A language in motion

Sign language interpreters face diverse situations
Tuesday, March 4, 2008 | 7:20 p.m. CST; updated 10:11 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Nancy Oster, a certified sign language interpreter, signs at the City Council meeting on Monday. Oster also works for Sorenson Communications as a telephone interpreter and for Columbia Interpreting Services.

COLUMBIA — Nancy Oster’s entire body is at work. Her hands flutter up to her face and back down again. They form O’s and sweep across her torso, moving purposefully to the next word and returning to her sides when the speaker is done.

“It’s such a beautiful language to watch,” Oster said of American Sign Language.


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Beautiful, indeed, even when the words she’s interpreting are coming from the mouths of officials at a Columbia City Council meeting. At an assignment like this, it’s Oster’s job to find the signs to make sense of lingo such as “acquisition of easements” or “infrastructure” or “conveyance.”

But the challenge doesn’t end there for the sign language experts at Columbia Interpreting Services, which has been based in Columbia for 10 years. Tonight it’s a City Council meeting. Tomorrow the chance to sign a speech by a current or former president, the birth of a new baby or a show with live crocodiles could be in the palms of their hands. It’s a rare career that few people consider, but the people who do it can make good money and say it’s an adventurous job.

Kathleen Alexander has interpreted for two presidents and a pope. She traveled to Australia, all expenses paid, to interpret for a Columbia student who went Down Under for two weeks. And she’s stood in front of a packed MU auditorium to sign a performance by poet and writer Maya Angelou.

Alexander, who owns Columbia Interpreting Services, said she loves her job because “it’s different every day.”

At council meetings, which are infamous for lasting hours into the night, cold meeting rooms create an interesting challenge to interpreters who need to keep blood circulating through their hands. They bring extra jackets from their cars to keep warm in the council chambers. But Alexander joked that because interpreters never have time to eat or go to the bathroom, what they could really use are IVs and bedpans.

“I was really tired once, and they were talking about Douglass Pool, and when it was my turn I started signing pool, like a pool of people,” Oster said.

The signs for a swimming pool and a pool of people are different. Although in English they have identical pronunciations, a small mistake by a signer could change the entire meaning of a sentence. And a simple word like “run,” which is pronounced only one way in English, can have at least six different signs in American Sign Language, Alexander said.

People don’t realize that interpreters sometimes are on stage in front of thousands of people at concerts or are being broadcast to thousands on television. And although performers can rehearse their lines, unless there’s a script, interpreters get no time to prepare.

“I don’t get stage fright,” Alexander said. “Sometimes it can get a little nerve-racking. I’ve interpreted for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. I’ve also done concerts, and there are a lot of people there.”

The demand for sign language interpreters has risen dramatically in recent years, especially since Missouri passed a law requiring interpreters to be provided at civic proceedings, including public meetings and in courtrooms when deaf people are involved. But there are still few interpreters. When she entered the business, Alexander, a former firefighter, noticed a shortage of signers who could help deaf people in hospitals or in emergencies.

“I got into it because I loved the language,” Alexander said. “Then once I got into it, I really noticed that there was a deficit of services provided for deaf people in emergency situations.”

One reason there are few interpreters is that high school students usually don’t consider the career when making choices about their futures, Alexander said.

“It is a viable career for them,” she said. “It’s something they don’t know you can make money in. You get to meet people and learn a lot. It’s a fabulous job, and you’re not behind a desk. I don’t have to ‘go to work.’”

According to Alexander, interpreters can earn from $13,000 to $60,000, depending on whether they work weekends and evenings. Oster said that on Monday, when she signed a City Council meeting, she worked from 8 a.m. until 12:30 Tuesday morning.

Interpreter Peggy Withrow, a colleague of Alexander’s and Oster’s, became interested in sign language when she was young because her friend’s father was deaf. After taking a community class in Columbia, she earned a degree at MU and did her training at William Woods. An interpreter must be trained, certified and licensed to work in Missouri.

Withrow said her job sometimes puts her in uncomfortable situations. One assignment at a local fair for a live crocodile wrestling show put her a few feet away from the snapping reptiles.

“They put me right there on the stage with two humongous crocodiles,” Withrow said. “It was really scary. It was hard to interpret when I was planning an escape route.”

Withrow said interpreting also can be scary when she doesn’t know the people she’s dealing with or how they will react. And interpreters are called upon in a variety of difficult situations. She’s had to act as interpreter when an employee was getting fired, and she’s had to do sign language at funerals.

Some of the most personal moments, however, are also the most rewarding. Alexander really enjoys being in the delivery room signing for the family when a baby is born. For her, interpreting through sign language is more than just a paycheck.

“You get to meet people,” she said. “You get to be in places where you wouldn’t be able to do that unless you knew sign language.”

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