Imagine being in the room with someone who has just been given bad medical news that you have to relay to them. They are devastated – your instinct is to be empathic and caring, maybe give them a hug. But that is not your job – instead you must reflect the attitude of the medical specialist delivering the message. If they’re not empathetic, then nor are you.
Such is the life of a sign language interpreter. Of course, there are many occasions when you are signing wonderful news and can reflect that joy as the conduit of that news, explains NZ Sign Language English interpreter Rebekah Guy, an AUT graduate who has been working as a NZ sign language interpreter for four years.
Rebekah says neutrality is what professional sign interpreters bring to the communication process. They don’t side with anyone, just deliver the information as it comes.
“I’m an interpreter, I’m not a participant, I’m a mutual being in the room. Ethically it is not my situation to make a message good or bad. I’m just taking the information from one person and giving it to someone else as it is expressed. If I do that so they understand each other, then I’ve done my job.”
And yes, it can be tricky she says. She had to deal with an unusual job recently where a deaf person was attending a seminar on financial advice and making money.
Rebekah and another interpreter were booked to interpret. They realised pretty quickly it was a pyramid scheme. However because of their neutral role they had to dampen their gut instincts, set a professional demeanour, and continue interpreting.
“Fortunately the deaf person cottoned on quickly and told us in the break they knew it was iffy but they wanted to stay to learn about it. Deaf people can’t just watch a TV show to work out why pyramid schemes are bad! So we stayed, they took on all the information and went away and made their own decision.”
Weddings another interesting but tricky event to interpret because of all the background history that people draw on during their speeches, says Rebekah.
“At weddings, the people are not your family, you don’t know them, you don’t know their nicknames, the funny stories about faraway places that you’ve never heard of. Is Bart a dog or a boy? Are they being cheeky, is that a double entrendre? You just have to interpret literally so you often completely miss the second meaning.”
Rebekah is fascinated by the focus on language and people and the problem solving involved in taking one language and changing it around into another.
“It takes a lot of brain power and problem solving with language and I love it. At heart I’m a real language nerd and really interested in linguistics.
Rebekah still gets extremely nervous when interpreting in a large public space but by putting on her professional ‘hat’ she becomes ‘Interpreter Rebekah’ and falls into role.
“I try and quell my nerves, I don’t shake too much because I’m very aware my hands are on show and if they’re shaking people are going to see them so somehow my brain has managed to trick my hands to be calm and steady while they’re moving but my heart pounds and I think I go quite pale.”
It can be emotionally quite taxing switching from the very emotional situation of giving bad medical news, to a good news situation.
“I’ve got to draw a very clear line between jobs. The next client doesn’t know I’ve been in a really tough situation and don’t need to know.”
Having a really supportive network of colleagues to talk to, in confidence, is important especially as a freelancer because you don't have the background support of an employment/management structure.
As a NZSL interpreter freelancer, Rebekah works half the week as an educational interpreter and the other hand as a community interpreter. It is a role that offers heaps of variety, especially the community interpreting work.
Typically over a day she has four or five jobs ranging in length from 10 minutes to two hours. She says it requires her to wear many different hats and that can be challenging.
“I might start in a work meeting with a client about sales targets, then drive to a hospital where a woman is attending a breast screening and possibly being told she has cancer. I could then go to a parent teacher conference at school where parents are told their child is doing really well , then leave that job and go to a community forum between the council and a group of deaf people who have really strong opinions about something the council is doing.”
This could involve driving three to five hours depending on where the jobs are located so her car is a vital tool of her job.
“I never used to care if it was serviced or not, but now I get even the smallest noise checked immediately because I can’t do my job without it. I spend an awful lot of time in my car, it is my second home,” laughs Rebekah.
As someone who is not a native user of NZSL, Rebekah says her biggest challenge is that she’s always learning how to enhance her NZSL skills.
“There is always a new part of the language I’ll need to learn - new vocab items - new styles I haven’t encountered yet – I’m always needing to update. But it is an exciting challenge that I’m really up for it.”
Another challenge is the stereotype that interpreters are always family members of the deaf people, not neutral professionals. “I don’t think people understand the professionalism required,” says Rebekah.
Tricky, taxing, but so so satisfying, says Rebekah, especially when she goes into a workplace where the deaf person doesn’t have regular access to an interpreter which means they miss a lot of the information and daily workplace communications.
“I feel a bit of extra responsibility to make sure that the deaf person can get every single benefit possible out of me being there."
Develop good connections with the deaf community, go to events, meet deaf people and learn the language from them as well as through university.
“There are many cool short expressions that just don’t make it into the land of academia.
Some NZSL slang is completely uninterpretable into English in the same way other languages have phrases and expressions that can’t be translated exactly. It can be very tricky which is why you need to get out in the community and use the phrases yourself so you can figure out how in heck you can voice them in English when they come up.”