Befriending Phonemes

In my first column, back in June 1998, I wrote about how we as sign language interpreters for the Deaf are also “spoken language interpreters for the Hearing.” I emphasized the importance of brushing up on our English so that we could do justice to our clients—both Deaf and Hearing—when we voice-interpret. But is English really all we speak when we voice-interpret? Consider the following scenario:

You are interpreting for a Deaf man who is teaching a Deaf Culture class about the origins of ASL and how it differs from signed languages of foreign countries. How many foreign words and names, from how many different countries, are you going to need to pronounce? How many different speech-sound systems, or phonologies, do you need to have at least a passing familiarity with in order to successfully complete this assignment? How many phonemes will you be able to “pull out of your hat”? (Phonemes are the smallest units of meaningful sound in a language, for example, the sounds “f” and “th” [IPA Θ] which make the difference between “deaf” and “death”—a distinction I’m sure many of us wish more people understood!)

In the above scenario, I guarantee you’ll be pronouncing such venerated French names as Abbé de l’Epée, Jean Massieu, and Laurent Clerc, and such mouthfuls as La Langue des Signes Quebecquoise. You may even have to pronounce words like chercher which sound nothing like they are spelled (the French verb to search, chercher, is pronounced SHARE-SHAY, with the phoneme “r” pronounced as though you were gargling). Then, of course, there are the Spanish names like Ponce de Leon (which is pronounced more like PONE-SAY DAY LAY-OWN than PONTZ DUH LEE-ON, and which is much easier to pronounce than common names like Jorge Villapeña, which contain at least ten (10!) special phonemes that are unlike English). On top of that, you may have to pronounce phonemes from Japan, Italy, China, Africa, Russia, and the Czech Republic! Maybe, just for kicks, this teacher watches a lot of Seinfeld, and he’ll throw in some Yiddish along the way. And you thought all you’d have to speak was English? Oy, were you wrong!

No, my friends and colleagues, the wonderful truth is that (more…)

Making Sense of Tenses

“If I was you, I wouldn’t have went there and did that.”

“This agency is ran by the Deaf.”

“I move that the board purchases a new computer.”

“It is mandatory that she is on time, and that she has fun and does a good job.”

Do the above phrases sound right to you? If you answered no, your ear is finely tuned to the proper use of tenses in English grammar. If you answered yes, or were unsure, you may be running the risk of annoying—or worse, confusing—your hearing audience, and making a Deaf person sound less educated than s/he is.

This article will cover two of the most often misused tenses in the English language: the past participle and the subjunctive. In some regional dialects, these tenses seem to have disappeared, but they are still very much a part of Standard English. Let’s look at the examples above to see if we can make more sense of them with the proper tenses.


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:


Voicing with Valor

In what I hope will become an ongoing column, I would like to use this space to address ways in which we can advance our mastery of the spoken word in our sign-to-voice interpretations/transliterations. This column is dedicated to assisting the SDCRID interpreting community in better facilitating communication for both the Deaf and hearing consumers we serve. In mastering spoken communication, we better serve our Deaf clients by matching the eloquence of their signed messages, and we better serve our hearing clients by delivering spoken messages that flow effortlessly through their ears and into their minds.

Article 2 of the RID Code of Ethics admonishes interpreters/transliterators to, “render the message faithfully, always conveying the content and spirit of the speaker using language most readily understood by the person(s) whom they serve” (emphasis mine). If, in the case of sign-to-voice interpretation/transliteration, the “speaker” is Deaf, and the “person(s) whom [we] serve” hear and speak English, then it is our duty to render the message in clearly enunciated, well-projected English, unfettered with linguistic errors that might offend people’s ears and detract from the message.

While we may have a certain degree of leeway in making lexical andsyntactical choices for our sign-to-voice interpretations, it behooves us to render some form of grammatically correct English. Communication professionals, be they newscasters, public speakers, or radio/television announcers, standardize their English grammar and diction for the simple reason that they have important messages to deliver, and they want to deliver them in the most clear and efficient way possible. Shouldn’t we strive for the same standard? Not only is good English usage essential to our credibility as communication professionals; it is an indispensable tool in getting the job done. Grammatically correct English is clearest to the largest number of people, and it is offensive to the least number of people. A listener whose English is not grammatically correct is not likely to balk at the sound of grammatically correct English; however, academics and professionals who have worked to cultivate their English are likely to find grammatically incorrect English distracting, confusing, and even irritating. Allowing our own errors to muddythe message interferes with “render[ing] the message faithfully, using language most readily understood by the person(s) [we] serve.”

We owe it to our Deaf consumers to speak English as well as they would if they were hearing. When interpreting for a deaf person with a college education, you must be prepared to speak like a person with a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degree. If you are interpreting for a Deaf lecturer, chances are that person has studied public speaking; have you? In my opinion, a public speaking class should be a requirement of every Interpreter Training Program. A formal study of public speaking helps you to recognize a speaker’s topics, theses, introductions, arguments, and conclusions. It also teaches you transition words and phrases that speakers use to move from one point to another. Knowing certain patterns of oratory, and practicing them with your own voice, can help you to recognize and predict the same patterns in a Deaf person’s rhetoric. We owe it to both the Deaf speaker and the hearing audience to develop the public speaking skills to match a skilled Deaf speaker’s style and elocution. Likewise, we owe it to our hearing consumers to use our best English with them, for the same reason that we use our best ASL when signing to our Deaf ASL consumers. When we take considerable time and trouble to learn how to sign ASL correctly, we honor Deaf people’s language and culture, and show them that we take our jobs seriously as interpreters. By the same token, when we take the time and trouble to cultivate our English, we honor hearing people’s language and culture, as well as the time and trouble they took to cultivate their English. Just as we show our professional pride to the Deaf community by rendering beautiful ASL interpretations, we show hearing people that we take pride in our jobs as interpreters by rendering beautiful English interpretations.

Let us not forget that, although we may be called “Sign Language Interpreters for the Deaf,” we may as well be called “Spoken Language Interpreters for the Hearing.” It may sound funny, but it’s true; we exist not only to provide the Deaf with access to the hearing world, but also to provide the hearing with access to the Deaf world. Gone are the days when interpreters/transliterators were hired mainly so that the hearing could teach and lecture to the Deaf. As Deaf people advance higher and higher into professional and educational leadership capacities, they have more and more to teach hearing people. In order to meet the challenges of this growing demand, let us develop into a very special kind of communication professionals: cultural and linguistic mediators who have the unique ability to translate elegant signed language into equally elegant spoken language.

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