Would You Like to Talk with Your Hands?
What do I do for work? I talk a lot with my hands. While that is definitely an oversimplification, it is not wrong. I am an interpreter for American Sign Language and spoken English. I specify “American” because each country has its own unique signed language and it is not based on the spoken language of the land. British Sign Language even uses a different alphabet from American Sign Language!
I never dreamed I would be an interpreter growing up. I have no Deaf family members nor had I met a Deaf person until I went to college. I had a myriad of jobs before becoming an interpreter: firefighter/EMT, karate instructor, weight loss counselor, nanny, CPR instructor trainer, veterinary technician, and more. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined being introduced to this rich sociolinguistic culture and community.
The Deaf community is tightknit and can be cautious with newcomers, but its members are very welcoming when they see sincerity and commitment. They are generous with their time, investing in future interpreters to help us improve our skills. They are nurturing, loving, blunt, and very much my second family.
So why am I telling you all of this? There are not enough interpreters to fill the job requests in Houston and nationwide. While Deaf people do not need interpreters, they certainly have the right to interpreters in many instances. Deaf people have a wide array of interests and professions; there are Deaf skydivers, doctors, attorneys, scuba divers, politicians, cruise goers, etc. I interpret phone calls between Deaf and hearing people, which has involved anything from calling in pizza orders and prescription refills to interpreting phone sex and drug deals. The latter two are not that common, but those types of calls come in from time to time. Interpreting is such an enjoyable profession because there is never a dull moment. One of my favorite venues to interpret is at comic cons and pop culture events because there are Deaf people attending who are nerds like me. The fact that I worked in such a sundry of areas prior to becoming an interpreter has really proved invaluable.
Not only is there a paucity of interpreters nationwide, but there is also a lack of diversity in the pool of available interpreters. Deaf and hearing consumers desire interpreters who accurately represent their cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds but as it stands, most interpreters are white, cisgender women. Men do not want me following them into their prostate exams, nor would I be an ideal choice for interpreting a Black Lives Matter rally. I may possess the knowledge and vocabulary to interpret both assignments, but being a white, cisgender female, I do not believe I would be the best fit. For that reason, it is imperative that we reach out to various populations to recruit interpreters who mirror the diversity of the Deaf community and the community at-large.
Depending on where you live, the credentials for becoming an interpreter vary. In Texas, we have a state certification called the BEI (Board of Evaluation of Interpreters). In order to sit for the performance portion of that exam, applicants are required to have completed 60 credit hours of college coursework in any subject. For the National Interpreter Certification (NIC), applicants are required to have a four-year degree or a combination of education and work experience in order to sit for the exam.
Now for the question many people ask…don’t you just volunteer your time? I mean, you can’t actually make a living as an interpreter, right? Wrong. Interpreters earn a decent wage, which again varies dependent upon where they live. I work for Lone Star College and our part-time interpreters make between $32-$46/hour dependent upon their certification levels. Interpreters working a full-time job with benefits typically earn less per hour but can count on a steady paycheck. The low cost of living in Houston, Texas must also be factored into that equation. For example, interpreters in the Washington, D.C. area may earn more but the cost of living is significantly higher.
So, what do you think? Is interpreting for you? I am not going to sugar coat it: interpreting is a tough profession. ASL is as difficult to learn as any other language. Learning the language and immersing yourself in the community is a significant time commitment and truly a life-long process. This job is not for everyone, but I would not trade it for anything. Check out Discover Interpreting for information on interpreting nationwide. If you are in Houston, I can direct you to the program closest to you or you can visit the Lone Star College System Interpreter Training Program information on our webpage. You are also welcome to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more information on how to pursue this exciting and fulfilling field. Who knows, maybe one day we will be on an assignment together professionally talking with our hands!