There have been some good blog posts recently on the topic of LAMs – “Look At Me” interpreters. Gird your loins before reading Ariel Baker-Gibbs’s When the interpreter is taking selfies on-stage. For theatre interpreters, there’s We are (not) rockstars: honouring the performance without overpowering it by Auslan Stage Left.
I’ve talked before about how uncomfortable I am with interpreters being the public face of signed languages and my irritation at the media discourse on sign language interpreting being reliably off the mark. In recent discussions with colleagues, there have been several references to unease about interpreters using social media to show off their relationship (however brief and tangential) with “celebrities” they interpret for, posting on-stage photos of themselves at work in which the Deaf community is completely invisible, even if no overt guidance about confidentiality has technically been breached.
It’s very easy to criticise. But after I’d read the articles above, I asked myself if I’d ever been a Look At Me interpreter. Honestly? Yes, I have, and I regret it. It’s insidious.
My line of work is less glamorous than some. I don’t have the inclination for signed songs, poetry and theatre, or the looks for television (let alone the talent), so you’d think these situations wouldn’t often arise. But the temptation to make it “all about me” is more frequent and more subtle than you might think. I can’t think of many situations where it shouldn’t be resisted. It is not necessarily all about stage performances. Perhaps sometimes the discourse of hyperprofessionalised interpreters is itself a destructive ego trip.
For example, just recently, at the end of an afternoon interpreting for a very large group of young people, the organiser was handing out sweets as prizes. There were some left over. I was quite tired by this stage. They turned and gazed at me thoughtfully. Time calcified around me in a flash, like the instantly caustic patina of a Tesco’s doughnut removed from its sweaty paper bag. “Oh god,” I thought.
“I think the helper should have a special prize as well, you’ve worked so hard,” they said, and held out the box.
In my mind – because nothing is certain and memory least of all (we have no choice but to rework past events out of chemical abstraction) – they said it in slow motion, in a comically stretched out bass, and you could see their uvula swinging lazily back and forth like Foucault’s pendulum. Spe-shul pr-iiiiiiiii-zzze.
I had to react. Humans react to stuff, and despite efforts to the contrary, most people still think sign language interpreters are humans. Even not reacting is reacting. One option was to give them The Talk. I’ve seen other interpreters do it. The intensity, tone and angle of nasal elevation vary, but the subtext usually runs something like this: I’m not a helper; I’m a qualified professional ACTUALLY; I have worked my fingers to the bone and paid huge sums of money to be here, RECOGNISE IT; what are you doing looking at me or talking to me anyway, you should know without being told and against all of your previous human experience that I prefer to be treated like a hologram or a vision quest spirit animal; how very dare you thank me for being useful, you monster.
Instead I smiled, said “Thank you very much, that’s lovely,” and took a roll of Love Hearts. The first one said “Heart Throb”.
I reflected on this afterwards and I still think it was the right thing to do, on balance. This was a situation where it was not All About Interpreters. Correcting this well-meaning person about my job title (whatever that is worth) and “role” (whatever that meant there and then) could have created some degree of alienation, certainly affecting my relationship with them and perhaps extending that negativity to my clients and my entire service/team. They did not intend harm and a rebuffing of the sweeties would have come as a shock. Furthermore, they were the most senior person in the room, in this particular workplace hierarchy. Would it have helped anyone (me, them, the young people) to correct them then and there in front of several hundred watching people? This was not the time and place to challenge a commissioner: there may be other more productive opportunities in future (and if we were properly embedded in public services as colleagues we’d have more of an opportunity to create them).
As translators and interpreters we are trained not to use marked language (e.g. translationese, code-for-code renditions of idioms) without good reason. Perhaps there is such a thing as marked behaviour as well.
Perhaps to be a good interpreter, you have to get over yourself occasionally.