TV network in the country for deaf and hard of hearing viewers.

The world as we know is seemingly getting smaller each day. You might look at your own neighborhood and find people from all over the world. Now, I am a professional sign language interpreter, and so this article is written through the prism of my experiences as such. As interpreters, we act as a cultural broker every time we take the stage. While we are actively interpreting, we frequently must make an instant choice in wording to prevent unintentional slights from happening. When a person is rude or brusque, do we as interpreters make them less rude? No, we interpreter faithfully what was being said. However, if a perfectly normal statement in one language/culture could be quite offensive in the other language, how do we handle that?

Take this, for example; a friendly greeting common in English of “How are you, you old dog?” is actually quite offensive to people of Middle Eastern origin. How do we handle that? Being proficient in both language is not sufficient here, as your awareness and understanding of the cultures involved is crucial. Finding a cultural equivalent is key, i.e. what is a phrase that is culturally equivalent in both register and intent?

Here is another example of this: the bluntness of the deaf community can often be startling for hearing people. As hearing people, we are not likely to bluntly comment on another person’s weight gain. However, a deaf person will often announce how fat you are now. The deaf community tends to deal with things in black and white, as they have difficulties finding words that allow them to communicate in the gray area. This explains why subtleties and nuances used by hearing people often times don’t work well with deaf people.

In medical situations, as hearing people, we tend to delicately state things. We will rarely say, “You have cancer and without this treatment, you will die”. In ASL, you must be this direct in delivering the message. Most hearing people are not comfortable communicating this way but medical providers need to understand that this is how direct the interpreter will need be if the message is to be understood. Directness in employment situations can be equally critical. A manager would need to say, “If you do this again, we must fire you”.

As cultures and language meanings differ greatly, it becomes the job of the interpreter to be a culture broker. I, as the interpreter, may ask for clarification in such a way as to indicate to the English speaker that they should adjust their delivery. I may say, “Excuse me, the interpreter needs clarification to interpret this correctly”. Interpreters need to ensure that the message is interpreted and conveyed by the intended audience in a clear and concise way.

Linguistically, I may need clarification for my sign choices. ASL is based on location, so I need to know if the injection will be in the arm, in the abdomen or in the hip. Imagine how surprising it is for the client after the interpreter signs “You are getting a shot” to which the client indicates which arm and the interpreter has to clarify “you are asked to pull down your pants.” For me, this is a frequent clarification that I have to request from healthcare providers.

There are many cultural differences to be aware of. In one culture, an interpreter may have to be very direct in order for the message to be understood, whereas in another culture, respect and politeness are a must for communication to proceed. In some cultures you look the person you are speaking with in the eyes and in others you avert a direct eye contact.  For instance, it’s important to be mindful of never looking a Navajo person directly in the face. One of the tools I as an interpreter use is a pre-session, a 2 minute overview of what interpreter does and how the communication should occur that takes place before the start of the meeting. As a part of it I usually ask, “Have you worked with an interpreter before?” and “Have you worked with Deaf/Arabic/Navajo… people before?” If the answer is yes, continue with the pre-session.

If during a session I notice a cultural misstep occurring that is interfering with the communication process, I will ask “May the interpreter step out of her role and make an clarification?” If all agree, I concisely state the issue in both languages, help to resolve it and move on with me back to my role of the interpreter.

Cultural awareness needs to go both ways; however, understanding and awareness is a giant steps towards bringing this world together with a little kindness. You do not have to necessarily embrace the other culture, only give them the same respect that you expect for yours.

**At Bromberg & Associates, our team of qualified interpreters are ready to help with our full range of interpreting equipment available for rental.  With over 170 languages offered, we are confident that we will be able to offer solutions to all of your language service needs. Contact us to find out how we can help.


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