In the same vein that some people follow a band on tour or subscribe to season tickets, I enjoy attending international gatherings of sign language users. In the summer of 1997, between my first and second year of the Ohlone College Interpreter Preparation Program, I ended a month-long backpacking trip around Europe interpreting at the World Games for the Deaf in Copenhagen (the actual end of my trip was spent in Paris, throwing plates on the floor of a Greek restaurant with Michael Velez, but that’s another story). I was invited to be a part of the WGD interpreting team because I was willing to show up of my own volition and volunteer.
I relied on my experience socializing with international Deaf students while a visiting student at Gallaudet a few years prior, as well as interactions with Deaf folks while traveling around Europe, as the basis of my International Sign (IS) skills. While the high-profile meetings and ceremonies were interpreted by more experienced professionals, I got my hands wet (literally!) interpreting events like the swimming competition. Standing next to scantily-clad, buff athletes by their starting blocks, I signed the introduction of the competitors as loud as I could in an effort to be seen by fans sitting in the bleachers at the other end of the swimming hall. I was supported by my team interpreter who held up a list of their names and the countries they represented. Part of the challenge was not to fall into the pool while walking along the slippery tiled edge, from one swimmer over to the next. The medal ceremonies were the most fun. Poised next to the award podium I interpreted a formulaic “1st PLACE, MEDAL, NAME, fingerspell name, COUNTRY, their national country sign”, pause for applause, “2nd PLACE, MEDAL, NAME…” which awarded me the best view in the house. The floral bouquets and shiny medals were presented right in front of my eyes, as the flags of the Olympians’ homelands were raised with pride. After the games, two of the more experienced IS interpreters invited several of us to interpret at the Gay Games in Amsterdam the following year.
It was hard enough for me to scrape together the means for this European adventure that I didn’t think I would be able to get myself to the Netherlands in a year. The old adage is true: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” and I somehow managed to get myself there. The Gay Games were a hearing event with an accessibility committee; of which Deaf access was a component. Most of the interpreting was from English into International Sign; select events were interpreted from spoken Dutch into their national sign language, Nederlandse Gebarentaal (NGT). There were about two dozen of us who met a few days before the games began to practice using IS, rehearse for the opening and closing ceremonies, and otherwise prepare. We were an eclectic group mostly from Europe and the United States; Deaf, CODA and NERDA (Not Even Related to a Deaf Adult) interpreters with varying degrees of experience, especially in international settings. In addition to the sporting competitions, of which only a few were interpreted, there were a host of cultural events. One of my tasks included the honor of being on the team interpreting the storytelling festival, chronicling the lives of queer people from developing nations. The entire experience was truly poignant and still resonates with me.
In 2002, I eagerly attended the World Symposium for Sign Language Interpreters that preceded Deaf Way II, both taking place in Washington, D.C. I left my solid-colored shirts at home and enjoyed the conference and festival as a participant. I was so inspired by the infusion of international energy that a few months later when I co-chaired the NorCRID conference, we featured Steve Walker and Mark Morales, two esteemed Deaf IS interpreters, presenting on interpreting in international settings. At the symposium, the working group announced that the first official congress to establish an international organization of sign language interpreters would be held in South Africa in a few years. That few years later is now almost two years ago and I have beautiful memories of my time in Cape Town (we've met again this past summer in Spain as well, but again that's another story).
Being exposed to and involved with International Sign has expanded my signing skills, horizons and connections to people and places around the world. I believe that the ability of signers to transcend geo-political boundaries is an example and an act of peace on earth. The continued efforts of this global community to meet face-to-face and develop mutual understanding represents the possibilities of human communication. Attending these special events allows me to connect with something greater than myself. Participating in this international community continues to give me hope, restore my faith in humanity, and re-energize my daily interpreting practice. Looking forward to an international event helps keeps me motivated while maintaining a busy interpreting schedule. These experiences are so rich and profound I can only begin to encapsulate their magic in this article. As I have been welcomed, I invite you, my colleagues, to join in, participate, and experience this exciting movement for yourselves.