Reaching Through the Silence

Most of the time, to most of us, American Sign Language interpreters are almost invisible. We see them standing near the speaker at a graduation ceremony or a press conference, but once the speaker gets started, the interpreter tends to fade into the background. Sometimes, true, an interpreter is so dynamic that it’s hard to look away. In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy threatened New York, Mayor Bloomberg’s interpreter, Lydia Callis, just about stole the show with her exuberant signing. And in 2013, people again took notice when the man supposedly interpreting for President Obama at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela turned out to be an imposter using nonsense signs. Usually, though, it’s easy to ignore the interpreters who provide a vital service for some members of our communities.

One of my daughters, Sarah Gershone, has always been fascinated by American Sign Language. She started studying it while still in high school and earned her national certification as an interpreter after graduating from college. At her suggestion, I wrote first a short story and then a novel with an ASL interpreter as the protagonist. Sarah was my constant advisor while I worked on both, and she advised me again when I decided to write a column answering five basic questions about sign language and interpreting:

Why do ASL interpreters usually wear dark, plain clothing?

Interpreters want people to focus on their hands and faces, not on what they’re wearing. That means solid colors generally work better than prints or plaids–hands show up more clearly against a plain background. Interpreters also avoid plunging necklines, bare arms, jangly jewelry, elaborate hairstyles, heavy makeup, even buttons. Anything that might be a distraction could interfere with communication.

Why do interpreters sometimes use facial expressions that seem exaggerated?

When Sarah was working toward certification and said she was taking a course on facial expressions, I was surprised. But facial expressions, along with body movements, are an important part of ASL. They can indicate tone, intensity, even the difference between a statement and a question.  For example, you sign the word “no” by bringing your index and middle fingers down to close against your thumb. If you want to make the “no” emphatic, you might add a head shake, a frown, scrunched-down eyebrows.

What kinds of challenges do ASL interpreters face?

Interpreting can be very satisfying, but it can also be exhausting. Stress on the hands often becomes intense, especially if several speakers are involved in a conversation: Other people are setting the pace, and the interpreter must scramble to keep up. (That’s one reason interpreters work in pairs when possible.)

Also, interpreters often work with deaf people in highly charged situations–when they’re getting bad news from doctors, when they’re being fired, when they’re confiding in divorce lawyers, when they’re telling psychiatrists about childhood traumas. All that can leave an interpreter feeling shattered and overwhelmed by the end of the day.

Interpreters face tough ethical dilemmas, too. An interpreter provides deaf people with an essential link to the hearing world. If deaf people fear an interpreter might repeat something they sign, they won’t feel free to communicate without reservations. So interpreters have to keep everything they interpret absolutely confidential, and they aren’t allowed to offer advice unless the deaf person asks them to. If the client is a deaf teenaged girl agreeing to meet a much older man in a seedy motel, the interpreter can’t caution the girl or warn her parents. If a hearing person is luring a deaf person into a financial scam, the interpreter isn’t allowed to comment. These sorts of situations can leave an interpreter feeling shattered and overwhelmed, too.

As a hearing person, how should I interact with a deaf person who has an interpreter?

It may feel odd to talk to someone who can’t hear you and ignore someone you can see, but that really is the best way to communicate with a deaf person. Don’t tell the interpreter, “Please ask John how he’s feeling today.” Instead, look directly at John and say, “How do you feel today?” The interpreter will sign whatever you say and voice whatever John signs. During the conversation, try to forget the interpreter’s there. Again, that may seem odd, even impossible, but it works. Before long, it will probably start to feel natural. The goal is to communicate directly with John, just as you would with a hearing person. When the conversation is over, it’s fine to thank the interpreter, but don’t try to get him or her involved in the conversation itself.

If I encounter a deaf person who doesn’t have an interpreter, should I try to communicate?

Definitely. Don’t let embarrassment about not knowing sign language hold you back. Deaf people can feel isolated. When hearing people back away because they feel awkward, that feeling intensifies. So if a deaf person tries to ask you a question or start a conversation, do your best. Write a note on a piece of paper, or type it on your phone and hold it up. Use facial expressions, improvised gestures, smiles. No matter how inept you feel, the deaf person will probably appreciate your efforts–especially if you’ve learned a few basic signs to help things along.

If you’re interested in learning more about American Sign Language, you have several options. There are some helpful websites. ASL pro (, for example, offers video dictionaries and quizzes that can introduce you to everything from the ASL alphabet to advanced vocabulary and idioms. You might also try books and videos–your public library probably has some. If you get really interested, you can check the course listings at local colleges and community colleges.

And the next time you see an ASL interpreter working at an event, consider going up afterwards to say hello. Interpreters can be all too easy to ignore, but they’re fascinating people doing a complex, crucially important job.