Five famous sign language interpreters who take such joy and passion in delivering their interpretations, you can’t help but smile.
Interpretation is a vital service that helps us understand each other across languages and cultures. And while many think of interpretation through the lens of spoken language, interpretation is also necessary for communicating with hard of hearing or deaf communities. With somewhere between 10-29 million hard of hearing or deaf people within the U.S. alone, sign language interpreters are integral to communicating with these populations.
Whether it’s for time-sensitive public emergency services information, communicating amongst colleagues, sharing critical patient care instructions, or gathering a deponent’s testimony – sign language interpreters facilitate it all. And while their work is meant to be seamlessly invisible, a number of sign language interpreters have garnered fame for their passion and skill. To bring a smile to your face, we’ve compiled a list of five modern-day interpreters who’ve quickly become some of the most famous sign language interpreters to date.
Five Famous Sign Language Interpreters
1. Jack Jackson
Remember Marlee Matlin? Well known as an Oscar-winning actress, author, and activist, Marlee Matlin was one of the first deaf actresses to make it big on the silver screen. Jack Jackson eventually found his way to becoming her sign language interpreter after a chance encounter with her then-boyfriend William Hurt, turning himself into one of the most famous sign language interpreters of all time.
Jack Jackson had grown up with two deaf parents and used sign language every day to communicate. He had found his way to working as an interpreter for Broadway performances where Hurt noticed him and had his assistant reach out. Hurt invited Jackson to work as Matlin’s interpreter, and Jackson quickly said yes.
Matlin quickly became comfortable around Jackson. She felt Jackson captured her voice with exceptional nuance and depth, matching her notably quick-witted, confident, intelligent, and emotionally expressive tone. The duo ended up working together for over 20 years, with Jackson standing by her side through thick and thin.
Many applaud Jackson for his ability to make Matlin’s messages sound like her, balancing professionalism with a more casual tone. Jackson has also interpreted for other celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and for larger performances like New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park.
2. Sean Sweeney
Sean Sweeney became a household name in Australia, acting as the Sign Language (Auslan) interpreter for Australia’s Emergency Services. Sweeney’s nuanced and passionate interpretations were honed throughout his childhood growing up in a hearing-impaired household. Sweeney remarks that he’s “the first one in 100 years of [his] family that’s ‘of hearing.’”
Sweeney’s job is one of the most critical, as he helps deliver urgent messages to deaf and hard-of-hearing communities throughout the country.
Most recently, Sweeney acted as interpreter during New South Wales’s 2019 bushfire crisis. Sweeney’s interpretations became a welcome source of support and instruction for many during times of crisis.
Sweeney has since become one of the leading Auslan interpreters during the pandemic, keeping citizens updated with the latest regulations and health information.
For many during these stressful times, Sweeney has become a familiar and friendly face offering comfort and clarity. While discussing his style of interpreting Sweeney said, “We don’t interpret word for word. We’re delivering the meaning and the intent and the tone of the speaker. That’s our job.”
3. Lydia Callis
Lydia Callis quickly garnered massive public support and love for her impassioned ASL interpretations during Michael Bloomberg’s Hurricane Sandy press conferences.
Growing up as the only member of her family who wasn’t entirely deaf, Callis grew up fast. Callis would accompany her family members and interpret for them during medical appointments and meetings, lending her a nuanced and natural understanding of ASL.
She and other famous interpreters have at times been criticized for their fame, as interpreters’ work is traditionally meant to be as invisible as possible. Proponents have argued that interpreters like Callis elevate ASL to performance art. Additionally, interpreters like Callis bring more awareness to Hard of Hearing and Deaf communities.
Either way, Callis’s extreme facial expressions and energetic signing create an enjoyable experience all on their own, giving color and flavor to the deadpan delivery of Bloomberg’s message.
Callis has since declined further disaster briefings, explaining that their priority should be on communicating clear and vital information, not on her interpretations or the SNL spoof parodies that followed (she was not a fan.) While Callis never aspired to be known as a famous sign language interpreter, she has since used the viral attention to direct more awareness towards the Deaf community and start her own cultural competency training and interpreting service called LC Interpreting Services.
4. Sam Harris
A Certified Deaf Interpreter, Sam Harris first captured national attention for his interpretations during Hurricane Irma. Acting as ASL interpreter for Florida Governor Rick Scott, Harris’s lively and impassioned style of interpreting quickly won the hearts of many viewers – Deaf and Hearing People alike.
Harris attended Gallaudet University (a privately chartered university for the hard of hearing and deaf) for six years, earning his BS and MS in Deaf studies. He later became accredited as a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI).
CDI’s work in two-person teams. First, the hearing interpreter translates the speaker’s message to ASL. The CDI then translates the interpreter’s ASL to sign language understandable for the Deaf individual.
Harris experienced a rapid rise to fame after bursting onto the scene in 2017, even landing a guest spot on Jimmy Kimmel. Now, Harris teaches ASL 1-6 and Advanced Studies at Petersburg College near his home in Florida and has started his own interpreting company called TrueBiz ASL.
5. Amber Galloway-Gallego
And last but certainly not least: Amber Galloway-Gallego. Perhaps one of the most recognizable famous sign language interpreters, Gallego specializes in concerts and music festivals. Her favorite music to interpret: Hip Hop and Rap.
Amber is hard of hearing and grew up surrounded by supportive members of the Deaf community. As a child, Gallego aspired to become a Rapper before a deaf college guidance counselor suggested becoming an ASL interpreter.
Gallego has worked for music icons across the country, including Madonna, Lady Gaga, Cher, The Black Keys, The Rolling Stones, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar. But it was her enthusiastic and energized interpretation of Kendrick Lamar at Lollapalooza in 2013 that made Gallego a viral sensation.
Fun Fact: Because ASL has its own grammar and syntax, interpreters must interpret each song beforehand. This means that for any given music festival, Gallego spends hours memorizing lyrics and developing her interpretation. Her interpretations prioritize the emotional ‘je ne sais quoi’ instead of literal word-for-word translations.
Since her rise to fame, Gallego has launched her own youtube channel where she provides ASL interpretation of popular music to her over 60,000 followers. Gallego was also invited to appear on Jimmy Kimmel’s Late Night show to partake in his Sign Language Rap Battle featuring Whiz Khalifa.
Looking for sign language interpreters to bring life and meaning to your translation projects?
We at Arriva are happy to help. With over 5,000 translators and interpreters in our network qualified in 200+ unique languages and dialects, we at Arriva Translations pride ourselves in offering bespoke, top-of-the-line, white-glove translation and interpretation services to clients in the legal, financial, and medical industries.
Reach out to schedule your interpreter today – We’re excited to meet you!