The Challenges in Interviewing in a Foreign Language

By Michael A. Schwartz

Professor Brent Elder and I recently conducted a series of interviews of Deaf people and their hearing allies in Northern Ireland, exploring the theme of access to justice under Article 13 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). As a signatory to the Convention, the United Kingdom, which includes Northern Ireland, agreed to “ensure effective access to justice for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others.” Intrigued by anecdotal evidence that indicated Northern Ireland fell short of providing “effective access” to justice to its Deaf citizens “on an equal basis” with people possessing typical hearing, Brent and I obtained two small grants from Syracuse University. The funding enabled us to probe, from the perspective of Deaf people, the degree to which Northern Ireland deviated from the ideal as articulated by the UNCRPD. Over the summer periods of 2016 and 2017, the two of us traveled to “Norn Iron,” as pronounced by the locals, to talk with Deaf people and their hearing allies about how they experienced the system of justice – the challenges and opportunities facing them at the intersection of their deafness with the demands and needs of the system.

Here, I focus on an aspect of the data gathering: the interview. I am a Deaf American fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) and conversant in British Sign Language (BSL), which is distinctly different from ASL. Contrary to popular belief, there is no universal sign language, and linguists estimate there are approximately 300 sign languages around the world. Brent, a hearing American with conversational skills in ASL, recorded the interviews on his iPhone, and my BSL was adequate enough for the BSL interpreter we hired to voice my signs. I would sign in BSL, complemented with pronunciation of the words clear on my lips, and the BSL interpreter would put my signs on tape. Likewise, the BSL interpreter recorded the Deaf interviewee’s responses in BSL.

The main difficulty in this process was the fact I cannot hear the BSL interpreter’s choice of words when recording my signs. Put differently, being deaf renders me unable to perform a sound check to ensure that what was being voiced was indeed what I was asking the interviewee. Thus, when I read the transcripts, there were a few times when I wondered if I had said it that way. I estimate that 97% or 98% of the transcript is fine, so the error rate, if any, is quite small. Small to the point where it is statistically insignificant and should not detract from the quality and accuracy of Deaf people’s testimony.

People are amazed to learn there are approximately 300 sign languages around the world

People are amazed to learn there are approximately 300 sign languages around the world. This number points up the range of human communication in visual language and emphasizes the need to be sensitive to, and accepting of, the error rate in translation as a built-in limitation when translating from one language to another. Translating between a Deaf American signer and a hearing British interpreter voicing for the signer requires a nuanced approach to research methodology in Northern Ireland.

Any ideas for mitigating the limitation?