As It Happens

Wife of New York sign-language interpreter explains his 'expressive' style

He's been described as "mesmerizing," "distracting" and even "ridiculous." Jonathan Lamberton is a deaf New York City sign-language interpreter whose animated signing alongside Mayor Bill de Blasio has gained him notoriety, most recently on The Daily Show. However, Lamberton's wife Andria Alefhi wants to set the record straight about her husband's big expressions....
Certified deaf interpreter Jonathan Lamberton (left) with New York mayor Bill de Blasio on Jan. 26, 2015. (Screen capture)

He's been described as "mesmerizing," "distracting" and even "ridiculous." Jonathan Lamberton is a deaf New York City sign-language interpreter whose animated signing alongside Mayor Bill de Blasio has gained him notoriety, most recently on The Daily Show. However, Lamberton's wife Andria Alefhi wants to set the record straight about her husband's big expressions.

"There's actually nothing really exaggerated about it, so the joke is kinda on everyone else," Alefhi tells As It Happens co-host Carol Off. "Everyone in the know just looks at him and says, 'Yep, that's a person doing American sign language. It's good. It's clear.'"

Andria Alefhi is a New York City-based Amercan sign language interpreter (pictured in front of the podium) (andriaalefhi.com)

Alefhi explains that she often works alongside her deaf husband, interpreting what is said to him, who then signs it again.

Why is this necessary? It's because she has an accent.

"Some deaf people only understand another deaf person or it's easier to understand a deaf person with that accent removed," she explains. "It's not just an accent, there's actually grammatical components. There's actually quite a bit to it. But for the average person watching, they probably wouldn't know the difference."

Punctuation, emphasis and other finer grammatical points in sign language are expressed through body language.

"Generally it's more of a facial expression," she explains about the subtleties. "A sentence in a question will be signed the exact same way, except for the facial expression that denotes an answer from a question.

"Additionally, people used to think that if you had a close-up of just the person's hands signing, that would be good enough. That's actually not true at all. If you didn't have a frame of the whole body, the body movement, the body shifting, the facial expressions, the eyebrows up, the head nodding, the head tilting. If you did not have all of that...it would be almost unintelligible."

Jonathan Lamberton's (left) seemingly melodramatic signings from a New York City news conference last year. (CP Images)

She adds that while she considers herself an excellent translator, having a "native" user of American sign-language can make a considerable difference to reaching deaf people of all backgrounds.

"In New York City, we have a very wide deaf population of people who've come from other countries. Sign-language is not universal, so if you were deaf and you moved here from Colombia, you might only know Colombian sign language.

What that means is people can be deaf but not super-fluent users of American sign-language, and they will have a much harder time understanding non-native hearing interpreters such as myself."

Watch raw video of Lamberton signing at an October 2014 news conference:

   

Here is a full transcript of our interview with Andria Alefhi:

INTRO:
   

New Yorkers who tuned in to Mayor Bill de Blasio's televised storm briefings this week may have found themselves distracted by a man named Jonathan Lamberton. If you caught a clip of one of the press conferences you'll know exactly who I'm talking about .... the mayor's somewhat melodramatic sign-language interpreter.

   

Much was made of Mr. Lamberton's style, with some even suggesting that he was trying to steal the spotlight.

   

Well, it turns out that Mr. Lamberton himself is deaf. Meaning he was basing his interpretation of the Mayor's speech off another interpreter at the conference - who is not deaf. And who also happens to be Mr. Lamberton's wife, Andria Alefhi.

   

We reached Ms. Alefhi in New York City.

   

INTERVIEW:

   

CO: Ms. Alefhi - How do you - and especially your husband Jonathan - how do you feel about this reaction?

   

AA: Umm, I have mixed feelings and I believe he does as well. We're really just doing our jobs ... I'm just doing my job. I don't think it should be that much interest to the general public, honestly!

   

CO: The reaction has been because Jonathan is very expressive in his signing and it's become .... well, on one side people just commenting on it and then in another places - the butt of jokes. Is is he offended by that?

   

AA: No, because when we both know that and the deaf community and for also the interpreting community - anyone actually knows American Sign Language knows that what he is signing is actually just really very normal American Sign Language. There's actually nothing really exaggerated about it. So the joke's kind of on everyone else. Everyone in the know just looks at him and says, "yep! That's a person doing American Sign Language. It's it's good it's clear he's doing a good job..." but it's certainly not exaggerated as people believe.

   

CO: So how is he received? How his his style of sign language received in the deaf community?

   

AA: Well see - the reason a deaf person is used as an interpreter and that's called C-D-I (certified deaf interpreter) is because basically a regular hearing sign language interpreter - such as myself - sign language for me is a second language which means even though I am fluent - I use the language every day, I am very good - I still have what you would call "an accent" and so, a deaf person will understand another deaf person so much more easily than they would understand a hearing interpreter who is not native in the language.

   

CO: I guess there is an understanding is that the reason why people who have hearing and who know sign language are used is because they have to face the same direction as the person they're interpreting for and can't hear what they're saying. How does Jonathan get around that?

   

AA: Well he he does not! So that's in fact why a deaf interpreter must work with a hearing interpreter. So for example, on Tuesday and also on Sunday I was the person interpreting to John. So it's a team - there's actually both of us working as a team. I'm the person that can hear what's being said ... I sign that to John in American sign language and then Jon re-signs it - it's still in American Sign Language ... It's in fact the same language .... but he is signing it in a more clear, more precise ... I guess you would say in a different way - even though it's the same language. But the reason for that is because some deaf people just only understand another deaf person. Or - just also because it's easier to understand another deaf person with that accent removed.

   

It's not just an accent. There's actually a grammatical components ... there's actually quite a bit to it! But for the average person watching they probably would not know the difference between a hearing person signing and a deaf person signing. But I can tell you that ninety nine point nine percent of the time, a deaf person can tell a deaf person from a hearing person. And even myself ... ninety- nine percent of the time when I talk with someone in A.S.L. I can tell if they are deaf or if they are hearing by their sign language skill and accent. So we can tell the difference.

   

CO: That's fascinating! And so - the way Jonathan is doing is using sign language, how is that different? What's the accent that you have that he doesn't have? Maybe just explain a bit more how that difference it is interpreted by those who are are using the same language as he is.

   

AA: What is different is um, a deaf person who is signing the accent is that generally it's more facial expression. And not just that facial expression is a style or just to be entertaining but the facial expressions employed are actually part of American sign language and grammar. By that I mean - a sentence in the question will be signed at the exact same way except for the facial expression that denotes an answer from a question.

   

People used to think that if you had a close up of just the person's hand signing that would be good enough. That's actually not true at all. If you didn't have a frame of the whole body, the body movement, the body shifting, the facial expression, the eyebrows up, the head nodding, the head tilting... if you did not have all of that and you just had a close up of hands moving in the air - it would be almost unintelligible. You might get a word here and there but you would by no means the whole message.

   

So there's more to sign language than just the hand movements.

   

CO: So it's a part of the grammar, the punctuation, the emphasis?

   

AA: It is. It is actually very very important and a deaf person who is a native user will get that right every time and that's the one place a hearing person might not have it just exactly perfect.

   

I would like to also add an explanation of why a deaf person would be used as an interpreter is because for example in New York City, we have a very wide deaf population of people who come from other countries who are deaf. Sign language is not universal. So if you were deaf and you moved here from Colombia you might only know Colombian sign language, or you might have not grown up any sign language at all because perhaps in your country they did not have a standard education system for the deaf. So what that means is people can be deaf but not super fluent users of American Sign Language. They will have a much harder time understanding a non-native hearing interpreter, like myself (even though I am good), but they will much more easily understand the deaf interpreter like John because John is used to deaf people of all varieties.

   

CO: I guess what we've had over the years as more and more more events have somebody interpreting for the deaf is that they've become sort of very subtle people in the corner who don't want to draw attention to themselves. What you're explaining makes tremendous sense as to why it should be not distracting us - it should be to actually communicate!

   

AA: Well you know the interpreter is really there - either a deaf interpreter or a hearing interpreter - for the deaf people who are watching who understand ASL. Were really not there putting on a show. The deaf interpreter and the hearing interpreter all agree that the idea that we're there to be entertaining is completely misjudged. It's just inaccurate.

   

CO: Absolutely fascinating very useful information. I've learned a lot I hope others have as well from speaking with you. Thank you.

   

AA: Thank you so much!

   

CO: Bye bye

   

AA: Bye

   

EXTRO: Andria Alefhi is the wife and interpreting partner of Jonathan Lamberton - the exuberant -- and deaf -- sign language interpreter who worked with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio this week. We reached Andria Alefhi in New York.

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