What does an interpreter do? She uses both cognitive and physical processes to transfer a spoken language into a visual language. While an interpreter simultaneously translates, she is using, according to research, over 300 processes in the brain. Wow. No wonder after an hour, her wrists and shoulders ache and she’s mentally fatigued in need of a break before the next hour.
An interpreter has a lot to do. She is not only working for the deaf person, she is also working for the hearing person. It is the hearing person who doesn’t have the visual language; yet, this gets lost somewhere.
At an assignment I introduce myself to both the deaf and the hearing speakers and receivers. In talking with each person, I quickly evaluate their language. The hearing person: Speaking pace, does he mumble, vocabulary choices, tone—is he sarcastic? Is he jolly? The deaf person: Does he use many idioms, his sign style, his speed, his sentence structuring to name a few. It can be knee-knocking time when walking into a situation cold.
My experiences are many. In one assignment, after introductions, I began interpreting. The hearing person didn’t appreciate the distraction and asked me to sit in the back. The deaf person explained the reasoning why sitting in the back or even outside the room, as the hearing person would have preferred, wasn’t feasible. As the deaf person signed and I put their visual language into spoken language, the hearing person walked up to me and asked: “You talk? Why are you talking?” Working conditions can be exasperating.
American Sign Language is different from spoken language in specific ways. Spoken language is linear—one sound can be made or received at a time. Visual language shows a whole scene at one time. ASL is about handshape, palm orientation, location, movement, non-manual expressions, classifiers, inflection. It has a topic-comment syntax structure. A mistake in any of these can mean the difference between Japan and vagina. Imagine the deaf person wondering why the hearing person has asked him if has toured the vagina.
Can you also see why a deaf person would stand back some when an unfamiliar interpreter walks into his meeting with his tax auditor? It isn’t only the interpreter who wants this profession to matter; it is also the deaf person who has to negotiate this whacky profession.