Hands Down26 Sep 2015, by Articles in
This article was originally published by Michael Schulman on The New Yorker.
Sign-language interpreters, like air-traffic controllers, usually attract attention only when they screw up. Part of the job is to blend in, even if you’re standing in front of eighty thousand people. That is not what happened last month in Johannesburg, when Thamsanqa Jantjie, the interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, was revealed to be an impostor, having translated the words of President Obama and other dignitaries into the signing equivalent of “Jabberwocky.” Although the details surrounding Jantjie grew progressively weirder and darker—he said that he had been having a schizophrenic episode during the service and was hallucinating angels; he has a criminal past—New Yorkers may have been reminded of Lydia Callis, Mayor Bloomberg’s interpreter during Hurricane Sandy. Callis’s emotive facial expressions during official press conferences made her a local star (Gawker called her “New York City’s Hurricane Crush”). This brings up a question: are sign-language interpreters going rogue?
“People should not be entering the field of interpreting to be seen,” an interpreter named Lynnette Taylor said the other day. Taylor is among sixty-five interpreters represented by All Hands in Motion, a referral company in New York City. (Because of anti-discrimination laws, the job is essentially recession-proof.) She and some of her colleagues had gathered for happy hour on the Lower East Side, to discuss the occupation’s perks (flexible hours) and hazards (carpal-tunnel syndrome). Like Candace Broecker-Penn, who sat to her left, Taylor is a Child of Deaf Adults, or CODA. Both recalled interpreting the coverage of the J.F.K. assassination from the television set when they were small children. “I would venture to say there isn’t any human interaction that we haven’t done,” Broecker-Penn said: bar mitzvahs, corporate retreats, astronomy lectures. “We need to be chameleons.” Broecker-Penn specializes in Broadway shows (“Sondheim is hard. Shakespeare is hard”), where she is careful not to upstage the actors: “I don’t want to be the star.”
But interpreters can’t be poker-faced; expression is integral to sign language. “The only way you can do a question is with your eyebrows,” another interpreter, Bill Moody, said. “A major way to do an adverb is with mouth movements.” He signed the phrase “driving without paying attention”: hands on an imaginary wheel, tongue poking out kittenishly. “Even in the high register”—formal speech—“there’s often irony, which you show in your face,” Moody went on, signing the words “She’s really pretty” with evident sarcasm. “That’s actually how we could detect that he wasn’t using a real language,” Taylor said of Jantjie. “There was no grammar on his face.” Nevertheless, interpreters take pains to match a speaker’s affect. In the case of Bloomberg’s interpreter, Taylor explained, “Her register didn’t match the register of the speaker. Bloomberg was very specific, dry, informative—and she was not.”
Janice Rimler, the company’s C.E.O. and an interpreter since 1985, added, “We’re not machines. I’ve done funerals, and I’ve done weddings. I just happen to cry at weddings.” Moody trained as an actor and had to quash his love of the spotlight when he took up interpreting. He learned sign language as a boy in Houston. “There was a magnificent woman who interpreted in church, and, by the time I was fourteen, I was sort of in love with her,” he recalled. “She was standing up in front of a congregation of a thousand people, and I said, ‘I want to stand in front!’ ” After giving him lessons for two years, the woman allowed him to do the hymns. “She had the most beautiful signs that I have ever seen.
Besides communicating tone, interpreters learn specialized vocabulary for particular settings, such as computing conferences and hospitals. It’s not enough to spell out the word “stent” to a cardiology patient, Moody said: “You better know how to picture the heart.” Christopher Tester, who is deaf, often works in the courts, where he interprets legal proceedings. Recently, he interpreted for a deaf couple undergoing a separation. Tester is often called on to translate American Sign Language into foreign variants. (British Sign Language is different from A.S.L., which is closer to French.) Sign language has adapted to political correctness in recent years. The sign for “Mexican” used to be “twirling the mustache like Frito Bandito,” Rimler said; limp wrists (for “gay”) and slant eyes (for “Chinese”) have also been jettisoned. In a few days, Tester, Moody, and Broecker-Penn would be interpreting for a Nelson Mandela tribute at the United Nations. They had not received the program yet, but they predicted that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would speak first. Moody insisted that he would put content over style: “I don’t care about showing that he has a Korean accent.