Allyship and Centering Deaf People, Interpreting

What’s the Value of Trilingual Interpreters?

Melissa Elmira Yingst wrote on Facebook about a recent oppressive experience with an interpreting agency in El Paso, Texas. The post is set to public so anyone with Facebook can see the full post. A summary: she and Socorro Garcia are organizing a conference for Chicana/Latina and Indigenous womxn at the University of Texas El Paso. They requested interpreters who were trilingual. Given the space’s commitment to womxn of Chicana/Latina/Indigenia identities, they expected interpreters who would be themselves Chicana/Latina/Indigenia. That didn’t happen. They got a white male and a white female. Upon asking the agency some questions about this assignment, the agency responded with:

“When these services were requested and approved, we were not aware there was a preference to provide only female trilingual interpreters for the conference. Please keep in mind there is a very high demand for interpreters in the El Paso area, and therefore for this conference we had limited options in terms of gender and ethnicity…………

As a final note, the interpreters that have been assigned to the Summer Institute all must comply with ethical requirements to interpreter all language and gestures verbatim. Therefore, gender and ethnicity should not be factors that would diminish the quality or quantity of the communication.”

This last line from the agency is “hearingsplaining”. A not-so-rare moment when hearing people asserts a knowledge about the deaf person’s experience/needs/wants over the objections of the deaf person themselves.

A deaf person told you this would affect and diminish the quality of their interpreted product.

A deaf person told you this would diminish the quality of their experience.

That should be enough. Further explanation not necessary. We know.

But if we must.

Here we go.

The first reason is a little more academic. Extralinguistic knowledge. Extralinguistic knowledge is beyond fluency in language. It involves cultural and contextual knowledge that supports the interpretation process. Interpreters who do not have the cultural or linguistic extralinguistic knowledge will not deliver the same quality of product as interpreters with that knowledge. The interpreters’ whiteness inevitably will obscure, erasure, or displace indigenous and nonwhite knowledges being shared due to this absence of extralinguistic knowledge. More so when the interpreter has not actively worked on unpacking their biases or engaged in extensive crosscultural learning.

Safe Spaces. Safe spaces are places where we can be our authentic selves. Places where we can be vulnerable. Where we can vent. Resist. Celebrate our power and beauty in face of hegemonies that argue otherwise. When people from those systems of power are present in the room, that changes the dynamic. Intentionally or not. I can’t imagine women being comfortable discussing experiences of sexual violence meditated through the voices of a man. Talking about the violence of whiteness through a white-accented voice. Yeah, no. Not happening.

Language Affects Belonging. Language is also something that brings us home. To each other, to our cultural and heritage homelands, even if we are not geographically there, the language is with us. Sinking into the comfortable warmth of the rhythms of your native language(s) while conferencing with others like you is a slice of heaven. (For me, NAD conferences, for example). For people to feel belonging in a space, they need to see and feel their native languages being used.

Language and Culture are intertwined. How can you separate the two? Some things just don’t translate from language to language and retain its cultural meaning, its humor, its wisdom.

The quality of experience will be significantly diminished if the interpreters don’t have the cross cultural and linguistic knowledges to navigate Latina/Chicana/Indigena cultural spaces.

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