This is Not What I Signed Up For: Working Remotely as a Sign Language Interpreter

By Colleen Jones, M.A., NIC

At the beginning of March, 2020, I was loving my job. I felt challenged but competent, I had a nice mix of stretch opportunities and time in my comfort zone, and I was striking a balance between work and my home life (which implies that they are separate things- which they were). Now all of that has changed.

Now we are in the midst of a global pandemic and a statewide “stay home” order. I am incredibly lucky that I and my loved ones are healthy, that I have a safe and comfortable place to live, that the sun has been shining more days than not. I am fortunate to still have work, but the challenges of working remotely are sometimes overwhelming and I can’t help but think, “This is not what I signed up for.”

I live in a tiny house, but I do have a home office with doors and a window and everything. The house is old, though, and the walls are thin and there are one-inch gaps under the doors. My partner is also working from home and unless one of us is outside we are never more than 30 feet apart, so the confidentiality required by my profession is a constant concern. Having a view from my desk to the outside (even though it’s a view of the 2-year construction project in my neighbor’s back yard) is a lifesaver, but the location of the sun in relation to that window drastically changes my lighting throughout the day. I often log in to calls early to turn on my camera, then get up over and over to close the shades, open the shades, close the shades half way, turn on the overhead light, open the door, close the door, turn on the HappyLight, reposition the HappyLight, turn the overhead light off again. Sometimes the call lasts one, two, or three hours and I periodically have to pop in and out of the screen to readjust as the sun moves or sets.

I bought a shiny new laptop last year with help from my tech-literate partner. I told him I would mostly be using it for email, invoicing, and maybe watching Netflix every once in a while. He helped me choose a good one, but not something top-of-the-line because that would be overkill and why spend the money? Now a typical interpreting assignment requires that I run two video conferencing programs simultaneously, and my poor little computer struggles to keep up. I’ve used Zoom, Teams, Skype, Google hangouts, Facebook messenger video, FaceTime, GoToMeeting, and others. Sometimes they work smoothly and sometimes they don’t.

Interpreting a meeting might look something like this: My Deaf consumer and I agree to connect with each other on Zoom. In my experience, Zoom has the most consistent and reliable video quality, which is paramount, and I have paid for an upgraded account so we don’t have to worry about a time limit. I send them the link to connect with me and put on my new wireless, noise-cancelling headphones (see notes about living in a small house above). I pull up a YouTube video to make sure I can hear through them and I can. Score. I close everything else and prepare to connect to the video conference where the Deaf consumer’s team will be meeting and where I will lurk with my camera off and microphone muted. When interpreting in person, I would never enter this particular meeting without the Deaf person, so I maintain that approach online and wait for them to connect. This, I soon learn, might be a mistake. Also, where are they?

Ah. Because hackers have too much time on their hands, privacy on Zoom has become a problem and the company has recently made some changes for security reasons. All meetings now automatically have a waiting room that participants enter and the host (that’s me) must give them permission to join the actual meeting. While I was testing my headphones and finding the link for the team meeting I missed the notification that tells me the Deaf consumer is there waiting for me to admit them. We finally connect and share a wave, then join the team meeting on a separate program.

The team is in the middle of a conversation and I am having trouble hearing them. While trying to catch their banter and interpret it to the Deaf person, I am also looking for the volume button on my keyboard so I can make them louder. I increase it several times and it’s louder but still muffled for some reason. Then I lift one side of my gigantic headphones and can hear perfectly. The sound is coming from my computer speakers. Great. The meeting is starting and I decide not to stop interpreting to troubleshoot the headphone problem- I would have no idea where to start anyway. I take the headphones off and make a mental note to ask my partner for help on this later. I am also hoping that he is outside at the moment (or at least wearing his own noise-cancelling headphones) because, you know, confidentiality.

The team is in high spirits today. In addition to the meeting content, there are jokes about people’s virtual backgrounds and comments in the chat. The Deaf person keeps looking to see what everyone is laughing about, and I don’t blame them. There is already a delay in the interpreting process, which is now exacerbated by the lag in our audio and video connections. This makes it even more likely that the comical visual will be gone by the time the Deaf person looks for it and that the presenter will have moved on to important content while the Deaf person’s eyes are not on the interpreter. I’m trying to give them as fast a cue as possible when I anticipate they might want to see Bob posing with the Tiger King, and then I am holding as much information as I can from Carol’s report-out while they look.

In the meantime, I am hearing a “DING! DING! DING!” every time someone types something in the chat. It’s loud and it’s distracting, but I don’t know how to turn it off and I don’t have time to figure it out right now. I add this to my mental list of things to ask my partner. Throughout the meeting, speakers make vague references to what is being said in the chat (“Exactly, Tiffany. I was thinking that too.”) but by the time the Deaf person and I look for it it’s either long gone or irrelevant. I miss more content as we figure this out.

By the time the meeting is over I am exhausted. I feel frustrated that so many things didn’t go smoothly, and I recognize that none of the problems that came up had to do with traditional interpreting skills. It feels like the definition of a “good” interpreter (or at least what it takes for me to feel like I am good at my job) has changed overnight. I am skilled at meaning transfer. I am not skilled nor experienced (nor particularly motivated to be- until now) with technology. I enjoy the human connection and the challenge of language, which is why I became an interpreter in the first place. Now it feels like all of that has taken a back seat.

My shoulders are tight and I feel a headache coming on. I know this is where I hold stress in my body, and I definitely feel stressed, but I also realize I have been contorting my signs to be more visible in the 2-D space that is now our world. Ergonomic and repetitive motion impacts of working virtually have been well documented in VRS interpreters. Other interpreters, like me, have chosen not to work VRS for these and other reasons, but we are now experiencing those same effects. This is not what I signed up for.

My next job is a three hour session, and I have a team. We are using different platforms than I used earlier in the day, and I’ve been having trouble with one of them in particular. As we connect before the meeting starts, it crashes. We have a few minutes, so I text my team and the Deaf person that I am rebooting. I restart my computer, restart both video platforms, and it becomes obvious that this is going to be a problem. My video quality is not great, but this is our agreed-upon setup and now the meeting is starting. During my first turn interpreting the Deaf person has to ask me to repeat my fingerspelling because the connection is choppy and I can’t get a full word out without it briefly freezing. My team texts me to tell me that I keep freezing- is there a problem with my connection?

When it’s my team’s turn, I try to type something in the chat and the whole program crashes, then, slowly, reopens. I maximize the window and it crashes. People in the meeting are again referring to comments in their chat and I try to open it. The platform we are interpreting on crashes again. I move the mouse, it crashes. I breathe wrong, it crashes. I text my team and the Deaf person an apology. It crashes five or six times and I want to lose my mind, but I can’t. It’s almost my turn. I vow to stop touching things.

The meeting chat is active, and while my team is interpreting I try to glance through it. While I am looking at the chat, the Deaf person picks up their hands and starts to make a comment. By our agreement, I am not the one signing right now so I should be voicing, but I don’t see that they are adding something until my team puts their hand up close to their camera and waves, catching my eye. I am probably only milliseconds behind the curve, but I feel sheepish that I missed the cue. I feel that familiar “I missed the topic!” panic, but no, I think I’ve got this. Now, though, I have to look away to unmute myself in the meeting and by the time my eyes make it back to the Deaf person I’m not so sure. I give myself an extra second of lag so I don’t make them sound like a bumbling idiot, and by this time the hearing people have moved on. I interrupt as smoothly as possible and move us backwards in the agenda. It feels terrible but I’m not sure how to make it better.

I am fully flustered by now, and on my next turn I notice that my team is frowning. Without making a conscious decision about it, the longer they frown the more brain space I devote to guessing why. Are they frustrated by my connectivity issue? Are they mad that I wasn’t doing my job when the Deaf person tried to join the conversation? Perhaps they aren’t even looking at me right now- it feels like there is no such thing as eye contact with the way our cameras and screens are set up.

Later, upon reflection, it will occur to me that our shared experience with team interpreters is greatly reduced when we are interpreting remotely. We often miss out on casual conversation before and after the job, which would allow us to check in with each other and connect. I am good friends with many of the interpreters I team with, and this is often a time where we can get a sense of what kind of space each other is in- are you having a bad day? Are you distracted by a personal issue? Are you really dreading that slide with all the graphs on it?. This is all incredibly valuable information.

At an in-person job we would then share physical space for the duration of the assignment, so we would not only have more information about each other’s mental state and needs, but we would have a better understanding of what the other is experiencing in the environment. When we are teaming in person, I can guess that my team might be frowning because they are trying to decipher the PowerPoint, because they just got a puzzling text, because there is noise in the hallway, or because I made a weird sign choice. When we are working remotely, I have none of this potential context. But I do have a codependent brain that is ready, willing, and able to start making worst-case assumptions, and it is working overtime.

I have rearranged my office since I started working from home. My desk takes up way more floor space than it used to, but the lighting and backdrop setup is better. I have purchased a pop-up backdrop, as well as the aforementioned headphones and Zoom upgrade, a riser that can make my desk a standing desk, a network cable and adapter so I can hardwire my internet, another software for controlling my webcam, and several dozen bottles of wine. When I use the blue side of my backdrop it makes my skin orange like an Oompa Loompa, but luckily the other side is gray. If I don’t want the edges of it showing I have to turn it sideways, in which case it blocks half of the door, and prop it up on some cat litter boxes so it’s tall enough. It used to be that every time I did this I would bump it into the carbon monoxide detector and the alarm would go off, but we have since moved that to a different room.

We are well into hour three of this meeting, and my office is turning into a sauna. The door behind me is closed for some semblance of privacy and the door in front of me is closed because it faces windows that have a lovely view of the sunset, which messes with my lighting. The temperature continues to rise. I had a full water bottle at the beginning of this, but it’s empty and I’m really thirsty. The content of the meeting is still coming hot and heavy and there isn’t a good pause where I can get up and leave the room. Also, I’m still assuming that my team is pissed at me and I don’t want to seem like I’m ditching them. We don’t have a good way to signal each other and haven’t discussed this eventuality, and I don’t dare type something in the chat because I don’t want the program to crash again.

I get desperate and text my partner, who is done with his workday but is kindly avoiding streaming anything so I can have full access to our precarious internet connection. I ask if he will come fill up my water bottle. I hear him rushing to my aid, which I appreciate, but he forgets about the backdrop and tries to open the door that it is blocking. The backdrop falls off its kitty litter support system and falls over onto me. I am now lifting it off of myself, trying to close the door, and shouting to him to use the other door, all of which is surely more distracting to my team and the Deaf person than me just disappearing for a moment.

This feeling I have that I cannot look away from the screen, that we are on the verge of technological disaster, that I have to be 100% alert at all times, is exhausting. When interpreting in person I can get into a rhythm. I can anticipate when my team might need me and can dial up my attention and presence as necessary. This means I can also take moments to rest my brain and my body. When interpreting remotely, I am on high alert at all times. I have not yet developed a level of relaxation or a rhythm that allows me to give myself a break.

The meeting finally ends and I don’t offer to stick around and debrief. I log out, lay my head on my desk, and cry. So many things went wrong that impacted the Deaf consumer’s access to the message, and many of them originated here in my office. Feelings of failure and incompetence overwhelm me, but mixed in there are feelings of anger, too. Nothing that went wrong has anything to do with my interpreting skills. Providing access now requires things of me that have nothing to do with ability to transfer meaning from one language to another, and in this moment it feels like an impossible task. This is not what I signed up for.

Things are getting easier. I now know that if I shine my HappyLight at my closet doors it will create a soft glow without shadows. I know how to fold my backdrop back into its original shape on the third try instead of the 455th try. I can go outside and work in my garden on breaks. I have people I can talk to and I know they are experiencing similar frustrations, which is incredibly validating. Working from home is new for many people, and they are generally patient, understanding, and flexible when technology doesn’t work as it should. I often see cute babies on conference calls. I know where to find more of my settings so I can troubleshoot when my headphones aren’t connected, my camera says it’s offline, or my lighting goes wonky. I live with a man who has endless patience and an understanding of technology several orders of magnitude greater than mine. And I just got another shipment of wine.

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