If you think that the sign language interpreter at the Broward County Emergency Operations Center is more dynamic than the county officials speaking English, there is a reason for that.
While English speakers express emotion and feeling through words and tone, those who are deaf use facial expressions and their body to express emotions.
“It is very much visual, less words, more visual cues,” said Andrew Altmann, the American Sign Language interpreter for the Broward press conferences about Hurricane Matthew.
For the public watching on TV, it’s not possible to fully see how Altmann works. Viewers can see Altmann facing the TV cameras and standing just in front of the podium where Mayor Marty Kiar, Sheriff Scott Israel and other officials speak.
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Here’s who you can’t see: Brian Gauci who sits underneath the TV cameras. Gauci’s first language is English and he is well versed in American Sign Language. Altmann’s first language is ASL and he also can read English.
When Kiar speaks, Gauci signs the words to Altmann. Then, Altmann interprets that for those who use ASL by adding visual clues.
“I process it and put it into an art form or language that is clear to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community,” Altmann said. “It’s like a puzzle and I have to put all the pieces together and present it to our community.”
It’s not the same concept as interpreting from English to Spanish, for example. ASL requires adding expressions and visual cues to be understood by the deaf community.
Take for example the term “bulk trash.” Some residents left bulk trash on the curb and officials urged them to bring it inside.
But ASL speakers don’t use the word “bulk.” So Altmann signs about a pile of garbage and he uses his body to convey the full meaning of Kiar’s directive to move it indoors..
“I am going to say ‘garbage,’” Altmann said. “I’m going to expand upon it to show it's out in front, how it's in a pile. I give you options: move it to the garage, you can pick it up, secure it.”
The sign for “hurricane” looks like the letter “H” with fluttering fingers conveying wind. There isn’t one sign for “tropical storm” so Altmann conveys that by adding to the sign for “storm” by waving his hands in the air.
Watching Altmann on TV, he appears far more animated than government officials.
“It’s funny you use the term ‘animated,’” Altmann said. “I use the term ‘expressive.’ I wanted to emphasize to the deaf and the hard-of-hearing community how serious this hurricane situation is. That’s why I have to include more facial expressions — they have to understand this is real. I don’t want them look at me and get this feeling this is just going to be minor, insignificant, everything is going to be fine because his body language is nonchalant. I want them to take a look at me and see my facial expression my body language is letting them know this situation is intense.”
Gestures or expressions alone can convey meaning.
“If I use furrowed eyebrows that gives a clear message without saying a word sometimes,” Altmann said. “It could mean surprised, but if I give this kind of furrowed eyebrow — one’s up and one down — what do you think that means?”
The answer: that’s stupid.
“Simple facial expression can convey message,” he said.
Kiar told Altmann that he had heard kudos about his interpreting.
“What people say is they love how you are very animated, it’s really awesome,” Kiar told Altmann shortly before the 8 p.m. press conference Thursday.
One woman posted on Kiar’s Facebook page: “And your sign language interpreter is the bomb!! He is fun and animated!!”
There are about 211,000 people with a hearing disability in Florida as of 2012, according to U.S. Census information compiled by Gallaudet University.
Altmann, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, grew up in a deaf family in Oshkosh, Wisconsin — both of his parents and his brother and sister are deaf. He first learned ASL as a baby from his parents.
Altmann’s main job is as a social worker for the Miami Dade public schools but he interprets on the side through Coda Link, Inc., an interpretation business. Hurricane Matthew is his first experience interpreting for government press conferences about a hurricane.
Altmann says he would like to see the hearing and deaf community partner more to build a solid relationship. He wants the hearing community to understand that ASL has its own distinct language rules that are different from English.
“It appears different — it’s big,” he said. “Sometimes people are afraid of it. There is nothing to be afraid of.”