Sign Language Interpreter Ethics Epilogue: “A Christmas Carol”

Gavin Alvedy rehearses a scene from the Downriver Youth Performing Arts Center's "Miracle on 34th Street" as DYPAC alum Emily Zaleski signs alongside him. Zaleski, who grew up performing on DYPAC’s stage, now is a certified American Sign Language interpreter with Synergy on Stage and will interpret during the Dec. 8 performance.

Sign language interpreters and their advocates descended on Ethics Alarms in indignation aftert  my March post about “showboating sign language interpreters for deaf audience members.” It took until December for my commentary to reach this passionate interest group, but when it did, I was called many names, including “ablist,” and had to put up with comments like this one from the ironically named “Danny Who Knows About Stuff”:

I would take this “ethics” person seriously if he/she seemed to know anything about the ethics that guide sign language interpreting. And, I suppose it would be helpful if the person understood anything about linguistics, sign language, Deaf culture, or audience response theory. This article is more about the individual than than the issue. In short, this person is no more an ethicist that is Donald Trump.

How I love the quote around “ethics.”

Danny was pretty typical. See, I don’t need to know about any of Danny’s “stuff” as a director of a play or musical. All I need to know is whether a feature of the performance detracts from it by foiling the focus that the staging was designed to facilitate. Every competent director knows that. The needs of the signer and the signer’s much, much smaller audience cannot be permitted to wag the dog, or make the dog trip on its tongue.  or perish of neglect.

“Danny Who Knows About Stuff” became “Danny Who Is Banned From Ethics Alarms,” in case you didn’t guess.

If I had already experienced what I experienced yesterday with a “professional” signer, that March post would have been much tougher. I directed an staged reading of “A Christmas Carol” with a cast of 30 terrific actors for a single free performance for D.C.’s Martin Luther King Library, and was told that the library would be sending a signer. Now, a signer for your usual staged reading is like having a signer for an oil painting. It makes no sense. In readings, the actors mostly read. Presumably the deaf can read “A Christmas Carol” themselves. You could say they would want to see the performers, but  in readings the performers’ acting mostly consists of vocal expression, which the deaf audience can’t hear, and facial expressions, which they won’t see if they are watching the signer. As it happens, I don’t do staged readings like that; there is a lot of movement and staging, so a signer makes some sense.

But they didn’t know how I would stage it.

By the time we got to the final rehearsal, I had forgotten about the alleged signer, who was supposed to at least attend one rehearsal so I could fit her onto the stage where she would be seen and not get in the way. She arrived, for the first time, 15 minutes before the performance, and immediately announced that she didn’t know whether she would be signing or not.  That’s helpful. She also complained that the script was very well adapted for signing (Why, thank-you!) and that the show, at 90 minutes, was impossibly long for a single signer to do: she was waiting to see if a second signer was coming, as she had assumed. Now, nobody warned me that I had to make room for two signers in the small performing space, neither of whom would deign to attend a rehearsal. ( Her complaint about length was also nonsense. I have had single signers for many shows longer than 90 minutes, and they didn’t collapse from exhaustion or finger cramps.)

I told her that I wouldn’t leave the performance in limbo: was she going to sign, or not? Apparently “not”; the words “Marley was dead, to  begin with” sounded out from the narrator, and the signer sat scowling but motionless in the first row of the audience.

That, it seemed was that. The reading was going spectacularly well and was about halfway over—we were at Nephew Fred’s Christmas party, courtesy of the Ghost of Christmas Present—when to my horror the signer, apparently because she now felt that she could handle the remaining 45 minute of the play, launched herself out of her front row seat and began furiously signing in the midst the actors involved in the scene!

This mandated that I also go into the performing space–which directors must never do– to whisper in her ear, “You can’t be here—there’s a platform for you at the back of the stage!” to which she replied, “No, I have to be near the actors,” and continued to sign…for no one, we later determined, for no deaf patrons were present.

Apparently many signers are under the delusion that it’s appropriate to place themselves on the stage in the scene, as the photo above suggests. Not in one of my shows, and not in the show of any director with an ounce of artistic integrity.

After briefly considering and reluctantly rejecting the option of putting the woman in a headlock and ushering her outside, I spotted a painted wooden cube, placed it to the side out of the performing area, went back to the signer, took her by the arm and said, with the tone in my voice, familiar to long time associates, that suggests that the next option will be mayhem, “You’re sitting there!

And there she sat, alternately signing, making facial expressions that duplicated what the actors were doing, but better, and sulking.

After the performance concluded with a rousing ovation, a cast-led singalong of “Joy to the World!” and a mass “Merry Christmas!” I looked around for the signer to convey my professional assessment of her conduct, but she had grabbed her broom and flown away.

I know she was just one signer, and not the designated role mode for her creed, but while extreme, her attitude and conduct were far closer to the rule as I have observed sign language interpreters at theatrical performances, than the exception.

She was…

  • …arrogant. Her entire attitude was that she was in charge, and would brook no interference with her mission, or half-mission,
  • …irresponsible and incompetent. She had an obligation to attend a rehearsal for the quality of her own portion of the performance, and for the benefit of her audience. She didn’t. As well as…
  • …unfair. She disrupted the performance without compunction, placing her own priorities and those of her perceived stakeholders above the interests of everyone else,
  • …disrespectful. She showed absolute disdain for all the artists involved as well as the hearing audience, and
  • …unprofessional, as indicated by all of the above, as well as her ridiculous decision to start signing in the middle of the show.

I can’t think of a better example of the rationalization known here as The Saint’s Excuse. Because signers provide a needed service for the deaf, they assume that this relieves them of the universal ethical obligation to be decent and fair to everyone else. The Golden Rule, last I checked, does not have an exemption for sign language interpreters. I wonder where they got the idea that it did.

Go ahead, Ilk Of  Danny Who Knows About Stuff: Tell me that I’m a bigot and “don’t understand linguistics, sign language, Deaf culture, or audience response theory.”

I dare you.


16 thoughts on “Sign Language Interpreter Ethics Epilogue: “A Christmas Carol”

  1. VSA did this the RIGHT way. Really pro signers with the right intent, understanding and rehearsal, so that every one of them enhanced the show. I loved watching how they worked into the show and made a wonderful stage picture together. In those cases, they were in focal points intentionally, and the entire stage picture was completed by the actors and interpreters.

      • Honestly don’t know, except with VSA, EVERY time. It’s part of their mission, and their signers were TOPS. Excellent actors/signers, and took real care to really present the text as it was being done onstage. But I should also credit Paul-Douglas Michnewicz for his direction of both together. The signers came in later than the actors, but it was pre-tech and they really were part, not added on, to the show.

  2. I’ll bring the popcorn. Disrupting others’ hard work, and not bothering to show up/work as expected has become rampant. This one is particularly bad as it affects hundreds, but I keep seeing it with appointments, classes, and even MMOs. Why are they convinced they are THAT special?

  3. “t took until December for my commentary to reach this passionate interest group, but when it did, I was called many names, including “ablist,”

    Don’t forget you were also called an “audist”.

    • Ablist, audist, artiste! The ability of those who cater to victim mentality in creating “cunning” epithets for those who transgress their PC perimeter is somewhat staggering. One has to wonder what new gems of eloquence they’ll conceive next.

  4. I have had many opportunities to watch (vocal) interpreters in action, as well as interpreting myself a few times. Even vocal interpreters ( who can’t help but talk) aren’t supposed to stick out or drown out what they are interpreting…why should a sign interpreter think it’s A-ok to be in front of a whole theater audience, or mingle in with the actors? The interpreter is not a performer, nor an actual part of the discussion going on. They are supposed to be a neutral, unobtrusive facilitator, whose reward is not applause but the very nice pay they get and the satisfaction of a job well-done. It’s a support role, not a chance to showboat.

    I hit upon the perfect description of the job once when I was trying to stop some prankish behavior. I had gone to a high school to interpret for a new JET teacher who couldn’t speak Japanese yet. He was going to be interviewed for the school newspaper. The PTA ladies thought it would be a riot to have the photo they took during the interview of the new teacher and I sitting side-by-side at the table at the top of the article in a heart-shaped bracket…so funny, let’s put a photo of these two foreigners in a funny context. Uh, no. They were hard to dissuade (you know how people can get when something strikes them as funny and they start to run with it) but I finally said that as an interpreter I am a ‘kuroko’ (the puppeteer assistants in Bunraku theater who are clad in black from head to toe) and am not to be featured in any way. They got it. They realized I was serious and to knock it off.

    It’s this woman who doesn’t get it. She’s highly unprofessional. She didn’t prepare, she defied instructions from the person in charge, got in the way…she needs a good talking to. I hope you let the library know. She shouldn’t work anywhere else until she’s trained.

  5. I work film festivals, benefits and stage shows (front of the theatre; nothing artistic) that frequently use signers. They are taken for granted in the largest venue, 1500 seats, which has a section for the deaf and hearing impaired (many of whom, especially the elderly, having learned to read sign). The festivals in particular, have detailed introductions and histories for each movie.

    One such film history required a heroic job by a signer/translator. Although Carl Dryer’s 1932 Vampyr was supposed to be his first sound film it had to be recorded in three languages, so very little dialogue was actually used in the film and much of the story is told with silent film-styled title cards. As often happens, the rare print came too late for the projectionist to check it out (usually days before) so it was not known until just hours before the showing that the intertitles were in Danish.

    There was no time to pre-screen the film so the translator was going to have to do an impromptu job. They found Danish speakers but all were stage-fraught. At the last moment, just as the festival director was planning to cancel the film for a nearly sold-out house, the rumors had already gone through the early-bird lines outside and one patron stepped forward. She turned out to be a Danish-speaker via grandparents and one of the regular signers (who weren’t going to be needed for the “mostly silent” film) and said she would do it standing where she usually did, one down from the top step leading on to the apron of the stage in front of the section she usually signed to. But the only way she would feel comfortable was if she was signing; in fact, she said, she probably wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise. Somehow, the crew found a way to affix the microphone so it was hands-free just under her chin — and the show went on for both hearing and non-hearing audience. Only the theater staff and some festival crew knew how tricky her position was on the narrow step, having to crane her neck to see the screen, sign and speak at the same time. It was a grand performance.
    One of the funniest acts I ever saw was at a benefit drag show when the signer (over)reacted to every expression of the lip-synching performer’s face — think Joan Crawford reacting to Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” doing I’ve Written to Daddy.

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