“We are all Bi-Bi”

Oya Ataman “Wir sind alle bi-bi” Wie stellt sich unsere Profession zur Ethnizitätsdebatte? In DAS ZEICHEN No. 78, March 2008 pp 138 – 143, translated by O. A. Dec 2nd 2012

Translators note: This edited translation is dedicated to late Gary Sanderson. Conversations with him and Hüseyin Korkmaz inspired me to write this paper published in 2008 for German SL interpreters. It has three strands woven together: The professional situation in Turkey, the Coda/Hearing SL interpreters’ conflict in the US, and Graham Turner’s vision of a new interpreting model.


“We are all BiBi” Positions in Our Profession Concerning Ethnicity

The ethnicity debate initiated by the American Deaf movement cast its shadow on the slogan “bicultural and bilingual” informing the Ally, the most prominent model of Sign Language interpretering. In the US as well as in Germany first conflicts are arising between colleagues belonging to different ethnicities. In order to grapple with this situation we must review our paradigm of BiBi and head towards a new interpreting model. This contribution, offering a snapshot of the current situation in the US and the budding professionalization in Turkey, asks the German SLI community for their position.

Discrimination Among Colleagues

Hasan Hüseyin Korkmaz is the first civil servant Turkish Sign Language (Temel Isaret Dili, TID) interpreter in the country’s capital of Ankara. After the recognition of TID in 2005, the first national interpreter certification was implemented in 2007. Until then, he told me, deaf educators were officially asked to interpret. Since interpreter training was in its infancy, it was obvious that first-language signers would apply to be certified. Of the 75 candidates who took the first exam, 25 were certified. The new professionals, to be employed by the government immediately with working hours from 9 to 5, a free week-end, free insurance and decent pay, were in high demand. One interpreter was planned per region (Turkey is divided into 81 regions; the region containing Ankara ranges over 25.000 km2 hosting more than 4 million people). This snapshot of the current situation of Sign Language interpreters in Turkey gives the impression of a tabula rasa, despite of the latest legal progress. It does have its good sides: The TID community does not need to follow the dead ends our communities have arrived at. Korkmaz is about to establish the first TID interpreters’ association. His father had been the president of the Ankara Deaf Sports association for many years. There, Korkmaz had been working as a secretary and interpreter from age 15 until he got his certification. Most of his colleagues he knows personally. With three or four exceptions, all of them have Deaf parents. The interpreter association could simultaneously function as a Coda association. I had met Korkmaz in 2007 at the WFD in Madrid. Listening to Gary Sanderson’s talk on Codas as Interpreters there, he found himself confronted with the idea that he could be discriminated against by those three or four colleagues who were second-language signers. After Sanderson’s unsettling and inspiring talk, Korkmaz, Sanderson, and I got wrapped up in a discussion about ethnicity and our profession.

Gary Sanderson is an ASL interpreter at the California State University who has received a humbling range of awards for his long service to professional associations in many capacities, including as a regional representative of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). He reported that, although Sign Language Interpreting in the US is considered mature from an international perspective, Coda and Hearing colleagues are stereotyping each other with the effect that they are unable to work together productively. According to Sanderson’s insight into present American discourse,  the division, by the the Deaf emancipation movement, of all players into Hearing and Deaf results in stereotypes that take their toll despite their insulting aspects covered up by political correctness.

“We are the authentically true interpreters” goes the presupposition found among Coda interpreters, finding its counterpart in an array of prejudices Hearing interpreters adopt in turn, such as: Codas are not able to keep proper distance to the job; they cannot be neutral and leave their “deaf heart” at home together with their helpers’ complex; they have control issues, think they know everything better, and are so vulnerable to criticism that they are unable to work in a team; furthermore, they have great difficulty voicing. All these putative failures are attributed to the fact that Codas, born to deaf parents, grew up in deaf culture: upon facing deaf clients they would subconsciously regress to a toddler facing its parents–and a toddler would not make a convincing interpreter.

“We are the truly professional interpreters” goes the presupposition found among Hearing interpreters, finding its counterpart in their Coda colleagues’ complaints such as: Hearing colleagues are insensitive, rude, and hypocritical towards their deaf clients; they think they knew everything better because they hold an interpreting degree; they cannot tell an Ally from a Helper; furthermore, they have great difficulty signing. Since they live in sneering distance from Deaf culture—a distance legitimized by the colonial idea of “neutrality”—Hearing interpreters are alleged to have no idea of Deaf culture; to abuse Deaf people for the sake of money; and, being neither bilingual nor bicultural, to therefore make a poor interpreter.

Since we live and work within a power differential, mapping “dominating” plus “hearing” on the one end, and “dominated” plus “deaf” on the other, those interpreters who locate themselves in the middle as ethnically half deaf, half hearing can be discriminated against by their Hearing colleagues residing on the high-power end. But it was not only Korkmaz, a Coda, wondering about the future of interpreting in Turkey, for whom professional discrimination is an issue. Even the Hearing colleagues I talked to after Sanderson’s presentation had experienced painful discrimination more than once, for pain and frustration is also being felt on the upper end of the differential. A close examination reveals that a victim-offender approach is unrewarding. As an illustration, take the following anecdote delivered by Sanderson: Two interpreters who have just done a fabulous job in a team are getting together for feedback. Admiringly, the hearing interpreter is asking her Coda colleague how she happened to think of a particular Sign Language equivalent of a certain statement. The reply: “I did that because I’m a Coda.”


 According to Sanderson, the current set of values in the ASL interpreting community is very “Hearing,” conflicting with values of the Deaf community. Deaf clients are degraded to customers, and Deaf interpreters are welcomed to the profession rather hesitantly.  To avoid biting the hand that feeds you, these conflicts were acted out on the backs of Coda interpreters while Deaf clients and colleagues were treated with political correctness. The motto was: “We are all BiBi” (all but the Codas). Sanderson’s colleague Sherry Hicks calls this “coda-envy,”[1] ironically hinting at psychoanalytical discourses in which social capital undergoes mystification for handing out, buying and selling–or stealing.

Even before video relay services had started to buy up RID-certified interpreters in 2001, aggravating the situation, says Sanderson, there had not been enough interpreters on the market. There was a need, a market for and capital in sign language interpreters: particularly for educational interpreters and especially those “of color.” Schools had trained, screened and employed so many Codas that the number of RID-uncertified educational interpreters reached 7,500 nationwide. Meanwhile, educational interpreters got organized and introduced their own standardized certification, the Educational Interpreter Performance Assessment (EIPA).[2] Sanderson was instrumental when, after much scramble, the Educational Interpreters could join the RID in 2006.

Sanderson is especially worried about Coda interpreters in interpreter training programs. What he gathered from trainers asked about Codas was, alongside a helpless shrug, the patter of those vague prejudices quoted above: Codas cannot come to terms with their past, their English is not strong, and they resist the contents taught. As former regional representative of the Interpreters with Deaf Parents (IDP),[3] Sanderson is acutely aware of inadequate expectations that both the trainers and the fellow trainees have concerning the abilities Codas bring into the classroom. Visual teaching and learning methods accommodating first-language signers are hardly in practice. Resources Codas bring in are not valued in class and kept out of exams. The model of professionalism promoted by the teachers runs contrary to the values of their collective oral tradition and gift culture.[4] Many codas, Sanderson claims, do not disclose having Deaf parents, and must endure cognitive dissonance with their educational environment on top of the challenging training. Deaf trainees and people of color also show a tendency to do worse on the RID exams.

Cultural Schizophrenia

 Sanderson raises fundamental questions. So does Ernst Thoutenhoofd in his paper “The Sign Language Interpreter in Inclusive Education: Power of Authority and Limits of Objectivism” (2005). Thoutenhoofd convincingly argues that educational interpreters employed in mainstreaming settings function as collaborators of an institutional apparatus acculturating[5] minorities in the name of social inclusion in order to maintain existing power structures. The Ally aims to smooth out cultural differences and pursue two conflicting interpreting targets: interpret so that the terminology can be reproduced in the written form of the spoken language, and that the content of the lesson is fully understood in the client’s first language. As a consequence, the working language mixes the respective national sign language with a transliteration of the spoken language. The more skilled the Ally, the more she gets in the way of a profound and necessary change of the education system to accommodate the needs of all students by modifying teaching material and examination procedures.

Just because Allies can be abused as alibi interpreters, this does not mean that the Ally model has failed entirely. It does mean that we have to reconsider it. Of all things, this model contributes to the closing of Deaf schools, eradicating the vibrant source of the cultural capital that is Sign Language. At first glance, mainstreaming is a great success; a closer look might notice that the “included” generation is signing a hybrid between spoken language and sign, ironically becoming less proficient in their first language than their interpreters, exposed to high-quality Sign Language education. At this point, as Thoutenhoofd gloomily sums up, the Deaf community loses its cultural capital to interpreters. Although Thoutenhoofd refers to them as “Hearing”, many of the educational interpreters are in fact Codas. who had been ostracized by the RID before the EIPA was established. In the instance shown, they appear to perpetuate the power structures that ostracized them at the loss of their own, the Deaf end of the differential.

The Native’s Dilemma

The current methods and materials of interpreter education are not tailored to the needs of ethnic minorities like African Americans, immigrants, or deaf persons; nor do they answer the special needs of Codas. Unless Coda trainees cut themselves off from their own community and its cultural practices, they will somatize ongoing dilemmas in order to achieve their career goals, finding themselves in the schizophrenic settings mentioned above.

In our phonocentric society (ethnocentric, Bauman in conversation, 2008), the conceptual structures needed to cope with a Deaf-Hearing bicultural and bilingual personal background are hardly common currency. You might happen to come across useful concepts pondering postcolonial theories and you might turn them over in your mind trying to make sense of your hostile professional environment—but their consistent application has not been developed for this scenario. In other words: While Hearing white people are off on their educational path from childhood on, bilingual education in Deaf classrooms is still in its infancy, with early intervention for Codas still being “discussed.” Whatever coping strategies are needed, you won’t find them in fairy tales, schoolbooks, or Hollywood movies. You won’t even find a psychotherapist with an idea of what you are talking about. You won’t find ready, positive, and close-to-life identity templates to work out a positive idea of yourself.  Since the above-mentioned prejudices are internalized, long-standing repression and lonely self-examination usually precede participation in Coda retreats offered by organizations such as CODA International,[6] the first step towards a positive identity. Coda meetings that offer personal and professional exchange are labeled according to the deficit model as “self-help groups.” Attributive expressions such as “Deaf That”, “Hearing That”, “Coda That” are being used as pithy cultural catchwords to avoid the risky complexity of the issues at stake. Not just Hearing, but also Deaf culture can be fetishized in order to obscure the real issue: maintaining existing power structures. Self-aggrandizement is more comfortable than risking a step into the other culture. Holding on to the prejudices mentioned above perpetuates the status quo. (An answer like “I did that because I am a Coda” justified any action, right or wrong, says Sanderson, by the actor’s fact of birth to Deaf parents.) Instead of shutting off the feedback, both colleagues could have analyzed whether this interpretation was actually a linguistic slam-dunk, or rather a clever Ally maneuver. What accountable features in the setting were calling for precisely this interpretation?

It should go without saying that if the values of the Deaf community are relevant for our profession in any way, Coda and Deaf interpreters bring in relevant resources as first-language signers and natives. However, these resources are not readily objectified. If they were, we could analyze them, document them, and pass them on. Other than the fact that the applicable postcolonial discourses are immature and hard to ‘get,’ the stakeholders have a great desire to keep their capital from negotiation and circulation. Instead, it is mystified. After all, existing dependencies are the more acute the fewer interpreters there are on the market. As a result, mystification applies to Coda interpreters and Deaf interpreters alike, and especially to international interpreters. IS interpreter and teacher Bill Moody’s ready response towards his admirers’ mystifying approaches is “No, International Signs Interpreters are not interpreting gurus.” If fact, the problem concerns all Sign Language interpreters, for mystification is inherent in our interpreting model. Within a binary either-or ontology, present in oppositions such as “Hearing” –“Deaf” and “Able” – “Disabled”, whatever or whoever appears between the categories can only be damned or venerated.


 Together, Sanderson and Thoutenhoofd are calling for demystification. Similarly, Graham Turner had already called for it at the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI) inaugural conference in 2005. In his paper “Some Essential Ingredients of Sign Language Interpreting“ (2006), Turner introduces a new interpreting model, which, in my own discussions with my colleagues, we came to call the transparency model. Turner argues that the machine model proves dysfunctional because interpreters, unlike machines, make decisions. However, the subsequent model, that of the Ally, overwhelms the interpreter by the range of decision-making, since each decision goes along with the duty to obtain the information necessary to make it.

In Turner’s view, the most satisfactory interpreting settings are such that all participants—not just the interpreters—understand the interpreting process, and collaborate on making communication more effective. In such a setting all parties would be responsible for their own contributions and strategies for evaluating communication success. Turner adapts an ontological idea from quantum mechanics to the interpreting process: Phenomena only exist as we exercise our knowledge on them. “In other words, since the meaning of language does not just reside ‘in the words’, but also in our understanding of them, everyone involved in an interpreted exchange shares responsibility for all parts of ensuring effective communication; we’re all in this together!” (108). This model does not suggest that the interpreter take up a position somewhere between “Machine” and “Ally” but rather that she works toward building a social awareness of what interpreting is. She must aim to make it transparent – and in this way demystify it. Turner is calling for intense collaboration between Deaf and Hearing professionals and scholars. The sociological turn in translation studies is enabling a new discourse, writes Turner, but if the discussion is too academic to reach student and practicing interpreters it would go nowhere. In calling for further research, Turner suggests finding “more accessible ways of talking about what interpreting is, how it works and what practitioners do” (109). His aim is to establish a habitual and practically relevant set of habits for citique of interpreting events so that non-specialists–like Deaf and Hearing clients– can communicate with interpreters and each other on this subject.

What appears impracticable at first glance seems more viable listening to Sanderson’s account of the annual RID conference in August 2007. RID-members, native interpreters and representatives of Deaf organizations took the effort and courage to address the present conflicts in a community forum: The RID had recently recognized EIPA certification (and thereby tacitly endorsed mainstream education) without the Deaf community’s member vote. This forum was so successful in finding common ground that it is to be repeated on state level. In order to address the needs of ASL L1 learners at the conference, the Interpreters with Deaf Parents forum[7] hosted the workshop “Indigenous Interpreters In the Classroom.” Sherry Hicks taught a crash course in ABC stories and basic principles of storytelling in ASL, Jason Norman presented cinematics in ASL having the participants enact scenes from the fantasy epic Eragon, and Lynnette Taylor closed with a translation of an excerpt of the Odyssey, training visual literacy skills. In order to explore suitable teaching and learning techniques, the participants were asked to “think aloud” and “feel aloud,” in spoken as well as in signed language. Sanderson looks back at this experiment with radiant eyes. He says it revealed that accommodating teaching methods indeed make a difference and suggests more research on this topic.

According to Sanderson, IDP defined its goal in uncovering resources of first-language signers in order to employ them in the classroom for everyone. Deaf and coda[8] first-language signers, versed second-language signers were supposed to go through a compact training accompanied by deaf and hearing mentors. In a classroom free of repression, these interpreting students would be able to build cultural bridges and find common ground – for hearing students might have taken up a career in sign language interpreting for reasons attributive to childhood experiences just as well. From my own open and intimate conversations with hearing trainees and colleagues I have learned that each of us has a reason for picking this career, a reason that may lie in their own inbetweenness as women, gays, immigrants and so on.


Sanderson and his colleagues are working on new Sign Language Interpreting curricula for deaf and hearing first-language signers. Although Hasan Hüseyin Korkmaz is encountering first obstacles on his way to establish a TID Interpreters’ association, he is organizing the first Turkish coda gathering this April in Cappadocia. He is planning to introduce various interpreting models and their implications in order to establish critical self-esteem in the new generation of interpreters. What are we planning to do in Germany? Let us talk to each other to meet the conflicts awaiting us.


Baumann, Dirksen (2008): “Listening to Phonocentrism with Deaf Eyes: Derrida’s Mute Philosopy of (Sign) Language.” Essays in Philosophy 9 (1). http://commons.pacificu.edu/eip/vol9/iss1/2/  (Dec 2nd, 2012).

Mauss, Marcel (1978): “Die Gabe. Form und Funktion des Austausches in archaischen Gesellschaften.” Soziologie und Anthropologie. Bd. II. Frankfurt a. M.: Ullstein, 9-144). (English title: The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies)

Thoutenhoofd, Ernst (2005): “The Sign Language Interpreter in Inclusive Education: Power of Authority and Limits of Objectivism.” The Translator 11 (2), 237 – 259 (Special Issue, Ed. Moira Inghilleri).

Todorov, Tsvetan (1996): L’homme dépaysé. Paris: Ed. Du Seuil.

Turner, Graham (2006): “Some Essential Ingredients of Sign Language Interpreting.” Rachel Locker McKee (Ed.). Proceedings of the Inaugural Conference of the World Association of Sign language Interpreters, Worcester, South Africa. October 31st-November 2nd 2005. Coleford, UK: McLean Publishing, 106-114.

[1] I am thanking Sherry Hicks for our extensive discussions on this topic.

[2] See EIPA website at http//classroominterpreting.org.

[3] See IDP website at http: //www.idp.rid.org.

[4] An exchange of gifts (including voluntary services or honorary work) constitutes a social bond whereby each gift is echoed by a counter gift, which is echoed by another. Each counter-gift, exceeding the value of its predecessor a notch, loads up the bond’s value and cultivates, in its circulation, a solidary group. In contrast, capitalist economy cultivates market advantage by resource depletion and social noncommittance via the use of a neutral currency (Mauss, 1978).

[5] The concept of acculturation is based on the idea that uncivilized wild creatures become civilized or cultivated persons by way of imitation. A conceptual alternative is offered by Tsvetan Todorov’s term “transculturation” (1996, 128f), according to which a subject’s participation in another culture abolishes the absoluteness of her original cultural reference frame.

[6] http//www.coda-international.org.

[7] IDP protocol, August 3rd 2007, courtesy of Lynnette Taylor to whom I wish to express my additional gratitude for her comments on this topic.

[8] As a gesture of moving beyond ethnicity dichotomies am using lower case labels here.

4 thoughts on ““We are all Bi-Bi”

  1. The last sentence, “Let’s talk to each other to meet the conflicts awaiting us”, impressed me liked best. 🤔

    (Otherwise my thought would be that I would spontaneously replace “cultural schizophrenia” with ambiguity, at least the thought occurred to me, because contradictions are often associated / confused with schizophrenia. Maybe you like this idea?

    Otherwise, of course, the text is brilliantly researched, a good mix of science and reflection.)

    (Google is translating automatically the Text s. o. wrote into German/English with errors. If s. o. don’t understand, please type the other language)

  2. Text nochmal auf “Deutsch eingestellt”

    Mir hat der letzte Satz “Sprechen wir miteinander, um den Konflikten zu begegnen, die uns erwarten.” am besten gefallen. 🤔

    (Ansonsten wäre mein Gedanke, die “kulturellen Schizophrenie” würde ich spontan durch Ambiguität ersetzen, zumindest kam mir der Gedanke, denn Wiedersprüchlichkeit wird oft mit der Schizophrenie verbunden/verwechselt. Vielleicht gefällt dir diese Idee.

    Ansonsten, klar der Text ist genial recherchiert, ein guter Misch aus Wissenschaft & Reflexion.)

  3. Mir hat der letzte Satz “Sprechen wir miteinander, um den Konflikten zu begegnen, die uns erwarten.” am besten gefallen. 🤔

    (Ansonsten wäre mein Gedanke, die “kulturellen Schizophrenie” würde ich spontan durch Ambiguität ersetzen, zumindest kam mir der Gedanke, denn Wiedersprüchlichkeit wird oft mit der Schizophrenie verbunden/verwechselt. Vielleicht gefällt dir diese Idee.

    Ansonsten, klar der Text ist genial recherchiert, ein guter Misch aus Wissenschaft & Reflexion.)

  4. Oya,
    It was good to read your paper again, this time in English. There are a lot of good points… maybe too many! 🙂 Might be better to focus or refocus on certain ideas.

    I think your concluding paragraphs about transparency and de-mystification vs. “mystifying approaches” and “self-aggrandizement” are the main takeaways from this article and how this could improve the current interpreting models.

    You write about the dilemma of CODA interpreters in conflict/competition with non-native signing interpreters and the difficulties young CODA interpreters have in interpreter training programs. The transparency model, I think you’re saying, could be a better way to approach our profession, a method of cooperation between groups of interpreters so that “wir sind alle bi-bi.”

    Looking forward to meeting you soon and getting to talk together,

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