Communicating the Joy of the Arts
Sign Language Interpreters Hone Skills at Cultural Events
Written by Robin Reid
Photography courtesy of David Rehor
Pictured: Interns meet with their mentor immediately after each assignment to get feedback on their work. L-R: Susan Roza (intern), Amy Bopp (mentor), Nina McFadden (intern)
Susan Roza’s task on the night of September 12 was daunting: the sign language interpreter was going to spend the next forty minutes recounting in American Sign Language what author Sally H. Jacobs was saying about her new book, The Other Barack, at the Enoch Pratt Library. To the hearing audience assembled in the room, Roza’s gestures and expressions looked a bit like mime. To the deaf audience, those same gestures and expressions offered an entrance into a new venue, one where they could participate and enjoy a lecture that otherwise would have been all but inaccessible.
Roza is an intern in the Hearing and Speech Agency’s Centralized Interpreter Referral Service (CIRS) Interpreter Mentoring Program. CIRS began the program about twenty years ago as a way for students of interpreter training programs to hone their craft outside of the classroom. The program has evolved over the last two decades and expanded in 2007 with the addition of Lisa Weems, who leads the professional education and training of CIRS’s team of interpreters and interns.
In 2008, the program got its first “foreign” student, from Pennsylvania’s Bloomsburg University. As the program expanded, other students joined. Many came from the Community College of Baltimore County; however, some came from as far away as Western Oregon University, which offers a bachelor's degree program in Interpreting Studies. The interns spend a year learning the requisite skill sets in preparation for professional practice. They test what they’ve learned regularly by interpreting events for Baltimore arts organizations, like the Pratt.
It’s a win-win situation, Weems explained. “This is a safe environment for interns. If you as an interpreter misrepresent a person during a medical appointment, that could affect the health care that person gets. The places we go are museums, libraries, places where none of the information you’re conveying is crucial to conducting life,” she said. “And the museums are places that don’t typically provide interpreting services without a specific request.”
The Hearing and Speech Agency started contacting arts organizations and local nonprofits about the program late last year. Weems and her colleagues have ten community partners (including the Pratt) so far. But that list is sure to grow; the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
The interns usually work in teams with a supervising mentor,and they’re called upon to interpret lectures, movies, museum tours, and book signings. Sometimes they get material in advance to prepare. Often times, though, they have to wing it. Like Roza did with Sally Jacobs. “What I love to do ahead of time is go to NPR or WYPR to see if the author has given interviews,” she said. “You can get an idea of their voice register, how quickly they speak, and their use of language.”
Intern Jovita Douglas was preparing to interpret a symposium at the Pratt on carcinogens. “I’ll look up the speaker’s background and history. Then I try to listen to anything I can find to see if he or she pauses a lot; that gives you time to reflect on what has been said.”
Interpreting is not simply a matter of repeating what has been said verbatim. Weems said the interns must also convey the speaker’s tone. “If someone is being condescending,” she added, “our client has a right to know.”
And then there’s conveying intent, a tricky aspect of interpreting. “You can spend years talking about speaker intent,” Weems said. “It’s not just about finding a word. There is cultural information, how we interpret to a specific audience, and what to do when the message being said is confused. There are all these little complexities that the interns don’t learn in school that they’re forced to confront here.”
At the end of the program, the interns join CIRS’s roster of almost two hundred interpreters, who work as independent contractors and are available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Most services are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires facilities to be accessible to all individuals. For a deaf person, that often means the provision of an interpreter when clear communication is important. Clients most commonly need interpreters at hospitals and medical offices. Interpreters may also be used at schools, job training facilities, courts, and family events. CIRS Interpreters are provided for funerals for no charge.
“We educate clients on how to use interpreters also,” said Tina Montgomery, director of CIRS. “If someone says to us, 'Now don’t interpret that,’ we say 'It’s our responsibility to interpret everything heard into sign language and everything that is signed, I will voice.' It’s our obligation to convey to our clients everything that happens."