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Tuesday, July 14, 2015


B.K. Stevens has published almost fifty short stories, most in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. She’s been nominated for Agatha and Macavity awards and has won a Derringer. Her first novel, Interpretation of Murder, centers on an American Sign Language interpreter. Learn more about B.K. and her writing at her website. 

Reaching Through the Silence
Most of the time, to most of us, American Sign Language interpreters are almost invisible. We see them standing near the speaker at a graduation ceremony or a press conference, but once the speaker gets started, the interpreter tends to fade into the background. Sometimes, true, an interpreter is so dynamic that it’s hard to look away. In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy threatened New York, Mayor Bloomberg’s interpreter, Lydia Callis, just about stole the show with her exuberant signing. And in 2013, people again took notice when the man supposedly interpreting for President Obama at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela turned out to be an imposter using nonsense signs. Usually, though, it’s easy to ignore the interpreters who provide a vital service for some members of our communities.

One of my daughters, Sarah Gershone, has always been fascinated by American Sign Language. She started studying it while still in high school and earned her national certification as an interpreter after graduating from college. At her suggestion, I wrote first a short story and then a novel with an ASL interpreter as the protagonist. Sarah was my constant advisor while I worked on both, and she advised me again when I decided to write a column answering five basic questions about sign language and interpreting:

Why do ASL interpreters usually wear dark, plain clothing?
Interpreters want people to focus on their hands and faces, not on what they’re wearing. That means solid colors generally work better than prints or plaids—hands show up more clearly against a plain background. Interpreters also avoid plunging necklines, bare arms, jangly jewelry, elaborate hairstyles, heavy makeup, even buttons. Anything that might be a distraction could interfere with communication.

Why do interpreters sometimes use facial expressions that seem exaggerated?
When Sarah was working toward certification and said she was taking a course on facial expressions, I was surprised. But facial expressions, along with body movements, are an important part of ASL. They can indicate tone, intensity, even the difference between a statement and a question.  For example, you sign the word “no” by bringing your index and middle fingers down to close against your thumb. If you want to make the “no” emphatic, you might add a head shake, a frown, scrunched-down eyebrows.

What kinds of challenges do ASL interpreters face?
Interpreting can be very satisfying, but it can also be exhausting. Stress on the hands often becomes intense, especially if several speakers are involved in a conversation: Other people are setting the pace, and the interpreter must scramble to keep up. (That’s one reason interpreters work in pairs when possible.)

Also, interpreters often work with deaf people in highly charged situations—when they’re getting bad news from doctors, when they’re being fired, when they’re confiding in divorce lawyers, when they’re telling psychiatrists about childhood traumas. All that can leave an interpreter feeling shattered and overwhelmed by the end of the day.

Interpreters face tough ethical dilemmas, too. An interpreter provides deaf people with an essential link to the hearing world. If deaf people fear an interpreter might repeat something they sign, they won’t feel free to communicate without reservations. So interpreters have to keep everything they interpret absolutely confidential, and they aren’t allowed to offer advice unless the deaf person asks them to. If the client is a deaf teenaged girl agreeing to meet a much older man in a seedy motel, the interpreter can’t caution the girl or warn her parents. If a hearing person is luring a deaf person into a financial scam, the interpreter isn’t allowed to comment. These sorts of situations can leave an interpreter feeling shattered and overwhelmed, too.

As a hearing person, how should I interact with a deaf person who has an interpreter?
It may feel odd to talk to someone who can’t hear you and ignore someone you can see, but that really is the best way to communicate with a deaf person. Don’t tell the interpreter, “Please ask John how he’s feeling today.” Instead, look directly at John and say, “How do you feel today?” The interpreter will sign whatever you say and voice whatever John signs. During the conversation, try to forget the interpreter’s there. Again, that may seem odd, even impossible, but it works. Before long, it will probably start to feel natural. The goal is to communicate directly with John, just as you would with a hearing person. When the conversation is over, it’s fine to thank the interpreter, but don’t try to get him or her involved in the conversation itself.

If I encounter a deaf person who doesn’t have an interpreter, should I try to communicate?
Definitely. Don’t let embarrassment about not knowing sign language hold you back. Deaf people can feel isolated. When hearing people back away because they feel awkward, that feeling intensifies. So if a deaf person tries to ask you a question or start a conversation, do your best. Write a note on a piece of paper, or type it on your phone and hold it up. Use facial expressions, improvised gestures, smiles. No matter how inept you feel, the deaf person will probably appreciate your efforts—especially if you’ve learned a few basic signs to help things along.

If you’re interested in learning more about American Sign Language, you have several options. There are some helpful websites. ASL pro (http://www.aslpro.com/), for example, offers video dictionaries and quizzes that can introduce you to everything from the ASL alphabet to advanced vocabulary and idioms. You might also try books and videos—your public library probably has some. If you get really interested, you can check the course listings at local colleges and community colleges.

And the next time you see an ASL interpreter working at an event, consider going up afterwards to say hello. Interpreters can be all too easy to ignore, but they’re fascinating people doing a complex, crucially important job.

Interpretation of Murder
As an American Sign Language interpreter, Jane Ciardi stands off to the side. Her life changes when she takes a job from a Cleveland private detective. Now Jane’s at the center of things, keeping tabs on a deaf African-American teenager whose odd behavior alarms her wealthy father. Jane also needs to discover the truth behind two murders—including the murder of the first interpreter the detective hired. To get closer to the teenager, Jane joins a fitness center owned by a family that brings new meaning to the word “dysfunctional.” Jane can’t help feeling attracted to the family’s youngest son, a cheerfully amoral charmer who seems equally drawn to her. But he’s keeping secrets, and so are others at the fitness center. The more Jane learns about the center, the more she suspects some people go there to get more than a workout. The more she learns, the more she becomes the target of attacks that force her to use her martial arts skills to defend herself. Somehow, Jane realizes, the fitness center’s connected to the two murders and to the deaf teenager’s odd behavior. Jane’s struggle to unravel all the secrets tests her resourcefulness, her ethics, and her courage.

Buy Links

Interpreter Jane Ciardi was introduced in a short story first published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and now available on Amazon. 


M. Johnston said...

Thanks, B.K. (and daughter), for sharing such great information. I wish you the best of luck for super sales and wonderful reviews.

Marilyn (writing as cj petterson)

Unknown said...

Thanks, Marilyn (and cj)! I appreciate your good wishes, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Best of luck with your own writing, too!

Angela Adams said...

An interesting and informative post. Thanks!

Lynette Eason said...

So cool! I'm fluent in ASL and taught at a deaf school here in SC for almost 10 years. Deafness is in my family so anything with ASL is near and dear to my heart. Looking forward to reading the stories!


Unknown said...

Angela, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Lynette, I don't have deafness in my family, but my younger daughter (not the ASL interpreter) is hard of hearing and wears hearing aids; my father wore hearing aids, too, and a number of people on his side of the family had/have hearing problems. Your background is very interesting. If you do read the story and/or the novel, I'd love to hear any comments you might have.

Shannon Jensen said...

I, too, have my degree in sign language interpreting and enjoy reading fiction based around sign language in general, as there's not much. I think your book is the first I've heard of since Penny Warner finished with the Connor Westphal series, and I think it may be the first I've ever heard of to feature an ASL terp.

I bought the ebook and look forward to starting it this weekend!

Unknown said...

Shannon, thanks so much! I tried my best to make sign language and deafness integral elements in the mystery. I definitely couldn't have attempted it without my daughter's help--I drew on her experiences and insights, and she read multiple drafts and offered many comments and suggestions. I hope you enjoy the book, and I'd love to hear your comments, especially since I hope to write more stories and novels about Jane.

Have you read Leah Hager Cohen's TRAIN GO SORRY? It's memoir, not fiction, but it's one of the most fascinating and inspiring books I read while doing research on deafness and interpreting--I bet you'd enjoy it.

Shannon Jensen said...

Ha ha! Train Go Zoom is always something I will retain from my education despite that I work as a public librarian now rather than an interpreter.

I have not read Train Go Sorry, but I am in the process of searching it out.

And I will definitely let you know what I think about your book! :)

Unknown said...

Thanks, Shannon! If I got some things wrong, please don't hesitate to tell me--I want to know, and I'm sure your insights will be very helpful.

Sandy Cody said...

Great post. Love the sound of Interpretation of Murder. Just when I thought everything had been used as a hook for a mystery, I discover something new. Will definitely look for this one.

Unknown said...

I don't know of any other mysteries with interpreters as protagonists, either--I never would have thought of it unless my daughter suggested it. But interpreters, like priests and psychiatrists, "hear" a lot of secrets that they're not allowed to share with anyone else, and some of those secrets are explosive. It makes for some dramatic situations. (And for some heart-breaking ones.) If you read the book, I'd love to know what you think, and to hear any comments or suggestions.

Anne Louise Bannon said...

Thanks for the tips on interacting with a deaf person and interpreter. Back when I was reporting, I did a couple interviews with deaf actors. I thoroughly enjoyed asking my questions face to face, but did have to remember to put the voice recorder I was using to record the interview over my shoulder and not in the interviewee's face.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your comment, Anne, and sorry for taking so long to respond (I was on the road). It sounds as if you found a good way to handle that situation. Communicating with a deaf person can feel awkward at first if we're not used to doing it. But deaf people and interpreters deal with these situations all the time. If we just try to do our best, they'll usually be patient with us and help us out.