Friday, October 7, 2011

The Props

So I did it. I wrote a book about my own profession because no one else has done it. There is a smattering of Deaf representation out there and, once in a while, Deaf characters actually have interpreters, but the interpreter is usually more of a prop than anything else. Or the butt of a joke.

Once, on one of those CSI shows, the interpreter did it! Yes! The interpreter was the killer. It felt like progress to me, the acknowledgement that interpreters exist and have actual lives. So what if he committed the unpardonable act of killing off my favorite Deaf eye candy, Anthony Natale? The interpreter had a storyline! Okay, Marlee Matlin was also along for the ride. I like her and she’s a beautiful and talented actress, but she doesn’t have to pop in whenever someone somewhere whispers the word “Deaf.” 

A few years back there was a truly awful show called “Sue Thomas, FBEye.” It was based (loosely, I’m assuming) on the life of an actual Deaf FBI employee whose job it was to catch things from surveillance videos—body language, lip reading—that hearing people would miss. This is what I knew before seeing the show. I don’t know much about the real Sue Thomas, but I was mildly curious about how this would be portrayed on the TV show so I watched. 

It was confusing. Before the credits, I wasn’t even sure of who the Deaf character was supposed to be. I don’t mind that her character has clear intelligible speech, as does the actress, Deanne Bray. A lot of Deaf people do and I figure it’s their decision whether or not to communicate in that way. My beef with the show was that she was a Deaf federal employee in DC and she never seemed to have an interpreter. She was Deaf enough to need various kinds of Deaf technology and couldn’t use a regular phone, but no one I ever saw—I didn’t watch the entire series, but I’m making an assumption based on what I did sit through—came and interpreted for her. She brought a service dog to work (presumably to emote with a human understanding of surrounding events whenever the camera was aimed at it), but never an interpreter.

At the time, I was an educational interpreter in California so I didn’t know what went on in DC. Still, I knew something was way off when the Sue character was able to read lips in the midst of rapid-fire group conversations. The writers tried to make it realistic by presenting one or two words an episode to be misunderstood, but the rest of the time, Sue could read lips around corners and through solid objects and seemed magically able to predict who was about to speak next. When other Deaf characters were featured, they brought Sue in to interpret! Yes, they did that.  Thirty percent of the English language is visible on the lips and the rest is guesswork on the part of the Deaf person, but they thought it would be better to have another Deaf person interpret than to hire a qualified interpreter for interrogations. I can't even imagine the lawsuits. I work with the Deaf. I’m even married to the Deaf. This is not how things work.

The weird thing is that two Deaf friends of mine loved the show. I don’t know if it was because they were happy to see deafness portrayed in any way or if they just didn’t realize how unrealistic it was. Maybe they thought someone really could learn to lip read with such accuracy even if they couldn’t. My husband watched the first thirty seconds of the first episode, shook his head in disgust, and left the room. He never watched it again so I was never able to get his take on why someone working for the government would be Deaf enough to need a dog but not an interpreter.

I work in DC now in government settings. There are tons of interpreters all over the DC area and most do a lot of government work. I see Deaf people with interpreters all the time. I’ve never seen a Deaf person with a service dog at work.

The show “Switched at Birth” is actually done pretty well. One of the main characters is Deaf and she has some Deaf friends (including Marlee Matlin, of course!) and there is a lot of interaction that seems fairly plausible. Sometimes the Deaf characters are a little too quick to understand everything that’s being said around them, unless the story calls for them to be left out or to miss a lot, but that’s my main beef. One character even had an interpreter! He didn’t have much of a story and was nearly a prop, but he was there and was very likely a real interpreter with real signing skills. Progress. 

Yes, progress on the Deaf front. My novel is about Deaf Culture but from the interpreter’s perspective. Deaf characters are prominent throughout, but this is about how interpreters view that world—and even how their view of the hearing world alters after knowing what’s going on in the Deaf world.

Interpreters are a creative and intelligent little subculture in and of themselves. This is why the lack of fictional material about us is so surprising to me. We’re articulate and we like to impress each other by making our interpretations into an art form, but no one has bothered to make us real to anyone on the outside.

I don’t claim to have accomplished this, but I like to think I’m taking a stab at it. Making progress. I could never fit all of interpreting into one novel and I don’t claim to speak for us as a profession. I just wrote something that interested me, listening to my own gut as I went. My goal wasn’t just to educate people. That wouldn’t be any fun. I just wanted to give others the chance to get to know a few interpreters personally and to inhabit their world for a little while. 


  1. What an education just this post is. I had no idea about the subculture of interpreters. But I can well imagine it being an art.

  2. Wow! This is really interesting. I have never known anyone who spoke with signing. This is a whole new culture for me.

  3. I loved reading this post. My son is learning sign language in his first grade class so I've been seeing a lot of the sign language version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, among other songs. It's been fun to watch him learn but in the larger context it's cool that he is getting exposure to sign language at an early age...maybe someday he'll be a "Terp" too!