Part 1: ASL Interpretation in Today’s World: An ASL Interpreter’s Perspective

By: Cheryl

Anna Grunfeld is an American Sign Language-English interpreter based in Toronto. She works as a community-based interpreter in various settings, such as hospitals, schools (K-12 and post-secondary), mental health facilities, corrections, and many more. After the inspiring COVID story she wrote (which can be found here), MCIS decided to reach out to her and interview her for COVID Stories: The Impact on Language Professionals. While interviewing Anna, we realized the importance of understanding what it is truly like to be an ASL interpreter and all the moving parts included.

Here is Part 1 of Anna Grunfeld’s story, speaking about what actually happens inside an ASL interpreter’s mind while interpreting.

MCIS: How has the pandemic changed you as an ASL interpreter?

There’s a known shortage of ASL interpreters and a limited pool in a massive city like this. Interpreters are human, and there are some environments that some people don’t want to work in. So, to get all of the needs filled is next to impossible. Then you add in people’s safety and security, and you know willingness to work in a high-risk environment and the needs of the entire deaf population whose needs have increased through this pandemic. Because if you think of people needing social assistance, mental health services, meetings, addictions help, counselling, all of those people have been really, truly impacted through this pandemic. All of a sudden, there’s now a higher need for these services. And fewer interpreters are willing to work in these settings because of the pandemic. Everybody wants to remain safe, and everyone has different circumstances they are in. Fortunately, there have been virtual appointments. So, in that way, certain things have been able to be maintained. But again, you just increase the need within an already small pool. It’s been very challenging.

Challenges with remote interpreting

There are also just little challenges that people don’t think about in terms of virtual appointments with ASL interpreting. It’s different from spoken language interpreting. For example, the speaker’s bubble gets larger on all of the platforms, all of the virtual platforms. Whoever is speaking is highlighted, and they’re large. So what happens to the interpreter’s bubble? The interpreter becomes small, which is fine with a spoken language interpreter, but not with an ASL interpreter. Little things that at the beginning of an appointment, I have to say, “I’m sorry to interrupt before we get started. Would you please pin the interpreter so that the interpreter window doesn’t get small?” Oh, I don’t know how to pin it. Can we just keep going? Oh, I don’t know this platform. Does it have pinning? “Yes, it does.” Oh, but I’m on my phone, so I can’t pin it—things like that.

I was asked to attend an appointment where there are team interpreters. So typically, you’d switch off every 20 minutes or so. Switching off and sharing the workload is part of having a team. Some people don’t realize that switching off the other interpreters is not having a coffee break. The other one is monitoring the information, because again, interpreters are only human, and things like dates, numbers, phone numbers, addresses, spellings of things, a lot of those things are very easy for an interpreter to miss. You’re still listening because you are working with information, and the other interpreters are there to back you up. So if I hear a date, I jot it down. Then I hold it up like this to the other interpreter. So when they are going, instead of interrupting and saying, I’m sorry, what was that date? They can just use that so they can just keep going. So you’re working in a team, you’re not relaxing. So that cannot be done virtually. You can’t work in that way when you’re in two different locations. So when you’re switching off, what do you do? Every 20 minutes say, “Excuse me, now can you pin the other interpreter? Sorry, now can you pin me? Can you pin both of us?” Those are just a few little things unique to ASL interpreting due to the visual nature that makes virtual appointments a challenge.

Furthermore, sometimes the speaker will turn the video off so that they don’t keep becoming large so that the interpreter’s bubble will stay highlighted. But once their video is off, they’re kind of taking notes and this and that, so then they’ll like hear that it’s quiet. So they’ll think it’s time to start talking again. But it’s quiet because ASL is quiet for the most part. So I’m still interpreting, but they start talking, so then you’re like, “Sorry, I’m not done yet.” So there are some of those additional challenges with just the visual aspect, as well as those caused by it being virtual.

Positives with remote interpreting

However, there are positives to interpreting virtually! Some positives I would say are because there’s no travel, you can, in theory, book more appointments in one day. So you can hopefully meet more people’s needs. And then in a similar vein, you can actually have appointments in other cities where there’s a need. And hopefully, fulfil that need a little quicker.

An important lesson Anna has learned through being an ASL interpreter

That you can, in fact, do it all. This sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, but I’m not. I am very often completely amazed by what the brain can do.

When you’re learning any new skill, whether it’s interpreting or knitting, in the beginning, it requires so much concentration, and you keep messing up, and you’re like, I’m never going to get the hang of it. Then you add in all the mental gymnastics. You’re concentrating so hard on doing this, and you’re messing up, and you’re slow in the beginning, right? And every ounce of your mental capacity is trying to do this. And then now, I’ll be interpreting and I’m doing my work, and I’m doing a good job. And in the back of my mind, I’m like, “What time is it? I have to pick up my kid, and when am I going to make dinner? And what am I going to do?” Truthfully, I’m amazed sometimes again. But I’m amazed sometimes when I leave an appointment, I think, “How does the brain do that? How does it match capacity to perform so many functions?”

The process of ASL interpreting

When you’re interpreting, it is spoken language to sign language. Generally speaking, the service provider or the speaker is the hearing person. Mostly I interpret things in sign language. So the speaker is speaking, and you are listening. Most people think, “Okay, the first, second words start, you’re signing.” But not really, because you kind of need to know what they are talking about before you start, so you’re listening.

And then start, and of course, you start processing the information on many different levels in a split second. You’re processing it for ton: Are they serious? Are they playful? Are they sarcastic? Are they angry? This makes a huge difference. You can say the same thing sarcastically or angrily. But it makes a difference; tone, syntax, grammar, level of language. Is the speaker a high school kid, or is it a professor? It’s important to know what type of language are they using. Especially with English, you’ve got run-on sentences, you’ve got idioms, you’ve got expressions, you’ve got double negatives. And those things don’t translate word for word or word for sign language. So when you hear an expression come at you, you have to know what that expression means. You know, what does it actually mean? For example, when somebody says, “one bird in the hand is worth two in the bush?” You can’t just interpret that word for word. It doesn’t mean anything.

I remember one of the first times I was interpreting by myself. There was this professor who always spoke double negatives. So he says, “Hey, guys, you better pay attention because I can’t promise this information won’t be on the test.” So what does that actually mean? It means, “Pay attention to this; this could be included in the test.” But you are listening and signing and processing on all of those different levels. And then that double negative comes at you. What does that mean?

Another good example is when I had a patient who had food addiction issues. The counsellor was discussing with her how she will get irritable if she misses the food, but as the interpreter because of English, I had to ask for clarification: “Can you clarify? Are you referring to skipping meals? Or the emotional feeling of missing food?” Those are two different signs.

So you’re processing all of those things, and then you are changing the grammar, the syntax, you’re trying to match the level of language, you’re trying to match the tone, you’re trying to relay the true meaning, which, as we’ve just discovered, it’s not always clear. And then you are applying all of the rules that govern how and where you place things to make them visual. What you do with your face? What you do with your eyebrows? Because that’s part of it. And you’re doing all of this simultaneously, but while they are still talking.

You are still also listening to what’s coming next. Generally, an ASL interpreter is simultaneous; you usually have anywhere from a two-second to a 10-second processing lag, because again, you have to wait before you start interpreting. So you’re a few seconds behind, still listening, and your brain is processing everything. That is why I call it mental gymnastics. But I don’t think people realize because I think everybody has the experience of knowing something in another language. But people don’t understand what is involved in the interpretation process. It is not the same as knowing the language conversationally, even if you are fluent in that language. Then there are the additional layers of ASL that you are changing, the medium from spoken to sign. You’re adding all of those additional pieces that you are trying to add appropriately, like rules that govern how you set things up in space, where you place things, how you reference them, you know, you are sort of establishing certain things in space so you can refer back to it.

That is why I sometimes feel like, wow, the human brain is so cool. And again, it isn’t me, because I’m not the only person who can do this.

MCIS: I can only imagine how fast speakers are presenting and they may not consider the live interpreter.

That’s an excellent point; that happens a lot. In these smaller appointments, I make myself known only if I need to. However, people don’t always think about the interpreter for a conference or meeting with multiple presenters or whatever. They don’t send materials ahead of time. They speak a mile a minute, like you said, because imagine you’re speaking about “A,” your area of expertise, and “B”, off of having a prepared speech. You are going a mile a minute; it’s full of jargon; it’s full of acronyms; and it’s full of terminology in that expertise. The truth is, in those scenarios, although I tried my best, it’s the Deaf participant that suffers because they can’t be a fully active participant. And I don’t expect that everybody could understand all the implications, or you know, of having an interpreter.

It’s more challenging when they haven’t provided me with the appropriate information, and it’s not a format where I can do my best work because then, was it truly helpful? So I would say it’s more harmful because then they walk away from that meeting thinking, “Oh, yeah, the Deaf participants know everything. They got it, right? They have the same access as everybody else.” And it’s more harmful because it provides a false sense that the Deaf person is on par in terms of what they’ve just learned from that meeting or how to go ahead then and apply whatever information was just shared when it’s not true.

MCIS: If there is one thing you could say to anyone who will be reading the blog, what would you tell them?

Accessibility is a lot more than what meets the eye. So speaking about the sort of conference-type interpreting, yes, you have provided accessibility. And that is a lot more than many places do, so I applaud that. And I appreciate the individuals who have gone through the effort and expense of securing an interpreter for events; that is a really good first step.

However, there’s a lot more. First, there’s needs to be an understanding of what it means to work with the interpreter in the same way people will spend hours working with the tech guy to make sure that all the technology works. Individuals always think about working with other service providers, especially when we’re in-person hosting functions. You’re going to coordinate with the catering staff. You’re going to work with all of these staff and service providers to ensure a successful event. But rarely anybody thinks about working with the interpreter. And in some ways, people outsource services. You hire service, and you expect that they will provide you with the service. And so, I think that that’s maybe a misconception because people now think, “Great. I hired an interpreter. I did what I needed to do; look at me, I’m so accessible.” But sometimes, there’s a role that you need to play to ensure that I can do my job properly. And if not, you have to understand the impact that it has on your participants. So I would say people have to understand that accessibility is more than just, ‘I hired the interpreter or tried’.

There’s work to be done. I want to be part of your team to the best of my ability. I will work independently, effectively, and I will do the best job I can do. But I need your assistance sometimes. And in specific settings, I can ask for that. And I can advocate for myself and the Deaf person and say, “I’m sorry, can you can we please put this in layman’s terms? Can you please explain this a little bit more? Can you please…” you know, whatever. In other settings, that’s not possible. So that requires a conversation ahead of time, and it requires us to work together. We’re there to work as a team with you. And that accessibility is not just, “I hired the interpreter.” We have to work at it to make sure that once you hire the interpreter, I’m in a position to do the best job that I can. For everybody’s sake, it’s not just for me; there’s a ripple effect to whether or not a Deaf participant had a meaningful interaction with your service.


Stay tuned for Part 2.


Please see some of our other blogs for more information on related topics and ASL.

The Progression of American Sign Language Throughout COVID-19

The Role of Body Language In Communication

COVID Stories: Life as an ASL Interpreter in the time of COVID