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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Interpreting Training Information

A matter of interpretation:

Mimic and freelancer

By Elliot Kort

The mimic

It’s time for a break in evidence class. Kim’s been churning out signs for 15 minutes straight, translating strategies in trial cross-examination and arcane legal topics, including the nature of collateral versus noncollateral evidence. Kim signs a wide variety of classes and has no way of knowing what she’ll encounter upon entering any given classroom.
Kim Bates interprets for Ryan Schwarzenberger during a law class at Green Hall. As a sign language interpreter, Kim must have a solid enough grasp of the material to relay it to the students who depend on her. She keeps in close contact with professors, reviewing concepts and definitions. “There have been occasions when she will ask me questions after class that are as astute, if not more so, than the students I’m teaching,” Dennis Prater, Connell Teaching Professor in the School of Law, said.
During her eight years as the interpreter coordinator — and, before that, as a part-time interpreter for the University — Kim acquired precise knowledge about nuanced subjects from anatomy to law and stored it away for later use. Although her arms are in a near-constant state of motion while translating, the most trying facet of her job is the energy it takes to stay focused on the steady stream of sometimes complex information she must understand enough to communicate it in signs.
“My brain gets tired a whole lot faster than my hands do,” she explains. “I cannot zone out for a minute and go, ‘Oh yeah, I need to put drier sheets on my grocery list.’ Because the second I do that, I’ve lost a huge chunk of information.” If she daydreams, even for a moment, the student misses the message.
It’s not just the lecture that she could miss, but also interactions between the professor and other students. From class discussions to test review question-and-answer sessions, an interpreter has to cover every spoken word from the minute the class begins to the moment everything concludes. Having the responsibility to represent such highly specialized material is often too much for one interpreter to handle.
The solution is to work with a partner translator, to “team.” For evidence class, Kim is teaming with Heidi Benham. Even when taking a backseat to another interpreter, she stays just as focused as when she sits solo, ever ready to feed a sign or consult on spelling if her colleague blanks for a moment.
She jots down notes, concepts and names that require new signs to be created on the spot. But even as she does, she’s alert for that key piece of information that might come along at any moment. “Interpreters are probably the most attentive people in the room,” Kim said.
After class, she approaches Prater to make sure she understands the concept of collateral versus noncollateral evidence, verify definitions, and ask how best to articulate those concepts to Ryan.
“There have been occasions when she will ask me questions after class that are as astute, if not more so, than the students I’m teaching,” Prater said of Kim.
Prater said he enjoys these moments when the two debrief after class because he views her as a partner in teaching. His job, he explained, is to take the sometimes complicated language of the law and put it into terms that anyone can understand. To Prater, they’re both interpreters.
And often, even when she’s interacting with those who can hear, Kim will absentmindedly sign words as she speaks them. She talks with her hands even when she’s not working.
The freelancer
Heidi Benham, Kim’s partner that day, exemplifies another face of interpreting, one of a group of freelancers who float from one place to another as needed, connecting people in a silent world to the world of sound. Heidi has worked nearly everywhere, from delivery rooms to boardrooms, law offices to jails. Becoming a party to someone’s intimate personal information can lead to attachment, though, and she tries to remind herself that her job is simply to be a conduit of information. She is the invisible relay point between point A and point B, no matter the topic of discussion.
“It just goes through you and not into you,” Heidi said.
Sometimes, however, the work can shake her up. Heidi recalls being brought in to interpret for a deaf woman undergoing surgery. Midway through, the surgeon asked her to tell the patient about a complication that had surfaced. The prognosis was fairly bleak. “And so she said, ‘Am I going to die?’” Heidi wanted to comfort her, to respond in a positive and upbeat way. But all she could do was repeat what the surgeon answered.
And though she works full time at the University, Kim often finds herself freelancing as a means of remaining connected with the deaf community. The work can sometimes catch her off guard.
“You never know what you’re going to get when you walk into a medical situation,” Bates said. “You can think you’re going in there for a routine exam and then, all of a sudden, you have cancer. Or all of a sudden, you want to have your tubes untied because your infant son died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. You just never know.”
KU staff interpreter Allison Gile will never forget one trip to the hospital. She was called in to interpret for someone who had just been in an accident. By the time she made it to the emergency room, the patient had died. Within moments of walking through the door, Allison had to enter the waiting room to give the family the news. As much as she wanted to comfort the bereaved, all she could do was interpret.
When she arrived home that night, Allison collapsed into her husband’s arms and wept; she still tears up talking about it. When she wonders whether she could have done anything differently, she remembers the situation was what it was — completely beyond her control.
In interpreter training, Gile was taught to remain completely detached from every interpretation. The rule is part of the code of ethics of the Registry of Intepreters for the Deaf, the professional organization for interpreters. You’re just a conduit, they told her. You are not to have any emotion or reaction to what you see or who you interact with.
But she did.
“You have to carry that with you,” she said. “Sometimes you cry. Sometimes you pray. Sometimes you laugh. Sometimes you vent.”

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