BYU ASL instructor finds community and purpose through interpreting

Sam Farley has interpreted for several different concerts and events. As an interpreter, he provides language access for deaf people in all circumstances. (Videos courtesy of Melinda Farley)

Sam Farley had just returned from a mission in New York City.

He was attending Rick’s College, now known as BYU—Idaho, when someone approached him because they had heard that he used American Sign Language in the mission field. They needed an interpreter for the university’s Tuesday devotional.

Without knowing anything about the event and having no real experience in interpreting, Farley agreed to help out. All he was given was a time and a place.

“So I show up at the room, open the door, and it’s President Hinckley,” he said. “So I’m like, great, my first interpreting job and I’m interpreting for the prophet of the Church.”

While his mission taught him to be proficient in ASL, Farley, now an ASL instructor at BYU, had previously been exposed to the Deaf community from his upbringing in Sacramento.

His congregation was a “sister ward” for the deaf branch, meaning they would attend sacrament meetings together, having an interpreter to translate between ASL and English and then separate for classes and quorums. 

While he was preparing to turn in his mission papers, Farley was invited by the missionaries in his ward to help teach a deaf boy around his age. Though his signing experience was minimal, Farley went.

The two teens started to form a friendship, so Farley’s mom bought him a teletypewriter so that they could communicate from home. They would send messages all afternoon and Farley began to incorporate himself into a group of deaf friends.

Although he was born deaf and is the current president of BYU’s ASL Club, Zach Howes also did not find the Deaf community until high school.

“I grew up deaf in the hearing world,” he said.

Howes has hearing aids and grew up speaking English and relying on lip reading to communicate. 

“There were some situations that were pretty tough,” he said, such as group settings or crowded classrooms, “but I was able to get by and communicate well enough.”

Much like Farley, Howes felt that his mission was the first time that he truly felt connected to ASL and the Deaf community. He served in Washington, D.C., which has a large Deaf population.

He loved being able to connect with people that shared his same struggle for gaining accessibility. 

“It’s a very empathetic community,” he said. “They’re very aware of the needs of other people.”

Farley said this in his 27 years as an interpreter, accessibility is always the main focus.

“Every time someone asks me to interpret, I hate saying no, because I’m afraid someone’s going to go without an interpreter,” he said. “And that is something that scares me to death because I want everyone to have equal access.”

He has interpreted for all kinds of events and clients, from translating doctor’s appointments to signing at Coachella. Performance interpreting is his specialty.

“Performance interpreting is really understanding the characters from a different perspective,” he said.

While preparing for an event he is interpreting, Farley takes time to dissect the words of the songs or scripts. As with any language, there is not always an exact translation of English words to signs. This process is even more complex when one language is verbal and the other is visual.

“I have to try to meet the needs of my clients,” he said.

He takes time to draw meaning from the work in order to interpret in a way that will reflect the artist’s intention, while still leaving room for the audience to form their own understanding. Depending on how much advance notice he is given and the nature of the event, Farley can spend months on this process.

“I try to find the fine line of what generally is accepted as the meaning, because I don’t want to impose what my interpretation is,” he said. “I want to allow some freedom for someone else to know.”

Farley’s next big project is interpreting for a production of “Hamilton” at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando Florida. For scripted performances like these, he works with choreographers to learn the show instead of drafting his own translation.

“I always say we’re not actually interpreting, we’re ASL performers,” he said. “I’m just performing what I’ve been told to sign. I’m just like a dancer in some ways.”

And while he loves to perform, Farley said that he believes that interpreters often receive too much praise for what they do.

“Really we’re just doing a job,” he said, “and we’re doing the job because someone needs access to communication.”

Joseph Featherstone, a deaf ASL instructor at BYU, echoed this sentiment. He said that often, hearing interpreters are praised for “helping” deaf people, which is not the way it should be viewed.

“When we bring an interpreter, it’s not just for me, it’s for you, too,” he said. “It’s not just because I can’t hear, it’s also because you can’t sign.”

Featherstone said that his experiences with interpreters have been largely positive, but there have been several times where they lacked the humility that Farley acknowledged is required.

In one instance, an interpreter at Featherstone’s church decided to stop signing because he personally disagreed with the speaker’s views.

He feels that it was not the interpreter’s job to decide if what the speaker was saying was right and that he should have been given the same opportunity as everyone else to hear the talk.

“He made that decision for me,” Featherstone said. “He took away my access to language,” 

Howes also spoke of times when hearing people have treated him unfairly, a discrimination against the Deaf community known as “audism.” He said that people frequently do not know how to interact with him because they know he is deaf.

“A lot of people don’t understand that deaf people are just like them in every single way except they can’t hear,” he said.

Featherstone agrees that deaf people should be treated the same way as anyone else, and not immediately pitied.

“When you hear the word deaf, don’t think of all the things we can’t do,” he said.

Farley believes that not only are Deaf people equal to all other groups, but they have unique experiences and perspectives that are important for the hearing world to recognize.

“We have several deaf teachers here who are amazing, and I wish we had more,” he said. “What students can learn from a deaf person, I will never be able to teach that.”

He believes that a crucial aspect of learning sign language is engaging with the Deaf community.

“My best advice is the way I learned,” he said. “Make a deaf friend.”

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