You’re a what? – being an interpreter for the deaf

Imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to be deaf. You cannot hear what people say. Nor can you hear your own voice, and so you can learn to form words only with great difficulty. How would you make your ideas known? And how would you learn what others have to say?

This challenge confronts 14 million deaf and hearing-impaired Americans every day. Despite these obstacles, however, they do communicate effectively. Through methods such as sign language and finger spelling, they participate in schools, the workplace, and society generally. Some situations, however, call for a person equally skilled in speaking and signing to serve as a bridge between the world of silence and the world of sound. These people are known as sign language interpreters.

Bob Chandler is an interpreter who was introduced to sign language as a child. Both his parents are deaf, and he believes that he probably learned to sign before he learned to speak. After graduating from college with a degree in history, he did volunteer work with several organizations, including Alcoholics Anonymous. Work like this led to a position teaching sign language to mentally retarded deaf children. Eventually, Bob returned to school and earned a master’s degree in rehabilitation/counseling of the hearing impaired. Soon thereafter, he was recruited by Deafpride, Inc., an agency that provides interpreting services.

In the recent past, most sign interpreters were friends of deaf persons or members of a deaf person’s family. But more and more people like Bob are earning their living as interpreters. Many, like Bob, graduated from training programs. Such programs are offered by colleges and universities in more than 30 States.

The trained interpreter is qualified in various manual communication systems, including American Sign Language and manually Coded English.

Interpreters often differentiate between types of interpreting. Platform interpreting is performed near the speaker–on a platform or a stage–and in front of an audience. Such interpreters must use large, clear signs. In contrast, one-on-one interpreting is doen face to face with the client. Janet Bailey, president of Sign Language Associates, Inc., an interpreting services firm, has experience with both types.

Janet became acquainted with sign language at an early age. Her mother, an instructor in a school for deaf children, taught her finger spelling. As an adult, her interest in signing was renewed when she helped a neighbor’s child enroll in a sign language course at Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C. Janet decided to enroll, too. She completed several more courses and began to undertake some interpreting assignments. When Good Vibrations, a theatrical production, was staged at the college, she became part of the show, combining her interpreting skills and her acting talents. She has gone on to interpret for the Folger Shakespeare Theater, Arena Stage, Ford’s Theater, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing arts, all in Washington.

Sign language interpretation places some unusual demands on its practitioners. Michael Jay Hartmann can attest to that. He’s been interpreting for 12 years and has worked in a variety of situations, including owning and running his own interpreting services firm. He, too, began his career with voluntary work, interpreting for fellow students at the University of California and at religious services at the local temple. He now works as a program specialist for the handicapped for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where his duties include being the official interpreter for the Secretary.

Bob, Michael, and Janet are among the 2,600 certified sign language interpreters in the United States. Certification is awarded by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), a non-profit organization of professional interpreters. RID offers three different kinds of certification: comprehensive, performing arts, and legal.

Some of the principal customers of interpreters are schools, courts, and medical institutions. Most clients hire interpreters for one assignment at a time, so interpreters are usually freelancers. As a rule, they are paid by the hour, with rates starting at $10 and going up depending on the expertise of the interpreter and the complexity of the assignment.

Freelancing can be difficult. For Maureen Baglio, a freelancer affiliated with Sign Language Associates, the nature of the work is both a drawback and an advantage. “The uncertainty can be unnerving,” she says, but adds that freelancing provides a freedom not found in salaried employment. Bob Chandler agrees. “You must be able to deal with an uncertain schedule and do without the fringe benefits that most people take for granted,” he states. “Byt,” he continues, “the thing I like is being in a different situation every day.”

Bob’s statement points toward one advantage of being a sign language interpreter. It’s easy to move from job to job and place to place. Interpreters can find work all over the country. Michael Jay Hartmann says he was working 2 days after he arrived in Washington. “This is a good profession to be in if you’ve been properly trained,” he says.

To be a good interpreter, you must possess certain talents. Sign language interpreters have excellent listening skills, clear mouth movements, and a good imagination. The best interpreters are excellent mimics. A shrug of the shoulders or a tilt of an eyebrow might be essential to impart to only the message but the nuances as well.

Sign language interpretation also demands fortitude. The energy and concentration necessary to listen to a speaker and provide a simultaneous translation to the client are considerable. For this reason, interpreters often work in teams when doing a particularly long session, alternating about every half hour.

According to Richard Dirst, former executive director of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, there is a growing need for interpreters. He states, “Opportunties in interpreting for the deaf are increasing rapidly throughout the United States. The increased demand for interpreters in all facets of the deaf individual’s life has created a shortage of qualified interpreters in almost every part of the country.”

A Career as an interpreter for the deaf can be challenging and rewarding. The ability to communicate in another langauge opens up a wide variety of opportunities and offers the chance to see the world from a wholly new perspective. To be an intepreter also provides the chance to be of service to those who can use your help.

For more information on training programs in sign language interpreting, send $2.50 for the Resource Guide: Interpreter Training Programs to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc., 814 Thayer Ave., Silver spring, Md. 20910.

For a copy of “Careers in Deafness” write to Public Service Programs, Gallaudet College, Washington, D.C. 20002.

COPYRIGHT 1984 U.S. Government Printing Office

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group