Sign language interpreters closely resemble verbatim shorthand reporters in the work that they do except they are more entertaining to watch. The interpreter signing the words of Houston, Texas officials August 28 as they updated media and citizens on the city’s progress in response to Hurricane Harvey was a showman in action.
To do either job well demands excellent hearing, dexterity, a broad vocabulary of both everyday language and signage forms, memory, and concentration.
If a word is misheard, a phrase not clearly understood, or the interpreter is momentarily distracted for any reason, a gap results. Seconds spent puzzling to fill the gap leads to incoming words stacking up. Here’s where memory and concentration save the day. The interpreter (or shorthand writer) must keep on hearing new words while rushing to catch up with the stacked words.
The average person is said to speak at a rate of 140 words per minute, a speed easily dealt with.
The Houston mayor spoke in measured pace; the interpreter had no difficulty keeping up. Some of the other officials, though, speeded up until the interpreter’s fingers were flying in all directions like birds batted out of a tree at nightfall.
I marvelled at his ability to clearly sign numbers such as street addresses with fingers like knockwurst. He had the athletic physique of a fit firefighter — broad shoulders, barrel chest. Yet his fingers were as nimble as a jazz pianist’s as he raised one or more at a time like a toddler announcing her age to a new acquaintance.
Like comedian Red Skelton, his whole upper body got into his act . Arms flailed about or rocked like cradling a baby. To indicate waves of incoming water ahead of the storm he did a succession of belly dancer undulations.. When the mayor made a ‘funny’ telling everyone they needed donations of dry clothing for evacuees of all sizes from small men to large men and petite women to those of more ample proportions a titter rose from the audience; the interpreter’s eyes glinted with humour and a wide but brief smile crossed his chubby cheeks. At an emotional moment, his face flushed and tears filled his eyes.
A broad vocabulary and knowledge of geography always helps. The Houston update listed dams, streets, districts and counties by name, spoke of water escapement, natural gas supplies and water filtration capacity.
I’ve no idea how signers cope with such names. I don’t think he spelled any of the names.
Near the conclusion of the hour long update, officials took questions from reporters. One question came in Spanish. It was fielded by the fire chief. Now my grasp of Spanish comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons, but it appeared to me as if the interpreter switched to the second language without a hiccup and offered a fluent translation. I was impressed.
I sat mesmerized throughout his lengthy performance. So long as I divorced the disquieting content of the update from my thoughts I was able to appreciate, even enjoy, his skill. I can understand why his skill might command a salary of $60,000 or thereabouts, and be in demand for conferences, at universities or other learning facilities for students with hearing problems who want to further their educations.
One major difference between sign language interpreters and verbatim shorthand reporters is their style. Shorthand reporters sit quietly, largely unnoticed, and prefer anonymity. Someone like the Houston interpreter who works front and center has to be comfortable with his every move scrutinized. That level of confidence is taught in acting schools, not secretarial schools.