According to a study done at Gallaudet University a few years ago, American Sign Language (ASL) is the fifth most spoken language in the United States. For over 30 years, Douglas Dunn has been an interpreter between those who speak English and those who communicate in sign language (including Koko, a mountain gorilla who speaks ASL!) Doug’s profession as an ASL interpreter has taken him everywhere from courtrooms to weddings to celebrity press conferences to the California Democratic Convention.
The subtitle of this site is “a new adventure every day”. I think that describes Doug’s cool job very well, indeed!
1) When people ask you “what do you do?” how do you describe your job?
Here is how I described it to a little four-year-old girl who asked me what “interpreter” means when she accompanied her Deaf Mom to a situation in which I was interpreting for her Mom:
I said, some people only talk in sign language, and some people only talk by speaking. But there are just a few who know how to do both. So if someone who only talks in sign language wants to talk with someone who only talks by speaking, they can get the message from the person in sign language, tell it to the speaking person, get the message from the speaking person and tell it to the signing person.
The little girl said, “I can do both.”
I told her, “Then when you grow up, if you want to, you could be an interpreter.”
2) What are the things about your job that you love?
The biggest plus for me is the variety of experiences one gets exposed to as a freelance interpreter (staff interps who work just for a particular school, court, hospital, agency, etc might get more limited variety). I get to see a wide range of human experiences in a wide range of settings, including educational (high school or college classrooms on all subjects), medical (routine medical exams, emergency room, trauma, surgery), legal (attorneys’ offices, courtrooms including civil, criminal and domestic), public offices (welfare, social security, administrative proceedings), private businesses (job interviews, employee trainings, staff meetings, seminars on all different subjects), religious (services for many different faiths and denominations); substance abuse (drug/alcohol treatment and recovery); media (including meeting celebrities such as entertainment and athletic stars and politicians including presidents of the U.S. and other heads of state). As an interpreter, you see for yourself how the many dimensions of our real-world community fit together, from the best (weddings, banquets with free food, and interpreting for celebrities) to the worst (jails, mental hospitals, funerals, emergencies). But you get a broad exposure to the real world that few people ever get exposed to. And if you have the right attitude, this is a job that can never get boring.
3) What are the things about your job that you hate?
The biggest negatives are when you go into a situation that has a lot of specialized terminology that is new to you. Also, the same variety that makes the job interesting also makes scheduling difficult, and there are no consistent hours of working. Also, things like working in really yucky places like prisons or mental hospitals, or dealing with people under very traumatic conditions. On the other hand, you also feel you can be there with someone when they really need it the most and, even though it might not be pleasant, it makes you feel good about what you do.
4) What education, training, vocation, or just plain luck would someone have to have in order to get a job like yours?
First you have to learn sign language. Some people learn sign language informally, growing up with parents, other relatives or friends. But even if a person has native level skill, they need to take classes to get a broader exposure to more ranges of subject material and understand the grammar and structure of sign language (ASL — “American Sign Language”), the same way someone who grows up as a native speaker of English still needs to take English classes, especially if they are going to use language formally in their careers. Of course, if you don’t already know ASL to start with, that is kind of a prerequisite.
5) What is the funniest story you can think of that involves your professional training or your job?
I was interpreting in a high school English class for several Deaf students, and a hearing student blurted out the “F” word. The teacher turned to me and said, “Don’t interpret that!” I told him, “Ooops, too bad, I already did.” Afterward I quietly talked to the instructor and reminded him that his job is to keep order in the class, and mine is to make sure my students get exactly the same experience as the hearing student, who all heard what was said. Since I was older than the instructor, he agreed that was right. At the start of my career, when I was younger, I might not have been able to get away with correcting the instructor.
Other “memorable” experience that I wouldn’t exactly qualify as “funny” would include interpreting for Dr. Penny Patterson in a presentation of Koko the gorilla who uses sign language. Just the two of us were on stage, she speaking and me interpreting in sign language and she turned to me and whispered, “Should I start now? What should I do?” I told her, she’s the boss and I would just follow her, and she started an excellent presentation.
Additionally, I have enjoyed standing on stage next to many movie stars and political figures (including several U.S. presidents) and getting to meet them in person.