Sign language interpreters (SLI) have been at work quietly for a long time. In the 1980s, I worked alongside several of them in Ottawa as what they call a voice interpreter at meetings for associations of the hard of hearing. I would translate a speech from French into English and then one of the SLI would take over and translate it into Canadian Sign Language, a dialect of American Sign Language (ASL). Meetings sometimes also used Quebec Sign Language (QSL), the sign language used by the French communities in Canada and not only in Quebec despite its name; this led to some very complicated set-ups. But it worked, largely due to the sign language interpreters’ amazing speed and expressiveness. Yet few people in the general public were aware of them.
In the meantime there have been changes not only in the interpreting but in the interest in sign language. When I started out, almost all the interpreters had grown up in families with a deaf parent or sibling and so they were early bilinguals. Hearing people, interpreters or not, who’d learnt sign language as a second language were rare. The only North American institution that offered a degree or diploma in sign language and sign language interpreting was the famous Gallaudet College (now University) in Washington DC, but they were intended for deaf students. Now there are plenty of sign language courses for the public, some even by internet, and several American universities offer degrees (to find them, Google internet sign language courses). The result is more second-language interpreters.
Furthermore SLI has become more professional, at least in North America and the UK; many employers require a certification and it’s possible to make a decent living at it. But one difficulty for second-language sign language learners is the need to penetrate and become immersed in not just the language but also the distinct deaf culture:
“ASL interpreting is an interactive process involving two languages and two cultures, one being a visual language (ASL) and deaf culture and the other being a spoken language (English) and hearing culture.”
Technology has arrived in this field like everywhere else. Sign language may not be ready yet for machine translation – it would need gesture recognition – but there are companies in the USA and the UK offering remote SLI by video.
Meanwhile gross mistakes persist about the nature of sign language. The most prevalent are first that SL works only by finger movements (called finger spelling). In fact it combines hand gestures, body language and facial expressions. Linguists call the face expressions facial morphemes. The second is that there is one universal SL. In fact each country, and sometimes each area or community within a country, has its own SL or variant of a SL, with the result that there are literally hundreds of them around the globe. In Canada only a small elite of interpreters know both ASL and QSL and can interpret between them. And third, the notion that SL is only a derived code, that is to say it is a way of encoding English, French etc. On the contrary, linguists have recognized ASL as a distinct language since the pioneer work of William Stokoe at Gallaudet in the 1960s.
“He was instrumental in changing the perception of ASL from that of a broken or simplified version of English to that of a complex and thriving natural language in its own right with an independent syntax and grammar as functional and powerful as any found in the oral languages of the world.”
In the last few weeks, as an unexpected by-product of the coronavirus crisis, a new public awareness has awakened. The media are suddenly full of reports about ASL interpreters, interviews with them and videos of them. The awakening has been sparked by the active presence of SLI on TV screens standing alongside public officials, especially the American state governors, as they give their daily briefings about the crisis. And there is more to it than just a presence. It used to be that when SLI were televised they were shown in a small vignette that made their signing barely visible. Now for the first time the interpreters are being shown life size, and it shows off not only their gestures but also their body language and facial expressions. The public has reacted to this. It makes them aware not only of the interpreting but also of the importance of the deaf community. People in both the USA and the UK have even been bringing lawsuits demanding SLI:
“The lack of sign language interpreters at the UK government's daily coronavirus press briefings has morphed from Twitter campaign to legal proceedings.”
Nor is SLI a purely North American newfound phenomenon:“Although she had been working as a sign language host of Shanghai Dragon TV for quite a long time, she still found it a demanding task to interpret all the released information with accuracy. Besides Zhang, a total of six volunteer interpreters selected by the Shanghai Disabled Persons' Federation now take turns to participate in the city's COVID-19 press conferences.”
The tributes to SLI include one from Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand.
Amidst all the new publicity for ASL interpreters, it’s important to remember, however, that not all deaf people use ASL or its equivalent in their country. Many of them were educated to lip read. Thus a Montana interpreter Vicki Gregori, interpreter for the state governor Steve Bullock, explains, “Masks are becoming increasingly common, but [she] isn’t able to wear one when she’s working, since some people read lips.”
There are many expressions of gratitude besides Jacinda Arden’s in the internet conversations. This, for example, from a hearing person:
“In these trying times can I just say that the sign language interpreter for Gov[ernor] Tim Walz and other MN [Minnesota] officials is an absolute treasure! She’s grabbing my attention more than the official statements.”
“The Deaf community in Minnesota is incredibly thrilled, and they are finally able to feel included and say we are here.”
Truly “the times they are a changing.” And for all the horror of the coronavirus pandemic, it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good.
It was in June 1869 that three young men received the first diplomas from Gallaudet. Their diplomas were signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, and to this day the diplomas of all Gallaudet graduates are signed by the presiding U.S. president.
Gallaudet University. https://www.gallaudet.edu.
William Stokoe. Wikipedia. 2020.
Beth Rose. Coronavirus: Lack of sign language interpreters leads to legal case against government. 28 April 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/disability-52323854.
Stephanie Vermillion. Sign language interpreters steal the show during Covid-19 news conferences. Howstuffworks. 14 April 2020.
Sign language interpreter, new spokesperson of COVID-19 press conferences. Xinhua. 23 February 2020. (Notice the date of this report and that the interpreters are NPIT volunteers.)