Here's How Mayor Bill de Blasio's Expressive Sign Language Interpreter Got the Job

During recent emergency press conferences about Ebola and potentially life-threatening blizzards, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has had to share a little of the limelight.

That's because, just a little off to Hizzoner's right, a deaf interpreter has been drawing audience eyes with his deeply expressive sign language. His name's Jonathan Lamberton.

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Lamberton, 38, first became something of a local celebrity during an October press conference about the threat of Ebola in New York City, when some took to Twitter to accuse him of faking. (Those people got slammed by none other than deaf Academy Award winner and The L Word actress Marlee Matlin, who also gave him a shout-out for being "very clear.") And he was thrown into the spotlight again as he interpreted de Blasio's doomsday prophecies about this week's winter storm.

"A few people have been recognizing me around town," he wrote to the Voice in a Google Chat interview on Tuesday. "Mostly either just, 'are you that interpreter guy' or 'good job.' This is NYC, so fame comes and goes quick, and also I've lived in my neighborhood long enough that people don't care, I'm probably just the deaf guy, ha."

Lamberton's career as a full-time freelance interpreter may be one reason for his non-traditional sense of style when he's translating for de Blasio: In contrast to all those city bureaucrats who together form the press conference milieu, he wears classic black-framed glasses while keeping his wavy, dark hair shaggy, paired with a sculpted goatee.

First the Ebola scare, then Winter Storm Juno: Interpreter Jonathan Lamberton has been there for two of the biggest moments in recent city history.
First the Ebola scare, then Winter Storm Juno: Interpreter Jonathan Lamberton has been there for two of the biggest moments in recent city history.
Screenshot from YouTube

Because they're so expressive, Lamberton's signs have been noticed by local and national media. BuzzFeed referred to his "prime form" style of interpreting as proof he "loves his job," and the New York Daily News compiled his "funniest moments," referring to his "animated gestures and facial expressions."

Lamberton says he's actually just speaking the way deaf people do when hearing people aren't around. That's because he's a certified deaf interpreter. "What has typically been seen on TV before is a more 'nice' or subdued form of ASL which isn't what deaf people use among themselves," he writes.

Most American Sign Language interpreters learn it late in life, as a second language, so there are some aspects that will never come naturally to them. Lamberton takes the rough draft of translation from people who speak both English and ASL, and he polishes it — adding the gestures and big facial expressions that native ASL speakers like him use all the time.

"You know, the form of ASL I used — while a purer form — was still a professional and serious tone," writes Lamberton. "If I had been interpreting, say, a stand-up comedy routine, you would think my expressions for the mayor were boring."

You can see Lamberton explain his work in more detail in this 2014 video, at about one minute into it:

Part of an all-deaf family, Lamberton was born in San Jose, California, and graduated from Washington, D.C.'s Gallaudet University with a biology degree in 1999. He was a substitute teacher at a deaf school in California in 2001, where he met his partner, Andria Alefhi, who was teaching there at the time.

"He was teaching in the class next to mine and...all these kids were super, super loud, so I went over to see why they were causing such a ruckus," Alefhi, 43, tells the Voice. She's now an ASL/English interpreter herself — the pair actually worked together to translate de Blasio's blizzard pressers on January 26 and 27. "Before you knew it, we were dating."

In college, Lamberton edited the newspaper and played for Gallaudet's football team, the Bison. He first learned about certified deaf interpreters there when he saw them interpreting at major college events, and thought about his own ability to get a message across to the deaf community. "I noticed I always was good at communicating things and seeing why a miscommunication might have occurred," he says.

In 2003, he decided to take a training workshop on deaf interpreting in California. And by 2007, a year after Lamberton and Alefhi made New York City home, he became a freelance interpreter full-time.

So how did he end up interpreting alongside the mayor? Lamberton mostly chalks that up to luck. About a year ago, following requests from deaf advocates, the mayor's Office of Emergency Management decided to start using certified deaf interpreters whenever possible for its emergency press conferences. There are only a few such interpreters in New York, and Lamberton happened to work closely with the contracting agency used by the city. "So, here I am," he writes.

At home, the fan of foreign travel is partial to comfy long-sleeve shirts and cargo shorts. The laid-back interpreter takes a lot in stride, but he does have some choice words for those who talk about his work "as if it were entertainment."

"[People who] talk about me 'stealing the show'...I'm happy people enjoy the 'show,' but I'm not there for that," he writes. "I'm there so a wider range of the deaf community can better follow the information."

Send news tips to ktoth@villagevoice.com Follow @kat_toth on Twitter

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