I'm lucky enough to have Elaine Gannon, author of Terps, here today. Her book is about an interpreter of sign language (shortened to "terp" - hence the title.) Elaine herself is a "Terp," and she has written this essay about what it is like.
“How did you get into sign language?”
People ask me this all the time. Hearing people who know nothing about it. Deaf people who know plenty and who are curious about where their interpreters are coming from. They want to know if their interpreters are codas (children of Deaf adults) or if they picked the language up as adults. While I admit to not being a coda, I am always quick to add that my husband is Deaf. I don’t know what this makes me, but it does buy me a bit of credibility when I first meet a Deaf consumer.
It’s a weird career, being the ears and voice of other people. When I’m interpreting, I’m not there. Hearing people try to start up side conversations with me, but I just sign whatever they’re saying to the Deaf person and refrain from being the one to respond. It’s not my conversation. Sometimes I interpret interesting chatter and long to be a participant instead of a conduit of communication, but I can’t. I’m a tool being used by the Deaf person at that moment. Sometimes I know more about a subject than the person who is speaking, but I can’t interject a quick statement of my own to make everyone else’s conversation clearer. I’m not there.
Most people have no idea of how to use me. I’m often asked to relay messages when I’m only supposed to interpret a person’s exact words as they’re being spoken. Hearing clients speak of Deaf participants in the third person while watching me instead of watching the person with whom they are actually speaking. “Tell her…Could you ask her...? Does she know if…?” Even then, it’s not my job to say, “Tell her yourself. I’ll interpret.” It’s tempting, but that’s up to the Deaf consumer to handle.
One of the most interesting things about being absorbed into the culture that exists where hearing and Deaf overlap is just how normal it is to be Deaf and to be among the Deaf. It’s just another language—and a beautiful one. Whenever I include a hearing non-signer in a Deaf event, it’s the hearing person who has the disability in that instance. Deaf people have a rich culture and a fascinating history in this country and it continues to grow more complicated as more people attempt to “fix” them with technology. It’s been that way since Alexander Graham Bell tried to do away with Sign Language and that’s not likely to change any time soon.
It’s an honor to be a fly on the wall in so many people’s lives.
(If you are interested in reading Terps, you can find it here.)