What Sign Language Interpreting Taught Me About Writing

In the college I attended as a Deaf Studies major, sign language interpreting students  would spend their first two years learning American Sign Language (ASL) then spend the next two learning to interpret.

Learning ASL – though challenging – was not ridiculously difficult for me. Interpreting, though, required an entirely different skill set. When I signed my own sentences in ASL, I could take as much time as I wanted to ponder my linguistic choices. I could stop and correct myself if I messed up on syntax or misproduced a word. But as an interpreter, I lost the luxury of control. AKA, time. Now the message I was producing wasn’t my own. I felt pressure to convey the most accurate message possible.

For a while, this pressure paralyzed me. What if I produce an incorrect sentence? What if I mess up the speaker’s intention? What if I’m on stage and instead of signing microphone I sign masturbate? (Yes, that happened to one of my classmates.)

About one semester into Interpreting 1, my professor called me into her office. “If you want to be a good interpreter,” she said, “you have to stop trying to be the best. Good interpreters don’t always sign the right thing. Good interpreters sign. 

If you want to be a good interpreter, you have to be willing to make mistakes.”

Eventually, I realized that this fear of being incorrect was keeping me from producing any language at all. Sign language interpreting requires a unique combination of technical and mental agility. I had to have an excellent command of English. I had to look past the words or signs a person has chosen and discern what they actually MEANT. I had to pick up on nonverbal cues and subtle changes in tone. I had to make lightning-fast decisions, have an extensive vocabulary in two languages, be comfortable with idioms, be able to visualize a space, have excellent coordination & spatial awareness.

But more importantly, I had to convey the message.

Screwing up syntax, misproducing signs, misreading verbal and physical cues, forgetting the meaning behind an idiom – all those mistakes aren’t great, to be sure. But when your job is to interpret language, failing to produce language is pretty much the biggest failure of all. but any one of them is infinitely better than saying NOTHING at all.

This month, I set a goal to write 2,000 words per day. I didn’t aim to write 2,000 perfect words or 100 accurate sentences. Still, my inner critic is hard to silence.

About halfway through my second semester as an interpreting major, my professor took me into a lab room and put on a tape. “Sign,” she told me. “I don’t care what you sign. It can be total gibberish. Just keep making signs. Keep producing.”

My professor knew something I didn’t know yet – that the fear of being wrong can paralyze you from doing anything at all. She knew that if I was to become a successful interpreter, I’d have to learn to tune out that critical inner voice that was second-guessing all of my decisions. I’d have to be okay with messiness and mistakes. To be a good interpreter, I had to stop trying to be the best.

Inner critics have a place, for sure. But that place is not in the head of an interpreter, and it’s not in the head of a writer who is trying to churn out a 50,000 word novel in a month.

This week, I’ve been dealing with insecurity about my work. More accurately, I feel a little lost. My goal for the month was very simple: write, write, write. I didn’t plan or outline. I started with five pages of brainstorms and I’ve been letting the characters jump all over and come into their own personalities. I’ve enjoyed that freedom, but now I’m craving some structure. Still, every time I try to impose structure on my work, it seems like it stifles my creativity. The question I’m asking myself here at the end of week three is this: how do I keep myself moving toward a (structured) goal without boxing myself in?

The piece I’m working on this month is based loosely on real life (I accidentally checked myself into a hospital for a weekend). I had a big breakthrough with a minor character earlier this week and that got me real excited. However, by Thursday I was hitting a wall. This week, I’ve been repeatedly reminded of the lessons I learned as an interpreting major. Writing comes easily to me and yet it is so often hard to write. What I mean is that it’s difficult to keep writing. It’s difficult to shut off the voice of my inner editor, that inner critic who says (rightly enough!) that this particular sentence or character or scene is not good enough.

This week, I’m reminding myself that a less-than-perfect sentence will always be better than a sentence that’s not there at all.

On another note: I passed the halfway mark! Woo-hoo! How are you feeling, fellow NaNoWriMo-ers?


10 thoughts on “What Sign Language Interpreting Taught Me About Writing”

  1. Well done Ashley for getting this far.
    I loved reading about your sign language work and could imagine the pressure.
    The fear of anything in life consricts us in living and doing what we like. Mine is small spaces and height.
    Ive really enjoyed Nanowrimo for the regular writing, the 50000 words goal and the freedom to just write. It seems to allow creativity to just flow. Im loving it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved ASL in college, but I give you all the credit for interpreting. I loved reading about your experience and how it correlates with your writing. I’m right there with you – so hard to silence the inner critic. That’s why NaNoWriMo is so great. It forces you to shut it off and get those words out, which is all a first draft really needs to be anyway. Thanks for sharing! A much-needed reminder for myself (I fell super far behind this month due to illness, and now I’m struggling to catch up). 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think you have very eloquently described the sometimes paralysing fear that most writers, and certainly I, face. I so agree with you, we just have to keep going, it doesn’t have to be perfect, we just have to give it a good go. Its kinda a good lesson for life I think. Thanks for sharing, I really like how you set up the post with the sign language comparison, it gave some good context, and I found it really inspiring. :0)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved your expiriences and explanations around sign language. I have somebody close to our family who is completely deaf and as a child growing up it was important to me to be able to communicate just a little with them. I didn’t have anyone really to teach me but used to watch carefully conversations she and her daughter had and picked stuff up over the years. Today we bumped into one another and we were having a a lovely catch up in the library. She was telling me she was impressed with how much I had remembered and thought I was probably at a level 3 BSL. She also said how greatful she was to be able to pass and have a conversation with someone who wasn’t family or a member of the local deaf club as it’s not very often she meets people who can sign enough to hold a conversation. It made me feel really happy and encouraged despite feeling concerned the entire time I was making mistakes and wouldn’t be understood.
    Interpreters are so important not just for the day job they do but also because they have the ability to really make someone feel heard when perhaps it’s difficult for them to find a voice. Thank you.
    I hope my children will grow up to speak and use different forms of language so that they may have such rewarding social interactions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing! I completely agree. Language is such an integral part of who we are. Learning another language taught me so much and expanded my mind in a million ways.


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