Weird sign-language interpreters in press conferences

I’ve been watching live coverage of the Coronavirus response, and I’ve noticed a number instances of sign language interpreters standing beside whoever is speaking. But they’re doing more than just translating the speech into sign language. They’re also making lots of funny faces, exaggerated body language, sometimes it’s almost like they’re doing a mime act or some kind of interpretive dance while gesturing with the sign language and making lots of comical facial expressions. Why are these guys doing this? I feel like it’s undermining the gravity of the situation and it looks like self-indulgent showboating to me.

Sign language is not only signs. Emotions, intensity are conveyed by facial expression and how the sign is made.

Itchy noses.

I figured that must be it. I always get distracted watching them and trying to figure out what signs go with which words.

This Mental Floss article explains it in a bit more detail.

In Ohio we’ve got Marla Berkowitz as the lead interpreter, who is deaf herself. She reads the ASL of other interpreters who are facing her, and then “translates” it in to the easier-to-understand ASL that you see her doing, that includes the movements and facial expressions.

Here’s some info I read on her, in the form of a Facebook post:

Using Sign without doing that is like speaking orally in a monotone.

All that “other stuff” is just as much a part of Sign as tone, pacing, emphasis, accent, and other vocal traits are part of speaking.

Were any of them the guy from Nelson Mandela’s funeral?

The guy who does it for Chicago pols is awesome! He looks like he may be of Jewish heritage and he’s camping it up like a Catskills comedian. If he were signing for me I would feed him straight lines.

Is there anybody who is trained to read sign language and translate it into text?

It’s the childish facial expressions that get me. The speaker is not using any such expressions.

They’re supposed to be representing the speaker, both in content and style.

If I was talking calmly and seriously, I’d be really irked if there was someone next to me sticking out their tongues, making pouty faces, and such “interpreting” what I’m saying.

I’m not sticking out my tongue, so keep yours in, okay?

And you’re also not waving your arms around while you’re talking. What you’re calling “silly” is an essential part of communication, and to the people who understand that form of communication, it doesn’t look silly at all.

You might as well complain about the newspapers replacing your speech with silly patterns of funny shapes in ink.

Until the world shut down, I was taking my first ASL class. Apart from explaining the importance of facial and body language, our instructor bemoaned the use of interpreters who weren’t really qualified. He mentioned several seen on national news who either didn’t sign well or who were waving their hands nonsensically. He’s actually teaching more than just signing - he’s explaining lots about deaf culture and being deaf in a hearing world.

With luck, I can resume the class when the plague has subsided…

Adding to this: ASL is not “gesturing the equivalent of English words”. It’s a language unto itself, including a different “grammar”, and using physical movements, not just hand and arm gestures, though most of the time that is enough for fairly neutral speech.

And I’d guess that the more strident the tone, the more exaggerated the gestures become. The ASL equivalent of shouting, or sarcasm.

I was an ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter for 15 years or so before I got carpal tunnel syndrome, and had to quit.

Let me begin by saying that ASL is not a visual representation of English. There is not a word-for-word correlation. ASL has a grammar completely different from English, with features that do not exist in English, even in analog.

I will watch the video momentarily, but first let me explain some of the features of ASL grammar that answer the OP’s questions. ASL contains non-manual signs (NMS), which mostly means facial expressions, which are part of the grammar of the language. Without the facial expressions, it is not merely like speaking an oral language in a monotone, it is like ignoring syntax, and presenting words in alphabetical order, instead of the order dictated by the grammar of the language. In other words, “Bites dog man,” would represent both “Dog bites man,” and “Man bites dog”; nothing would indicate which word is the subject and which word is the direct object.

It doesn’t matter what facial expressions the speaker is using. Deaf people can glance occasionally at the speaker, and see his or her demeanor. But that is beside the point. All emphases are communicated some way in ASL, whether it is that “Hey, this is cool!” or “This is very serious.” It happens that in English, seriousness is communicated by a lack of expression. In ASL, this is not the case. Seriousness has a lot of expression, just its own specific expression that is not like any other mood. There are spoken languages like this: Russian tends toward this, albeit, it is somewhere between English and ASL.

Body motion indicates different speakers. If the speaker recounts a conversation with another person, the interpreter will turn slightly to one side to represent one person, then slightly to the other to represent the other person. If the speaker is repeating “He said,” “I answered,” and phases like these, they will be interpreted by body shifts.

I hope that is enough to make it clear that the interpreter will not appear to a non-ASLer to mirror the speaker.

Feel free to post any specific questions you have about interpreters on the Covid-19 reports, or just about ASL. I will answer them as I can get to them.

I have to admit some of those signers give me the giggles. What I can’t figure out is how the speaker says a long sentence while the signer does what looks to me like just a few gestures. Are they abbreviating what the speaker says? Are they assuming the deaf audience is filling in some of the gaps by lip reading?

Clicked on the link, and don’t see a video. It may have been removed from the page, but perhaps it is on YouTube. If you find it, post a link to that.

No. Absolutely not. Interpreters NEVER abbreviate, paraphrase, nor expect the Deaf person to pick up information through lipreading.

ASL just works differently from English. Sometimes 10 English words require only 3 movements, because everything is communicating something: the speed of the movement is 1, the handshape is another (2), the direction of the movement is another (3), the facial expression is another (4), the orientation of the hand is another (5).

Those are all part of just about everything someone says in ASL. There are other features that are not part of every motion, so I didn’t include them. But you see how you could get 5 English words into one motion.

Here’s how it works:

The direction and orientation take care of any prepositions attached to the word; either the facial expression, or the orientation, take care of definite articles, if they are present; small movements that many people who don’t know the language miss, take care of conjunctions, and sometimes a facial expressions does as well; direction and the shape of the OTHER hand takes care of pronouns; speed, and other “frills” added to the motion communicate adverbs, with facial expression communicating secondary adverbs-- ie., “slow” is communicated by the movement itself, “very slow” is communicated by adding a facial expression.

So that’s how one or two motions can communicate several English words. It’s a different modality that works very differently from English.

Sign languages are built on expressiveness. What you consider as childish is simply a basic unit of communication for the deaf. If something is large/tiny, loud/quiet, long/short, repetitive, tiring, etc your signing needs to reflect this emotion/feeling. There are multiple levels of communication goings on here. ASL isn’t just one sign displayed after the another in a linear manner. That is how we talk and how we write, but not how we use sign language. Writing and speaking are strictly linear (one dimensional) with word order/syntax showing the relations between arguments, predicates showing the action, and all other grammatical elements playing their parts (adverbials/adjectives, determiners, conjunctives, etc).

Sign language is different, and one of the ways it is different is that, signers are not limited to one method of communicating. It is critical that you use many way to communicate at the same time. Head nodding, eyebrow raising/lowering, head tilts, lip pursing, eye gaze shifting, facial expressions (smile, anger, frown, quizzical), full body shifting/movement, setting up a scene in your sign-space, miming. All of these tools are used and often used at the same time to convey an idea that accurately reflects the thoughts in someone’s skull. For example:

Hold out your index finger. That’s a d. But if placed in the right context, its a classifier representing “a person”. Context:
[li]start the “d” sign from your chest then extend your arm out. That’s “a person going”.[/li][li]Next, once you halfway extend your arm, sign “house” that’s “someone going home”.[/li][li]Next, repeat but extend your arm fully, then sign “house” that’s “someone going some distance home”[/li][li]Next, arc your “d” classifier into a thin parabola that’s “someone traveling a good distance home”[/li][li]Next, while you are moving your hands, purse your lips and freeze once your arm is fully extended…before signing “house” that’s “someone traveling a long distance and finally arriving home”[/li][/ul]

There are other expressives you could add/replace to communicate similar ideas. Trace an “s” arc to show that a certain route was taken. Inject a scene of you miming fatigue to show the exhausting nature of the journey, have your classifier sway and hop to show the gleeful state of mind of the traveler. The methods are endless. However I should note that these non-manual methods of communicating are not optional. They are dyed-in-the-wool to how the deaf communicate. ASL interpreters are not trying to distract you, but just trying to do their very important job as true as they possibly can.

Well, just listen to RivkahChaya then. That’s as good as an expert as one could get.