At the annual National Economists’ Club dinner in November, Ben Bernanke suggested that the target for the federal-funds rate would remain near zero for a considerable time. A man named Travis Painter, standing onstage, simultaneously relayed the Federal Reserve chairman’s words.
Mr. Painter is a sign-language interpreter for the deaf, a job that is nowhere more sought-after and difficult than in acronym-and-jargon-filled Washington, D.C. “Terps,” as they call themselves, are charged with re-creating in crystal clarity speeches often known for nuance, importance and opacity.
Today, Mr. Painter is a contractor whose gigs run the gamut from court hearings and testimony to political fundraisers and the White House Easter Egg Roll. At all these events Mr. Painter follows several general signing rules—and many more specific to D.C.’s dialect.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s use of the term “forward guidance” is one thing. But what about interpreting “nuclear option,” “fiscal cliff,” “not his first rodeo” and “that dog don’t hunt?”
“I absolutely just love my field,” says Mr. Painter, an imposingly tall 25-year-old with slender fingers. “I am stumped, every day.”
When lost in a minefield of jargon, the rule is “Spell, and you’re out of there,” Mr. Painter says. He collects acronyms, but new ones always surface. At the National Aeronautics and Space Administration one day, he stopped short at “QWAP,” a vaguely vulgar-sounding acronym that means “Quality Work Assurance Program.”
His client giggled, signed, “I know you don’t get this,” and spelled the cipher for a blushing Mr. Painter. A meeting at Treasury broke up in laughter when Mr. Painter signed a form number, F99, which in sign language looks like three “OK!” symbols in a row. Deaf clients sometimes tell him how odd Washington must sound.
Federal law requires reasonable accommodation for a deaf person, so on any given day, there are about 1,500 sign-language interpreters working full time in the capital.
Sign-language interpreters must check bias at the door. But like most people here, they are politically partisan. Mr. Painter, who originally came to Washington to work as an intern for Senate Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, turned down a lucrative assignment in 2012 to sign for the president and top Democrats at the National Democratic Convention. As a GOP-leaning interpreter, “I could not have matched their level of excitement,” he explains.
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