"Year of the Adopted Family" book release

Friday, August 01, 2008

Storyteller's Shadow: Role of ASL Interpreter

Thanks to Libby Tipton for presenting this information during the East Tennessee State University Storytelling Masters program of the Advanced Storytelling class on July 24, 2008. She graciously gave permission for her comments to be posted, as most come from her presentation with only a few observations from me.

Off in the corner of a storytelling event you may see a group raising their arms and hands high and shaking them to share their satisfaction of a story well-told as an American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreter bridges the deaf and hearing communities under one roof. Though this sight seems uncommon for most storytelling events, little by little people understand the necessity of remembering everyone in the neighborhood.

Even looking at the future of the American Storytelling Movement, the choice to include the deaf community through having interpreters and arranging the set in ways that enhance the experience could exponentially boost involvement in the art.

Libby Tipton, professional sign language interpreter, mentioned the main roles of the interpreters:
1. Conduit for the Teller and Listener(s)
2. Ethically Bound
3. Convey Meaning
4. Liaison between Cultures

Events such as the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, the National Storytelling Festival or the National Storytelling Conference have limited use of interpreters though I can sense the excitement in the room when they are present. Regardless of the foreign language being Spanish, French, German, Russian, Chinese or American Sign Language, I enjoy the beauty of what is being relayed. Tipton exclaimed, "Interpreters are the bridges whereby mortal hearing man can enter into the joys of the world of deafness."

Few events experience the "joys" mentioned above. Tipton has often heard storytellers say, "I've never had a chance to work with a sign language interpreter before." She often thinks and sometimes states, "Create opportunities, at conferences, workshops, or any venue you're at to suggest a sign language interpreter be hired. Just as you are promoting storytelling as an art form, you should be paving the way to provide access for all individuals to participate in the audience, by including fm systems, creating mobility access--so why not for the deaf?"

Some event producers have considered having interpreters though the money issue comes up as having a qualified interpreter versus a signer. The qualified interpreter will most likely follow the RID Code of Professional Conduct, which has the following tenets:
1. Adhere to standards of confidential communication
2. Possess the professional skills and knowledge required for the specific interpreting situation
3. Conduct themselves in a manner appropriate to the specific interpreting situation
4. Demonstrate respect for consumers
5. Demonstrate respect for colleagues, interns, and students of the profession
6. Maintain ethical business practices

Part of this professional conduct includes the idea for the interpreter to not to take way or to add to however the storytellers express themselves. The interpreter is not supposed to upstage the storyteller no matter how tempting it is when the person is monotone. This only means that the signing would be done in a smaller area and with little, if any, facial expressions. If the storyteller is wild and crazy, the interpreter should reflect that energy.

What Event Producers Should Know—Hazards of Deafness:

1. Interpreter vs. Signer
2. Quality vs. Quantity
3. Visual Noise
4. Safety Issue
5. Cultural Differences

Interpreter vs. Signer
As budgets account for what will be available for marketing, presenters, and other needs, then also having an amount for interpreters could make the difference in how a performance may be perceived by the deaf community. Having an interpreter who has worked alongside well-known performing artists reflects in the grace and style to in the signing that would have contrast for interpreters whose main line of work is in corporate or education settings.

For the National Storytelling Festival, there used to be signers though most did not have artistic experience. National storyteller Jim May recommended some interpreters from Chicago so they were flown into Jonesborough, Tennessee. To this day, these interpreters are flown to the festival. Tipton shared the adage, “You get what you pay for”.

Quality vs. Quantity
When interpreting is actually available, sometimes it is only for the main events such as for the keynote speaker and opening/closing ceremonies or specific workshops/sessions so it forces the deaf community to attend certain events versus having the option to go to any area. Otherwise, the person would need a personal interpreter to follow them throughout the event.

Visual Noise
Those who can hear are often aware of when cell phones ring or when a train blows its horn as one often does at the National Storytelling Festival. These sounds usually do not affect the deaf community except for the reactions that the hearing audience may do. However, if the stage has flickering lights or an unusual amount of movement like streamers from a fan is there, then you will want to find ways to fix those distractions. The need for a solid backdrop with great lighting could also help both deaf and hearing audiences focus on the teller and the interpreter.

Safety Issue
When an event is planned, usually there is some emergency alarm in case of fire or tornado such as a siren. Rarely are there flashing lights for those who are deaf or clearly marked exits so to escape unharmed. Tipton said, “There is no guarantee that the interpreter will say, ‘There’s a fire. Let’s go!’”

Cultural Differences
As the deaf audience will receive the story with a slight delay, there could be laughter when the hearing audience already responded or vice versa. Sometimes, the laughter is because the interpreter did a slip on the signs much like a person could unknowingly say one thing but mean another.

What Storytellers Should Know—Rehearsal with Interpreters:

1. Blocking
2. Tandem
3. Provision of Scripts/Music/Lyrics
4. Lighting
5. Costume
6. Sound

The interpreter will be fairly close to the storyteller, usually a few feet away. The teller needs to be aware not to cross in front of the interpreter if it is the teller’s nature to do so in their storytelling style.

The area reserved for the deaf audiences should be close enough to the stage—usually to a particular side—that is free from pillars or other visual blocks.

Sometimes a storyteller goes on stage and ignores the interpreter who is only a few feet away. This can be unsettling to the audience and people may wonder why some sort of acknowledgment was attempted.

Beyond the beginning of the performance, a teller may enjoy the presence of the interpreter and include them—upon warning—by looking at the interpreter during parts of a story when they have characters who are thinking or any other creative way to share a story that would not be possible if the interpreter was not around.

Part of being a team is for the teller to pace the telling of the tale so that there does not have to be a long awkward pause for the interpreter to catch up. Make the dramatic pauses look natural and not that the teller is waiting for the interpreter.

Finally, the storyteller could move towards the interpreter after the show or story so the audience can applause them as a team.

Provision of Scripts/Music/Lyrics
Foreign language words and hard-to-spell names are only a few frustrations that an interpreter may have in connection with a storytelling program. Having a list of these words plus scripts or recordings could allow a smoother or more memorable experience for all in the audience.

The lights may be dimmed for some places, which is fine as long as there is some kind of spotlight on the interpreter. As the visual sense is the most powerful for the deaf, then anything to enhance the view is appreciated.

Since the storyteller is close to the interpreter on stage, then the storyteller’s wardrobe could distract the interpreter. Some tellers are drawn to outfits with frilly or flamboyant sleeves or patterns that cause a visual distraction for the deaf. Interpreters could also wear dark solid colors so that their facial expressions and hands are more visible to the audience.

I have gone to events where tellers do not feel they need to use the microphone. Rarely do these people remember the hard-of-hearing—even if it appears to be a young audience—or the interpreter.

Besides regular speakers, it helps to have fm speakers as the interpreter is often to the side of the teller. Headsets could be provided to the interpreter to enhance the flow of the story in the signing of it.

So the next time you attend an event, ask yourself how easily it was (or could have been) for anyone from the deaf community.

Tipton certainly has opened my eyes to the needs of everyone in the audience—deaf and hearing alike. Whenever I see the needs met, my arms and hands want to lift and shake to say, “Thank you”.

About Libby Tipton (mtnterp@gmail.com): She is a professional sign language interpreter from Flag Pond, Tennessee. Having deaf parents, she was always a natural communicating with other people's stories through her hands. Now she tells her own tales about life in a colorful deaf Appalachian family.

Other Online Resources Libby Recommends:

Deaf Community Blogs/Websites:

Book to Explore:

  • "Sign the Speech, an Introduction to Theatrical Interpreting", 2nd edition, by Julie Gebron, published by Butte Publications, Inc. Hillsboro, OR, 2000

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
(801) 870-5799

1 comment:

Lois Sprengnether Keel (LoiS) said...

Yo Rachel!
Thanks for the article on interpreting. I sometimes tell in voice & sign, but know it affects my word choice, pace, & signing. The Michigan Storytelling Festival has long had the evening concerts interpreted. 1 of the long-time interpreters is also a friend of mine. I'll send her to this article. Those of us in our Flint Area Story Tellers group have talked her into taking baby steps in storytelling & I hope she continues.

At this past NSN conference Libby & her fellow interpreter (sorry for my poor memory of her name & lack of listing their names in the conference program) both did a great job. I also was glad to have a few deaf audience members. If this is ever to become standard practice & maybe have interpreters for the other sessions, it's important to show the interpreters are needed.

My own daughter is severely hard-of-hearing. She usually manages in a fairly oral manner, but knows & uses ASL, too. That's how I became involved. It takes time for storytelling to reach the deaf community, but it's worth it.

I've a deaf puppeteer friend who makes & uses signing puppets. To attend a conference she has to hire an interpreter. Think about adding that cost to your participation in conferences, workshops, or programs.
Thanks to all who raise awareness of the 3d most used language in the U.S.