Do Interpreters Ignore Community Needs

Michelle Obama is on an international book tour presenting her new book, “Becoming.” Last week, the tour stopped in St. Paul, MN. Naomi Sheneman used her Public Page to share her experience at the Xcel Energy Center. Naomi said,“I walked in excited about the presentation but imagine to my disbelief, both interpreters were white! I was like huh? And even worse, one was a man. I looked around and the whole room was full of women!” Lisa Cryer,  a Deaf Interpreter (DI) watched Naomi’s vlog and told The Deaf Report that there is a much deeper problem than just the selection of interpreters for jobs: “ We need to stop looking at just the interpreters and look at the agency and their refusal to let contracts have some area of flexibility if they can’t honor the contract to the extent necessary to present interpreters that fit the criterions necessary for the job.” This statement was made before she was aware that the conference center hired their interpreters directly rather than through an agency.

Contracts that agencies tie other organizations in is often the culprit behind poor placement of interpreters however Xcel Energy Center does not have a contract with any interpreting agencies in the area. While this is not uncommon for large conference/convention centers, the lack of cultural sensitivity is a concern for some. “I hope everyone shares the same opinion that culturally (not always about the color of the skin), the interpreter should know how to emotionally translate the context. In this case for Michelle Obama and any other culturally black events” (Nate Hergert)

The Xcel Energy Center was contacted by The Deaf Report and shared the process they have in place. “We hired the interpreters for the event off our list of interpreters we maintain ourselves. The interpreters on our list were selected based on recommendations and referrals by interpreters we already work with. We rely on our guests to inform us of how the interpreters rated so we can update our list if needed.” Spencer. When asked if they had any black interpreters on their list, they said they believed to have one however Spencer is not the one that schedules interpreters for events. He did mention that he’s been working on researching the option of signing on with an agency however it has been a mixture of reviews from other event centers. They concluded the phone call with, “We are always looking to add new interpreters to our list!”

With 18 years in the profession, Dr. Naomi Sheneman is not unfamiliar with interpreting. She teaches interpreting courses at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN. Her primary focus on in her video statement was that she wants people to think about perhaps high profile jobs should be reserved for those that represent the speakers the best. “The interpreters should’ve been both black." she said.  "Michelle Obama and the hostess, Michelle Norris,  are both black women.”. 

With the statement from Xcel Energy Center about the mixed feedback they’ve received from other event centers advising against signing a contract with an interpreting agency, the issue of agencies tying locations into a contract and refusing flexibility is apparent. “It has become no longer about providing a service but rather making as much money as possible without much regard to the community and their needs.” Lisa stated in reference of the problem with agencies tying companies to contracts they sign.

Naomi wants interpreters to remember, “Interpreting jobs should not be used as competition. If you don’t fit the job, don’t take it!” said Naomi. “Being an interpreter is about service,” Naomi reminds people, as she continues to share her thoughts. Her research interests at Gallaudet when she was a student line up with her efforts to assess the situation. “Deaf interpreters' ethical decision-making, analysis of Deaf and hearing interpreters' work products” (Gallaudet University Student Profile

Naomi points out her distaste that both her interpreters were white and that she utilized captioning instead of watching them during the presentation. This statement struck some people as odd. She has been contacted by The Deaf Report to further clarify her position on whether it was solely based on their race that their interpreting styles were not appropriate for the presentation or if they were also doing a poor job in relaying the information because they were not qualified in terms of lack of ability. Naomi responded to clarify that the issue is not about these two particular interpreters but rather the disproportionate number of white interpreters to black. She also believes that interpreters need to be willing to invest in others and help the profession improve.

Some other questions that have been brought up by other people contacted by The Deaf Report targeted the ability of the interpreting agency to find POC interpreters in the area to cover the presentation. An agency owner was contacted and stated that this was blatant discrimination and there is no way an agency can place an interpreter in the job based on race. She also believes that this should not have been the focus but rather qualification of the interpreters themselves. “contracts are given out to specific agencies because they have a proven track record of sending qualified interpreters.” (Agency owner, requested name to remain anonymous due to position in community)

About Trisha:

Trisha Withem is the co-founder of The Deaf Report where she works to bring news to the community. She graduated with her BS and MS from Rochester Institute of Technology and is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. Follow her on Twitter: @TrishaTDR

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