Lydia Callis, signed language interpreter for New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg, is getting a lot of attention these days for her interpreting during Hurricane Sandy. She’s been spoofed on Chelsea Handler’s show, she has Tumblrs dedicated to her, and she’s even been named Hot Slut of the Day by Dlisted.
Why all the attention? Is it because she’s an attractive woman doing something “exotic” with her hands? Or is it just because her facial expressions are markedly different from those of American English spoken discourse?
Would a male sign language interpreter get all of this attention?
There’s a context to this – one that every signing Deaf woman knows, and that many signing hearing women, including interpreters, are familiar with as well! Signing in a public space attracts attention; all too often this can be the wrong sort of attention, or at least, not the attention you’re looking for at work.
You might think, as I’m sure Lydia Callis did, that she was just a professional doing her job; others see her “expressiveness” as an open invitation to comment on her sexual desirability.
In grabbing her breasts, the actor impersonating Callis on the Chelsea Handler spoof, makes this explicit in more ways than one. (Boob grab starts at 1:33).
As I’ve noted before, hearing people (or at least, hearing philosophers) misunderstand the relationship of facial expressions to ASL all the time. ASL grammar is often marked on the face; Lydia Callis does this accurately and I would contend, appropriately.
There’s some quibble about the appropriateness of her interpretation, and this I have to take on faith, since I cannot assess it for myself, being deaf and all.
Signed language interpreters are expected to reproduce the content of the speaker’s message – this includes affect. My sources tell me that Mayor Bloomberg’s comments during this press conference were far removed from dynamic prosody.
Dramatic content? Sure.
Dramatic delivery? Not so much.
Here Lydia Callis diverges somewhat from expected professional norms by inflecting Bloomberg’s speech with more animation that he uses himself. I think she made the right call, and here’s why.
Professionals, and signed language interpreting is a profession, aren’t just repositories of information and best practices, but are people with the expertise to make expert judgments — often in cases where there are extenuating circumstances and few precedents.
Callis knew that she had two audiences. The audience in front of her at the press conference (and I do not know whether anyone in the room was relying on her interpretation), plus the unseen audience in TV land and cyberspace.
The audience in front of her could ask for clarification. The audience beyond the room cannot. Just as televised Broadway productions often elicit responses of overacting, the small screen has the same effect on signed language interpreters, magnifying the message in a way that would be utterly discomfiting in person.
People often overlook the sheer number of decisions interpreters make as they are working. Lydia Callis had to determine what she needed to do to make her message clear to the largest number of viewers. Deaf people living in NYC are as diverse as hearing people. There are people who are deaf who have cognitive disabilities, including those with dementia as well as those with developmental disabilities.
New York City is a polyglot city – not just for spoken language, but also for signed languages. Contrary to popular belief, signed language is not universal. That said, there are some iconic signs (see the signs for wind, tree, and flood) that could be readily understood by native users of say, Israeli Sign Language or Somali Sign Language living in NYC. Her facial expressions (which are not the same as ASL grammar) conveying fear, danger, and caution also help convey this message, as she herself notes:
“Hearing people tend to not understand that deaf people need those facial expressions… they need the body language” to make up for all of the information that’s usually transmitted in our voices when we speak, Callis said. “If I stand up there with a straight face and just interpret it, they’re not getting half the message.”
The message Lydia Callis conveyed during the press conference was one that could save lives. She opted to sign as clearly and (I dare say) expressively as possible in order to make sure that this message was understood.
The upshot? I’m glad that more attention is being given to this profession, even if some of the attention is less than positive. That said, some important issues are being overlooked. Here are three of them.
First, despite the Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act requiring captioned televised content to also be captioned online as of September 30, 2012, Chelsea Handler’s show flubbed this. Shame on them! Deaf people (at least some of us) like satire too.
Second, federal regulations require that emergency content on television be accessible visually to deaf and hard of hearing viewers. This means captioning and signed language – not all deaf and hard of hearing people know ASL. Given the heavy use of the internet through mobile devices, it is imperative that this includes porting the captioning along with the online televised content. This isn’t happening in every case, and lives are endangered because of it.
Third, I’m waiting for the day when a press conference happens and the words of a deaf professional just doing her job are interpreted from ASL into English. Something like this. (Starts at 2:37)
Getting past the exoticness of a person using language on the hands (and face) to attend to the person’s message itself? It could happen.