Skill Development: Unlocking The Puzzle

This article was originally published by the Conference of Interpreter Trainers in 2002


Advanced level ASL/English interpreters often struggle with skill development. Most of these interpreters spend a great deal of time and money investing in their development through the same strategies that helped them as less developed interpreters. Often advanced level interpreters experience only minor improvements through these efforts. This study sought to discover what strategies advanced interpreters could use to experience significant improvement in their work.
The study was a collaborative project between the investigator and six advanced level interpreters on the liberal arts team of the Department of Interpreting Services at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf/Rochester Institute of Technology (NTID/RIT). The project consisted of an intensive mentorship that spanned the full academic year along with diagnostic evaluations, workshops, and in-service training courses.
Through this intensive process some interpreters experienced a painful deconstruction/reconstruction process that led their work to a higher level while others experienced a continuation of their steady growth. The project concluded with the insight that all the participating interpreters were well skilled at making the most of any technique/theory they were taught. Therefore, the most significant skill development came from the introduction of new frameworks and new theory underscoring the need for advanced interpreters to keep current in this ever-changing field.

Who is an Advanced Interpreter?

Since there is no standardized method of entry into the field of sign language interpreting and no standardized descriptions of the various skill levels found among practitioners I had to develop my own definition of advanced level interpreter. For the purpose of this study I felt the following functional definition of advanced interpreter best suited the needs of the project.
Advanced interpreters are those who function at a level where many Deaf people request them and other interpreters respect their work. In addition to being well respected in both the Deaf and interpreter communities, these interpreters often do the bulk of the difficult work in their geographic location. They are expected to perform in a wide variety of settings. They are usually certified interpreters who are often called upon to mentor other, newer interpreters. They may also support newer interpreters by teaching them in other ways, either formally through classes or workshops or informally through maintaining close and supportive relationships. Advanced interpreters are often the backbone of their local interpreting community and are often called upon to provide leadership and modeling in all aspects of their role.

The Challenges That Advanced Level Interpreters Face

Most interpreters reach a plateau in their skill development at some point in their career. For those who plateau at levels lower than the advanced interpreter there are a myriad of supports available that have been proven effective for moving interpreters past these plateaus. However, when an advanced level interpreter reaches a plateau there is usually no one available to help them through this phase of their development. Since they are usually in the role of mentor or instructor, others may brush off their expressions of dissatisfaction with their work or desire for growth. Indeed, some may wonder why the interpreter feels it necessary to reach for more growth at all. When advanced interpreters find themselves in this predicament there seems to be no one who can tell them what to do to move to a higher level of skill. The lack of models of master interpreters available to those who have exhausted their local resources is a serious deficit. Without someone to lead the way these interpreters are unlikely to improve beyond their plateau.
Usually, these advanced interpreters have made good use of the traditional methods of skill development throughout their career. They have likely continued to take classes and workshops when they are offered, though their professional development time is as likely to be consumed teaching as learning. They have used traditional mentorships with other interpreters and relationships with the Deaf community and Deaf consultants. They do the “right things.” However, the effectiveness of these efforts diminishes over time. While engaging professional development activities the interpreter is likely to experience only minor changes in his/her work. Especially for adult second language learners of ASL this “tinkering” with improvement can last indefinitely. While continued language development is important throughout the career of these interpreters, it is rarely sufficient to significantly improve the quality of interpretations once the interpreter has reached the advanced level. A common response to this dilemma is to engage the same professional techniques that worked in the past with even more enthusiasm. Thus, the advanced interpreter often puts more and more energy into improving with less and less visible result.
After nine years of interpreting with the last seven in private practice specializing in legal and psychiatric interpreting, I found myself in this situation. My work had hit a plateau and I had no idea how to move past the point where I was stuck. When I started my career I had believed that something more was possible for me than this. I shared my dissatisfaction with colleagues, some of whom thought I was being ridiculous. I was often requested, respected among my peers and Deaf consumers but I was not satisfied. 
Some colleagues suggested that my real dilemma was that I was not accepting my limits. Still, I believed there was more I could do, I just didn’t know how to get where I wanted to go. I knew I had stopped short of what was possible for me. When I saw the work of other interpreters who had that “something more” I could recognize it. That fact alone gave me hope.
For several years I worked with another interpreter who was doing something very different than what I was doing. That “something” was head and shoulders above where I was working, and it was painfully obvious to me when we worked together. Still, I worked with him at every opportunity, making a mental picture of his “something more” and keeping it close to me heart. He later left our area but not long after another interpreter came to town who I asked to mentor me. She assigned me a task that opened up my thinking about everything I had learned about ASL. She taught me to see beyond the sentence structures I had learned and rethink what I saw Deaf people produce. While we worked to further my understanding of ASL, a more important lesson became ingrained in me. Perhaps not everything I had been taught in my interpreter training program was true. It was time for me to go back and re-examine my foundation.
I had been thinking that the answer to my dilemma was better processing. That is what I thought I had seen this other interpreter do. Now I began to doubt that observation. I began to really hunt in earnest for this key to improvement. At the same time, I joined the staff at NTID/RIT of over 100 interpreters. I began to formulate the idea that bringing together a group of interpreters facing my same dilemma could be a way to find the answers to my questions. I believed that it was possible through working together to find and define this “something” that I had seen but not understood.

The Project

The Department of Interpreting Services at NTID/RIT is divided into four content area teams called core teams. At the time of this project I was part of the liberal arts core team. RIT operates on a quarter system with three ten-week quarters per academic year. Interpreters are expected to provide 20 hours per week of interpreting service plus be available for 2 additional hours each week in the event that some of the other hours are cancelled. The other 18 – 20 hours are designated for staff meetings, preparation for assignments, committee work, professional development activities, and other duties. This schedule allowed for a group of interpreters to make time together and seemed ideal for my project.
My original conception of the project was to have ten participants and myself working together over an entire academic year. My idea was to team interpret a class with each participant each of the ten-week quarters at RIT, giving feedback and making videotapes of our work for analysis. We would have a workshop during each of the three quarter breaks along with an in-service training class during each quarter. We would also need to have time together as a group separate from the course or interpreting time to reflect on and debrief this experience.
As I started to pitch my idea to my supervisor it became clear right away that my original conception was more than my department could support. However, my supervisor did feel it would be possible with modifications to make the project possible. We worked together using my concept and his knowledge of the system to come up with a workable project. It was not possible for me to be released from my regular interpreting load of 20 hours per week. Likewise, all participants would need to keep a normal workload while participating in the project. In order to make the scheduling of team interpreting possible I would need to work with interpreters from my own team. Involving ten interpreters in a project was also a considerable challenge to scheduling, and it seemed unlikely that all the participants could be available for every quarter break since this is the time available for staff to take vacations.
The final configuration of the project consisted of six participants from the liberal arts core team. Diagnostic evaluations were provided for each participant at the onset of the project. I team interpreted assignments with two participants each quarter, and they teamed with one another where possible. We had one in-service training course together each quarter and one workshop during the fall break. Then we had a final evaluation and feedback session during the month of June.


I asked interested interpreters to apply to the project as I wanted to assemble a group that was as cohesive as possible. Six applicants were selected to participate in the project. The selection process was based on two criteria – motivation and current skill level. The work of each prospective participant was compared to the description of advanced interpreter given previously. The manager of the liberal arts team and I made judgements on skill level based on our experience with each applicant.


The materials used in this project included the following:
A diagnostic assessment tool I developed myself (see below).
My own curriculum for a course entitled “Advanced Processing Skills: Deepening our work together”,
Participants’ notebooks for finding difficult translation concepts and phrases to form the basis of the course, “Sociolinguistics for Interpreters,”
A curriculum for the final theory course,“Contemporary Perspectives in Sign Language Interpreting” which included the following texts:
Deaf People In Context, unpublished dissertation by Theresa B. Smith (1996),
Reading Between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters by Anna Mindess (1999), and
Excerpts from Interpreting as Interaction by Cecilia Wadensjo (1998).
Activities on the RIT campus also became “material” for this study as interpreters were observed while working.


During the spring quarter of the year preceding the project, I provided a diagnostic evaluation for each participant. The tool I used was one I developed myself in the preceding year, which was well suited to looking for ways to achieve foundational growth. It is based on my theory of the division of energy. It is beyond the scope of this paper to describe it fully but the steps involved are outlines below.
I met with each participant and gave guidelines for her to complete a self-assessment. I arranged for an observation in a classroom assignment, watched and videotaped the work, then reviewed the videotape afterwards. I wrote my assessment based on my division of energy theory that I developed the previous year.  I then met with each interpreter and delivered my report. This was a highly collaborative process based on adult learning theory; each participant was an integral part of her own assessment.
All of the participants of the group along with myself as facilitator met with the coordinator of the liberal arts core team to discuss scheduling. One of the most difficult parts of executing this project was coordinating the schedules of seven staff members. We needed to have two hours of time together once a week, two interpreters assigned to a team assignment with me at least one class per quarter, and we also asked that other team assignments be given within the group when possible. Completing the assessments and addressing scheduling concerns before the beginning of the academic year of our project allowed us to begin our work in earnest as soon as the year began.
The group convened in the fall quarter and commenced the work of the project. Three simultaneous components occurred during each academic quarter. First, I team interpreted assignments (on-going classes) with two participants each academic quarter, providing detailed feedback to the interpreters over the quarter. This included working toward the goals set by the interpreters as a result of the diagnostic evaluations from the spring, providing suggestions for improvement, and providing detailed feedback about the interpreter’s progress. The amount of feedback given to each interpreter in these teamed assignments was dependent on the demands of each situation.
Second, participants requested team-interpreting assignments with one another as much as possible. Not everyone was assigned teamed assignments with other participants. The amount of team interpreting between participants varied from quarter to quarter.
Third, I provided an in-service training course for each academic quarter either personally or by arranging for another instructor to provide the training. Departmental policy dictated that each course would meet for two hours each week for the ten week period. During the fall quarter, a fourth task was also added. As described in the materials section, all interpreters were asked to keep a notebook of words, phrases, concepts, and situations where they felt less than fluent in ASL. Each participant produced a collection of questions under the heading “how would a Deaf person say this.” I planned to deliver these notebooks to the Deaf instructor before the beginning of winter quarter for the second in-service training course, Sociolinguistics for Interpreters.
My concept for the course sequence was partially based on direct observation of the participants’ work and partly on assumption. My idea was to provide the opportunity to deepen processing skills, provide more language through the second course, then put the new skills together using theory in the third course. My assumption was that each participant could enhance processing and language skills through these two courses. Once they possessed more skills they could be taught new ways to use these skills. My previous observations for the diagnostic assessments had brought out evidence for the need for improvement in both areas for all of the participants.
The Processing Skills course started by looking at various interpreting models, including Colonomos, Cokely, and Gish. I also presented a method for giving feedback and asked all participants to use this method for the processing exercises. Each participant was asked to provide several five-minute talks on the topic of their choice. During each talk the other interpreters were asked to work in pairs, interpreting the material according to directions. The first set of talks were interpreted from spoken English to spoken English. Five minutes of waiting/processing time was required between the talk and the delivery of the interpretation.  Then we reviewed some ASL linguistic principles which included parts of speech and ASL sentence types and started consecutive interpreting from spoken English to sign language.  Again there was a five-minute waiting interval forced between the talk and the delivery of the interpretation. Finally, the five minute talks were interpreted simultaneously. After each exercise participants gave one another feedback. I would then bring the entire group back together and facilitate further discussion of what the interpreters had just discovered about their own processing during the exercise.
During the first break between quarters, I arranged for an all day workshop on the topic of register with Deaf instructor and native Deaf signer, Ray Parks. This workshop was open to the entire liberal arts core team but all participants were expected to attend. The workshop was titled, “Interpreting: Formally or Informally?” Ray reviewed principles of visual accessibility of platform or stage interpreting, gross placement in the use of space in ASL, appropriateness of various consultative lexical items in formal settings, and suggestions for translations of commonly encountered concepts in formal interpreting.
During the winter quarter, I teamed with two more interpreters, and participants continued to team with each other as much as possible. The in-service training course for winter quarter, Sociolinguistics for Interpreters was taught by Sam Holcomb, native Deaf signer and instructor in NTID’s department of American Sign Language and Interpreter Education. The notebooks that all participants had kept during the fall quarter formed the basis of the curriculum along with exercises provided by the instructor. One participant was absent from the group on a pre-arranged, one quarter professional leave of absence during the winter quarter. She did sometimes attend the course in sociolinguistics but was otherwise absent from the group’s activities.
Finally, in spring quarter, I teamed with the last two interpreters while participants continue to team assignments with one another. The participant who had been gone on leave returned, and we had the final in-service training course, Contemporary Perspectives in Sign Language Interpreting. Participants were assigned readings from the three texts listed in the materials section and asked to come to class ready to discuss the materials. The final class period was then dedicated to reviewing the course and its effectiveness as part of the project.
After the final course was over, a final evaluation exercise was conducted to discuss the effectiveness of the entire mentorship experience. We spent two hours together reflecting upon the experience. I asked the interpreters to answer two questions – If we had this to do over again, what would we do again? And – If we had this to do over again what would we change? One year later I sent questions to each participant to reflect upon. I asked each participant to assess the value or impact of the mentorship project on her overall interpreting using a scale of 1 – 10. I also gave one open ended question, asking participants what ways the mentorship experience impacted their work.


The diagnostic assessments revealed that four of the six interpreters were processing mostly at the phrasal level and two of the six at the sentential level. None were aware of discourse analysis or techniques for incorporating textual level cues. Only one participant of the six possessed native or near-native fluency in ASL. However, this one participant was really only fluent in conversational register. Even she needed additional work to achieve greater fluency in consultative and formal registers. Thus, all six participants needed additional language development in ASL. One of the most surprising findings of the diagnostic assessments, and of the project, was the degree that target language considerations impacted the interpreters.
Four of the six felt truly hamstrung by what they saw as the competing language needs of the diverse Deaf student population at NTID/RIT. In nearly all RIT classrooms, interpreters face several Deaf students from diverse educational and language backgrounds. This includes Deaf students from hearing families and mainstreamed educational settings, Deaf students from Deaf families and residential schools, and Deaf students from every other combination of education/language background. In addition, there are foreign Deaf students for whom ASL is a second sign language and English is a third or fourth language.
The interpreters’ training had taught them to label these students as either “English” or “ASL,” and adjust their target language appropriately to fit either mode, yet these students from diverse backgrounds sit in class together. Each interpreter must find a way to serve the needs of all the students with a single interpretation. Thus, the interpreters felt compelled to preserve as much of the spoken English as possible in their work for the “English” students. At the same time, they felt the need to produce as much ASL as possible for the “ASL” students. This was a dilemma for the interpreters. The result was that most of their work was processed at the phrasal level, retained English word order as much as possible, and attempted to add ASL features to help clarify the message. Some interpreters expressed extreme dissatisfaction with this scenario and with their work but saw no other way to resolve their dilemma. It was obvious that helping the interpreters resolve this problem would need to be part of our work together.
Another surprise for me came during the Processing Skills course. In my original assessment, I incorrectly assumed that the interpreters lacked the skill to process more deeply than the phrasal level. During the class it became obvious that the interpreters could process at deeper levels. What prevented them from doing so was their concern over target language choices, not lack of skill. All of our practice exercises in processing were mostly superfluous, as the interpreters already possessed the skill we were practicing. This was a particularly frustrating experience for me. I could not convince some of the interpreters not to worry about target language decisions, and I did not have the resources at that point in the mentorship to help them through this difficulty.
During the team interpreting in the fall quarter I quickly discovered that the demands of the assignments did not allow us the time I had expected for our own work on skill development. I assumed that we would be able to observe one another and write detailed notes during classes. However, the classes we were assigned were often highly interactive with 1/2 hearing and 1/2 Deaf students in small classrooms where it was not possible for everyone to see each other. We alternately needed to copy sign, support one another while voice interpreting, sit next to each other during group circles, and to split up to work with small groups.
It also became quickly apparent that having other assignments and meetings directly after our teamed work detracted from our goals. Not only did we not have time for feedback during our assignments, we often had no time for it afterwards either. This was frustrating for both the interpreters and myself, but once the quarter had started there was no way to change our schedules.
The first interpreter I teamed with worked on deconstructing her former interpreting style. In order to significantly improve her work it was necessary for her to let go of her former strategies even though they had served her well for many years. While she had developed these strategies as well as anyone could, they were not sufficient to allow her to serve all Deaf students. She was adept at representing nearly every word of spoken English in the classroom and using features of ASL to clarify these very literal transliterations. However, some students found these transliterations vague and struggled to extract meaning from them.
This interpreter committed herself to serving all students and found her lack of breadth unacceptable. Using my suggestions to process more deeply, let herself use the natural language she possessed, and trust that this new style would be more intelligible to more students she commenced her work. She worked diligently at letting go of her former style and endured great feelings of awkwardness while she reconstructed her work on a new foundation. Despite the struggles of this period, she persevered. One magical day all her new skills came together for a time. She reconstructed a new interpreting self that was able to serve a much broader audience. This was an exhilarating day for both of us. The very next class period her struggles resurfaced but we had both seen what was possible for her to accomplish. We were no longer simply hoping that these strategies would help; we had seen proof. She continued to work on her goals throughout the project with the help of the other participants.
The second interpreter struggled with my suggestions for change. At this point in the project I had no theoretical base for the changes I was asking her to make. She was not convinced that what I was suggesting was valid. It conflicted with what she had been taught and what she had believed for many years. I was still searching for resources and was asking her to go simply on faith. In particular, our work together on target language decisions was a struggle. I had not yet read the book Language Contact in the American Deaf Community by Clayton Valli and Ceil Lucas. This book later proved to be extremely helpful to the target language dilemma, but at this point in the project, I was only going on instinct.
During the winter break Ray Parks came for his workshop, “Interpreting: Formally or Informally?”  This did not directly address the target language struggles but he did greatly clarify which aspects of ASL we needed to focus on developing in ourselves. In particular, I found his demonstrations of the use of space to represent main concepts or topics throughout a presentation helpful. This was a way to begin focusing our attention outside of sentences and into the larger text being presented.
The “Sociolinguistics for Interpreters” course in winter quarter was probably the most enjoyable component of the project for all concerned.  Sam Holcomb is a consummate teacher. He worked not only with the material we provided him in the form of questions, but based on his many years of observing interpreters also developed his own materials. We also asked him countless questions during class about how Deaf people express every concept under the sun. He patiently drew upon his native language fluency to answer each of our questions. Near the end of the course, he asked all participants to videotape themselves interpreting the same text. He reviewed our work in class, giving feedback and suggestions. This exchange around translation issues was very rich and instructive to all of us, including Sam. While the experience was very helpful it did not solve the problems of our second language learner status. Instead, it stood as an example of what must be an on-going process – the identifying and collecting of our own weaknesses and consultation with native Deaf signers.
The winter quarter teamed interpreting assignments were as demanding as the assignments in fall quarter. The third interpreter I worked with had been teaming with me over a two-year period so our work together was nothing new. She had been interpreting a shorter time than many of the other participants and was still in a pattern of steady growth. In addition, I was passing everything I was reading to her as I found it, with great excitement. She had all the theoretical information I had and was busy incorporating it in her work. While our teamed assignment was enjoyable, it produced no great change for her.
The fourth interpreter was in a process of deconstructing her former work. She worked diligently at it but was left with so few skills that work became painful for her. At one point in the quarter she decided to quit the profession altogether. This was a frightening moment for me. I encouraged her to have faith in this deconstruction process, she withdrew from the class we teamed together, and she continued in the group. In the end, she reconstructed her work with the help of other participants in teamed assignments during the spring quarter. At that point, she experienced a dramatic improvement in her work that has remained to this day.
At the end of the project, we looked back at the entire experience. It was clear that the “Contemporary Perspectives” course was the most useful component for most of the participants. Reading new theories provided new ways of thinking about their work. This, more than anything else, seemed to be the key to change. By the time we came to this course, all of the participants had struggled greatly with their own stuck places. Trying harder, even with support, was not helpful. This course finally provided solid support for new ways of thinking about the work. It was this shift in thinking, rather than any technique, that helped the most.
Several of the interpreters found that their work opened up in unexpected ways. The readings provided them with words to talk about their work in new ways. They discovered first hand how helpful it can be to keep up with reading. The interpreters especially benefited from Theresa Smith’s chapters on discourse analysis, Cecilia Wadensjo’s eye-opening descriptions of top-down interpreting, and Anna Mindess’ wonderful scenarios that helped us put it all together.
In spring quarter I teamed with the last two participants. The fifth interpreter and I suffered through a class that was nearly impossible to interpret well. There was very little room for focusing on our work but she took all my suggestions graciously. We did talk quite a bit after classes, discussing how to apply the theory we were reading in “Contemporary Perspectives.”  The changes she experienced during the project were more a process of steady growth than deconstruction/reconstruction but she did experience a particular growth spurt from the process.
The teamed interpreting experience with the sixth interpreter was similar to the third interpreter. Though she had been interpreting longer, she was in a process of steady growth at the time of this work. She had good control of her process and was incorporating what we were learning together all along. This was not a process of deconstruction for her. Our work did not have significant impact. We did experience some awkwardness in teaming together that was instructive for me in the long run. She was not comfortable with my particular way of supporting her while working, so we spent a good deal of our time working out that difficulty. She was open and communicative through the process. We did eventually work out our difficulties together.
The participants’ teamed interpreting assignments with each other turned out to be as demanding as the ones teamed with me.  Still, several of the participants found this additional time together very helpful. For the fourth interpreter, experiencing the painful deconstruction process, this was the most helpful part of the project in reconstructing her work. Many found the mutual support helpful in keeping a focus on their goals for their work.
The final evaluation session brought the project to a close. The participants agreed that the most useful component of the project had been the readings and discussion of new theory. They also agreed that the time spent with native Deaf signers was important, and they wished we had spent more time in those kinds of activities. In addition, there was a desire to include Deaf participants in our discussions of new theory.
We all agreed we were exhausted from the additional work that we had added to our schedules. Yet, we all wished for more time together during the quarters teaming assignments and processing our experience. We also wished for more time for workshops between quarters. The participants desired more time for teaming with one another in less demanding assignments along with more time to set goals and process the experience afterward. While most of us agreed it would have been nice to have diagnostic assessments at the end of the experience, we all agreed we were too exhausted to complete them. The two participants who experienced the deconstruction/reconstruction were not at all ready to have assessments at the end of the project because they were still in the process of reconstruction. They did admit that they found this process painful, though very much worthwhile.
The one-year follow up information was gathered mostly through email. Some interpreters gave me hand written responses and I had brief conversations with one or two to help me understand their comments and their perspective on the project. The two interpreters who underwent the deconstruction/reconstruction process along with the fifth interpreter, who experienced a growth spurt, felt they had grown the most from participating in the project. Both of the interpreters involved in steady growth described the experience as helpful, though neither felt any major change occurred in their work as a result. The second interpreter did describe changes in her work, but she was not sure if they were attributable to the project experience.
During the entire project I was undergoing my own process as the investigator of this question and the leader of this group. I was reading new texts and gathering new information while the project was progressing. I really did not know where we were going, only that I was willing to lead. I had faith that we would find answers and I believe we did. I had one terrifying moment when the fourth interpreter told me she had made up her mind to quit interpreting. We made it through that moment; today this interpreter credits the project experience for dramatic improvements in her work.
My own work changed tremendously as a result of this investigative process. For me, the reading was definitely the most helpful of all our activities. Smith’s dissertation Deaf People in Context, Wadensjo’s text Interpreting as Interaction, and the Valli/Lucas book Language Contact in the American Deaf Community were all key to my improvement.
I found Valli and Lucas’s description of contact variety sign (CVS) extremely helpful in the RIT environment.  For years I could see that Deaf signers from diverse backgrounds could understand one another quite well. And yet, when I used the strategies I was taught to interpret with Deaf consumers from diverse backgrounds, everyone seemed to be confused. Understanding CVS as a rule-governed system helped me focus on learning that system from the people who use it.  In retrospect, I wish I had used this text with the group though, at the time, I did not feel confident to lead us through a book I had only read once.
The combination of Wadensjo’s top-down theory and Smith’s discourse analysis work also had a tremendous impact on my work. Truly, when I hear people speak today I do not listen in the same way I did before reading these two works. Since that time I have continued to explore both top-down theory and discourse analysis. They are a permanent part of my work now. The work I do feels more fluent and more cohesive than ever before. I don’t know if I have achieved that “something more” I saw so long ago but I do know my work is greatly improved. I also know there is no reason to believe that I have to accept any plateau in my development. As long as I continue to read, especially relevant research, I know that my growth need not end.


In any field, professional development is, ideally, a well-articulated strategy to accomplish clear, measurable goals. Too often it becomes an exercise in collecting credits. This project started with only a good question, high hopes, an energetic group, and a good assessment of where we were. Despite the obstacles we faced, we ended our journey with some measurable success and some answers to our question.
We learned that it is possible for advanced interpreters to improve and move past developmental plateaus, no matter how long one has been there. We found that the most helpful strategy for moving past those plateaus comes from expanding our conceptual frameworks about our work. Thus, it is critical for us to keep reading in our own field and in related fields. Today, top-down theory and discourse analysis are raising our expectations for our work. In addition, linguistic research on language contact can help us begin to explore some of our old concerns about target language with new eyes.
We also discovered that there seem to be two paths to growth. One path, deconstruction of the old interpreting self followed by reconstruction, is a painful but effective process. The other path of steady growth is much easier, much less painful, and just as effective. It requires an open mind and sometimes the suspending of old belief systems to try on new frameworks. However, once new information is absorbed most advanced interpreters already have the skills to integrate these new frameworks into their work.
We learned that steady growth is much less painful than deconstructing oneself. Thus, it only makes sense to embrace the moment and move past our plateaus as quickly as possible. Since our field is still in its infancy, we will no doubt have many more discoveries along the way, and our expectations for our work can continue to be realistically raised.


I would like to thank my co-conspirators in unlocking this puzzle: JoEllen Clark, Karen Finch, Miriam Lerner, Deb McQuinn, Cathy Widlund, and the incomparable Lisa Menard. You were all so brave when I had so little to offer. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Ray Parks and Sam Holcomb generously shared their language and their patience with us – thank you both.
This project would not have been possible without the support of Steve Nelson, manager of the liberal arts core team and Colleen Freeman, coordinator of the liberal arts core team and scheduling magician. Thank you both for your support.
Thanks to M.B. Kitzel for helping me write and for the endless cheerleading.

Thanks also to Aaron Brace, my old role model, who patiently endured my awkward work while remaining ever encouraging. I don’t know how you did that either.

Thanks to Patricia Clark for supervising my independent study that became this project and allowed me, finally, to finish my bachelor’s degree. Thanks also for tolerating me trying to cram a mentorship into a schedule that had no time for it, causing me to erratically come in and out of the process.
A final word of thanks goes to my long-time colleague and interpreter extraordinaire, Susan Chapel, who taught me long ago not to be ashamed of my passion to grow, my curiosity, or my commitment to excellence and who shared the same parts of herself with me for many years.


Mindess, A. (1999) Reading Between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters. Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press
Smith, T.B. (1996) Deaf People in Context. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Washington
Valli, C. and Lucas, C. (1992) Language Contact in the American Deaf Community, San Diego, California: Academic Press
Wadensjo, C. (1998) Interpreting as Interaction. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Ltd.