Teen Skepchick Interviews: SB Morgaine
This post is part of the Teen Skepchick Interviews series, where TS writers talk with amazing women scientists, skeptics, and feminists about life, the universe, and everything.
SB Morgaine (in the center of the featured image) was on of the American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters at the Reason Rally. As a result of some airline troubles on the part of other interpreters, she ended up working for far longer than planned, all the while in the rain. She’s kindly answered some questions about her experiences, accessibility, interpreting, and of course, how awesome it was to hang out with Tim Minchin.
Free space here. Tell us about you, what you do. Did I see knitting on Etsy? Stand up….? Wander, babble, describe!
I am a freelance interpreter in the DC metro area. I have an Etsy store (soon to be stocked with atheist themed needle felting projects!). I LOVE doing standup, but haven’t carved out the time for it for the last couple years. Getting back on stage is on the “to-do in 2012” list. I have also taught my fair share of workshops, and am always interested in working with people to develop workshops/talks/podcasts. I would really like to get a conversation started in the secular community about how to make disability access a priority. I live in MD with my partner Angela (also an interpreter and an atheist! Call us for all your interpreting needs!), our dog Samantha and cat Duke. Oh, I am also an ordained minister and perform weddings. If you live in Maryland or Virginia, or a state that allows online-ordained ministers to perform weddings and are looking for a signing/atheist to officiate for your ceremony look no further!
How did you get involved working for the Reason Rally? Were you planning to attend before you got the job?
A friend of mine (Hi Autumn!) asked me if I was going, and I went to the website to check it out. I noticed they didn’t any information about ASL interpreters, so I sent an email to the volunteer coordinator. The interpreter team was all volunteer (more about that later). I think two of us (Judi and I) were planning on attending even if we weren’t working; the other two interpreters for that day (Susan and Janet) came when we begged them.
What do you find most challenging about translating? What are your most/least favorite things about it?
Well, what we do I isn’t actually translating. Translating is written and usually word for word. What we do is interpreting, which means that we take the concepts that are given and then produce our interpretation of what was said into ASL.
It’s tough to say what is most challenging, because different things everyday present different challenges. Some days it is a speaker’s accent, or their speaking pace (too slow is as hard as too fast), or that they don’t complete their sentences.
My favorite thing to interpret is comedy. It is difficult but always fun for me to figure out how to make someone’s jokes accessible to the Deaf. My least favorite thing to interpret is math. I think my favorite thing about my job is that I get to go into so many different places and see so many different things. I can be on stage with Eddie Izzard on Saturday and on Monday a college class. There is also an intellectual challenge in having to walk into a place you have never been before and figure out what is going on.
How do you keep up? Did you know the gist of speeches beforehand? What do you do if you get behind?
Andy Shernoff gave me lyrics as he was walking on stage, and for Eddie Izzard I had watched his most recent comedy related to atheism. I asked Adam Savage if he was going to use any big words, and that was the extent of the prep. Bridgett, the interpreter who got stuck in the Denver airport (we missed you!!!!), had practiced Tim Minchin for a couple months before the event. Part of becoming a professional interpreter is figuring out how to keep up, even though you can’t always do it! When you do find yourself behind there are many different methods of getting caught back up and ensure the information is accurately conveyed, but that is boring interpreting education stuff.
Tell us about being up there with the speakers. Any inside stories?
Being there was amazing, and makes me so happy that I figured out this totally awesome job. From the very start the crew, planners, everyone that I talked to was wonderful to work with. As interpreters you get used to being the thing that they have to find a place for, and the coordinators of this event were on top of it! They knew we were coming, were ready and awesome! The sound guy Steve gave me ear plugs (I always forget), the VIP driver let me sit in his cart to get out of the rain, the celebrity wrangler shared her umbrella, a guy named Adam offered to introduce me to Barbara Ehrenreich, and the caterers told me about their non-profit that feeds bands who come to town with no money (I forgot the name, and can’t find it anywhere). Those people aren’t as famous, but they were a huge part of making the day awesome!
Now the famous people. Paul Provenza was awesome. He really helped to make the day amazing. From the minute I walked up to him, he was there to chat, laugh and I think we both were keeping the other from being super nervous. He would also just periodically look up, glance around with a far off look in his eye and then turn to the closest person and say “This is just fucking amazing. It’s an amazing day.” If he wasn’t famous and living in LA I would be trying to hang out with him all the time.
Tim Minchin was chatty, friendly, took pictures with everyone who asked, laughed when people told them they loved him and was just a nice guy. He smelled so good, I kept standing as close to him as I could without being creepy so I could smell his hair. Whatever product he uses is smelly-goody. As we were walking off stage after his performance, he turned to me and said “I almost lost it a couple of times watching you”, and chatted with me like there weren’t 30,000 people screaming for him.
Adam Savage was also funny. He, Provenza and I stood and talked about how to sign elephant spunk, and how the sign for fart has multiple regionalisms. He was super friendly and unassuming.
Nate Phelps. I think that meeting him and seeing the love in his eyes for the people around him, how he was just so open to people and the love they were giving him really touched me. For someone who was raised in a place so full of hate, he was so kind. He offered to get me a jacket multiple times, and when I asked him if I could give him a hug, his response was “the hugs are the best part of this”.
Eddie Izzard was shy, was sadly lacking eyeliner, and not nearly as excited to meet me as I was to meet him. I have been a fan of his since the first time I saw him in that amazing silk dress, so to get to meet him in person was one of those moments in my life that I will remember forever. Sean Faircloth was super nice and fun, David Silverman was hysterical, Jamilah Bey is super sweet and funny, and Andy Shernoff gave me lyrics without me asking.
I have worked in a few places with a few famous people, and by and large the experience of the Rally was unlike any I have had before. Often in situations like this the famous people are standoffish (I get it, it’s not a complaint, I would be too) but every single person at the Rally was nice, humble and didn’t act like they were above anyone else.
What/How/Why did you start interpreting in the first place?
I was living in Vancouver, WA working at Animal Control when I saw a flyer for an ASL class. I figured, what the heck, it could be fun! I got involved in the Deaf community in Portland, and one of my Deaf teachers told me I should think about becoming an interpreter. I hated working at Animal Control and hadn’t finished my undergrad, so I figured why not ASL? I moved to Missouri and got a BS degree in ASL Interpreting, then moved to Washington, DC for a mentorship and stayed.
Do you know any languages other than ASL?
I can get a drink, a bathroom and other basic things in German and Spanish. I’m also fairly fluent in English!
I don’t have one. ASL has so many amazing ways to convey concepts, that I don’t have any one sign that I favor. I think my favorite signing I have ever seen was a man I interpreted for who was describing the property he owned. His description was so beautiful I felt like I had seen the property.
Who was the hardest speaker to interpret for or keep up with?
Jamie Kilstein I am glad I didn’t have to interpret for him; he is fast with a lot of dense concepts. YAY Judi! For me, I think that either Tim Minchin’s Sam’s Mom or Storm were the hardest for me. I have gotten a lot of attention for The Pope Song (strong language in link), because everyone loves to cuss, but by far Storm was what I was more proud of. I wish I could find a video of it, to see if I actually made as much sense as I felt like I was. That poem is full of concepts, but the enjoyment comes from the wordplay, and that is difficult to express in ASL without some practice. There was another interpreter who was scheduled to come but got stuck in Denver who had been prepping for Tim Minchin for a long time. I hadn’t spent any time listening to his material, and I wasn’t a fan, so I was hearing all of the material for the first time as I was interpreting. I have been considering working on an interpretation for Storm just to see if I can do it with some practice.
Favorite speaker to interpret for?
Richard Dawkins. Mostly because he is a hero of my father’s and someone I have been hearing about for a long, long time. So to get to be on stage interpreting for him was the bomb. I have always wanted to interpret for Eddie Izzard, but by that point in the day my hands were so cold and I was so wet that I felt like my interpretation was pretty bad.
What do you do if you run across a word you don’t know? Or, if that doesn’t happen any more, what did you do when it did happen?
In English or ASL? There are a lot of words in English that I don’t know, but interpreters have to use their closure skills to figure out what it means. So, for example if someone says “The apostates left the church never to be accepted back into the congregation.” If I didn’t know the word apostates, I would have to look at the context and figure out what it means. They left a church, so it must be people, and they are not accepted back, so they must have done something dramatic. Therefore I would assume that they are people who have been expelled from the church in some way and would interpret that sentence as something along the lines of “the (a-p-o-s-t-a-t-e-s) people who left the church will never be accepted back”. The spelling is so that the deaf person gets the vocabulary of the presented material.
I could see your lips moving while you signed, but you weren’t close enough for me to read them—were you repeating what was said? Is this common practice, or a way to think through things or something I’m not thinking of?
Well, this is a nerdy answer. There are two different ways to interpret, one is called interpreting, and it is what I have been talking about. You listen to the message and then put it out as concepts in ASL. There is also transliterating, which is using English word order to portray the message into what is called Pidgin Signed English, which is not ASL, but a mixture of it and Signed Exact English. So…when I was moving my mouth a lot, it was when I was transliterating which is a more word for word message not using correct ASL grammar and structure. For me, when I am getting tired and my brain is exhausted I will transliterate because it is easier for me even though it is not the best message.
How does English-to-ASL compare with another spoken language, like English-to-Spanish?
It is actually very similar to English-to-Spanish. The grammar of ASL is more closely related to some foreign languages (French) and so interpreting is very similar to spoken language.
How in the heck did you manage to interpret Tim Minchin without passing out?!
I guess it depends on why you thought I would pass out. I wasn’t a fan (that has since changed) and so I wasn’t nervous to interpret for him because honestly, I didn’t know who he was, other than someone a bunch of my friends are seriously in love with. After his set I was exhausted mentally and physically and was SO happy that I got to have a break when he was done. It was a lot of fun, and that kind of wordplay is enjoyable to interpret because you get to play with language…which I always enjoy!
There are regional variations in ASL. Is this a big consideration at an event where people came from all over the country?
There are a lot of regional variations but it really wasn’t a big consideration for me. ASL is like English, where if you sign/say something regional, people can figure out what you are talking about from context. If someone says “That is bollocks”, even if I haven’t ever heard the word bollocks before, I can figure out from context what it means, and the same can happen for most signs.
What should people know that they don’t about interpreting or ASL?
I don’t know! I don’t know what they know already! I guess there are the standard answers. Yes, this is my full time job, and yes, there are enough Deaf people for me to work all the time. No, I don’t know Braille. Nope, no one in my family was Deaf. If anyone has any other questions they would like to have answered, please feel free to send me a message on Twitter at @sbmorgaine.