Posted by: Staff | 12.07.2009

My Life as an American Sign Language Interpreter

VERONICA BARRY

“Why does that guy sound like a chick?” “Who is that woman who follows that kid around all day?” “Why do they always look like they’re going to a funeral?” “How did you get started doing that?!” These are questions my fellow interpreters and I are asked on a daily basis, and now that there are two interpreters on the school’s campus, it seems like a good time to finally speak up.          

  I was born and raised in San Jose, CA to a middle class family that supported me in my dreams of one day becoming a famous actress. Most of my time was spent at dance class or in a theater, and the majority of my high school career was concentrated on after school rehearsals and remembering my choreography. Then, in the beginning of my senior year, I realized I really didn’t like the idea of moving to New York and living in a tiny apartment, working as a waitress and trying to struggle my way onto Broadway (granted I have many friends who have done this and actually become very successful), so I began to look into different careers. It just so happen I had grown up with an interest in American Sign Language, though I was pretty clueless still at that point, and thought that coming back to my 10 year class reunion as an ASL interpreter would be a great bragging right. I then changed paths completely, and my first year of college was devoted to learning a new language all in the hopes of looking “cool.” Little did I know, this decision would be one of the best I have ever made and take me further in life than I had ever imagined.

            After one year at a Californian community college, I transferred to Northeastern University, joining their ASL/English Interpreting program. It was during my time here in Boston that I was first introduced to the realities of the job I was planning my whole life around. As it turns out, interpreting is actually a very complicated job involving multiple brain processes working in tandem and incorporating ethical decision making and judgment. What I had always seen as the lady who sits in front flapping her arms actually involves listening to or watching a message, figuring out what it means, thinking of how it would be said and makes the most sense in ASL or English (depending on who is saying it), and then producing the equivalent meaning in the opposite language…. all at the same time. That’s like rubbing your stomach, patting your head, tap dancing, and telling a detailed story about someone else’s life all at the same time, if you can imagine that. Needless to say it is a challenge, but I’ve always loved a challenge and this one was no exception.

            The more I immersed myself in my training, the more I found a home in the Deaf community and really came to enjoy the people I am privileged to work with everyday. This became a huge benefit to my work since interpreting is really a people-based business. As interpreters, we are called on to be in any situation you could possibly dream up from the most intimate to the very public. Doctors offices, college classrooms, courthouses, presidential addresses, conversations between friends, therapy sessions, job interviews, and even high school classrooms are literally just a few of the places we are invited into. It is commonly said, “interpreters are there from birth to death, and everything in between.” Though we are only seen as communication facilitator, over the years I have learned the job is much more than that, and to do it well takes a person who is able to maintain their ethical boundaries while still having fun at what they do.

            As to the questions I posed at the beginning of this article, which are commonly asked by the layperson, I will now give you a few answers while I have your attention:

1) Why does that guy sound like a chick?

– Well, that would be because the interpreting profession is 95% women, meaning Deaf men are extremely lucky if they get to sound like a man to non-deaf people.

2) Who is that woman who follows that kid around all day?

– That is a person who knows both Deaf and hearing culture, both ASL and English, and is ready to interpret any time the Deaf person would like to interact with someone who does not know their native language and vice versa.

3) Why do they always look like they’re going to a funeral?

            -The rule of thumb for interpreters is to wear a solid color shirt that is in contrast to your own skin color. In my case, I am very fair skinned so black is an appropriate choice. On occasion one may see an interpreter with a darker skin tone wearing white because their hands can be more clearly seen, but in general, regardless of skin color, most interpreters wear black. It becomes less visually distracting to the Deaf person and easier to blend in/not be noticed by the participants of the interaction (though can you really forget there is an extra person sitting in on your private meeting? Not really, but we try our best!)

4) How did you get into this job?

-See above

5) Is it hard not to laugh when you are interpreting?

– Yes! You can’t imagine some of the stuff that comes out of people’s mouths or off their hands! So if you think you’ve said something funny while there is an interpreter with you and you don’t see them crack up, just know they are laughing on the inside and trying their best not to show it.

6) That person was talking so fast, how do you keep up with everything they said?

            – Previously I explain a little about the mental process that is happening while the interpreter is working, but there are two other things that really help out if it starts to get to a break-neck speed: a) The more an interpreter knows about a subject, the better able they are to interpret clearly. It takes away one step in the mental process because the interpreter doesn’t have to figure out what everything means, they already have a schema and background knowledge, which means the actual message is all that is left to get across. b) The interpretation process is just that, an interpretation. That means the interpreter is trying to pass on the meaning of what is being said, not every single word. So if a person is speaking a mile a minute but really not saying much, the interpreter can keep up because there is not a lot of meaning to convey.

7) Are interpreters allowed to talk when there are no Deaf people around?

            – Yes. We are human. As I said before, this job really attracts people who are very social and like being around other people, so it can become very challenging when those who are not used to being around interpreters misunderstand the situation. In general, when an interpreter is working (in and around hearing and Deaf people who are communicating), it is better not to direct any questions or comments to the interpreter. If you see us just walking in the hall or on a break, feel free to say hi or ask any questions you may have, we’d love to answer them all!

All in all, I love my job for the variety of work I get to do, the people I get to meet, the constant learning I am afforded, and the fact that if I play my cards right, I can become a trusted staple in people’s everyday lives. This is one of the most challenging careers I could have ever picked, but it is also one of the most satisfying and rewarding.

Sometimes we are considered a great addition and make an interaction “so much more lively” and other times we are seen as a foreign body that just tags along and you can’t get away from, but either way I love my work and would fall into it again in a heart beat.

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Responses

  1. Thank you for your article. I found it very interesting and comforting coming from the mother of an ASL interpreting student at Columbia College in Chicago Il. We too are a middle class family supporting our two kids in their dreams. I found it funny in the respect that you considered theatre first. My son IS in NY trying to make it on Broadway. He attended Webster Conservatory in Missouri and has had an Off Broadway Show but does struggle and works in the resteraunt business to support himself. Emily is a natural at ASL and I am very proud of her. I thought this field was hard, buy now as a second year student, I am beginning to understand just how very difficult it is. I have no doubt she will do fine because of her love for it and natural ability. Thank you for the information from your prespective. If you have any advice for us, we welcome it! Terri

  2. Hello! I loved this article. I am about to write a research paper on why ASL Interpreting is a predominantly female led field. I would love to hear your view on this. You seem quite insightful, do you have any suggestions for me, as far as resources go, that I should check out?
    Thanks!
    -Adrienne

  3. WOW! As an editor for this newspaper I have to say this is one of the best and most in depth articles I have ever read. This should have been the teacher article winner and I will bring this up the chief of staff.

  4. I’m a senior at Northeastern University as an ASL-English interpreting major, graduating soon (May 2010). This article does an awesome job of captivating what it means to be an interpreter! Thanks for spreading the word!

  5. question how long can an interpreters work befor requiring a break

  6. This article is wonderfully fulfilling. I currently attend Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences as a Nursing Major but I have recently decided to change my major to ASL-English Interpreting. It was a big step for me and though it is still very recent I’m quite sure of this. and This article was beautiful and made me feel like I am doing what I want to do and on the right track.

  7. I am a current interpreter student and doing an article on the life of the interpreter. I found your article very interesting and helpful. Just thinking about all that is involved in the mental process is daunting and I wonder if I can really do it anywhere but in a grade school or church setting. But I love the learning!

  8. Thank you to everyone for your comments! This article was mostly written as a basic introduction of two staff interpreters to the BCDS campus, but I am so happy to see that it has reached “outsiders” as well!
    In response to some of your questions:

    Adrienne: I am really not sure why the field is mostly women. I do know that this has been the case since the profession was officially established in 1964, but the real reason more women than men chose to follow this path is a mystery to me!

    Julio: Typically an interpreter can work for 20 minutes before another interpreter has to take over. Studies has shown that it is around the 20 minute mark that physical and mental fatigue set in and the number of errors in the interpretation increase. That number can be a little flexible, depending on how complicated the topic is and how fast the signer/speaker is going. There have been times when I can work for 45 mins and others when my team and I switch off every 10-15 mins.

    Karen: I know how you feel. The process is overwhelming, but if you’re in an interpreter training program (ITP) you are learning how to break it down and will be more prepared than you think when you get out into the real world. Be careful though, “grade school” actually isn’t the best place for a novice interpreter unless you are highly supervised and teamed with a much more experienced interpreter. Church settings and college work tend to be a great place to start and as long as you stay open to learning and willing to improve your own work, you’ll be fine!

    In general, for anyone looking into or who is currently studying to become an interpreter, my advice is to be a life long student and to embrace the nervous feelings you may have about it. If you are nervous or wary of the work, it most likely means you are using discretion and at least thinking about your decisions before you make them.
    Also, respecting the Deaf community and working towards empowering them is another huge piece to this job. That means understanding their point of view and becoming a trusted member of the community i.e make Deaf friends and let the community get to know you before you put yourself into some of the most intimate moments of their lives. If all of those pieces are in your work and your heart is in the right place, there is no reason you can’t become a great interpreter.
    Thanks again to everyone for reading my article and commenting on it. If anyone has any more questions, please feel free to post and I will comment again ASAP!

    -Veronica 🙂

  9. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR WORDS. THEY ARE VERY ENCOURAGING. IM A FIRST YEAR STUDENT IN EL PASO, TEXAS. I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED SIGN LANGUAGE. WHY? I DONT KNOW ITS JUST IN ME. IM ALSO WRITING AN ESSAY ON MY CAREER. CAN YOU HELP? DESCRIBE A TYPICAL DAY FOR YOU AT WORK


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