The TV interpreter helping the deaf to ‘hear’

Tan Lee Bee, 58, is a sign language interpreter who has been working with the deaf since she was 18. (Tan Lee Bee pic)

PETALING JAYA: When the Covid-19 pandemic reached our shores and the Movement Control Order (MCO) was implemented in March, all eyes and ears were glued to television sets and smartphones to keep up with the latest developments.

But what of those who go about their daily lives in a world of silence?

The deaf also need to know what is happening, and one of the previously unknown figures who have risen to prominence in this crisis is Tan Lee Bee, 58, who has been signing for the deaf during the government press conferences on television.

FMT recently caught up with this dedicated interpreter.

Born and raised in a small village in Labis, Johor, Tan is the ninth of 11 siblings. Her younger sister was found to be deaf when she was seven years old and she was sent to a school for the deaf in Kuala Lumpur and Tan, being the filial sister, followed her.

“That was when I started learning sign language,” said Tan, adding that she never actually attended a formal sign language class.

Instead, she observed the sign language lessons at her sister’s school and later, at home, her sister would teach her what she had learnt.

Prior to this, she and her sister would communicate in their own colloquial sign language, or “gestures”, as Tan put it.

After a while, fate took a hand. “The school was running short of teachers and the headmaster asked me whether I would like to join them.”

With no job at the time, the then 18-year-old Tan decided to go for it and within six months, she was fluent in signing.

In an old photograph taken during her teaching job, Tan (centre of the second row) poses with her deaf students. (Tan Lee Bee pic)

Her lessons in sign language were not limited to the classroom, she was also dispatched to teach signing at banks, churches, hospitals and Rotary Clubs.

Tan would serve 17 years as a teacher, but the early years of her career were not easy. “I found it very hard to teach the deaf and I would sometimes cry. At times I just could not make my students understand.”

But she persevered and came up with her own lesson plans involving acting and class trips. She said the deaf rely heavily on sight to understand the world around them. “They have to experience something before they can understand the whole thing.”

After leaving her teaching job, Tan moved to RTM in 1986, where she appeared as a sign language interpreter for Selamat Pagi Malaysia.

Two years later, she would travel to the US to further enhance her knowledge of signing.

“The deaf language is like other languages with its own syntax and grammar,” said Tan. It differs from country to country and Malaysia has its own variant.

Before the MCO was implemented, she was also a freelance court interpreter and tourist guide, alongside being a tuition teacher for the deaf.

Now, she spends most of her time interpreting press conferences reporting on the latest developments. Given the dangers of Covid-19, it is important to keep all segments of society, including the deaf, updated.

“Whatever we interpret, it has to be understood,” Tan said. “I have to make sure my interpretation is clear and that I do not make any mistakes.”

Tan has recently been interpreting Covid-19 press conferences for the deaf. (Tan Lee Bee pic)

When interpreting speech, Tan said sign language interpreters tend to simplify as much as possible, keeping only the main point of the message.

She revealed that when she was interpreting the prime minister’s announcement that the MCO was to be extended for the first time, someone mistook her pause as a sign that she was shocked by it.

In reality, she said, sign language interpreters do not interpret simultaneously with the speaker, they need a little more time to interpret difficult words or technical terms. “When you are working as an interpreter, you really have to use 100% of your concentration.”

She revealed that in the early days of the pandemic, there was no formalised sign for the term, “Covid-19”, and one suggested sign involved what could be misread as a very rude gesture.

She said those interested in learning sign language should start while they are young as they will pick it up faster.

Tan has no regrets about her career path. She said when she was teaching, it always made her smile when she saw that lightbulb moment when she realised her students understood what she was teaching them. And she derives great personal satisfaction from serving the deaf community.

“As an interpreter, when the deaf understand you well enough and they are happy about it, they will come to tell you,” she said.

“As long as my hand is able and my mind is still okay, I will go on interpreting … Whatever it is, interpreting is my passion.”