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THE DREAMS OF INTERPRETATION: REFLECTIONS ON ASL AT THE AHA-ATLANTA 2007

Brian H. Greenwald and Joseph J. Murray

In response to my query, DHA and AHA members Brian Greenwald (Assistant Professor of History, Gallaudet University) and Joseph Murray (Director of the Projects Division at the Ål folkehøyskole and kurssenter for dove in Ål, Norway) discuss the ideal interpreting scenario for professional conferences.  This was the first AHA meeting for Murray, while Greenwald has attended previous AHA conferences, making use of institutional funding to supplement AHA’s interpreting resources.   Thanks to an allotment of funds from Murray’s employer, the Norwegian government, both enjoyed an unusually high quantity and quality of service at the recent AHA meeting.

Currently, a small number of Deaf scholars are members of the American Historical Association. For these Deaf colleagues, participating in professional organizations such as the AHA, requires the use of ASL interpreters. For the annual meeting, the AHA provides $400 per member for ASL interpreters. Since interpreters work in approximately 20 to 25 minute increments before switching, $400 allows for approximately nine hours of total interpreting time (or 4.5 hours for each interpreter). (See http://www.historians.org/annual/2007/program/services.cfm#sign). Given that there are a variety of panels and presentations of particular interest, as well as networking opportunities in informal settings between panels, interpreting needs go beyond the AHA’s appropriations. At the Atlanta meeting, we spent more than 47 hours apiece participating in various events.  These included formal panel presentations, the Presidential Address, dinner with colleagues, receptions and other networking opportunities, conversing with publishers, and so forth.  All of this required the use of ASL interpreters. AHA provided what it could, but in order to be participants, and not spectators, at the meeting, we needed much more interpreting access.  Joseph is a resident of Norway and was able to secure funding from the Norwegian government for full ASL interpreting at the Atlanta meeting.  Three interpreters were secured who had previously interpreted History at a graduate or professional level— none of whom lived in Atlanta. Each interpreted 47 hours apiece (including 3 hours preparation time) during the conference for a total of slightly more than 140 hours of interpreting.

Access—for Deaf academics— means confronting the matter of cost. Requests for institutional funding for interpreters can be passed on to various administrators and it requires more time, effort, and a certain degree of political savvy to procure funds to pay for qualified interpreters. We also use up political capital with university administrators that we would rather have used for our research or teaching activities.  But interpreting expense is only one of the issues we face as Deaf conference participants.  Others are:

Definition of access. As noted above, access is not simply attending panel presentations but having the opportunity to interact with colleagues in a number of ways. Securing full access at this AHA vastly expanded the number of opportunities open to us.

Quality. Local interpreters secured by an interpreting agency contracted by the AHA may not be qualified to interpret academic discourse. Local agencies get paid regardless of the quality of their interpreters. In Atlanta, neither of the two interpreters secured by a local agency had interpreted at the graduate level in a university setting. Interpreting is a demanding task and most interpreting which lasts longer than 40 minutes requires two interpreters. The local agency contracted only one for the AHA Presidential Address. To get a sense of how important quality is in interpreting, read Dr. Linda Kerber’s Presidential Address in the February 2007 issue of the American Historical Review, and imagine listening to it for an hour in a simultaneous French translation done by a single recent college graduate who had minored in French. This was roughly equivalent to what we would have faced if we did not have our Norwegian-funded interpreters standing by.

Time. The AHA contracted with a local agency to fulfill the interpreting commitment made under their policy. But as noted above, these interpreters were not wholly qualified for an academic setting. Securing qualified interpreting means taking time out of our schedules to look for funding, to find qualified interpreters, to coordinate their schedules, to educate conference organizers on interpreting and secure their access to the meeting, and to follow up after the conference on payment and funding reports. Joseph spent several workdays just arranging interpreting for a single four-day conference. Other Deaf academics have had to weigh whether the time invested in securing interpreting for conferences would be better spent on writing and research.

Preparation. Interpreters work best when they have advance material for preparation, something extra important when interpreting complex historical discourse. At some panels, local interpreters did not always have a contextual awareness and understanding of the material. What we discovered from the more qualified interpreters that the non-academic trained interpreters omitted parts of the material and rendered an incomplete conveyance of information. While qualifications no doubt played a role in this, even qualified interpreters would benefit from getting advance copies of papers and the opportunity to talk with conference organizers. Having papers posted online, as was done at the Atlanta Meeting, is a significant step in the right direction.

We recognize the efforts of AHA’s part to provide access for its members and the budgetary limits facing a member-based scholarly society. At the Atlanta conference, the AHA expressed an interest in supporting diversity initiatives. People with disabilities and Deaf people can also be a part of this dialogue to ensure the AHA and its meetings are accessible to all its members. Engaging in dialogue with our professional organizations is the first step towards achieving access and equality with our hearing, non-signing colleagues. Our initial interactions with the AHA to date have been positive. We believe the most significant barrier to access—attitudinal—is nonexistent in this case. From our interaction with the AHA’s officers, we believe the AHA understands the interpreting needs of Deaf historians and wishes to work on finding an ongoing solution to the problem of funding qualified interpreters at its Annual Meetings.

As an increasing number of Deaf people earn PhDs and join professional organizations, it will become necessary to develop models of cooperation which can ensure full access for all members of a scholarly organization. A successful partnership will hopefully create alliances, institutional linkages, and more awareness of both Deaf people and people with disabilities.

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