Part 2: 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 2 of Anna Grunfeld’s story, speaking about how she became an interpreter and a few of her personal experiences.

MCIS: What was your journey towards becoming an interpreter?

Anna: I came to be an interpreter kind of by accident. My initial plan in high school was to pursue special education. Sometimes people with autism use a few basic signs if they’re nonverbal as a means to communicate. So when I started in university, I took ASL as an elective because I thought, “I’m going to do Special Ed”, then autism will come up a lot, and if sign language is a tool that people with autism use, then maybe I should just learn the basics. So I took it as an elective, but the professor was Deaf, so it was like a real immersion. I was just really interested and felt I was picking it up. And actually, the professor pulled me aside one day and said, “I can see you processing the information differently.” Because it’s very different to sort of know language conversationally, than to interpret it. I call interpreting mental gymnastics, especially ASL, because it’s not just spoken to speak. You have the additional layer of changing the entire medium, and applying all of the rules that govern how and where you place things to make it visual, etc. So, he said, “I can see that part click in your brain. I can see you processing the information differently. Have you ever considered being an interpreter?”

I hadn’t been exposed to interpreters until that point, except I think in the first class of that elective course. Because everybody’s completely new, they bring in an interpreter, so that the expectations with the class are very clear. Other than that, I hadn’t been exposed to interpreters before. So I could very safely say, “No, I have never thought about it.” But that got me thinking about it. And I looked into the program. I was at York University at the time and looked into the program at George Brown College. I applied for the following September.

It was by accident, not at all by design. So when you go to your high school guidance counsellor, it’s not something that anybody is going to ever suggest to you and typically people who come to this profession, it’s because they were raised with a family member who is Deaf or had some sort of significant exposure. It’s very uncommon and the profession is just not talked about, so it’s never something that a career counsellor or guidance counsellor would suggest to you.

MCIS: Are there certain things or aspects that have been helping you cope with the everyday challenges of the pandemic?

Anna: No. To be honest, I think it is a little bit of an issue because I believe that other professions that are privy to people’s situations, heavy content, upsetting or disturbing content, and they go through this daily. Many other professions, doctors, police officers, social workers receive special training and vicarious trauma. They have training in how to manage some of those situations. And also, a lot of times they work in a team. So when you leave a setting, you sort of have your team to talk to and debrief.

But interpreters, for the most part, we’re lone wolves. You go into a setting by yourself, and you leave it by yourself. I think it’s actually a little bit of an issue in terms of interpreter training, and there needs to be a bigger emphasis on vicarious trauma and sort of trying to prepare the interpreter for the settings that they walk into. Of course, you could never fully prepare, but at least you could attempt it in the same way that these other professions do. I think that maybe there needs to be some sort of group initiative or some kind of group meeting for interpreters to meet and talk. I mean, thankfully, I manage very well. I have a family that I can speak to, and I personally, handle being in these settings very well, and it doesn’t bother me. But I’m still a human being, and sometimes you get into the car and cry because you become very invested in people’s lives. You’re in very intimate settings with them and share personal information. You follow their lives, and you meet their family, and you sit and chat. Sometimes you’re waiting in that waiting room for a minimum of an hour with the person, and you’re chatting, and you’re getting to know their life, and often these people do not have very many people in their lives who can sign, and so they’re sort of taking that opportunity to talk to somebody who can understand them and they are just sharing everything.

Everybody comes from their own experiences, their upbringings, their sensitive spots. So there are certain subject matters or certain things that impact everyone differently. There are things that I have a harder time detaching from because life is busy, and then, of course, you lie in bed at night, you go, “Whoooooa,” and the brain starts going. We are all human. 

MCIS: Are there activities or things you’d like to do outside of work to help you when you’re distracted or to help you forget about work? 

Anna: Parenting through a pandemic? Zooming your kids through school? Those are new ones. There will be a new badge that parents will get after this. I obviously spend most of my time with my kids and my family, especially during COVID. Of course, there’s nowhere else to go. I do cake decorating, mostly just for kids’ birthdays, but I think it also depends on the individual, since I am able to detach when I’m done.

MCIS: Are there aspects of working from home that you enjoyed?

Anna: I mean less commute. The city is very, very large so I need to do a lot of driving. Last week or the week before, I went from Thornhill to Whitby, then Whitby to Barrie, and then Barrie to Thornhill again. Two assignments and about three and a half hours of driving. One time I drove an hour and twenty-five minutes, paid for parking, and the appointment was six minutes long. In theory, you’re like, that could have been virtual. But this patient required an injection, so it had to be in-person.

MCIS: Are there factors that deter people from bringing in interpreter services? 

It’s unfortunate because the travel time costs deter some people from hiring an interpreter and securing the service. I used to go once a week, over an hour away, to a prison facility to interpret. There was a Deaf inmate, and I would interpret for paid sessions with their psychologist. By the time I got there to start interpreting, we had eight months left for one-hour sessions, once a week. The budget approval took many months to come through because they had to get approval to pay the interpreter. There were no interpreters in that area. So they had to bring me in. It was travel time and mileage, and the time of the actual appointment. They had to get all of that budget approval, which took over a year. Then they had to find an interpreter who was willing to travel and work in that setting. So you look at a situation like that, everybody has their own opinions about the prison system. If the goal is rehabilitation, this individual has nowhere near the same shot at it as somebody else because even once approved, that was only once a week, for an hour for one one-on-one session. What about all the group sessions? What about all of the educational classes, sessions that help provide them with the skills and help provide them something to focus on when they’re released outside of reoffending? All of those skills, camaraderie, and group therapy, they don’t get any of that. So out of a two-year sentence, where another inmate would have daily group therapy for an hour or two, and then once a week, individual therapy, and then classes and courses and stuff like that. You have somebody having three, four hours a day of therapy and supporting rehabilitation? And that’s only one example.

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 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. 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.

To read Part 1 of Anna’s story:

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

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