We have all played that game ‘would you rather’? We’ve been playing it since we were children asking our friends questions in the playground. I used to think I was so sophisticated asking my friends whether they would rather be ‘poor and happy’ or ‘rich and unhappy’? (Poor and happy every time just for the record).

More recently, when people find out what I do for a living they ask me whether I would rather be deaf or blind? I can understand why people ask this question but, it usually goes down the route of people responding saying: ‘I couldn’t imagine not seeing what my children or husband looked like’ or ‘imagine a life without music that would be so sad’.

This question is not something that should be used as entertainment but, if asked, my response would never be along these superficial lines. It feels wrong to sit here and say which situation I would ‘prefer’ to be in but, of course, I would choose to be deaf. I know sign language already so I would be able to communicate. Becoming deaf is a real possibility for me in later life due to getting older and also being prone to ear infections.

However, I was born hearing and therefore have an advantage of being able to use my voice for others to understand me when I speak. Some deaf people do not have the ability to use their voice in this way. Deaf people become vulnerable and lose their voice as it is handed over to a complete stranger, an interpreter.

Imagine how frustrating it must be to rely on someone else to be your voice or feeling that your voice is not adequate enough to be understood so someone else has to ‘fill in’ for you. In serious situations such as being in court to fight for benefits or at a private doctors appointment, you need to rely on someone else to deliver your personal information.

A lot of trust is needed between the deaf person and the interpreter. Who is to say the interpreter will be speaking the exact information without changing something or to interpret the true meaning of conversation back to the deaf person? The interpreter has a lot of power and it could be very easy for them to manipulate the situation. This is of course totally twisted but, it is something that COULD happen.

The interpreter represents that deaf person, speaking on their behalf. The way they speak has to match the way that it is signed. If the signer is talking about something sad but the voice over is speaking in a jolly and upbeat tone, that is the impression the listener will have of the signer. That is the voice that is heard – and the deaf person has no power to change this or know that this is the situation.

As well as this, if an interpreter is saying ‘ummm’ or ‘errrr’ as they are unsure as to what is being signed then it reflects on the deaf person and makes them look like THEY are unsure of what they are saying. This is not the reality! It comes down to the quality of the interpreter but, unfortunately it reflects uncertainty of the signer. I have been to talks where this has happened and it ‘dumbs’ down the deaf person who is speaking.

I think deaf people would prefer the interpreter to fully understand what they were saying, checking for clarification before speaking, as this way the deaf person knows that their views are being fully interpreted correctly. Some interpreters may feel embarrassed and are scared to seem unsure of what they are doing so will speak anyway even if the information is not 100% correct. It is ironic how the use of interpreters is meant to avoid communication breakdowns but, in practice there are also opportunities for this to get misread and confused.

It should not be about the interpreter feeling embarrassed but, the deaf person they have been employed to speak on behalf of. For example, a deaf friend of mine had arrived at University for her first day of her Masters in English Literature. She had been allocated an interpreter who you would assume would be aware of what the context was for their booking. My friend was nervous as it was her first day and wanted to make a good impression – yet the impression she gives is down to the attitude and personality of the interpreter. The class were asked ‘what sort of literature are you interested in’? My friend signed ‘modernism’ to her interpreter who said out loud ‘fashion’.

People were laughing at my friend and she felt humiliated. Did the interpreter think she was in a textiles lecture? Did my friend get a choice in what the first impressions were of her to the rest of the class? She understood the question and gave a relevant answer. It was the interpreter who misunderstood, and yet that is the voice and answer the class were exposed to. No fault of the deaf person at all.

The interpreter should have checked before speaking aloud to make sure what they thought was right or wrong. Instead, they would rather save face and go with what they think even if it is at the risk and detriment of the deaf person’s reputation. Their position of power may mean that the deaf person feels that they cannot speak up for themselves because of the trust and reliability they have for the interpreter. Some deaf people may not be able to lipread and would not even be in a position to correct the interpreter for their mistake.

I sometimes watch interpreters on the news who do not ‘interpret’ everything word for word. Sometimes the signed language is not the same as the spoken language on screen. This is also dumbing down the language for deaf people. Why should the interpreter feel that is it okay to make the language more simple? Some deaf people may benefit from this but others may be intellectually curious and want more challenging vocabulary. Is it right for the interpreter to change the wording of what is being said to be simpler? Again, it just shows the power that the interpreter has.

To someone not in the deaf world, you would see interpreters as a way of breaking communication barriers – yet it is still not a perfect solution. We could live in a world where everyone learns sign language from birth to avoid these situations as we would all be fluent. We could find ourselves in a world where children are immediately implanted at birth to make them ‘hearing’ which would see the end of deaf culture and sign language. Both of these options would mean there would be no need for interpreters anymore and many people would lose their jobs…so, let me ask you… what would you rather?

Disclaimer: This post is written from my opinion based on some things I have observed from being in the deaf community. Interpreters do an amazing job and it takes a lot of training to become one.

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This is dedicated to my Grandpa who would have been 94 last weekend. He was a brilliant poet for many decades and I believe I get my flare for writing because of his creative genes. Happy Birthday, Grandpa. x

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Emma Colton – emma.colton@hotmail.co.uk

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