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Meet Jack Jason: The Most Famous Interpreter in the World

From 7/18/11


What does it feel like for 8.4 million viewers to hang onto your every word as you make your case to Donald Trump? How about giving an acceptance speech at the Oscars, when it seems like the whole world is listening? It comes naturally to Marlee Matlin, an acclaimed actress and Hollywood star who seems to know no bounds. She has amazed fans the world over not only with her acting abilities, but by continually doing the unexpected -- from competing on Dancing with the Stars without the ability to hear music, to performing a stand-up comedy routine on the Celebrity Apprentice.


Marlee's face is unforgettable, but so is her voice. It's a fast-talking, quick-witted, confident voice, but one that's extremely memorable. It has a casual yet intelligent tone, but one that can adeptly convey the breadth of emotional expression the actress is known for. While Marlee's words are hers and hers alone, the voice that renders them into English belongs to a man by the name of Jack Jason. No other interpreter in the world has a job quite like him. Through Jack, millions of people in the hearing community get to hear what Marlee has to say.


While it's a pleasure to watch Jack in action and witness his interpreting skills, it's a rare treat to hear him speak his own words. He recently spoke with me from his office in California, answering my questions with the flair of a gifted storyteller. What follows is an excerpt from our interview.


Nataly Kelly: How did you learn sign language, and how did you become an interpreter?


Jack Jason: Sign language is my first language. English and Spanish are my second languages. I learned Spanish from my grandparents, sign language from my parents, and English from television. I was interpreting from the time I was a child, whether it was to get life insurance or directions to drive to stay with our cousins in Los Angeles. I was pretty much the conduit, the bridge between two worlds for most of my life, so it wasn't much of a surprise that I ended up doing what I do with Marlee, because I've been doing that all my life.



NK: Since you started at such a young age, how long have you been interpreting?


JJ: When I grew up, there were no teletypewriters or video calls, so I primarily interpreted phone calls. At that time, where I lived, it wasn't embarrassing to have Deaf parents; it was cool to be able to speak a different language than everyone else. But I never really did formal interpreting until I got to college. To me, signing was easy. Being in the hearing world was more of a challenge than being in the Deaf world, because I had to learn how to write and communicate in a way that I hadn't experienced growing up. I didn't have any intention of working with sign language or interpreting, but I took sign language in college because it would qualify as a language requirement. Then one day, I was asked to be a substitute interpreter.


NK: So, you didn't have any formal training as an interpreter?


JJ: When I was first asked to substitute, I didn't know how to interpret simultaneously. The interpreting that I did as a kid was consecutive. I would listen to what the hearing person said, wait until they were done, and then convey it to my parents. I hadn't developed the skill of listening and conveying information at the same time. So, it was trial by fire. I eventually learned how to process with one half of my brain and provide output from the other part of my brain. Within about a month and a half, I got really fast. Then, I started to take some interpreter training classes. Eventually, I got certified as a sign language interpreter.


NK: Did you ever think that you would end up as an interpreter in the entertainment field?


JJ: I always told my parents that I wanted to be a DJ or a television personality because entertainment was so much a part of my life. I had been watching TV and listening to the radio from a young age to learn English, and I wanted to be part of that. I started interpreting for stage and television productions and I started to develop that skill. My first job out of college was as an interpreter coordinator. I had to find interpreters and send them out on freelance jobs to hospitals, schools, and the social security office to interpret for Deaf people. I then moved on to the University of California, Berkley, coordinating interpreters for Deaf students at the university. The first year I was at Berkley, we brought in artists, performers, actors, and poets to create a Deaf arts festival. I did a lot of the interpreting for the stage performers. By the second year, I realized that I really liked producing arts festivals that had to do something with signing. I decided to take a break from UC Berkley and went to NYU to get my Masters. Then I stayed for my PhD in Educational Media.


Jack Jason


For the rest of the story -- about Jack's work with Marlee, whether he gets stage fright, his work as a producing partner, interpreting for Donald Trump: click here