Interpreters: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Auslan interpreters

Riona TindalDr Riona Tindal
Senior Disability Advisor – DSSP
Student Disability and Accessibility, Student Success
Student Life, Griffith University

Relying on Auslan interpreters can be empowering and disempowering at the same time. You just must trust they will translate what you are saying correctly, and you are constantly monitoring what the audience is responding to the voice over. When you see an expression on the faces start to happen out of context with what you are signing, you feel that dreaded hot feeling rush over your face, start to sweat, start to feel sick, and quickly you have to decide if you need to stop and ask the interpreter to repeat back to you what they voiced over, or switch over to different signing, and try to gloss over the faux pas.

The Good

Deciding which interpreter best works with you, then the anxiety of waiting for agencies who are booked. The interpreters are the conduit of powerful communication… but, but, but… it only works if they are good, only works if they are talented, only works if they have a great Auslan contextual grasp of the lexicon. Your meetings, your presentations, your comments – it can go in either direction of being awesome or awkward or bigger faux pas.

You struggle to find the appropriate words in Auslan, especially when you are hard wired for English language, not Auslan language, which has its own grammar and structure. It is a small language with limited scope of its vocabulary. It means I am bilingual. I think in two languages every day.

The Bad

The costs to access interpreters in the workplace is prohibitive and not adequately funded, as an example:

In the workplace, the Employment Assistant Fund (EAF also known as Job Access) provides a minimal $6k for interpreting support over a calendar year, in comparison to supports provided by the NDIS of $20k-50K a year (for interpreting outside of the work environment).

Working life is 38 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, give or take. Personal life use of NDIS interpreters is average 3-4 hours a week over 52 weeks. When I asked if we could apply to increase funds, Job Access said – use captions or noter takers as this is cheaper – and it was my responsibility to manage the EAF funds – yes, they said that, and I have the email to prove this! The funding level remains unchanged since my first job in 1991 with EAF – I have changed jobs many times and my EAF account travels with me, and the evidence required to prove how deaf I am, has been done already long ago, a humiliating process of measuring your deafness and your speech capacity.

Ok, I don’t mind captions, but how can I participate in a conversation? It is very awkward when I am part of a group conversation, workshop or webinar, and the organiser didn’t factor in any interpreter access, saying captioning is universally accessible.

I can read people talking… then my own whole world comes to a screeching halt when they ask me a question. I must gesture, “look down”… pointing at the chat function and gesture “type” in the chat, and proceed to type. Often, they don’t see this, and they keep talking on, looking confused. Sometimes out of sheer embarrassment, I write on a piece of paper and state: Check the chat function please: but sometimes they are so audio based and do not “see”, and I feel myself shrinking in dismay, as the opportunity for participating is gone. I am often left feeling very annoyed, frustrated with tears, or just quit the whole workshop.

As a Deaf person, you have intelligence, but your speech does not always work well as a conduit of your thoughts, and therefore, bad speech automatically delegates you to dumbness, a low IQ and makes communication awkward, slow, difficult, too hard or too tiring…

You have thousands of words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books worth of information, stories to tell in your head… but you can’t get them out.

The Ugly

Auslan Interpreters… I love and resent them, as they present power that we have to rely on – good interpreters never make you feel inferior, but more as allies. There are those who prefer to accept work, only if there is travel time included, and for a minimum 2 hours interpreting, some won’t accept a job because it is too far, too late, too early, too inconvenient, too tiring, “I don’t like that interpreter working with me, I can’t stand him/her”. You see your NDIS drain rather quickly, so you have to find local interpreters, and have to tolerate less satisfactory interpreters if the preferred ones are not available.

If an interpreter is readily available, you instantly become suspicious inwardly, and wonder if this is because this interpreter is not good enough and more available. These awful unhelpful thoughts swirl around your head. In my defence, they are available because they were cancelled by other agencies and had time to be booked.

I become friends with a lot of interpreters, as they do share a rather personal part of your life, which is a privilege to have, yet you must trust them to keep it confidential and hope they do. There is a lot of trust in that. I enjoy the deaf time. When interpreters charge such a high fee, you can’t help but think a few things. They must be good, they must be not getting enough work and must charge higher, they have it easy, and want to ride on our NDIS gravy train, or they are so good and am happy to pay them that much.

Interpreters are extremely valuable, but they are nothing without us, and we can’t voice well without them, so we need to work together as allies. Diversity, flexibility, and support go both ways.

That is a lot of burden. I am tired.