January 10, 2014

The Interpreter.

Sign Language fascinated me from very early on.

I have a clear memory of being in the grocery store parking lot with my mom. She was loading up the car when a man approached us and handed her a card. She pulled out a dollar and he smiled, waved at me and moved on.

“What did he sell you, Mommy?” I asked.

“He’s deaf, honey. He can’t talk.” And she handed me the card that would be the catalyst for changing my life. It had the American Sign Language alphabet written on it and I set to memorizing it right away. I quickly began teaching all of my friends in school the alphabet and we had so much fun with our new secret “code.”

Except I wanted more.

My parents bought me my first Sign Language book that Christmas and we enrolled in a class at the local Deaf Services Center. This was where I had my first interactions with Deaf people and I was enthralled. It’s not surprising that after meandering a bit through college I eventually majored in American Sign Language Interpreting and Deaf studies.

It was there that I learned that Deaf people do talk and that the guy selling cards in the parking lot was probably a scammer. I learned about the rich cultural history of Deaf people and how much the educational system in our country has failed them over the years. I learned to see the world in pictures and images in a language brought to life through facial expression and movement—almost a dance.

I learned that sign language is different in every country and not universal, like many assume.

And I learned that it is completely different than English, with its own syntax and grammatical rules just like every other language in the world.

A lot of people don’t quite “get” what I do because of the wide array of misconceptions surrounding Deaf people. I do not teach sign language to Deaf people, I do not take them on trips, I am not an aid, and I do not follow them around everywhere and interpret every interaction. Deaf people span every economic and ethnic background and are human. Many people think they are “special” but in reality they are just as and no more special than everyone else.

I worked at an interpreting service center for 10 years and in a typical day, I would drive to settings such as medical appointments, plant meetings, counseling sessions, court hearings, college classes, AA meetings, drug rehab, and pre-admission tests prior to surgery. I have watched babies being born and I have been the translator at someone’s death bed. I have interpreted weddings of all sorts—small ceremonies in courtyards, ceremonies between two partners of the same gender and outside the penitentiary right before someone would be serving a long sentence.

I have been the bearer of telling someone he had terminal cancer and would not live out the year and informing a young mother that her child had a serious birth defect.

I have watched families grow, sat with them on job interviews, stood by as some were taken away in handcuffs and shared the stage as some were awarded a college degree. I have witnessed every emotion known to humans and have been a fly on the wall in almost every setting.

You see, my job is not to counsel or assist Deaf people. I am not there to be their friend or advisor and I am not there to “help.” I am their bridge to the Hearing world. Sometimes I am their voice, too. I hear my voice saying words I could never imagine saying, but in reality they are not my words—they are theirs.

Being an interpreter can be tough. It is not my job to interject my opinion or give advice. Except I am not a machine, and therefore experience every emotion right along with the community I serve. This proves to be a delicate balance of being an advocate, supporter, and yet staying neutral in my role as an interpreter.

Watching as your client is getting blatantly discriminated against or looking him/her in the eye and signing words you would never say to any human can be almost unbearable. I had to quickly learn how to build up a shield that let me be that conduit for communication. I taught myself to disassociate from the situation—at least temporarily—and be their ears and voice. Many days, after leaving a situation and wandering through the parking lot towards my car I could feel my legs shaking and the adrenaline working it’s way through my body.

Not every interpreting assignment left me feeling that way of course, but there were some I still feel in my bones today. I was faced with some of the cruelest forms of the human experience—rape, sexual abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, drug addiction and homelessness.

In contrast I will never forget grabbing the hand of a pregnant Deaf woman and placing it on the monitor that detects the baby’s heartbeat so she could feel it through the speaker for the first time. Or as she grabbed my hand again while in intense labor and brought forth her child into the world. Standing on the floor just a few feet away from Eddie Vedder at a Pearl Jam concert or the Trans Siberian Orchestra was exhilarating. (Yes, Deaf people attend concerts) Watching and signing as the Deaf student I sat with in class after class walk across a totally different stage and get a well-deserved degree.

I no longer work as an interpreter full time. Life has pulled me in many directions over the years and after experiencing a bit of burnout, I have stepped back from it for awhile. I still freelance from time to time and I can see returning again somewhere in the future. It’s a life experience that has shaped me as a person and I am so thankful and grateful to be a part of their world in some small way. I am lucky to call some of them my friends still today.

So the next time you see an interpreter on stage, or perhaps at your job or in your school—making crazy facial expressions and shaping their bodies and hands in some exotic sign language dance, I hope you can see them in a different light. I hope you see the weight on their shoulders, the life experiences they have shared and the tasks set ahead of them. And if you feel inspired, I hope you give them a respectful nod and smile.

And please don’t ask them if they know braille.

Relephant Reads:

Kindergarten Girl Performs Holiday Concert in Sign Language for her Deaf Parents. {Video}

The Signs of Love: A World Hidden in Plain Sight. 


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons


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