Unprofessional Interpreters and Graduate School



There are many wonderful interpreters. For every one skilled and professional interpreter there are 2 unprofessional interpreters. At least it seems that way to me. It may seem like I “complain” a lot about interpreters but in reality I let TONS of things slide (gotta pick my battles). Things that many people wouldn’t. I do have my limits though and they were tested throughout graduate school. One of the main things I struggled with were unprofessional interpreters and rotation supervisors who didn’t believe me when I bought up my concerns. It’s hard when I’m the only one who really understands what the interpreter is saying and what the interpreter’s role is. Then if I “complain” or bring up a concern, I look bad and I have absolutely no one to back me up. There were a few situations where I really felt like no one believed me because their perspective was different from mine. They often time see someone really nice who is helping out a deafie and they see me as a whiny ungrateful deaf person. Interpreters are usually nice, but they’re not always doing their job. And who is the only one who knows when they’re not doing their job? Me.

Another issue that oftentimes come up is one where interpreters actually act like they’re superior to deaf people. Some interpreters are so used to working with a different group of deaf people and they’re used to taking on the “helper” role. Whereas when they interpret for me, they have a hard time accepting the fact that I know more about something (genetics) than they do. They have a hard time accepting help when I offer explanations of genetic concepts, terms, or spellings (to help make their job easier). They’re used to be the “helper” and not receiving help. I believe it’s a 2-way street and it’s a team (I help them, they help me….we’re equals)…whereas some interpreters believe it’s a one-way street and they’re better than their client (me).

The toughest situations were ones that would arise while I was counseling a patient. I couldn’t necessarily handle the situation right there and then in front of the patient. However, there were a few times where I had to…but I had to do it as gracefully as possible. Sticky situations.

The Deaf culture is very blunt in general and it’s not uncommon to hear a person’s whole life story including the most personal information within the first 10 minutes I meet a culturally Deaf person. There are several reasons for this, but I believe one reason for this is because deaf people don’t always get the chance to talk freely without working hard to overcome communication barriers. It’s almost a relief when they meet another deaf person and they don’t know when they’ll next have that chance. Now, for some odd reason some interpreters decide to do the same thing when they’re supposed to be in a professional setting.

Here are a few of my interpreter experiences from graduate school. Keep in mind I really did let lots of things slide, mostly because I would usually have one interpreter for a 2-3 months before my clinical rotation site changed. I had to get used to each new interpreter’s style, reteach invented genetic term signs, and reteach the role of genetic counselors. I think I had a total of around 25 different interpreters the whole time I was in graduate school. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a couple here and there. Once again, several were great and very professional. As for the others…..well I’ll let you judge yourself. 😉

I’m leaving out details for confidential reasons. Am also trying to keep this as short as possible.

–I had two interpreters who refused to voice what I was saying or would say things I didn’t really say.

–A couple of my classmates overheard one interpreter telling another interpreter that he didn’t think I was capable of understanding the material.

–Two interpreters used to just start talking about random stuff or would joke when they got bored with the class discussions. It was a bit embarrassing when the instructor would look at me and wonder why I was smiling during the most inappropriate time. Also, sometimes the instructor would call on me and I would have no clue what was going on.

–Interpreters who would start their own personal conversations with patients (so unethical) and then on top of it they wouldn’t even sign what they were talking about.

–One interpreter used to answer her cell phone in the middle of interpreting. She would also interrupt me when I was trying to ask something to ask her own personal questions (once again, unethical).

–Interpreters who would leave early to beat the rush hour leaving me without an interpreter.

–I had two interpreters who were so unskilled that I actually had to interpret for them because they wanted to learn how to sign (that one still gets me).

–Another interpreter refused to voice when I asked a patient if there was any possibility that her parents were related (standard question to ask during a genetic counseling intake) because she didn’t think I knew what I was doing. Also, because she thought it was inappropriate even after I explained that it was a standard question that we were expected to ask every patient.

–Oh yes, one interpreter actually told me that she was on her period immediately after she told me her name. She even went into details about how she could feel her period coming on. She also talked about how once she wet her pants, the first time she had sex with her husband, etc.

–Another interpreter within 5 minutes of meeting her told me that this job (my clinical rotation) was the first one she had taken after she had a mental breakdown due to several incidences. One was the fact that her husband (now ex-husband) had married her only and only for a green card.

–One interpreter just couldn’t handle going with the flow. You have to be able to go with the flow when working in a busy clinical setting. She would always get upset and grouchy when something unexpected came up (i.e. new patient added onto the schedule).

–An interpreter who showed up 3-4 hours late without calling us to let us know she would be late. Turns out she had called her agency to let them know she would be late. The agency didn’t call us because she had told the agency she would only be 5 minutes late. I wasn’t thrilled that I had made the 2 hour commute there just to find out that the interpreter wasn’t there. Needless to say she wasn’t asked back.

–An interpreter who was always taking cigarette breaks. I would almost miss getting to observe sessions because she wasn’t always around when she was supposed to be.

–I sometimes write out general ideas of what we may say during a session. I did this for myself as many other students did to practice. So sometimes I would go over it with an interpreter to review terms that they may be unfamiliar with. One interpreter actually taped this “script” to the side of a filing cabinet and would read right off from it even when I told her it wasn’t exactly what I would be saying (it changes with each patient). It got to the point where I would just stop signing or sign something random to see if she was following me. She usually wasn’t and would continue to talk. That made me feel so useless, why was I even there?!

–I had to really keep my cool once when an interpreter started making jokes (using sign language only) about a patient in front of that patient!

–This one isn’t really unprofessional, but I just love it. One interpreter upon finding out I was from Kansas asked if Kansas was next to California. 🙂

Sometimes at the end of the day all I wanted to do was just bang my head against the wall after working with certain interpreters.

I could go on and on, but these are just a few examples. All I ask is for a qualified interpreter to show up on time, be willing to work as a TEAM, and to know her/his boundaries. That’s it. I would take an interpreter who was unskilled over a skilled interpreter any day if she/he was more professional.

For some reason I always end up with all these interpreter stories! One good oldie was an interpreter I had for Biology in the 9th grade. She used to just butt in on whatever I was doing (not the interpreter’s role) and take over. She would actually take my worksheets and try to write in the answers. That was just so insulting to me, because she was saying that I wasn’t capable of doing the work. I used to just grab it back before she could answer more than 2 questions, erase the answers, and redo it. Half of the time her answers were wrong anyways. Finally one day, I just sat there and watched her as she spent a lot of time filling out the whole worksheet. When she was done I took the worksheet, crumpled it into a ball, and threw it into the trashcan. I then went up to the teacher and had the interpreter voice what I was signing. I signed that I needed another worksheet because the interpreter had tried to do the work for me. She left me alone after that.

5 thoughts on “Unprofessional Interpreters and Graduate School

  1. Geez, I don’t think I could bring myself to teach an interpreter a lesson if she/he did something I didn’t like, like you with that interpreter in the 9th grade. I may want to, but I guess I’d be too nice to do it. 🙂 This reminds me of an interpreter I had for the two years it took me to get an Associate degree in auto body repair. We worked great together and we’d come up with our own signs relating to automotive work. I missed working with him as evidenced by some of the interpreters I had in the years after I graduated. lol One had what looked like ADHD and would just keep changing subjects in the middle of interpreting and would interrupt the teacher and ask him irrelevant questions. Another would just fingerspell every single word uttered by the teacher. Argh! It was so aggravating thinking about that. I was so glad she was just a temp. Well, hope you’ll enjoy your trip to Colorado. Be safe and take care!

  2. Hi, Kelly,I found your blog through your comment on Allie’s blog, another genetic counselor. I just wanted to say hi and thank you for bringing so much great insight into the life of someone who is hearing impaired. After 4 years of genetic counseling, I am actually seeing my first deaf patient next month. I’ll be reading more from you in the hopes of minimizing any faux pas on my part. 🙂 Your interpreter stories are frightening and informative!

  3. Pingback: Importance of Quality Communication Access - No Waving Hands or Auto Captioning | Audio Accessibility

  4. Pingback: Importance of Quality Communication Access – No Waving Hands or Auto Captioning - 121 Captions

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