Speaking Without Words

By Ian Carlino

Trisha Schwartz is a sign language interpreter for AURORA of CNY, a nonprofit social service agency in Central New York. AURORA provides support to people who have sensory loss, such as those who are deaf or blind. Much of Schwartz’s work is educational interpreting, mostly in college classes. She currently interprets for Syracuse University’s University Lecture Series, and has worked with Khaled Hosseini, Ira Glass, Alex Steffen, and other distinguished speakers. She spoke with The Student Voice about her work and some common misconceptions people have about sign language.

Q: How do you like your job?

A: It’s a very interesting job. Every day’s different. The coolest thing I ever did was I interpreted for the Democratic presidential candidate forum in Fordham University in (I think it was) ‘88. It was Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Paul Simon. I had to be screened by the Secret Service, and the CIA had to do a background check on me because I was closer to the candidates than the Secret Service was.

Q: How long have you been interpreting?

A: I started back in the day (laughs). I went to school for communication disorders. In 1978, I graduated college with my undergraduate degree to become a speech therapist. Never went on with that. I took sign language and fell in love with it. I decided to take some time off, got a job working with deaf multi-handicapped kids. I realized, “Oh, I have to know what they’re saying.” Since I was working with [sign language] I remembered it.

Q: How often do things get lost in translation while you’re interpreting?

A: It happens mostly with jokes. Jokes are all about timing. And you know a lot of jokes are based on puns or shared experience that may be picked up in hearing culture. Idiomatic expressions that are just based on hearing them all your life and that don’t have the meaning if you try to do it straight. You have to try to find a way to make an equivalent message.

Q: Scott Simon mentioned you in his lecture, and used interpreters for comedic effect at one point as he spoke. Do you enjoy that sort of incorporation?

A: We don’t want to make a habit of that, to be honest. We are there, as you notice, but we’re really facilitators of the communication. We’re not supposed to be there as entities. I’m not really there as a participant. One rule in the code of ethics is that you have to maintain your objectivity—you can’t interject your personal opinion. When he’s using us it gets a little tricky, because it becomes about the interpreter. But in those moments when people are going to look anyway, it’s cool to acknowledge that and get the most out of it.

Q: Does it ever bother you that you have to be “invisible”?

A: It gets crazy because there are times when I want to advocate. Say I’m in a medical appointment with a deaf person and the doctor’s doing big vocabulary, the deaf patient doesn’t want to ask the question and you can tell they don’t get it. You want to say, “Can you just bring out the chart and show ’em a picture?” I’m not a machine. When it comes to those moments when you have to be human, that’s OK. But let’s say I get invited to do a meeting with a bunch of sexual offenders. I can’t do that. I’m not going to be able to maintain objectivity. I’m too human there.

Q: What misconceptions do you find people have about sign language or deaf people?

A: The misconceptions are about accessibility. With certain disabilities, it depends on context. When you get a bunch of deaf people together, they’re not deaf, they’re just people communicating with sign language. But when you’re with a bunch of hearing people and one deaf person, they’re very deaf—they don’t have access. If society were designed in ways that included everybody, then where’s the problem?

That sign language isn’t a language, that’s another one. That interpreters are too expensive and that people can function without them. “Why can’t they learn to lip-read, why can’t they write back and forth?” The oppression that comes from ignorance—the worst kind of ignorance is where people know a little bit, they have a little taste, and they think they’ve got it.

Most people have never met a deaf person. The assumption usually is that there’s a lack of intelligence. Hearing people are the majority, and in terms of a cultural and linguistic minority, hearing people are the oppressors. “Let’s fix your hearing, let’s make you more like me, let’s tell you how it is.” I’m married to a deaf man who’s the smartest man I know. He’s my editor. He knows more English than anybody I know.


4 thoughts on “Speaking Without Words”

  1. I for one am hard-of-hearing. I’ve been learning Sign Language off and on since 1975. the last 3 summers, I have gone to Bill Rice Ranch for sign language classes. I have met many deaf and hard-of-hearing people.I would like to be an interpreter. every college I’ve looked into doesn’t offer it, and interpreters are needed more now. last year I learned that deaf people don’t get a clear picture of what the interpreter is signing.

    Hi Trisha
    Congratulations for your achievements, i really admire you although i don’t know you but from what i read from you gives me a picture of you.
    I’m also a Sign Language interpreter and i wish i can tab into your rich experience by making you my friend and foreign mentor. Although Sign Language is not universal, here in Ghana we use almost 85% of American Sign Language.
    I hope to hear more about you thank you.

  3. Thank you for saying again what all of us with connections to the deaf community already know – deaf people have the same abilities as everyone else if they are given the opportunities to learn.

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