Humor and stories for interpreters: Unusual interpreting assignments

David Bar-Tzur

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Interpreter working with an alien creature

(The image above is from [Stefano Zaterra], which is no longer extant.)

Michael, E. Interpreting jokes, swear words and brusque remarks: Experience in the European Parliament. Jokes, swear words and brusque remarks have to be grasped quickly, even if they present an extreme degree of linguistic difficulty and/or refer to personal or cultural feelings. The interpreter needs a "filter" to pass on humor and fun to the listeners without becoming personally caught up in the laughter. In the case of swear words or brusque remarks, the listener is entitled to perceive the tone of rudeness or anger of the original in order to judge the message for himself.

Illuminated letter When I was still a teen, ... the Deaf Community and the interpreters fought hard to get a meeting with the city officials. They balked for a long time and maintained their insensitivity to deaf issues with a lot of obfuscation. Finally we had the meeting. It was right after work. The Deaf Community was impassioned and stated their concerns clearly. Then all of a sudden, the Deaf people stood up and walked out! The officials assumed it was a walk-out. The air was rife with tension!

I left the meeting to see what caused the huge upheaval and so much consternation. Silly me, I had forgotten! It was Deaf Bowling League night! So... I went to get my coat and go home. A few of the Deaf leaders blazed a trail to the coatrack and asked me what in the world I was doing?!?!? I said, "Going home." They replied, "You know what we need and want; stay and fight for it! Don't you care about Deaf rights? Don't you love Deaf people anymore?" They tried to make me feel guilty about leaving.

I wouldn't be moved then any more than now. If THEY didn't think it was worth sacrificing bowling for, I'm not staying to do something "for, for, for you." Those Deaf leaders have grown a great deal and look back to be amused at their own immaturity. For several decades, however, they felt that I was the one out of order. Today some of them are my best friends, and they invite me to work with them often.

Today, they realize that I was a better friend by EXPECTING them to be empowered and to follow through on their own concerns than by intervening while they were enjoying the pleasure of bowling and I was sweating it out with the city officials. That, as well as many other experiences, has taught me NOT to intervene... Each time I, or other interpreters do, they reinforce and ideology that Deaf people are, or should be, disempowered and that they are entitled to hearing people taking care of them.

Illuminated letter Interpreting makes strange bedfellows

I still remember the time, at a hospital, that a deaf person was receiving round-the-clock interpreter coverage. She had an affinity for one of our interpreters. Deaf person (same sex as interpreter - NOT THAT IT MATTERS) insisted that the interpreter lay in bed with them. Sadly, the interpreter did. And at other times, this same patient had their "mate" in the bed, necking, while this same interpreter was on duty.

Okay, that was a long story short. But boy oh boy, the stories I could tell you. Running an agency lends itself to hearing about odd interpreter happenings, exponentially. My book on this is coming out in the Fall - "Terp Tales" - advance copies can be purchased at Starbucks. Just kidding.

We did have a counseling session with this interpreter - they didn't understand what they had done wrong. Hello?! Earth to interpreter?! What are you thinking??

Dan [Parvaz], do you think she crossed the line? (*Ducking*)

[In response to above] Well, if there was tongue on the first assignment, I'd have to say she needs to rethink what kind of message that sends...

Would one request an oral interpreter?

Illuminated letter Interpreters as actors

I submitted some entries to a call for humor at Here's their premise:

Here's what I came up with:

Accessible Home Improvement - Tim has a show on how to make your home more accessible by having high-power strobes, vibrating alarms, and super-hearing dogs. Meanwhile his wife is teaching the children to become more sensitive so that they can become interpreters.

Golden Terps - Blanche still recounts the days she interpreted for sexy men she got in bed, Dorothy fights with her Deaf mom about whether she was a good interpreter for her when she was young, and if Rose tells one more of her interpreting stories about the Deaf people in St. Olaf, the girls are going to strangle her!

Law Terps & Order - These court interpreters will keep you on the edge of your seat. Are any people left alive in New York City after all these murders? Finally Deaf people are getting parts, but will hearing people think they're all murderers?

Magnum, TI (Tactile interpreter) - Our macho tactile interpreter investigates for Deaf-Blind clients. Week after week in beautiful Hawaii, Magnum races around in his fancy car, increasing the quality of life of beautiful Deaf-Blind women, sometimes falling in love with them, but always staying professional.

Married with Deaf Children - Bud is a coda in a mixed Deaf-Hearing family. Al is too lazy to learn Sign Language. Peg, his Deaf wife, slinks around in her leopard tights, signing with long, red fingernails that threaten to poke out one of Al's eyes when she signs. Kelly is clueless when it comes to ASL.

Most Extreme Assignments - See Deaf-Blind interpreters working in the strangest places: Bunge jumping, parachuting, mountain climbing, and basic training.

Signfeld - A show about interpreting nothing. Jerry is a stand-up interpreter, principally doing platform, but always trying to get a laugh. Elaine keeps dating her clients but never finds Mr Perfect Deaf man. George has been a staff interpreter for every joint in town, but keeps getting fired for fluffing off assignments. Kramer just gets to his assignments on time, sliding into the room at the last moment with his funky interpreting shirts.

Star Terps (The Next Generation) - In the future, Deaf people perfect mind reading before Hearing people do, because of the frustration of trying to read the lips of people who can't sign. Star Terps are brought in for aliens who can't think in English.

Tactile to Tactical - Some of the assistive devices for Deafblind people are used by interpreters to fight off aggressive hearing clients, blinding them temporarily with strobe lights, catching them off-guard with screeching pagers and tying them up with Telebraille cords.

Terp Survivor - An oral interpreter, a Cuer, an ASL interpreter, and an MCE interpreter on an all-Deaf island. How long can they survive together? Who will gang up on whom and kick someone off the island?

TerpTV - Now a channel that shows interpretations of all the latest and greatest music videos! The videos will appear "in the bubble" while reserving the major portion of the screen to capitalize on how these interpreters use their fashion sense to scintillate in basic black and daring greys! See the background stories of their meteoric rise to talking with their fingers.

That '70s Coda Show - 70's Coda interpreters fight for the right for Deaf children to be taught in Sign Language by competent teachers. The viewers will all look back and smile at how things haven't changed much.

Unsolved Hearing Mysteries - Deaf interpreters explain to their Deaf audience why Hearing people are so strange. Why do Hearing people cringe when a chalk scratches against the blackboard? Why do Hearing people do those crazy moves in their cars while they listen to the radio? Why do Hearing people think that ASL is so pretty and then don't bother to learn it? Many mysteries revealed for the first time anywhere!

Voicing Fear Factor - Watch interpreters cringe as they voice for challenging Deaf people. Don't tell, but for added torture we've thrown in a few foreign Sign Languages and some hearing people that are just making it up as they go along. Who will be left standing after hours of non-teamed voicing in hazardous environments? Tune in!

X-File Terps - Interpreters must learn alien Sign Languages to deal with their paranormal assignments. Some of them involve understanding Sign Languages that use 5 hands or fingerspelling with 12 fingers!

You gotta see this (interpreter)! - K-12 interpreters that can't sign their way out of a paper bag are caught on tape. Can this terp find the right page in her dictionary to find the sign she is searching for before the class is over or the student falls asleep? Hours of laughter for the whole family.

Here are those of other people:

CSI - A deaf man is killed during a routine interpreting assignment. Grissom interrogates the interpreter, but she refuses to divulge key information, citing the interpreter code of ethics. When residue of hearing aid ear molds are found under her fingernails...the jig is up!

Joan of Arcadia - When God presents himself in the form of a deaf classmate, Joan is frustrated in her attempt to understand his signs. In her search for an interpreter, she discovers the meaning of portal-to-portal charges.

Interpreter Joe - When a gorgeous supermodel is introduced to 15 potential partners who are sign language interpeters, she wonders why 80% of them are women.

Trading Spaces - This week, interpreters who barely know each other are forced to switch off during an intense interpreting assignment without a pre-assignment discussion.

Extreme Makeover - Susan, an educational interpreter, wants to increase her skill level and be more effective with her students. A team of doctors implant additional eyes on the back of her head, an extra pair of arms so she can rest yet still work, lengthen her lap to hold text books when no desk is available, increase her hearing by installing a super amplifier in both ears able to filter out classroom noise, and replace her standard bladder with a supersized model able to hold over a gallon of liquid.

Illuminated letter In my first few years of interpreting I was told by a deaf student in a computer class that he planned to never look at me all quarter long: he was going to do his homework. This was before he had ever seen me interpret, so it wasn't an issue of me being a novice. I told my manager and he said to interpret anyway. It seemed stupid at first until I realized that this was a perfect time to learn computer signs. So I sat like some K-12 interpreters I have heard about with a computer sign dictionary in my lap and consulted it any time I needed a computer sign I had learned yet or didn't remember. It was very helpful for future assignments, but if it happened to me now I would be very resistant. Here's looking at ya!

Illuminated letter I want to know how a Deafie and a Terp would manage in a weightless environment. Would signing play havoc on the center of gravity and cause uncontrolled spinning? Would the terp develop motion sickness from watching the Deafie signing? How would the terp and Deafies remaining facing each other if not trapped down? Would animated signing create micro-vortices in the air, accumulate, and lead to orbit-altering of the spacecraft? During long-term weightlessness, would signers develop an ability to sign with her feet as well as their hands to compensate for the constant motion due to lack of friction to keep the body in one place?

Illuminated letter Some years ago, I was a staff interpreter for a Deaf professional. He was asked to come to a radio station to do an interview on the services offered by his agency. I went with him to interpret, and carefully briefed the on-air personality (aka "DJ") on the interpreting process and my role in it. When it looked like everyone understood the process, we went into the studio for the show. Well, you know that thing we call "process time?" Radio folks call it "dead air." So every time there was a second or two lag between spoken responses, the DJ would suddenly become a narrator: "now the interpreter is giving signs to the interpreter..." To reduce this problem, I shortened my process time quite a bit... but he continued throughout the show.

Did I mention it was a call-in show? Despite the explanation and narration of the DJ, one dear lady listener called in with the comment, "You would never know that's a Deaf person. He sounds just like a hearing person!"

Illuminated letter I had one show that was more mime and black light. They called me in early to apply glow in the dark makeup and gave me white gloves. I was asked to blend into the side curtains when unneeded then pop out when there was speaking or songs. This was sure a first for me but I "rolled with the punches" and felt good at the end. THEN when I returned to my post the following day, I learned that one of the college's admin. people accused me of just walking up on stage and interpreting (meaning without prior authorization) expecting to be paid! Right! Like I normally have in my 'terp bag "glow" makeup and white gloves???

Another time we had Pat Boone there! I GREW UP on Pat Boone music so interpreting his songs were a breeze. BUT during one of his numbers he came up behind me and sang "Stand up and take a bow!" which he had done with 2 others from the audience. He was planning to give me a kiss on the he did the others... However, my 'terp head kept saying "Stay in role!" I DID NOT standup, nor did I get my kiss. sob.

Illuminated letter Sea lion takes an interest in interpreter

Jen Prosceo was signing away at the sea lion show when she noticed something odd. ''Minni the Patagonian sea lion was staring at me,'' Prosceo said. ''The trainer was trying to get her attention - it was right in the middle of the show - but she was too busy watching me.'' Turns out sea lions take a lot of their cues for tricks and other show behaviors from trainers' gestures. Minni was probably just trying to figure out what Prosceo wanted her to do.

Prosceo, who is from Scottsville, near Rochester, is one of dozens of interpreters signed on at the fair this year to translate words, song lyrics and other oral/audio communications into American Sign Language for deaf and hearing-impaired audience members. She was scheduled to interpret the shark show, raptor show, lumberjack show and at least one concert during her two days here. She had to drive back and forth to Rochester each day.

Illuminated letter I had a friend who was interpreting for a hypnosis demo in class and when the teacher said "Your arms are getting heavy", he found it very difficult to sign. He didn't go under completely but his interpretation was very "hypnotic", smile.

Illuminated letter One deaf man I worked for took bull riding lessons. Part of my job was to stand on a 3 inch ledge 3 feet above the ground and hang my body over and down into the bull shoot interpreting the gripping techniques each turn he rode those large, sweet smelling animals. I just knew at any second those bulls were gonna rear up and knock me out!

Illuminated letter I once had to (at 6AM) wear a life vest, safety helmet and using a rope jump from a pier to a barge then from the barge to an oil rig platform where I had to pass a test of gearing up with oxygen tanks and mask within 7 seconds or be asked to leave the platform. Then upon leaving do all the rope jumping again. The saftey helmet actually dropped into the ocean on one of these jumps. Would I do it again? Yes Sirrrreeee. Just not 6AM please ;-)

Illuminated letter Once when we went to see Mr. Holland's Opus it was very crowded and my husband and I ended sitting one in front of the other against the wall. I was sitting behind him. I ended up sitting forward with my arms on his shoulders and signed in front of him using his face and body as I would my own and applying light pressure to his shoulders to indicate which person I was interpreting. . . this is the first time I ever attempted to interpret an entire movie for him since he prefers to figure out what is going on through the action (I give a synopsis during certain sequences. . . though I find if I've seen the movie already (what are summers off for?) or know the storyline because of reviews, he follows better if I give him that information beforehand); anyway, (naturally) he was especially interested in this movie and "tolerated" me doing that (if he didn't like it he would have let me know in no uncertain terms). He thoroughly enjoyed the movie and I've often wondered if receiving sign like that was similar to his "thinking" in sign and felt natural to him. We never talked about it, but I got that impression from his reaction. Kind of interesting to me anyway. I've signed in the air in front of me, too, for similar reasons (to be discrete and to not be distracting to the performers on stage or the audience) and he can glance over whenever he wants.

Illuminated letter I was once asked by a Deaf man to interpret for a flirtation in a Gay bar. The hearing flirtee looked from the flirter to me and back several times with obvious consternation and finally blurted out, "Just tell me which one of you is flirting with me?!"

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