Against Audism in Interviews with Deaf Holocaust Survivors

Mark Zaurov (EHRI 2012)

Even the best interviews with Deaf[1] Jews provide a sense of incompleteness, deficiency and truncated truth. Dialogues’ between a Deaf interviewee, a sign language interpreter and a hearing researcher who usually lacks knowledge of sign language exemplify an unequal power relation.[2] Hearing researchers need to have familiarity with cultural issues relating to Deaf people. Those who are not have been described as exemplifying ‘audism’ in an analogy with ‘racism’. Audism, first described by Humphries[3] is defined by Lane[4] as "the hearing way of dominating, restructuring, and exercising authority over the deaf community.”

It is necessary to emphasize how often Deaf interviewees, interpreters, and hearing interviewers are uncomfortable with each other during interviews. In some cases, Deaf persons have been interviewed as if they were hearing, disregarding critical differences between Deaf and hearing cultures. Under no circumstances should the characteristic visuality of sign language be ignored. Prosodic elements in the telling of the story need the linguistic sensitivity of a first-language interviewer, otherwise they will be lost.

It is imperative to keep in mind how much time and effort it may take for Deaf people to fully comprehend questions posed from a hearing perspective, with the additional pressure of formulating relevant answers. This can interfere with the natural flow of communication and may destroy the psychological climate of the interview to such an extent that the interviewee’s confidence during the interview process declines and no more significant exchange is possible. If there is inattention, distraction, indifference or inconsiderateness from a hearing historian, no interpreter, regardless of qualification, can compensate for the insensitivity.[5]

Although a project involving Deaf survivors has been instituted it excluded Deaf researchers. Observing the benefits Deaf scholars provide to conceive and preserve the memories of Deaf survivors, we must make sure that they are the ones conducting the interviews. There is still considerable resistance to replacing existing hearing staff members with Deaf interviewers yet to be trained. I know of only one pioneering workshop that was dedicated to train Deaf interviewers. Unfortunately, it was led by a hearing instructor and the Deaf participants were not Holocaust scholars. Those who had judged the experiment were only able to appraise the seminar and the resulting interviews via the mediation of Sign Language interpreters and finally determined to discard the whole idea.

Do we really want to go back to using hearing interviewers and Sign Language interpreters? Whose interests are served by establishing projects involving Deaf survivors and excluding Deaf researchers? What cultural reference frames are applied when judging the work and value of Deaf interviewers? If we value diversity and the dignity of our interviewees, let us take a step back from rigid, phonocentristic reference frames and embrace Deaf culture in the great gift of those stories handed down to us by Deaf holocaust survivors.

Such decisions reduce the possibility of obtaining full information and achieving greatest impact. Deaf scholars can communicate directly and easily with their interviewees because they use sign language and share a common cultural background. Furthermore, the video recording and captioning of interviews is absolutely essential, so that records exist of the appearance of signs which have fallen out of use, international signs and foreign sign languages.

It should be noted that as well as loss of relevant cultural information, existing archive materials are often difficult to access for Deaf scholars because the presentation of the interviewee and the interpreter is not designed to meet the needs of a Deaf viewer. One website is an exception to this general observation: „Deaf People and World War II” produced by the National Technical Institute for the Deaf adds subtitles to previously recorded video-interviews and makes them available online. Unfortunately, the subtitles are in English only, the sign language being mostly American Sign Language (ASL) and many Deaf potential users of this archive from other countries neither read English, nor sign in ASL. For this reason, it would be a positive step to develop cooperation between Europe, Israel and the USA to establish a database which is accessible in many signed and subtitled spoken languages besides English. Moreover, International Sign[6] can be used to provide barrier-free opportunities for people to access and research these important resources. The unsuitability of existing data can be seen by having a close look at two interviews:

Example A:

William F: Holocaust Testimony (HVT-693). Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, Yale University Library. Date: April 13, 1986,
Interviewee William F.; 1 h., 58 min. Language: ASL
Interviewer: Phyllis O. Ziman Tobin and Miriam Forman, English
Interpreter: Brenda Marshall, ASL/EnglishM

1. Distractions and interruptions

Simultaneous interpretation is never really simultaneous; it is always a few seconds behind the source text. As a result, by the time the interviewer gets a chance to respond to the signed text, the interviewee is further ahead in his story.
This may lead to repeated disruption in the flow of the interviewee’s recollections as a result of the constraints of the interpreting process itself. For example, W. F. starts a story about looking for a job, but his introductory sentence is omitted because the interpreter is already asking the next question. At one moment, W. F. is annoyed and demands to be allowed to continue.

During the course of the interview, the interviewer and the interpreter are seen talking to each other in order to clarify some points while excluding the deaf interviewee. W. F. is signing about his eleven siblings. The interviewer asks for their names. He cannot provide the names for three who had died as babies. The interpreter persists, then discusses this with the interviewer

The presence of an interpreter leads the interviewer to rely on the interpreter for clarification instead of turning to the interviewee. This in turn results in loss of confidence and trust between the interviewee, the interviewer and the intermediary.

2. Mistakes in attribution of speech and subtitles

Still in relation to naming his dead siblings, the subtitle reads "I am sorry“, yet the deaf interviewee has clearly not signed "I am sorry“. In situations in which the interpreter is referring to himself, or is referred to by the interviewee or interviewer, or simply when the interpreter says "I am sorry“ for some minor interpreting error, the subtitling does not make clear which person the "I“ actually stands for or what that person is sorry for. Another problem of attribution is the subtitles: Instead of the signed original, the spoken text of the interpretation is taken as the source text for subsequent analyses. For example, the name of the city of Debrecen is correctly finger spelled by W. F. but misspelled in the subtitles.

3. Blurred meaning, lost meaning and interpreting errors

In a simultaneous interpreting setting, there is insufficient time to provide full accuracy. The resulting text depends heavily on the context of the interview which is not necessarily preserved in the recording. This can lead to misunderstandings or loss of meaning.
W. F. gives a statement about his own Hebrew skills: "I decipher written Hebrew and I can lip-read as well on a very plain, straight forward level, not complex, intricate sentences". The interpreter translates all this as "Good enough".
W. F. signs: "Deaf people do not usually mix with hearing people“. Translation: "I cannot communicate well“. W. F. signs: "My family moved in order to live in peace, to avoid anti-Semitism“. Translation: none provided.

4. Omissions & Interpreter bias

Even though registered interpreters are required to be impartial and accurate, there is always the possibility of bias. For example, W. F. describes his relation to God in a negative manner twice in the interview because of his (God-given) deafness. Twice, the interpreter omits his statements. This can be seen in the following examples:
W. F.: "I did not want to go on praying anymore, it bored me. And God would not give me any more hearing anyway“.
W. F.: "The Bar-Mitzvah did not help to cure my deafness".
We cannot be sure of the reason for the omission of these statements but this interpreter may have resisted negative statements about God and Judaism and omitted this while interpreting to the interviewer.

5. Missing the point and failure to clarify

Repeatedly, both the interviewer and the interpreter interrupted W. F. for clarification and also stopped the flow of his story when they thought he was missing the point. The following examples show that this is caused by lack of knowledge of deaf culture:
W. F., who is Hungarian, is relating a conversation with a German Deaf Jewish woman. The interpreter interrupts him, wondering how they would be able to communicate since he knew W. F. could not sign in German Sign Language and the German woman could not sign in Hungarian Sign Language. W. F. explains that they were communicating using International Sign. This important clarification within the dialogue does not appear in the subtitles.
When W. F. signs about his difficulties with his father-in-law, who did not want to marry his deaf daughter to a deaf man (W.F.), the interviewer interrupts him. As a hearing person the interviewer is unaware of this very common phenomenon of audism. The hearing interviewer may not know that hearing parents often do not want that their deaf child to marry a deaf person. This practice not to marry each other is a very common phenomenon of audism which a Deaf historian would recognize because of the cultural history.
W. F. relates stories about the deaf world comparing it to the blind and hearing communities. The interviewer tells him to stick to Jewish issues, seemingly unaware that W. F. is telling his biography in narrative practices characteristic of his Deaf culture, unknown to hearing interviewers and interpreters. Research on these narrative conventions is in its infancy and only Deaf people who are members of the sign language community functioning as interviewers and interpreters would be sufficiently familiar with them. In their effort to get data about the Jewish part of the biography, the interviewer and interpreter get confused when the interviewee includes the Deaf part as well as the Jewish part of his biography. The effort to exclude Deaf culture may lead to a failure to record the unique perspective of Deaf Holocaust survivors. This is certainly missing the point of a Deaf-Jewish Holocaust testimony.

The following example shows the problems that have to be overcome when interviewing Deaf interviewees.

Example B:

Moritz F. Holocaust Testimony (HVT-4105). Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, Yale University Library. Date: April 13, 2001. 1 h., 23 min. Language: SEE, ASL, strong Polish handshape accent
Interviewer: Simon J. Carmel, Deaf anthropologist, learned ASL later in life
Interpreter: The Database holds no information about the interpreter. However, in the video itself, Moritz’ son is mentioned in the subtitles. He cannot be seen signing, rather he is voicing his father.
Moritz F., 80 year old Polish deaf Jew, survived Auschwitz.

Problems: The use of a family member as interpreter, particularly someone untrained in interpretation is unacceptable. During the course of the interview, Moritz F. is asked about family conflicts regarding his marriage and he mentions that he was pushed to marry a woman he did not want to marry (the interpreter’s mother). As well as this, there are also other unresolved family conflicts that could not be addressed because of the son’s presence. When questions upsetting to Moritz F. are repeatedly insisted upon, the interviewer needs to interrupt the interview to try to prevent the situation from escalating.
The above examples demonstrate that the most efficient and appropriate approach to interviewing a deaf person is to ensure that the interviewer is familiar with the cultural background (Deaf as well as Jewish) of the interviewee and if necessary have the assistance of a qualified Deaf interpreter.
In this article, I have described some of the problems found in these two interviews. Similar difficulties can be seen by Deaf researchers in other interviews, each of which contains its own particular communicative challenges. In order to establish a useful body of Deaf Jewish testimonies that does justice to Deaf culture especially relating to Holocaust Studies, funding is required for Deaf scholars to find the remaining Deaf Holocaust survivors and interview them from a Deaf and Jewish perspective.

[1] We capitalize the adjective "deaf" whenever it refers to a cultural community just like "Jewish"
[2] Zaurov, Mark (2009). „Deaf Holokaust“. In: Zaurov, Mark & Günther, Klaus-B. (Eds.). Overcoming the Past, Determining its Consequences and Finding Solutions for the Present. A contribution for Deaf Studies and Sign Language Education. Proceedings of the 6th Deaf History International Conference July 31 - August 04, 2006 at the Humbold University, Berlin, Seedorf: Signum, 191.
[3] Humphries, Tom (1975). Audism: The Making of a Word, unpublished paper; see also Humphries, Tom (1977). Communicating across cultures (deaf-/hearing) and language learning. Doctoral dissertation. Cincinnati, OH: Union Institute and University.
[4] Lane, Harlan (1992). The Mask of Benevolence – Disabling the Deaf Community, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 43.
[5] Zaurov (2009), 192.
[6] International Sign is a "fairly effective" way of communication for sign language users from differing national backgrounds. It is "not a language (...). It is a pidgin, although research has shown that its grammatical structures are much more complex than the typical spoken language pidgin." Bill Moody (2002). International Sign: A Practitioner's Perspective. Journal of Interpretation , 37.