The Interpreter.

Via on Jan 10, 2014

Sign Language 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


About Dana Gornall

Dana Gornall is a mom of three crazy kids and a dog. She works as a licensed massage therapist in Amherst, Ohio and is a certified sign language interpreter. She is always looking forward to even more personal growth. While not interpreting, doing massage, or being with her family she loves going to yoga. You can connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.



36 Responses to “The Interpreter.”

  1. Debra says:

    I also became interested in ASL as a child. A deaf man came to our door and I gave him a quarter for his little sign language card that showed the alphabet. This was nearly 50 years ago and I can still finger spell.

  2. Amy says:

    Great article Dana! I am an interpreter and this is a great explanation of what we do and some of the issues we, and our clients/consumers, encounter. Thank you!

  3. Julie says:

    As an interpreter of 36 years, you hit every emotion and situation that we experience. Great article! Thanks for your insights into our world!

  4. Fay says:

    Very encouraging.My hearfelt respect ot alL you terps for your hard work. From a Deafie – Barbados

  5. Zoe says:

    This is a beautiful article. Thank you for sharing this treasure of an experience.

  6. Traci says:

    Well said. Thank you. ( from a fellow terp who also doesn't know Braille )

  7. Sarah says:

    As a fellow interpreter married to a Deaf man this brought tears to my eyes. This was beautiful written I can see your heart in the words. We recently brought into this world out 2nd daughter. My husband and I were discussing later how fantastic the interpreter was at the hospital during labor. My husband is my rock during labor and without having an interpreter there I don’t think we’d have the same experience. My husband was able to be right in sync with my midwife knowing where we were in labor and say the things I needed him to say to get me through, this because we of the interpreter.

  8. Mary says:

    Loved the article – in 3rd grade my teacher introduced me 2 ASL – i LOVED it and through out the years it seems like i have “exposed” 2 it – met a man giving ASL lesson and i took a few BUT it was ALWAYS in back if mind -12 yrs ago i had a daughter born w/Downs and was told she has mild hearing loss so i right away enrolled us in a class/workshop — she understood abt ASL at age 5 — she has LOTS of words under her belt lol BUT she never really spoke – come 2 find out that she wont b able 2 and ENT dr said her best firm of communication will b and should b ASL – so grateful for ALLL ppl who WANT 2 b interpreters so that they can go and HELP – although i am w/my dauhter and interpreter for her i am grateful that WHEN and IF she needs some1 to interpret some1 with loving heart will b there

  9. Rey Alfred A. Lee says:

    Hello, im Rey Lee from Philippines. Im Deaf and teacher and teaching FSL in Level 1-3, Deaf, HoH and Hearing.

    Im very interest and read from your informs about ASL and interperter..

    God bless you…


  10. Natalie says:

    Whaaaaat?? You don’t know Braille?? As a fellow DHH teacher, we get that all the time too plus some other off the wall ones. :/ Your article was awesome. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Maria says:

    This is so well-written…thank you for creating -and sharing- such a wonderful account of the complex (and rewarding!) work that we do!!

  12. Rachel says:

    Thank you for a wonderful article! I start my last semester in my interpreting training program on Monday. This inspires me to keep going! When I tell people that I’m studying to be an interpreter, they respond by moving their hands in a nonsensical fashion while saying “Oh, you’re going to do this?” Nine times out of 10, that’s the response I get…. :-)

  13. Michelle says:

    The beginning of this story really mirrored my experience, though it took me much longer to enter the field. thank you for sharing your story.

  14. Nathan says:

    I love your care and support for the deaf. But why is it that in my country ( Nigeria) the deaf do not get such services and hw can such services be made available to them

  15. Barrington H. says:

    Loved! Loved, loved, absolutely loved! This is uplifting and refreshing to read for an aspiring interpreter such as myself!! Thank you so much for sharing, Dana! I hope to experience some of the same obstacles and occurrences in my future career! God bless you! 😀

  16. Curtiss says:

    What a great article .. I’ve been interpreting since 06 and have felt/experienced many of the things you have written about. Kudos for opening the eyes of many people whom are not in our field & for allowing us terps to see .. we’re not alone.

    Best, Curtiss (CJ)

  17. Robin Reusch says:

    Wow, all I can say is Wow. Amazing , as an Interpreter of 30 years, I could not have said it better myself. Right to the point, all the emotions, situations, etc. I want to print this and frame it! Ugh , I also don’t know Braille, I will not teach you the “bad words ” and yes

    Deaf people CAN drive !

    Well done !

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