Finding Your Voice

Just as your body is the instrument you use to interpret from English to American Sign Language, your voice is the instrument you use to interpret from American Sign Language to English. This article is about learning to tune that instrument so that you may play it like a virtuoso when giving voice to a deaf person’s signed communication.

Although many people speak throughout their lives without ever giving a second thought to their language or their voices, there is a rich tradition of vocal training and oratory discipline that traces humankind’s history through the millennia. It is said that the great orator Demosthenes, of ancient Greece, overcame his habit of mumbling inaudibly by going to the seashore, filling his mouth full of pebbles, and forcing himself to articulate his words through the pebbles, projecting his voice out beyond the crashing waves. Certainly we interpreters, whose charge it is to render inaudible signed messages into audible spoken messages, could benefit those for whom we interpret by applying some of Demosthenes’ diligence toward developing our own voices.

Here are some of the resources that you may find invaluable in your vocal development:

  1. Reading: Read the classics, read novels, poetry, drama, newspapers, magazines, comics, cereal boxes—anything you can get your hands on. See how people use the English language to communicate their thoughts and feelings. Practice reading aloud “with feeling.” Try everyday to use a new word or phrase correctly during the course of your day.
  2. Listening: Listen to the radio, listen to comedians, tragedians, sportscasters, newscasters, car salesmen and singers. Hear how they use their voices to touch your heart and mind. Listen to how they pronounce words, listen to how they inflect words, listen to what they do with their voices to communicate thoughts and feelings. Listen to the natural cadence of human discourse. Try saying one sentence ten different ways for ten different effects, imitating some of the vocal styles you’ve heard.
  3. Vocal training: Whether you train your voice as a singer, actor, or broadcaster, it is amazing what you can learn about playing—and controlling—the “instrument” that is your voice. Vocal training teaches you how to enunciate your vowels and consonants, how to link words together properly (the French call this liaison), how to project your voice, and how to find the correct placement of your voice. This not only helps you to speak more powerfully; it also teaches you how to avoid straining your vocal chords.
  4. Public speaking: It could be argued that a public speaking class should be a requirement of every Interpreter Training Program. Many of the Deaf professionals who give the lectures we are assigned to interpret have studied public speaking, and in order to do justice to their speeches, it may behoove us to do the same. Doing so helps you to recognize topics, theses, introductions, arguments, and conclusions. It also teaches you transition words and phrases that speakers use to segue from one point to another. Knowing certain patterns of oratory can help you to recognize and predict them in a Deaf person’s rhetoric.
  5. Vocabulary expansion and grammatical correction: style guides, grammars, dictionaries, and thesauruses can help you enrich your treasure-trove of word choices and perfect your logical expression of ideas. The books listed in the bibliography below are some of the most definitive works on the subject of diction.

Whichever of these methods works for you, I hope that this article has given you some food for thought, as well as some helpful hints on how you can tune your instrument. Remember that anyone you interpret for, from the educated professional to the grassroots everyman, may communicate in a way that challenges you to be a great orator. Don’t be at a loss for words when they do. Find your voice, and let the Deaf speaker’s message come through loud and clear.


The Elements of Style Strunk and White, Macmillan

The Elements of Grammar Margaret Shertzer, Macmillan

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage H.W. Fowler, Wordsworth Reference

The King’s English H.W. and F.G. Fowler, Wordsworth Reference

Word Power Made Easy Norman Lewis, Pocket Books Reference

1000 Most Important Words Norman Schur, Ballantine Reference

This article was originally published in InTouch, the newsletter for the San Diego County chapter of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, in September 1998.





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