On Sign Language Interpreting Biases – Part 1

All of us have personal biases. We each take sides whether it be religious, political, race, gender, color, basketball team, or even family members. This is an unarguable truth even if some of us deny it. Nobody can claim that they are absolutely neutral.

Court justices in the Philippines swear,

a declaration to the effect that the affiant will administer justice without respect to person and do equal right to the poor and the rich.

Section 3: Special Provision on Oath of Judges [Judiciary Act of the Philippines 1948]

Yet, these judges are vetted based on their stand on say; abortion, gay rights, divorce, and euthanasia.

This month, I told my brother and cousin that I unfriended one of our aunts on Facebook because her toxic posts are so way below the belt. She is already attacking our private lives by posting comments on our walls that can be read in public. Her comments are not even related to our posts. I was surprised that they also did the same thing. Not only did they unfriend her, but they also blocked her. Why was she doing it? Because we did not support her presidential candidate.

Late last year, our country opened the filing of the certificates of candidacy for national and local elections. As always, elections are divisive, heated, murky, and at worst, violent. Each person has his/her own choice. So for the past months leading to the May 9 elections, everyone who has social media accounts posted their personal preference and explained their choice. While most of us are just standing on the sidelines letting others do the “educating/campaigning”, others are so rabid that they literally troll others’ social media walls by hurling invectives and hurtful comments.

The Filipino deaf community was not spared from this. As if they have not experienced more than enough suffering from the prejudice in communication (oral vs sign language), signing (Filipino Sign Language vs ASL or Signing Exact English), employment (hearing worker vs deaf worker), gender (male deaf vs female deaf), drivers’ license, and many others; a significant segment of the community also felt the “interpreter’s bias”.

I may be ruffling some feathers of my fellow sign language interpreter colleagues here because of this blog post. I am sorry if I did. I just want to determine if being biased in favor of a certain candidate can be dismissed or needs to be looked upon with a deeper perspective. As sign language interpreters, are we allowed to be partial in the way we sign? Should we be in favor of another candidate or should we just hide our partisanship?

Can sign language interpreters be biased?

As I have mentioned in my introduction, nobody can be absolutely neutral. But, can sign language interpreters be open about their preferences without affecting the code of ethics by he/she promised to uphold?

My long-time deaf friend and one of my idols in the community, Ma’am Carol Cordero who passed away many years ago, gave me this extremely rare book entitled, Interpreting for the Deaf People. Published by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1965, this book is a compilation of reports from the workshop conducted by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. This one-of-a-kind publication covers the entire facets of interpreting concerns ranging from the code of conduct for interpreters, and various interpreting settings up to the programs to develop interpreting skills.

“Interpreting for Deaf People”, Published in 1965 by US Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf

Under the Code of Ethics page, the book states

2. The interpreter shall maintain an impartial attitude during the course of his interpreting…

Interpreting for the Deaf People, page 9
Page 25

In cases where situations would provoke partiality on the part of the interpreter like in court settings, the book challenges the interpreter to exercise self-control and discipline.

1. Self-discipline. Part of the interpreter’s training and experience should include some self-discipline so that the interpreter always makes a strong effort to remain detached, neutral, and as completely impersonal and objective as possible.

Interpreting for the Deaf People, page 25

This may be manageable on inviolable issues such as life for the unborn child, religious freedom, and upholding the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. It’s easy to pick sides here. The choice between good and evil is very obvious here. But what about choosing between the same good or as what former Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas shouted to Tacloban City Mayor during the Super Typhoon Yolanda crisis in 2013 which killed more than 5,000 Filipinos, “You are a Romualdez, and the President is an Aquino!”?

What if sign language interpreters openly declare their political preference?

It was really difficult not to openly root for your preferred candidate, especially in social media. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were flooded by posts, counter-posts, memes, and videos campaigning for a candidate while mudslinging his/her opponent. Even the 10-second post Tiktok which is famous for short dance moves was converted into a campaign venue for every candidate. You can’t help but reply or openly rebut misinformation or hurtful insults against your choice.

This situation is not unique in the Philippines. I’m sure countries which have thriving internet and social media access also experience this. During the 2020 US Presidential Elections, Donald Trump was defeated by Joe Biden. Heather Mewshaw, a certified sign language interpreter was sued by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) for openly expressing her bias toward President Trump. She even went overboard flaunting him by creating social media pages supporting the Republican President.

Mewshaw’s group, which was originally known as Right Side ASL and had pages on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and far-right app Parler, changed its name to Hands of Liberty after its previous Facebook page was deleted in November. “Sad News: Our Facebook Page, Right Side ASL Backup, has been flagged for violating community standards and will be taken down at any time. It’s up to Facebook to decide. Not us,” read a post on the Hands of Liberty ASL page on Nov. 17.

Time Magazine, January 27, 2021

The Filipino Deaf Vloggers: Feed, Awareness and Openness Facebook Group, the largest online community of Filipino deaf which has nearly 8,000 members, was bombarded with election related blogs and vlog posts. Some of them are so heated and often nasty hurling of mud which has overtaken their usual day-to-day video news and personal exchanges. So much so that the admin created a special Philippine Deaf Election 2022 Facebook Group which focuses solely on election related content. Now the discussions, accusations, and mudslinging transferred there.

I did not join the group. But I heard many of my interpreter colleagues became members of the group. In fairness to the interpreter, I humbly salute their worthwhile efforts. They took time to explain the news, issues and propaganda posted by political parties in sign language. They also volunteered to make separate inset interpreting on candidates’ TV interviews and news conferences where TV stations and commentary programs neglected to add one to benefit the deaf viewers, like the Jessica Soho Presidential Interviews where the presidential survey frontrunner and now President-elect Bongbong Marcos (BBM) was a no-show, the Boy Abunda One-on-One Interview where BBM participated, and the SMNI Presidential Debate 2022 where presidential contenders Vice President Leni Robredo, Mayor Isko Moreno and Senator Panfilo Lacson did not join. I have seen some of the videos but I was not able to get the links on their inset interpreting because its either posted on the private group or they deleted it after the deaf community have viewed it.

Screenshot of CNN Presidential Debate taken from CNN Philippines Official YouTube Page with me interpreting

Official Presidential, VP and Senatorial debates sponsored either by TV stations or the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) have inset sign language interpreters in compliance with Filipino Sign Language Law and other government department orders. So they allot a special budget as service fee for interpreters. Eventhough I have been actively interpreting on these political events in the past, I was only able to participate in one. Special thanks to former Philippine National Association of Sign Language Interpreter (PNASLI) President Sir John Baliza Jr. and to my longtime friend Ma’am Ember Parpa for partnering with me in interpreting for the CNN Philippines’ Presidential Debate 2022 on February 27. Salamat po ng marami at di nyo ako nakalimutan. 😉

While searching on Twitter for mentions, I tallied fifty two (52) for “sign language interpreter leni” mostly positive and only five for “sign language interpreter bbm” of which three of them are even negative mentions. I said mostly positive because I found one which I find very misleading.

Screenshot of twitter post where I did the sign language interpreting.

This twitter account holder is obviously a pro-Leni Robredo. Translated in English, the person says,

Leni Robredo answered very fast, even the sign language interpreter has difficulty following her. Did he repeat the word “lutang”?

Let’s put this in proper context. In the said video,

  1. She was occasionally glancing at podium panel while speaking so she is obviously reading her notes. That is why she can speak fast and unbroken.
  2. Does the twitter understand sign language? If she does then, congratulations. If not, then she’s just making unfounded statements.
  3. VP Leni never mentioned the word “lutang“. To clarify, “lutang” is a Tagalog word which means floating on air. But using the street vernacular, “lutang” also means high on drugs due to involuntary actions such as rambling senseless and incohesive words. Was she accusing me of adding “lutang” in my sign language interpreting? Refer to item number 2 to question her ability or lack thereof.

So in replying her twit and after reviewing the video, I was able to interpret her speech. I did not have difficulty catching up on her because she was only enumerating her COVID response accomplishments. And, I never signed “lutang” because she never said it.

Now to repeat my earlier hanging question, I will rephrase it by asking,

Is there a conflict of interest here?

A few days after VP Leni Robredo announced about throwing herself in the political arena by filing as presidential candidate symbolized by the color pink, I saw a great majority of my deaf friends changing their profile photos to the said color in support of her. But what really surprised me is that many of the interpreters I know also changed their profile photo to pink, shared posts related to her and openly endorsing her candidacy.

I don’t believe there is a huge problem with this. Conflict of interest does not apply here because I know most of my interpreter-friends. They are such dedicated group of deaf-loving, issues-based, rights-upholders; always thinking about the good of deaf clients and how to improve their craft in order to fully serve the community. I have experienced working with them on many occasions. I know where their heart is; to the point of even dying in order to serve the community, really! They are the true unsung heroes.

One of my interpreter-buddy Ma’am Lisa Presnillo offered her entire life interpreting for the deaf. She pioneered in freelance interpreting for TV5 as well as the famous Tulfo public service program. She also helped Deaf Filipinos with business opportunities network receiving a meager salary because she wanted to help the Deaf community. She died due to exhaustion while doing her interpreting duty in 2015.

Another one, Sir Jay Lardizabal, also passed away just last year (2021) serving the Filipino Deaf community. I worked with him many times. He was even employed as part-time instructor of Manila Christian Computer Institute for the Deaf. According to Ma’am Ember, as she was one of the last person who saw Sir Jay, he was so tired multitasking during the pandemic because most of his co-teachers at Philippine School for the Deaf were afraid to expose themselves. He was doing online video course modules while accepting interpreting services on TV and attending his online class. He was always on-call whenever a deaf person asks for his service. His body simply gave up while serving the Filipino Deaf community.

More of this in part 2.

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