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Bloomberg's Other Sign-Language Interpreter Steps Into the Spotlight

By Jeff Mays | November 6, 2012 8:21am

HARLEM — As Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered an update on the status of city services after Hurricane Sandy during a press conference last week, he mentioned that schools would be closed. He then opened up the discussion to reporters asking questions.

"Will schools be open," one reporter asked immediately.

Bloomberg sighed, flashing a bit of the anger and impatience he's known to sometimes display with reporters, and replied.

"Schools are closed," he said curtly. "Next question."

Standing next to him, his American Sign Language translator Pamela Mitchell had to convey the mayor's annoyance.

"I could feel the heat coming from him, and I had to portray that frustration. That involved taking a really deep breath," Mitchell said. "An interpreter has to to facilitate communication that is accurate."

Bloomberg's more famous sign-language interpreter, Lydia Callis, has gained attention and a loyal following for her emotionally evocative style and demonstrative facial expressions, and was spoofed this weekend on "Saturday Night Live." When Callis went missing from the press conferences for a few days, fans worried, but tt turned out the city was just giving her some time off.

Now Mitchell, 49, a lifelong resident of the South Bronx who has shared duties with Callis during the response to Hurricane Sandy, is also gaining a following.

"Someone told me that because I was on TV and famous, I could quit my full-time job," said Mitchell, who works as job counselor for the Lexington School for the Deaf in Jackson Heights, Queens, as well as doing freelance translation on the side.

"I told them not yet," she said with a deep laugh.

Since the storm brought the spotlight on Bloomberg's sign-language interpreters, Mitchell said she is taking all of the attention in stride.

"I guess people wanted to bring a little levity because of what has happened with the storm," she said, "but the purpose of us being there is to make sure deaf and hard-of-hearing people get the information they need regarding the hurricane."

Callis is an excellent interpreter who deserves the attention, Mitchell said, calling her style "clear and comprehensive."

"She is expressive, she is skilled, she is attractive. The camera loves her and she looks great on TV," Mitchell said of Callis.

But don't ask Mitchell, the happily single second-oldest of four siblings, to describe her own style.

"I hate looking at myself. I'm my own worst critic," said Mitchell before noting that she reminds herself to slow down when it comes to finger spelling and to also concentrate on mouthing the words she's signing.

Pushed for an answer, Mitchell described her style as "keeping it real." At a Bloomberg press conference in Brooklyn Monday, she said a theater professor came up to her and said he appreciated her facial expressions, even if he didn't understand sign language.

"When I'm interpreting, my main thing is, what is this person feeling?" Mitchell said. "Let me make sure you feel this, too. It's not about me, it's about what the person is saying."

Nicole Boursiquot, co-owner of Accurate Communication, the Brooklyn agency that both Callis and Mitchell work for, also said Mitchell is special.

"Her professionalism, love for the deaf community and her dedication are what make her wonderful," Boursiquot said. "That's why she was chosen to do the assignment with the mayor."

Mitchell risked not being able to get home for days to do the job, and worked three days straight during the storm's aftermath without complaint.

"They both do an excellent job in their own way. Every interpreter has a different style," Boursiquot said. "The important thing is that the message got across."

Although she has always loved languages, Mitchell got into interpreting accidentally. She was laid off from a  corporate position in her early 30s and having no luck finding a new job, when a friend who was taking American Sign Language classes invited her along.

Mitchell didn't have the money to pay for her first class, so the friend covered her. After that, Mitchell was hooked.

"ASL allows me to express myself without having to speak," Mitchell said. "I fell in love with it."

She went on to get a two-year certificate in American Sign Language translation from LaGuardia Community College. A couple of years later, she received her national certification. Now, she is close to receiving her bachelor's degree in corporate communications, with a minor in psychology, from Baruch College.

Next up is a master's degree in Spanish, followed by a certificate in Spanish sign language, Mitchell said.

Among her other freelance assignments are interpreting for board meetings and events at the Harlem Independent Living Center.

This isn't the first time Mitchell has worked for City Hall. Coming back during the storm has been like "getting reacquainted with an old friend," she said.

"Mayor Bloomberg has his own style. He has the information, he's giving it — keep up," Mitchell said.

And she enjoys the challenge.

"This experience alone has been satisfying," she said. "What this crisis has done is given the importance of sign language the opportunity to be exposed."