Nicole Morouse:
Barack Obama's words are in her hands

A rambling by Tom Knapp

Nicole Morouse carried Sen. Barack Obama's message -- both the power of his words and the passion of his delivery -- in her hands.

When the Illinois senator brought his campaign for the White House to Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology (Lancaster, Pa.) on Monday, Morouse was there to convey the speech to hearing-impaired members of the crowd. So, as the candidate prowled the stage with a microphone in his hand, Morouse, an independent contractor through Deaflink of York, stood in the background, repeating Obama's speech through a series of intricate hand gestures and facial expressions.

"He's a very gifted orator," she said of Obama on Wednesday. "He's very well-spoken, very charismatic. He was wonderful to interpret for. It was one of my better experiences."

Still, despite several years as a platform interpreter, the prospect of Monday's gig was somewhat intimidating -- Morouse called it "a little unnerving" -- given the high-profile nature of the event, the acclaim Obama has earned as a public speaker and the subtleties of a political address. "His attitude, his posture, all of his nuances -- I have to reflect all of that," Morouse said Monday, just a half hour or so before she was scheduled to take the stage. "Part of our job is to become the person who's speaking," she said. "We have to take on the attitude that he's bringing across."

For that reason, she predicted, interpreting for Obama "will be easier for me because he's so passionate. With people who are flat speakers, it's hard to really get into it."

The job entails a lot more than just hand signals, Morouse said. "My facial expressions have to portray his tone and the strength of his voice," she said. "And 70 percent of sign language is body language ... so it will probably be a workout."

But Morouse said Wednesday she was "not nearly as drained as I thought I would be. He was a very well-paced speaker."

Some people speak too quickly, she said, particularly when they have a lot to say in a short period of time. "But he spoke very clearly," she said. "That helps a lot with the interpretation. He was very steady, and I had no trouble keeping up with him. That was a nice surprise.

"I could have gone for a little longer," she added. "I felt really good about it."

Morouse said she familiarized herself with some of Obama's past speeches to prepare for the topics he was likely to address. Still, she admitted, she doesn't have a solid recollection of what the senator said Monday. "It goes too fast," Morouse said. "It's all happening so quickly I don't have time to absorb the information."

Listening to the speech and converting it to sign language is a "simultaneous process," she said, so "I hear it, get it off my hands and move on ... because he doesn't stop speaking. "I got maybe 10 percent of the speech that I could remember now."

Morouse said there's some room for interpretation as a speaker's words are converted to signs. "My transliteration of the speech was pretty exact," she said. "It wasn't verbatim, but as close as you can really get."

But "there are a lot of idioms in the English language that don't really translate to deaf culture," Morouse said. Phrases like "letting the cat out of the bag" wouldn't make much sense to a deaf sign-reader. "It depends how complex the message really is," she said. "Also, sometimes I need to expand on a concept depending on whether there's any background in the message being portrayed at that time. One example would be subprime loans. I expanded on that for people in the audience who might not be familiar with the topic."

Morouse said she was hired to ensure that anyone who needed her services could understand Obama's speech. However, she said, "I don't know if I had a deaf audience or not." She conversed briefly before the speech, from across the room, with a photographer working for a local newspaper, Morouse said. "But as far as I know, he was the only deaf person there."

"I was scanning the audience to see if I could see someone signing, so I could direct my gaze there," she said. "But if they were there, they didn't identify themselves to me."

It helps the process if she can make eye contact with her target audience, she said. Without a target, "I sometimes pick some poor person, who's probably wondering why I'm staring at them. But I have to do it. There were a few people I did focus on. I just kind of hopped around from area to area ... looking for someone who seemed to be looking at me."

by Tom Knapp
4 April 2008