Interpreting in the Dark – Being an Interpreter with Aphantasia

I had apparently been doing the unimaginable: working as an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter with aphantasia. How one interpreter learned to interpret "in the dark."
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Interpreter with aphantasia
Portrait Of One Smiling Woman Using Sign Language While Standing Over Red Background. The Woman is Signing the Word "Interpret" in ASL.

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Author’s note: A “signer”, as used generically, uses one language, American Sign Language (ASL), to communicate with others who understand ASL. This article refers to “interpreters”, who use two languages, English and ASL. They change — interpret — what someone says in one of these languages into the other language so the people involved can understand one another

Do You Actually See Pictures When You Visualize?

What does [the word] see mean to you, Diane?

That sounds like a trick question, I thought. 

It was the mid-1980s, and I had been working for over ten years as an ASL interpreter. I attended a workshop sponsored by Minnesota Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf in St. Paul.

The presenter started with this request: “Close your eyes and visualize a dog. Then we’ll share what we each saw.

The first participant answered, “I saw a big black dog.” She seemed deadly serious.

One after another, the responses baffled me. They each described unique mental “pictures,” some quite detailed.

After mentally rolling my eyes at each comment, I was bowled over by the woman next to me. “I saw a movie,” she said. “A schnauzer and a young girl were running around my front yard. The grass was blowing in the breeze.” 

She’d lost me at “movie”.

When it was my turn, I blurted, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.

How so?” the facilitator asked.

I just saw the inside of my eyelids.” 

She gently prompted me. “But what image did you see?

I was confused. “We must be using different definitions of see.

What does see mean to you, Diane?

Perceive with the eyes,” I said.

And seeing in your mind’s eye?” she asked.

I had nothing. 

People called out words to clarify the term for me: visualize, imagine, envision, picture. Synonyms didn’t help; I was still confused. And we call ourselves language professionals!

I turned back to the presenter. “You’re using ‘visualizing’ and ‘seeing something in the mind’s eye’ as though you’re actually creating imaginary pictures in your head.” That sounded like hallucinating to me.

She nodded.

I couldn’t have been more shocked if she had argued that the sun was a giant artichoke. “But I’ve always thought those terms were… figurative.” I had never experienced this mind’s eye they all spoke of.

How did you learn ASL if you can’t visualize?” someone asked. 

How is that even possible?” said another.

No one could fathom my lack of a mind’s eye. Apparently, we had each assumed everyone’s brains processed information the same way.

Before I could absorb this, the teacher continued. “I’m sure you realize your mind’s eye helps you interpret.

What?! I raised my hand. “What do you mean?

The facilitator explained. “Suppose I’m interpreting driving directions. I see traffic lights, street signs, and landmarks as though I’m driving to the destination. I interpret the route by watching the movie in my head.

That’s a thing?” I said. “You play a video in your head?” 

I had trouble remembering driving directions unless it was a route I had driven repeatedly. Even then, I would lack descriptions of the landmarks I did remember. Seeing a mental image when someone gave driving directions was as counterintuitive to me as learning to play the piano by looking at a sculpture.

Is Having a Mind’s Eye Essential to Success?

Everyone said they relied on visualizing when they interpreted. Besides helping recall event sequences, they said visualizing benefited them in other ways. 

For example, there is often a delay from when someone says something to when it is interpreted. Remember, ASL and English are different languages with different grammar structures. 

  • If English is spoken first, followed by the signed interpretation, the interpreter may pause to listen to a complete sentence (or more) before signing in ASL. The end of the English sentence is sometimes where the ASL sentence begins. The farther behind the interpreter is, the longer their memory must last. 
  • Similarly, if ASL is signed first, the interpreter may pause before starting the English interpretation.

Participants said visualizing what was being said helped them remember long enough to get around to interpreting it. 

A mind’s eye would be a handy memory device. But to me, it sounded like pure science fiction.

I thought of some assignments I had interpreted: post-secondary classes, professional conferences, childbirth, group therapy, AA meetings, and even civil court proceedings. I had effectively interpreted more gigs than I could count… all without a mind’s eye!

Maybe I tap into some other ability. Maybe I have a “secret power.” 

This thought appeased me for the time being. However, I wondered how my interpreting might have been compromised by not visualizing.

At home that evening, I asked my husband if he could visualize. He could and, like the others, was surprised that I couldn’t. For ten years, I hadn’t known this about him. Yet how could I have? Nobody talks about a difference they don’t know exists. 

From that time in the mid-80s until I retired in 2015, I was frustrated that I couldn’t find any resources on the lack of a mind’s eye. I asked scores of people if they could visualize and grilled them for specifics. Some were able to visualize in vivid detail. Virtually everyone was bewildered by my questions. It wasn’t a topic on anyone’s radar. And I couldn’t find anyone else like me.

Discovering that No Mind’s Eye is Called Aphantasia

Not long after I retired in 2015, I read a New York Times article by Carl Zimmer about the inability to visualize. He wrote that neurologist Dr. Adam Zeman at the University of Exeter in the UK, and some colleagues, had coined a word for the lack of a mind’s eye: “aphantasia.”  (Zimmer, 2015) 

Hallelujah! Having a word for this phenomenon validated my experience and told me others were like me. I fancied thinking of myself as a “phenomenon.”

After reading Zimmer’s piece, I immersed myself in whatever articles and YouTube videos on aphantasia I could find. Before long, I joined an aphantasia Facebook group. This past year I have also been connecting with other aphantasics around the globe through Aphantasia Network events online. 

Mingling with “like minds” has been eye-opening, reassuring, and stimulating. It was no wonder I’d had trouble finding others like me. Depending on how it is defined, Dr. Zeman states that aphantasia may occur in roughly 3% of the general population. (Zeman, 2021) 

I couldn’t help but wonder if the percentage of aphantasic ASL interpreters was even smaller. I also heard that aphantasia might run in families. My daughters fall in the middle of the visualizer bell curve like their dad.

Why hadn’t I known about visualizing and its relationship to signing and interpreting for so long? Had I slept through those school lessons? No chance of that; I’d been a good student.

But, the answer did lie in my education. 

How Did I Compensate for Having No Mind’s Eye as an Interpreter With Aphantasia?

During college in the 1970s, I took a one-semester ASL class. My interpreter training program lasted only six weeks. Both courses, astonishingly brief and primitive by today’s standards, were too superficial to cover visualization. I only became proficient in ASL and interpreting through practice, during which the subject of a mind’s eye never arose.

So, as an interpreter with aphantasia, how did I compensate for having no mind’s eye? As often as possible, I used strategies such as:

  • Asking people to refer to visual aids
  • Accepting jobs that matched my strengths
  • Studying subject matter before gigs
  • Working with team interpreters whose strengths offset mine 

However, these strategies are used by all interpreters. They don’t compare to visualizing. 

One day I read a quote from Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s book, Fish in a Tree

… if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking that it’s stupid.

Fish in a Tree, Mullaly, 2017

It hit me: I’d been focusing on my lack of a mind’s eye. Instead, I should have been listing skills I did possess: 

  • ASL fluency 
  • Interpreting proficiency
  • Interpersonal skills 
  • Ability to infer meanings 

One important skill I hadn’t yet considered:

  • A nuanced understanding of English grammar

So, why is English grammar so important? Having a poor foundation in English can cause interpreting mistakes. 

Take this sentence: “The boy was eaten by the shark.” 

If the sentence is incorrectly analyzed, interpreters can erroneously consolidate what was eaten by into the sign for ate: “The boy ate the shark.” 

Visualizing alone isn’t enough. To accurately interpret this, understanding the grammar is key.

So my grammar aptitude was a “secret power” that could sometimes compensate for the inability to conjure images.

Would I Choose to “Cure” My Aphantasia?

Do I wish I could visualize? Only if I could turn it off and on at will. I would be leery of potential negative effects. I have spoken with some hyperphantasics — people with extremely vivid imagery — who say their mind’s eye is exhausting and can cause unbearable anxiety.

An interpreter friend says she sometimes has so many mental images that they even interfere with her interpreting. So, it seems visualization has drawbacks. 

At Aphantasia Network’s online Extreme Imagination Conference in October 2021, one of the presenters suggested that we aphantasics shouldn’t think of ourselves as having a blind mind’s eye.

Instead, we should consider it a knowing mind’s eye. That resonated with me. I know how to spell without visualizing words. I know where things are stored in my kitchen. I learned the alphabet not through visualizing it but by singing my ABCs and repeatedly tracing letters on worksheets. And I know how to sign and interpret because of the repetition and muscle memory that came with immersing myself in those studies.

Because of people like me, aphantasia is now being studied around the globe. These studies, and our shared experiences, show how we can lead happy, creative, and productive lives without a mind’s eye. I am proof that as long as someone has enough other skills for the job, aphantasia doesn’t preclude them from working effectively as an ASL interpreter. I don’t know exactly how my brain absorbed information so well without being able to visualize. I just know it did. And that’s good enough for me.

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Total Comments (5)

Thank you SO much for this!
I’ve been studying Auslan, hoping to become an interpreter one day. This year there has been a lot more difficulty, work-related mental strain, Neuro-Sparkly diagnosis, special needs children, and swapping work/children’s care roles with my husband….
All of this made me question whether I would ever be able to interpret – I’m so proud of my understanding of English grammar, semantics, and theory of mind (at least where they’re applied to this topic), that I didn’t know if “fully dark” Aphantasia in conjunction with Combination-type ADHD’s Working Memory struggles in tandem would make it impossible to achieve this goal.
I was considering battling through to achieve my final certificate of study and withdrawing from the Interpreting Diploma.

Thank you for sharing that! It was timely and appreciated.

Hi, Nicole! Thank you for your feedback and comments. I am so glad to hear you found my article helpful. I don’t know the term “neuro-sparkly” but am curious to learn about it. It sounds as though you have a lot going on, but don’t let that stop you if you are passionate about becoming an Auslan interpreter. Your English aptitude is a definite strength. There are a lot of things that go into making a good interpreter and having a mind’s eye doesn’t guarantee success. (Thank goodness!) Thanks again for reaching out. I wish you all the best!

Hi Denise,

Some time ago, I happened to come across an article on aphantasia experienced by Blake Ross, co-creator of Firefox, and how he managed to live with this condition.

Since then, I have always wondered how an ASL interpreter could function with aphantasia. I was so curious that I wanted to sign up an aphantasia organization. I found the Aphantasia Network and signed up for their newsletter. And that’s how I came across your article!

I love the humor in your article. I’ve been teaching and tutoring ASL for several years. I am a bilingual Deaf person with a fascination with languages and the workings of the brain.

I would love to chat with you on video and ask you more questions. Could we do that? I will come back to the comment section of this article and look for your reply.

Sincerely,

AnnaGrace

 

Thank you! I am also an ASL interpreter. I’ve been at if for about 25 years now and you are the first person I’ve see talk about aphantasia and ASL.

I do very well with things I have seen before but struggle with the visually unfamiliar. If someone tries to describe something such as a kitchen or garden remodel I have to ask for a picture because I just can’t “imagine” it.

Like you I have a better than average grasp of English (both my parents were English teachers). I consider myself to be a good interpreter, above average but not gifted.

Thank you again for writing this.