Conference helps construct bridge-builders

A few years ago, Mount Aloysius junior Allyson Mahan went on a high school mission trip to Japan, where she attended a church whose congregation included many deaf people.

The minister preached in Japanese, his wife signed what he said in that language, a videographer shot the signs, and in a room apart, a woman watching the video reinterpreted the signs in English for a deaf woman who only knew English.

“I fell in love,” said Mahan, who helped organize the Mount’s first ever biannual interpreting conference, held Saturday and Sunday. She loved the communication – the language connections that spread the minister’s words, especially those that bridged the gap between hearing and deaf.

Connections were plentiful at the Mount over the weekend, as the 24 students of the American Sign Language/ English Interpreting program, Mount professors, visiting interpreters, educators and mentors; and members of the region’s deaf community shared insights and discussed issues like interpretation of religious matters, importance of body movement in signing, interpreting in classrooms, signing for theater audiences and interpreting for people who are not only deaf but blind.

To a hearing person, sign language may seem to be a poor substitute for speaking.

But it works well enough that Assistant Professor Ron Jiu of the Mount – born deaf – wouldn’t “take the magic pill” to make himself hear or live his life over as a hearing person.

That’s largely because living as a deaf person is simply who he is, he explained, with program coordinator Kierstin Muroski interpreting.

Still, sign language is equivalent – not inferior to – English or French or any other language, according to Mahan.

“You can communicate,” Mahan said. “You can connect with Mr. Jiu. There’s no bridge you can’t cross.”

The students themselves are learning to be that bridge.

In his presentation on theatrical interpretation, students heard about the need to sign for multiple characters, changing body orientation and facial expression to signal to their audience which characters they’re speaking for. They don’t try to be Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, with all the subtle nuances that convince audiences that who they’re seeing actually IS Thatcher, Jiu said. But theatrical signing is more than the equivalent of foreign-language subtitles, he said.

Under his direction, students in two groups took turns reading from a play script and signing the words, practicing for a “performance” – after which the “audience” waggled their hands high, the sign language version of applause.

Local deaf people not only attended the conference, but visit regularly for dinner and mingling with the student interpreters – to the benefit of both sides, Muroski said.

The residents get a free meal and an opportunity to socialize, and the students get a feel for real life in the deaf community.

It’s “so fascinating to make that connection,” Mahan said.