Deaf Interpreter

by Paul Hostovsky

“Are you the deaf interpreter?” the nurse asks me. I get that a lot. I’m actually the hearing interpreter. I’m a sign language interpreter and I make my living interpreting for Deaf people and for hearing people who want to communicate with Deaf people. “No,” I tell her, “I’m the hearing interpreter. The Deaf interpreter is on her way. She should be here soon.” That’s the truth but for some reason the truth is hard for hearing people to hear. She knits her brows together as if this were a conundrum, a difficult case for the doctor to untangle, the doctor who is in the examining room right now with the Deaf patient writing back and forth in his famous illegible handwriting. 

Most hearing people don’t know they’re hearing. That is, they don’t know that hearing is the word for what they are. The blind call people who see sighted. The Deaf call people who hear hearing. And a person who makes his living interpreting for Deaf and hearing people is called an ASL interpreter. But hearing people often call us the deaf interpreter. I guess it makes sense to them: the interpreter for the Deaf is the deaf interpreter. But I’m not the deaf interpreter. I’m the hearing interpreter. The Deaf interpreter is on her way. And thank God for that, because the patient in the examining room, as I soon find out, is a Deaf gentleman from Russia, where they use Russian Sign Language (RSL), and his ASL is only a little better than my non-existent RSL. So I need backup. I need help.

Deaf interpreters are Deaf. They’re Deaf sign language interpreters. They often work in tandem with hearing sign language interpreters, not unlike the way a surgeon will work in tandem with another surgeon, or an architect with a civil engineer, or a pilot with a copilot. You’ve probably seen Deaf interpreters on TV, interpreting for the mayor or the governor or the FEMA director, and you didn’t realize they were Deaf. As for me, I can almost always tell the difference between a Deaf interpreter and a hearing interpreter on TV because the Deaf interpreter’s signing is always so–well–Deaf. Which is to say, virtuosic. If it’s a Deaf interpreter, there’s a hearing interpreter off-camera, across from the Deaf interpreter, “feeding” them the spoken message, which the Deaf interpreter then re-interprets in a way that is more luminous, more limpid, more elegant, more accurate, and more Deaf. The Deaf interpreters are the rock stars of the sign language interpreting profession. They do it better than we hearing interpreters because ASL belongs to them. Because they grew up with it, live it, love it, eat it, breathe it, and they own it collectively with other Deaf people.

All men are poets at heart, said Emerson, though Goethe may have said it first, in German. And Novalis may have said it before Goethe. I say all Deaf people are ASL poets in their ASL hearts, at least all the Deaf people I have ever known. And I’ve known quite a few in my lifetime. The way they’re able to play with the language, the way it lives in their faces, their bodies, the way they make it come alive before your very eyes, all Deaf signers are poets at heart. And the Deaf interpreters, who are bilingual, fluent in English and ASL, and who make a living dancing between the two, make the best interpreters when it comes to translating English into ASL. It makes perfect sense: a native speaker of the target language is almost always better versed in the nuances of that language than someone who learned it later in life. In other words, as the joke goes: “Do you not be happy with me as the translator of the books of you?” Funny, yes, but seriously, that’s the kind of mangled syntax and odd phrase structure that Deaf people are often exposed to at the hands of less-than-fluent hearing sign language interpreters. If only there were enough Deaf interpreters to go around, to save the day for all involved by steering their ASL ambulances into the linguistic and cultural head-on collisions and hot messes that we hearing interpreters sometimes make of things when left to our own devices.

When the Deaf interpreter–my team for this assignment–arrives at the doctor’s office, she gives me a smile and a howdy, apologizes for being a little late, and introduces herself to the doctor and the patient. And though she doesn’t know Russian Sign Language herself, she is far more able to communicate with the Deaf consumer than I am. That’s partly because of certain language universals that all signed languages share, and because she is Deaf and he is Deaf (that they share that is just as crucial), and because she has an imaginary (and a literal) toolbox that I don’t have, which includes the ability to act things out in intuitive, gestural ways that are amazingly clear, as well as an illustrated anatomy book that she has brought with her, and paper and pens and figurines and whatever it takes to make sure she understands and is being understood by the Deaf consumer. The appointment goes off without a hitch, everyone says what they needed to say, and is understood by all, and the patient gets a diagnosis, some medication, and a follow-up appointment in a month. And the doctor is blown away by how smoothly it all went, compared to when he was trying to write back and forth with the patient, after asking him if he could lipread, which was the only sentence the Deaf patient could lipread, which was why he shook his head, No.

On our way out, the doctor asks me, “How long did it take you to learn that?” Of course, what he means is how long did it take to learn sign language. But what he’s really asking is: How long does it take to learn how to effectively interpret a medical appointment for a Deaf patient (from another country) and his doctor, while working in tandem with a Deaf interpreter? And because the Deaf interpreter is standing right beside me, I sim-com (talk and sign at the same time) in order  to include her in the conversation. And I say to the doctor, “It takes about as long as it took you to learn that. What, four years for medical school, three for residency, and more if you want to specialize? Actually, it takes longer than that. It takes a lifetime,” I tell him. “I’m still learning. I never stop learning,” 

 “Hear, hear!” says the Deaf interpreter, and gives me a fist-bump. Then she turns to the doctor, who looks a little lost, so she gives him a fist-bump, too.