Recently, a light has been cast on American Sign Language (ASL) and its presence on the national stage. Interpreters are regularly seen standing beside city officials as they brief their communities on dangerous weather conditions or next to political leaders. The increased presence and awareness of interpreters has stirred a reaction among audiences that misrepresents the message conveyed in the ASL interpretation. The interpreter’s job is to be the visible representation of the hearing speaker’s voice, essentially to take the entirety of what is heard and make it seen. This includes not only what is being said, but also how it is said.
Much of the commentary about interpreters can sound like this: “The interpreter was hamming it up for the audience, “I don’t know what the interpreter was saying, but it looked like she was having fun,” “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think this interpreter thought they were on stage at a play.” This commentary indicates a lack of understanding by the hearing community about how ASL is communicated.
As a professional interpreter myself, I can confidently say that professional interpreters work diligently to convey the speaker’s message, intent and meaning with incredible accuracy. Where does the misunderstanding lie within the viewing audiences about how ASL portrays spoken English?
Imagine a Deaf patient is at the doctor’s office for a headache and is using an interpreter. The doctor has reviewed the patient’s history and now wants to better understand the nature of the headache. The doctor asks, “Is your headache like those you’ve had in the past or does the headache feel like a migraine?”
The doctor has asked this question in a calm manner with the intent to seek further information and better understand the patient’s condition. The interpreter hears this intent and interprets the question. It is important to understand that the sign for ‘headache’ and ‘migraine’ are exactly the same, but the intensity in which it is signed on the hands and the facial expression combine to change the meaning entirely.
The word ‘migraine’ is signed with a wincing facial expression, a tense forehead, and squinting eyes while making the sign with more intensity and purpose. While the word ‘headache’ is signed more calmly, with some facial expressions of discomfort. The interpreter here isn’t being dramatic when signing ‘migraine’ but rather accurately conveying the weight of the word ‘migraine.’ Just as the word ‘migraine’ stirs a particular response or idea when heard by a hearing person, the sign for ‘migraine’ needs to stir an equal response or idea when seen by a Deaf person.
An observer unfamiliar with ASL who observes this exchange might think that the interpreter was dramatizing what the doctor had asked or embellished the question based on how she signed ‘migraine’ or ‘headache’. In ASL, how a sign is carried out, accompanied by body language, and facial expressions combine to determine the message, meaning. One cannot function without the other. In English, word choice, tone and intent are critical in delivering a message and if any part is isolated, it delivers an incomplete or possibly an entirely different message.
This basic example illustrates that though words may be spoken calmly or even quietly, if those words have a strong emotion and/or meaning attached to them, that information will be conveyed visually in ASL. To the unfamiliar observer, what is seen as ‘hamming it up’ is actually a professional interpreter bridging two languages with the complexity required for accuracy.