“Signs” of Cross-cultural Difference: Lydia Callis

Cultural Detective Deaf CultureIt seems I missed a huge fifteen minutes of fame during Superstorm Sandy. Such frequently happens to me, living in the “provincias” of Mexico as I do.

The events I mention involve NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s sign language interpreter, Lydia Callis. Reactions by the Hearing community to Lydia’s powerful interpreting skills were discussed on prime-time news and talk shows domestically and internationally. Parodies of Lydia signing appeared on a seemingly endless array of radio and television shows and internet sites.

Mayor Bloomberg deserves major kudos for including sign language interpreting in all major press conferences during the state of emergency. Not only did it convey important information to a large number of people, it raised awareness of the Deaf community and created opportunities for Hearing people to learn about American Sign Language (ASL), professional ASL interpreters and Deaf Culture. There is little question that Lydia is a skilled professional who loves her job. Want to see her in action? A video is below. (My apologies to those of you reading this from places where you are unable to access YouTube. And, the video does not include closed captioning.)

We all know that it usually takes controversy to create those fifteen minutes of fame. So where was the controversy? It centered around some in the Hearing community’s perception of the “animated” nature of Lydia’s “whole body” interpreting.

Just read some of the viewers’ comments posted to the video above: Lydia’s signing is “dumb,” “weird,” and one person types that Lydia looks like a “mime.” These are comments that come from a lack of understanding, from ignorance; they provide—or rather, demand—an opportunity for education.

This is exactly the classic Cultural Detective “critical incident”: one person behaving correctly according to the values of her (Deaf) culture, while “outsiders” (Hearing culture) negatively judge that same behavior. One of the strengths of the Cultural Detective series is that each of our Values Lenses includes the Negative Perceptions that may frequently accompany the positive application of values, as does our CD Deaf Culture Lens.

If we take a look at the Deaf Culture Values Lens image above, it’s easy to understand why members of the Deaf community could take serious offense at such evaluative comments. The Mayor understood it was important to get information to everyone. For some in the Deaf community ASL is their first language, not English. This was a way to ensure accurate information was communicated to the Deaf and Hearing communities simultaneously. Signing and universal access were finally getting the attention and respect they deserved.

Then came the spoofs. The icon of US late-night comedy, Saturday Night Live, aired a parody that involved an actual ASL interpreter playing Lydia’s role and using funny signs for “President Obama” (his big ears), “pizzazz” (jazz hands), and quite a few other terms. The SNL skit included a comedic contrast of New York City vs. New Jersey communication styles, as reflected by the two mayors and their interpreters, a spoof of Bloomberg’s poor Spanish, and a send-up of “white” US culture. Want to take a look?

Like any comedy, spoofs can offend, and this one is potentially offensive to interpreters, Deaf people, New Yorkers, people from New Jersey, Latinos and “las personas blancas.” No doubt I’m missing someone here! While I personally find this skit pretty funny, Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, publicly stated that the skit was very offensive.

A Deaf commentator (video below) discussed this situation, and I find it quite interesting to view his take on the situation. Just the fact that he signs it (fairly silently), and that the video does include English language closed captioning, provides a bit of an immersion experience with which many of us who hear may not be familiar. This commentator is not using ASL nor any other of the world’s naturally evolved sign languages, but a more recent pidgin called International Sign, for accessibility to the greatest numbers of Deaf viewers.

So, what can we learn from all of this? Taking a look at Cultural Detective Deaf Culture, we learn that:

  1. Sign language is not universal: “Almost every country in the world has sign language; some even have more than one, as is the case in Canada, with ASL and LSQ (Langue de Signes Quebecois), and Switzerland, which has Swiss-German, Swiss-French and Swiss-Italian Sign Languages.” Like any of the world’s languages, some of these are more inter-related than others.
  2. Lydia’s “animated” interpreting is due to the fact that ASL, as most of the world’s other sign languages, uses facial expressions for grammatical features and emphasis. Again, quoting from CD Deaf Culture: “There are several common features of Deaf people’s language use… An example would be the use of adverbs in signed languages. Although the signs for actions such as ‘working’ and ‘driving’ vary from one sign language to another, inflecting these verbs (for example, ‘working hard’ or ‘driving very fast’) would probably not be accomplished by adding a second, distinct sign, but by altering the manner of making the action sign, including the use of facial grammar.” What a Hearing person might perceive as “animated,” a Deaf person perceives as clarity and accuracy of communication.
  3. Another quick look at the Deaf Culture Values Lens image above will show us why so many people were so deeply offended by the satires of Lydia’s interpreting. Deaf Culture values include pride, loyalty, and group orientation; of course satire could be offensive. Another value is straight talk, a reason so many may have spoken out so quickly and clearly. Here is an opportunity for clarity, for helping the Hearing world understand there is a Deaf Culture. Again, quoting from CD Deaf Culture: “It is often said that language determines culture, and this is true for Deaf people all over the world. Since Deaf people do not have easy access to the spoken languages that surround them, signed languages have developed over hundreds of years, in almost every part of the world, as the most natural mode for communicating. Shared language, traditions, folklore, a strong identity, and a sense of group cohesion work together to create a Deaf culture. “
  4. Finally, according to Anna Mindess, co-author of Cultural Detective Deaf Culture, “The kind of work ASL interpreters often do is interpreting between one deaf person and one hearing person, where we can judge the educational level and language style of the Deaf person involved. However, Lydia was interpreting for anyone who happened to be watching TV (in NY that certainly included foreign-born Deaf people who may not have full command of ASL and deaf people with more or less educational experience) so that’s another reason she made her interpretation so broad as to be clear to the largest possible audience.” Lydia herself, in the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, said, “I knew my audience was going to be very broad. I decided to provide as much access for the Deaf Community that I could by mouthing the words and using ASL so that people who fit all along the spectrum could understand what was being interpreted.”

There is much that the Hearing have to learn about Deaf Culture. I urge you to logon to Cultural Detective Online and take a deeper look at Cultural Detective Deaf Culture, authored by Thomas Holcomb and Anna Mindess. In the package resources there you will see links to other tools, including the terrific books and DVDs from Deaf Culture THAT.

I’d also like to share with you three other resources on this topic that I found interesting.

  1. The first is a quick and insightful read I found that explains some of the signs Lydia used, entitled “Why Do Sign Language Interpreters Looks so Animated?”
  2. The second is a great blog post by Kambri Crews, a child of deaf parents who explains both “sides” of the controversy and demonstrates the danger of right/wrong thinking.
  3. And the third is an interesting piece in Forbes Magazine in response to the Lydia Callis buzz, this one on the more general topic of interpreting and translating and their role in our world today.

Please let me know what you think about all of this. What role do those of us building cross-cultural understanding and collaboration have to play? How can we support interpreters as they work to translate not only the message but also the meaning?

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