Jonathan Lamberton

A “breakout star” just doing his job

Occasionally, an interpreter captures the public fancy and gets into the media spotlight—not that they deliberately seek it. It’s gratifying to see dynamic, skilled interpreters making news simply by doing their job well. This happened in October and November 2012 with Lydia Callis, who interpreted New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s Hurricane Sandy emergency briefings.

In late January, it happened again in New York—to Jonathan Lamberton, an ebullient Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI), who interpreted Mayor Bill De Blasio’s blizzard warnings to the public. A CDI works in tandem with an ASL interpreter, rendering the signed narrative into a visual idiom that grassroots Deaf viewers can easily understand. While some ASL interpreters maintain a fairly sober, restrained manner, a CDI is free to use a battery of expressions, body language, and emphatic signing to get the message across. It’s colorful, fun to watch, easily confused with pantomime, but it’s still ASL. CDIs are still comparatively rare in the interpreting field.

During the De Blasio briefings, the ASL interpreter teaming with Lamberton was his wife, Andria Alefhi—as it happened.

Lamberton became an overnight multimedia sensation, racking up comments on newspages and blogs. (Not all uneducated viewers understood what CDIs are about, ad their comments, unfortunately, reflected their ignorance. One amusing aspect was the argument over whether he was Deaf or hearing, with some viewers insisting that he was a CODA.) But the publicity stirred up interest and questions (why two interpreters?), and, best of all, piqued the curiosity of Deaf students, who have been inspired to think about CDI careers for themselves.

But to Lamberton, the biggest reward is knowing that Deaf people who might otherwise be untouched by the information stream are getting the message. Because of him, they’re in the loop.

I’d like to know more about your background. You’re from a Deaf family?
Yes, my parents and brother all are Deaf. My father also has Deaf parents, and my mother has Deaf relatives. A big part of who I am today and my skills as a CDI were enabled by my varied exposure to the Deaf community while growing up.

Your schooling, high school, college adventures . . .
I have a diverse schooling background. I started off going to a school with a mainstreamed deaf program. While I was placed in regular hearing classes, I had Deaf friends around in the same school. Later on, I spent 3 plus years as the sole deaf student in large schools. In the middle of 9th grade, I moved on to a deaf school - CSD in Fremont. Next was Gallaudet, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology with a minor in Mathematics from Gallaudet. I also did graduate work in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester, but never did my dissertation.

What inspired you to become a CDI?
I was working in outreach for DCARA, a Deaf services agency in California, and there I had increased contact with Deaf immigrants and others who had challenges navigating the hearing world. I saw cases where using a hearing interpreter wasn’t effective. Teaching ASL to Deaf immigrants also illuminated the point that ASL has many forms and not all forms work for all Deaf people. Fortuitously, other DCARA employees organized a CDI training workshop. There I got my first formal training, and four years later I was fully certified.

What are the particular challenges of being a Deaf interpreter in a field dominated by hearing people?
I’ll mention a couple challenges related to hearing interpreters and the deaf community. Some hearing interpreters are untrained on how to team with Deaf interpreters. Also, some hearing interpreters do not know how to identify a situation that would require a CDI. These situations are gradually being mitigated as the CDI field grows. More and more interpreter-training programs are incorporating some type of training for hearing interpreters related to CDIs.

The Deaf community also has an emerging understanding of CDIs. I’ve encountered Deaf people who were unaware of CDIs, or could not even accept that some interpreters were Deaf. Unfortunately, some Deaf people have also been resistant or outright rejected the services of Deaf interpreters. I would attribute that to the Deaf community being used to the authority of hearing people/interpreters. In addition, historically CDIs were only used for Deaf people with special language needs, so if a Deaf consumer is assigned a CDI, that consumer might feel insulted to a degree, as if their language is lacking. In certain parts of the country, CDIs have been used for all Deaf consumers, and that has met with great success. I believe it took time for the Deaf community in these areas to get used to CDIs. Once Deaf people get used to, and trust the process of, having a Deaf interpreter, I often see a greater bridging of languages and cultures. The more naturally a language flows into Deaf consumers, the more available they are to fully participate.

How and where did you meet Andria? Do you always work as a team? Is she a CODA?
We met in California at CSD-Fremont when our work paths crossed, before either of us were interpreters. She learned ASL in college and had been signing for years before we met. We don’t get to work together much. There seem to be about 100 hearing interpreters for each CDI, and I don’t always have say in who teams with me. I was glad to have the chance to team with her on some of the Mayor’s briefings, but beyond these briefings, I work with her only once every couple of months.

How did you get chosen to interpret the Mayor’s storm briefings?
I was basically in the right place at the right time. The Mayor’s office has a contract with a certain interpreting agency. I believe that this agency usually contacts me first if an assignment requires a CDI. Andria also works with the same agency and last year she encouraged them to use CDIs for public communications. The agency met with some city representatives and agreed to start using CDIs in certain situations. They didn’t tell me about it beforehand so I was surprised when the first request came in last October related to the Ebola scare, and I was lucky the agency called me and I was available. Other CDIs could do the same work, and I hope there will be more opportunities for other CDIs in NYC and elsewhere.

We well recall how Lydia Callis became an “overnight celebrity” with her vivid interpreting of Mayor Bloomberg’s Hurricane Sandy briefings [Fall 2012]. (Not surprisingly, she’s a CODA.) Have you, by any chance, met her? We did a profile on her, too. We thought the Chelsea Lately parody was gross and tacky, as we don’t see anything innately funny about ASL interpreting being done by a skilled professional. The Saturday Night Live parody was funnier, as it poked fun at the Mayor and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and the actresses playing their interpreters used some genuine signs (whoopee). What would you like to say about your sudden rush of celebrity?
You hit it on the head when you said there is “nothing innately funny about ASL interpreting being done by a skilled professional.” Some people called it entertainment or a sideshow. I was a little offended by that, but at the same time, I understand that ASL pops on the screen. I’m humbled by all the attention, as interpreters aren’t supposed to be stars. I felt ambivalent about doing interviews, but decided it would be worth it for the opportunity to educate both the Deaf and hearing communities about CDIs.

Have you gotten inquiries from Deaf students who are interested in entering the CDI field?
Yes, I have talked with several Deaf students about the skills required and how to go about becoming a CDI. After being exposed to my and others’ work, some have been inspired to start studying the profession. I also have recently spoken with stakeholders in other countries about CDIs and starting deaf interpreting as a new field in these countries.

On a more personal level, a deaf couple came up to me and told me that they saw me interpreting the Mayor discussing the Ebola situation. They had been terrified of Ebola transmission and had been isolating themselves at home until finally getting clear information via my interpretation. I know that this couple unfortunately has difficulty understanding some interpreters and complex concepts. That moment of communication success to me validates the use of CDIs for public briefings. These are the most gratifying results of my celebrity.

What’s it like, being a CDI? Is it irregular, unpredictable, or do you have any steady sort of work?
Since I am a full-time freelancer, it is very irregular. There are occasional multi-day assignments, such as a trial, or a weekly counseling session, but all of these have end dates. The majority of my assignments are one-off, although I might see the same Deaf consumer again on a future assignment. I focus mostly on legal interpreting, and most of my Deaf consumers are immigrants who are learning ASL. Other CDIs may work more with other types of Deaf consumers or specialize in different areas of interpreting.

What do you enjoy doing off-duty? (I can’t imagine that your off-duty life is that much different from your on-duty life, as you sign all the time, but you can enlighten me!)
I love to travel! Both internationally and the roads less traveled within the USA. It’s one of the advantages of working freelance—you can take off anytime you want.


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