We have plenty of 'em: The place of interpreters in the Deaf community.

David Bar-Tzur

Created 17 December 2003, links updated monthly with the help of LinkAlarm.

Deaf people standing and conversing in ASL

(The image above was from (Gallaudet Today), but this page is no longer extant.

There is a famous joke that I will retell here in case you haven't heard it before. If you recognize it, you can skip ahead.

A Cuban, a Russian, and a Deaf man (with his interpreter) were riding on a train. The Cuban pulled out a magnificently fragrant, Cuban cigar. He took a few puffs and then threw it out the open train window. The other two were shocked: "How can you throw out such an expensive, fine quality cigar?" "Oh don't worry," said the Cuban. "We have plenty of 'em where I come from."

The Russian took out a bottle of the finest, smoothest vodka, took a few swigs, and tossed it out the train window. The other two were perplexed: "How can you throw out such a marvelous vodka?" "Oh don't worry," said the Russian. "We have plenty of 'em where I come from."

The Deaf person continued his conversation for a while through his interpreter until he suddenly turned around and threw the interpreter through the train window. The other two were horrified: "How can you do such a thing to another human being?" they wrote on a piece of paper. "Oh don't worry," the Deaf man wrote back. "We have plenty of 'em where I come from."

Interpreters hate to think so, but we are a "necessary evil". If we are friends of the Deaf and Deaf-Blind community that is ideal, but as working interpreters we remind deaf people of the obstacles that the Hearing community has put up for them. In Sweden, as I understand, the Deaf community picks out who will become interpreters and mentors them as they become more proficient in Deaf culture and Sign Language. I would love to see this in America! I became interested in ASL after seeing an interpreter work during a Christmas concert. At first I was just interested in learning another language; I had dabbled in a few. As I learned more, my Deaf teacher encouraged me to become an interpreter.

I knew that classes alone would never give me the skills I wanted in the language so I associated with members of the Deaf Gay community since I shared something with them. It was very frustrating at first, but it was crucial for my linguistic and cultural development. They asked if I would interpret for a Gay Deaf play and I laughed and said I hadn't even graduated yet. They said not to worry because Hank Stack (who sadly is no longer with us) would be the sign master and I would simply perform his translation. Here I was, working with a brilliant Deaf person who continued to be my friend after the "assignment" and lead me into the Deaf world. My interpreter education program was great, but I would have lost so much if I had not befriended and been befriended by the Deaf community.

The ASL teacher in my program was Anna Maria Rinaldi, who introduced me to the Deaf-Blind world. I volunteered to be an SSP for a group of Deaf-Blind people who were going to Reno, Nevada. Since then I have gone to seven AADB conventions and interpreted weekly for Deaf-Blind people in Seattle, Washington for two years. On average, the relationship between an interpreter and a Deaf-Blind person in general is more "intimate" than between an interpreter and a Deaf person. Interpreters must know where to draw the line to keep from being an enabler to the Deaf-Blind person, which will prevent that person from becoming self-actualized. I do think, however, that Deaf-Blind interpreters have to be "fellow travelers" with the Deaf-Blind community, trying to grow in such a way that Deaf-Blind people will achieve fulfillment in their goals. On the way, we interpreters will become more human and loving people, valuing diversity and seeing the world through new hands.