Becoming An Interpreter
Like a lot of kids, I learned the sign language alphabet when I was young. I can still remember what it felt like to use a secret language to communicate with my friends, although our conversations mostly consisted of single words like “h-i” and “b-o-r-e-d”. Later, when my high school became one of the first schools in Texas to adopt American Sign Language (ASL) as a foreign language, I was really excited. I had already tried French and Spanish, neither of which really captured my attention, but when I finally convinced my parents to let me take ASL, I was ecstatic. They initially said they didn’t want me to do it because it would be a waste of time – now they like to tell people they knew it would be a great vocation!
When I graduated high school, I went to college on a theatre scholarship. I took more ASL classes and became certified as an interpreter, which seemed to be a good fit professionally since I had my heart set on heading to New York and taking Broadway by storm (interpreting pays fairly well and is a very flexible profession). I had never really planned on being a career interpreter or working directly with people with hearing impairments – it just sort of happened. After a few years, I realized I was a much better teacher than I was an actor, so I decided to teach Deaf kids. I went on to get a master’s degree in Education of the Deaf and taught high school for several years. Now I am back in grad school again, and I interpret here and there – typically kink events, college classes and graduation ceremonies. My primary job, though, is teaching at an interpreter training program – the one I was originally trained at! I love working with new signers and helping to shape their skills.
I got my first interpreter certification in 1997 and have been interpreting ever since. Even when I’ve had other jobs, I’ve always been able to pick up interpreting work here and there. I’ve done a lot of interpreting within the education system, both in secondary schools and at the college level. I’ve also worked in a variety of community settings, for job interviews and trainings, workshops, dental/medical appointments, cultural events, and so on. It’s been really interesting because I’ve been exposed to a huge variety of information that I might otherwise never have learned about – not to mention the fabulous places I get to go and the things I get to see! One of my favorites was when I interpreted for an Aerosmith and ZZ Top concert, which was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
When Interpreting Met Kink
When I started exploring the BDSM community, I met a wonderful Deaf woman who was one of my first Leather mentors. Even though the law clearly states that anyone holding a public event must provide equal access to all individuals, she was (and still is) frequently unable to attend kink workshops and events because the producers are either unable or unwilling to pay for interpreters. She certainly has room for legal recourse, especially against larger events who could afford to hire an interpreter, but she doesn’t want to bring unwanted attention to our community, nor does she want to lose the connections she has with the community she loves. So, rather than raise a fuss, she continues to request interpreters and, more often than not, she is denied or ignored. Watching her struggle with that, and watching others make inaccurate assumptions about what hearing impaired individuals need (i.e. all Deaf people can read lips – WRONG!) has really been a huge heartbreak for me. For a community that values diversity, unity, and respect, watching her being repeatedly disrespected because of who she is has been really disappointing. Even though I have watched this happen for many years, it still feels fresh – just the other day someone contacted me because they wanted to attend a weekend-long workshop with a very well-known kink educator, but that educator refused to provide an interpreter. It is a constant struggle.
Fortunately, our community is becoming a lot more sensitive about providing interpreters. In my area, the Mr. Texas and Dallas Eagle contests willingly provide interpreters upon request, and Beyond Vanilla provides interpreters every year regardless of requests – which is a pretty powerful accessibility statement! International Mr Leather 2009 Jeffrey Payne founded the SSC Fund (www.SSCFund.org) which helps pay for interpreters at kink and sex-positive events. International Deaf Leather 2009 and 2010 Terry Morrell also does a lot of advocacy and education about interpreters. So, I definitely see change happening, I just wish it would happen faster.
Interpreting Kinky Content
The first time I interpreted JLube Jack’s anal play workshop was an adventure. It required a lot of acting out and drawing pictures in the air, which was highly entertaining for everyone in the room. Interpreting Leather events requires a different set of vocabulary than your average interpreting job would call for!
There is an interesting intersection of interpreter ethics and leather culture. An interpreter is required to remain impartial and not participate in any of the proceedings of the situation they are working in. For example, the interpreter cannot offer any opinions, answer a question, or correct someone. Similarly, the interpreter isn’t supposed to laugh at a joke or express personal reactions like agreement or disagreement unless it is part of the interpreting process. If the interpreter is spoken to directly, they are supposed to interpret the content as if it was spoken to the client. At its core, the idea is that we are like a machine – just passing along information. Would you talk to a computer? No. Then don’t talk to the interpreter! Of course, we are human and have human experiences even while interpreting, but this is just the core idea of how an interpreter functions.
Try telling Leatherfolk that! Leather culture is a unique context to work in – we value collectivism, affection, humor, and… being dirty! Couple that with the fact that many interpreters who work within the kink community are also members of the community, and it can become difficult to be purely professional. Many times I have had speakers address me directly while I’m working. Sometimes speakers will talk about me while I’m working, which is particularly odd (interpreting “wow I have a great view up here! I can stare at Lillith’s ass while I introduce the judges!” is very awkward). Of course, if that were in a professional vanilla setting that would be exceedingly inappropriate for a number of reasons, but when it’s a good friend at a kink event, a comment like that is not necessarily inappropriate. It’s definitely weird to encounter- just a different interpreting experience altogether.
One of the most difficult things to interpret in any context is innuendo. Because I am translating into a different language altogether, not signing English word for word, my job is to process information, translate it, and provide it in another language. So, when someone says something but they obviously mean something different, I have to decide whether to just give the information that was given and allow the client to decipher innuendo or whether to interpret the underlying intention of the sentence, which could deny the client the right to enjoy the innuendo. This happened a LOT at the Aerosmith concert. Pretty much all Aerosmith songs are about sex, right? So do I just interpret the sexual subtext and ignore the words? What if I just interpret the words, is that fair to the clients to ignore the underlying meaning? Innuendo is frequently communicated by more than words – things like tone, volume, and body stance. So for the concert, my team interpreter and I spent a lot of time preparing, trying to find a balance so we could sign the songs in a way that was true to the art form of innuendo.
This happens a lot in kink too. A lot of our humor is based on suggestive language, so interpreting requires creativity. For example, when I interpreted at the Texas Bear Round Up (which had a record setting attendance of over 1500 people, so big congrats to their organizers!), the speaker was commenting on one of the contestants on the stage, and he said “follow the bouncing ball.” On one hand it could be interpreted in it’s traditional sense (as an on-screen guide to follow where you are in a song) or it could be interpreted that they should watch his testicles as they bounce across the stage. Neither translation does the concept justice, nor does it provide access to the humor of it. A skilled interpreter has to find a way to convey both concepts.
Kink vs Vanilla Audiences
Interpreting for a kink audience is definitely different. Sometimes when I interpret in front of vanilla audiences, I have to tone down my expression a little bit when it’s about something that is sexually suggestive. When I interpret and someone says something about sex, I can see people look quickly at me because they want to see how I sign it (I worked with a teenage student once who liked to say “suck my balls” to other students just to make me sign it – SO obnoxious!). For a kink audience, I don’t have to worry about who is in the audience, and I get to be a lot more creative and expressive about how I explain what’s being talked about.
My pet peeve about kink interpreting, though, is when the speaker looks at me and starts saying dirty words just to watch me sign them. It’s always in good spirit and I know that it’s fun for people, but it’s difficult to do and it feels uncomfortable and disrespectful. I want people to realize that even though it’s cool to watch (and yes, it’s okay for audience members to watch the interpreter!) the reason I am there is to provide access – I am working. It might be fun to do somersaults down the wheelchair ramp, but if someone needed to use it, you’d get out of the way! That’s how I feel about interpreting in kink – I am okay with being talked to or messed with a little, but when it moves the focus away from the fact that I have a job to do, that’s when it goes too far. At IML we joked “don’t pet the service animals!”
Interpreting At International Mr. Leather
Interpreting at IML was absolutely incredible. First, I want to explain that there were three sets of interpreters at the event. Because one of the contestants was Deaf, there were two interpreters that stayed with him throughout the event. There was a team of interpreters who did the onstage, public interpreting during the event, and then there were two of us who stayed with the judge who was hearing impaired. I believe there were seven or eight of us total, but the teams didn’t cross paths that much because we we all working at the same time in different places.
It’s really remarkable when you think about it. How many people have the chance to be the “fly on the wall” inside the judging room at IML? That’s essentially what we were – we interpreted every interview, the between-interview conversations, the lunch conversations, and we were down in the pit during the main portion of the contest – we saw everything in a way that no one else ever gets to do. We had no vested interest in the proceedings, we had no power to affect the course of events – all we did was witness it. Thinking about it in that way feels so profound to me – it was such a privilege and such an honor to spend that time with such incredible community leaders and activists. The kicker, though, is that I cannot talk about it to anyone. Ethically, interpreters are required to protect information in the same way an attorney, therapist, or doctor is required to. That’s one of the primary protections of interpreter licensure, and understandably so. It would be harmful and unfair to the client and to the event for the fly on the wall to start yapping about what went on behind closed doors. So, even though it was such a profound experience for me to witness, that’s about all I can say about it.
I have to say, I love interpreting in kink settings. It’s fun to work in an environment where I feel truly accepted and understood. I am glad that I can help provide access – the Deaf Leather community is so vibrant and bring so much to our community as a whole. Unfortunately, many times they simply cannot participate in our community through no fault of their own. It’s time for us to welcome them and celebrate their unique contributions to who we are as whole. Also, as new people find their way into the community, it is important that we are being clear that they are welcome. Don’t wait for someone to ask – hire and interpreter and get the word out! Let’s build a climate of acceptance and see what happens.
To that end, I’d like to ask community organizations to consider the Sharon St. Cyr fund when you decide what non-profits your fundraising efforts will benefit. Several community leaders have recently called attention to the fact that much of our fundraising does not directly benefit members of our community. The SSC fund is an active organization that, among other things, pays for interpreters to be at events that couldn’t otherwise afford to hire them. This fund makes sure that our community is accessible to everyone and works hard to build bridges between the hearing and Deaf Leather communities. Please consider supporting them, either individually or organizationally – it’s a great way to provide support to our own community.
I do teach a workshop called “Scene Between the Lines: A Hands-On Guide to Kinky Sign Language.” In it, I teach lots of vocabulary (yes, lots of dirty words!) and we talk about how it can be used in BDSM relationships, regardless of whether you can hear or not. People who come to the class also get access to videos of me teaching the signs covered in the workshop, so you can practice and get really good at them!
Playing With People Who Are Hearing-Impaired
Anyone engaging in BDSM play has to pay careful attention to communication, and that’s only magnified when playing with someone who has a communication barrier. To be clear, I am not saying the hearing impaired person has the barrier – if they know sign and the hearing person doesn’t, maybe the hearing person is the one with the language barrier! I make that point because so frequently hearing people think that the Deaf person needs to be the flexible one, or the one who maintains responsibility for effective communication. The barrier doesn’t necessarily belong to either person – you have to use a shared approach.
My first piece of advice is to learn some sign! Learn how to sign five basic phrases in ASL; even if it’s just “do you want a drink,” the message you’re sending is that you’re willing to meet them halfway. Don’t be afraid to use smart phones to text on or write on paper if you need to. Be aware that many Deaf people write in a structure that’s similar to ASL, which is grammatically different than English, so grammar mistakes are not necessarily a reflection of intelligence or education. Also, don’t be afraid to act things out – remember charades? Very effective. The bottom line is that the point is not to seek perfection, it is to communicate. Anything you do that enhances communication is great.
When playing, be aware of lighting. If the person is a lipreader, they’ll need to be able to see your lips. If they are a signer and you tie their hands, you’re gagging them. If you blindfold them, be aware that you are actually playing with more extreme sensory deprivation because you are cutting off their ability to communicate. That can be lots of fun, but only if you are doing it deliberately! There’s a great video on BehindKink.com that talks about some of these issues – I show it to my kinky sign language classes, and strongly recommend others watch it as well.