Sign Language Interpreters
“It’s a great occupation and a great profession…and there’s currently a shortage,” advises Bill Moody, who for over thirty years has been an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. He got into the field informally when, as a hearing teen in Houston, Texas, he observed a member of his church interpreting services for her deaf parents and decided to learn the language “because there were deaf people around and they were interesting.” Always attracted to performance, he earned an MA in theater from the Art Institute of Chicago and planned to be an actor. He earned money on the side as a sign language interpreter while doing stints as a director at the Chicago Theater for the Deaf and the National Theater for the Deaf in Connecticut. Through his theater connections, this master communicator went to Paris where he remained for seven years as an actor and interpreter and helped gain recognition for the deaf as a linguistic community. Currently, Moody works as a sign language interpreter for the New York City Department of Education where, together with 20 colleagues, he works on an hourly basis (with benefits) and also maintains a free-lance career. In the schools he interprets at meetings with deaf administrators, guidance counselors, food service personnel, parents, students, and teachers. He works at graduations and other events.
Today, “Most deaf people don’t think of themselves as disabled,” Moody explains. “They think of themselves as a linguistic minority with the same rights to services as any linguistic minority.” He credits the civil rights movement of the 60’s with spurring respect for sign as a “bona fide language.” Sign language does not depend on spoken language; there are different sign languages for different communities. American sign is an amalgam of the British and the French, with greater influence from the French which is considered more prestigious. Historically, sign was learned and practiced informally within a community, often by one family member needing to communicate with another. Unlike today, interpreters were not paid. The study of sign as a real language began in the early 60’s, and professional recognition followed with creation of the Sign Language Interpreter’s Association in 1964. Professional training programs for interpreters were established and today number about 100 around the country in four and two-year colleges. La Guardia Community College in New York City offers a two-year program. The American Sign Language/English School in Manhattan is a middle and high school that enrolls both hearing and deaf youngsters but expects all students to learn sign. The principal is deaf as are many of the teachers. Deaf children today have a better command of English than in the past because “there is much more language around.” “Technology has brought lots of English print into deaf lives; e-mail and closed-caption TV are great boons.”
For Moody, software programs that translate various languages into English demonstrate the complexity of the process and the difficulties of getting implicit rather than merely explicit messages across. Understanding cultural differences can be crucial to effective translations for diverse constituencies. “It really takes about 10 years to become fluent,” he maintains. He sees disadvantages in the current professional route of learning interpreting skills in academia rather than through contact with the deaf community. A good interpreter should know both the deaf and hearing worlds in order to make connections between them.#