Mayor Bloomberg's Sign-Language Interpreter Returns

By James Fanelli and Jill Colvin  on November 3, 2012 6:17pm

NEW YORK CITY — Mayor Bloomberg's words are back in the hands of Hurricane Sandy's star.

Lydia Callis, the mayor's beloved sign-language interpreter, was at his side at a Saturday afternoon press conference.

Callis had been incommunicado for the last four days after she became an overnight sensation for her colorful gesticulating and emotive facial expressions in her interpretations of Bloomberg's gruff speeches during the storm and its immediate aftermath

In Callis' absence, another interpreter, Pam Mitchell, stood next to Bloomberg. But Callis fans were worried about whereabouts. Turns out she was just given time off. 

A spokeswoman for the mayor told DNAinfo.com New York that the city has a long-standing contract with an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreting agency. The agency assigned Callis and Mitchell, and the two alternate their time.

Callis earned rave reviews as hunkered-down residents watched her on TV as she animatedly interpreted the mayor's words.

“The sign language translator on NY1 is just mesmerizing,” one early admirer tweeted.

"We Love You, Lydia Callis," another raved.

She's even spawned several Tumblr pages, including "Lydia Callis's Face For NYC Mayor."

For Callis, who doesn't usually pay attention to Twitter, all of the attention has come as a bit of a shock.

“It's pretty exciting," Callis told DNAinfo.com New York in her first interview at the city's Office of Emergency Management headquarters in Downtown Brooklyn.

Callis, 30, who lives in Westchester, grew up in a deaf family, and has been interpreting for her mom and three deaf siblings since she was a child. She now works as a professional ASL interpreter, signing for schools, hospitals, businesses — and now for the mayor.

Callis said that her role is to interpret the mayor's message as faithfully as possible — which means presenting the good along with the bad.

"If he stutters, if he messes up a sentence, you’re going to see me stuttering, and you’re going to see me messing up the sentence," she said. "Because the point of interpreting is to render the message faithfully, and that's what I have to do."

 Lydia Callis, who comes from a deaf family, has been interpreting since she was a little kid.
Lydia Callis, who comes from a deaf family, has been interpreting since she was a little kid.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

When she's interpreting, Callis mouths out words as well as signs them to reach the widest spectrum of the deaf and hard of hearing — including those who can't read lips and depend on the pictures she creates.

“As you can see from when I’m interpreting, you see the tree falling, you see the building, you see the crane moving around," she said. "Because I need to have those pictures for the deaf people that need ASL.”

The most common misconception Callis has noticed is that people think she's being too animated, she said. But Callis explained that her exaggerated facial expressions and larger-than-life gestures are a key part of getting the message across.

“Hearing people tend to not understand that deaf people need those facial expressions... they need the body language" to make up for all of the information that's usually transmitted in our voices when we speak, Callis said. “If I stand up there with a straight face and just interpret it, they’re not getting half the message."

And when it comes to the often-prickly mayor, that can mean a lot of eye rolls and eyebrow raising — especially when he's dealing with the press.

“When a reporter asks a sarcastic question, you can see it in my face. I’m like, 'Really — did you just ask that?' Because that’s how the mayor is reacting in the tone of his voice," she said. "But I’m doing it on my face."

In addition to all the attention online, Callis said she’s also been thrilled at the response from deaf New Yorkers grateful to finally have access to breaking news from the mayor.

“The city is catching up on what they should have been doing a long time ago," she said. "They’re providing accessibility for people that don’t necessarily have access to the information.”

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