Rachel Johnson, NIC Advanced


Journey of an Interpreter 

Sign language entered my life when I was about 10 years old. There were deaf members of my church who began offering classes on Sunday nights and when my mom heard about it, she thought it would be a great thing for our family. We went to those classes for 8 years until the family moved. We all signed and mainly used it as a way to show off to our school friends or to have our mom volunteer us for some embarrassing sign song performance of “Proud to be an American” at a 4th of July event. Believe me, those sign song events were not in short supply.

I stopped signing after my family moved away from San Diego and I picked it back up after a few years when I began taking classes toward an Associates degree at the local community college. I was just curious to see how much I remembered. I then moved back to San Diego and kept taking classes in the ITP. I distinctly remember the beginning of every semester when the teacher would ask who wanted to be an interpreter and who wanted to do something else ASL related. I was the only one to never raise my hand, I definitely didn’t want to be an interpreter or a teacher – I was just taking the classes because my friends were taking them and it was just natural to keep signing up for them. My last semester in the ITP I decided to consider a career in interpreting. I graduated in 2006 but I didn’t seek out any mentoring or work opportunities because I was scared and felt incompetent. I had heard horror stories from deaf friends about lousy interpreters and I didn’t want to end up as someone’s bad experience. I put off anything related to interpreting until 2007 when a dear friend from my ITP finally convinced me to give up my waitressing gig and put my schooling to use. What a good friend!

I started with an agency in San Diego and worked in a variety of settings, but primarily in K-12. After a few months of working I moved to Utah to finish my BA degree at Utah Valley University. I worked part time as an interpreter and teacher during the two years I worked on my degree. I graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in Deaf Studies. I then started working full time as an interpreter and tried to figure out the next step. That next step was graduate school and the natural decision for me was to apply to Gallaudet for a Masters in Deaf Culture. I was accepted and not too long after that I decided to defer, but I still felt like I wanted to move to Washington, DC. That’s where I am now! I work as an Independent Contractor and I absolutely love the freedom that comes from working for myself but more than that I love the community that welcomed me from the moment I arrived. Interpreting in DC is extremely different from San Diego and Utah, but it’s where I want to be. I took and passed the NIC at the Advanced level in October of last year.

Looking at my career I realize how much I treasure my college experience. That was one of the most defining times in my life and I’m grateful for what it taught me and the foundation it has laid. Learning and studying Deaf culture, history, art and oppression have influenced my personal and professional life in ways I never expected. I strongly suggest that all interpreters learn about issues affecting the Deaf community. Deaf culture goes so much deeper than hugging in greeting, and if we are to be competent practitioners in our field I feel as though it is our responsibility to know as much as we can about Deaf culture. We work in a field where we see oppression on a daily basis, but do we recognize it? Are we the allies that we promise to be when we promise to follow the Code of Professional Conduct? I know that I’m not perfect and I don’t always speak up when I should – but I take my schooling and my commitment to the CPC seriously and I try my best everyday.

My journey to becoming an interpreter has been a long one if you just look at the years involved, but I still feel incredibly new to this field and that excites me. I get to work with better interpreters than me everyday who mentor and teach without pretension and who are still humble enough to team with a newbie. Mentoring and education should be a career long pursuit for us – I have seen the impact in my own work and I’m grateful for those teachers and mentors who have pushed me and helped me in this journey. Without naming names I hope that those individuals know who they are and how I appreciate them.