- Grey Van Pelt, 31, is the personal interpreter for deaf American model, actor, and activist Nyle DiMarco.
- Van Pelt has been traveling and working with DiMarco for 3 years, and says his favorite moments to interpret are fan interactions.
This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Tom Kerss, a Grey Van Pelt, a sign language interpreter, about his career. It has been edited for length and clarity.
When I was a kid, I loved the circus. I watched the Cirque Du Soleil film by Franco Dragone called “Alegria,” in which there’s a deaf clown who meets a girl and signs to her underneath the bleachers. I asked my mother what he was doing and she told me it was called sign language. She bought me a book about it, and then I found out there was a class I could take.
When I saw the way two people can come together with sign language, and the way it makes the space between a picture, I thought it was the most beautiful thing. In college, I studied American Sign Language (ASL) for interpreting. Three years after graduating, in August 2017, I founded my agency, Flamingo Interpreting, to bring together interpreters to work as a collective and book gigs in the corporate or entertainment world.
I first met Nyle DiMarco three years ago in New York, after his manager called my agency to book an interpreter. The first job I did with him was a business meeting in New York, the second was his TEDx Talk in Austria.
As Nyle comes from a multigenerational deaf family, he’s incredibly fluent. I joke that he signs like butter. He can easily move between ASL grammatical structure and English grammatical structure and also plays with sign in really interesting ways. He’s incredible at communicating and always makes sure I don’t trip up.
There are times when I have to go back and study Nyle a little bit. When we have an event about a certain project that he previously worked on, I’ll go through past interviews and refresh. He was the producer for the Netflix show ‘Deaf U’ and the movie ‘Audible’ and he runs the Nyle DiMarco Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the deaf community.
If there are specific people Nyle’s going to meet, I research their background and watch videos of them to get a sense of their voice.
Model Grey Van Pelt and interpreter Nyle DiMarco.
That way, I’m not just trying to understand their personality for the first time at a cocktail party. I will read Nyle’s signs and say out loud to the guest or interviewer what Nyle signed, then sign their response back to Nyle.
When I’m interpreting what someone is saying back to Nyle, they often ask me if they need to talk more slowly. Nyle’s manager quips that seeing as I’m a New Yorker we sign quickly, but I have the deaf community to thank for every bit of fluency I have. There are tons of words that don’t have a sign in ASL, and one of my favorite challenges is conceptualizing words that don’t have a specific sign.
If people swear when they’re talking, I sign it. It’s my job to be faithful to the message.
There isn’t a course on how to be a personal interpreter, but personal interpreting is such a niche field that you start meeting fellow interpreters while working, and we all call on each other if we have any questions.
The highs of being a personal interpreter is that it will take you to some of the most sacred moments of humanity. The lows are that it’s hard to see a community that you work with – especially a community that offers brilliant artists, creatives, and academics – be oppressed, simply because they use a different language. It’s so hard sometimes to interpret a message that includes heavy undertones of injustice or is problematic. It’s very hard to do.
Compared to working with someone in the corporate world, working with a celebrity has more external pressure.
Model Grey Van Pelt and interpreter Nyle DiMarco.
Most of the time, meeting with a corporate client about their quarterly taxes is not going to be live-streamed on Facebook, like it is with a celebrity doing a fan Q&A.
Some of my favorite times to interpret are when Nyle meets his fans. At an interview people will ask similar questions like ‘What sort of struggles did you have growing up,’ but when we meet a fan on the street, they’ll ask ‘What brand of teeth whitener do you use?’ or ‘Tell us about your DWTS partner Peta [Murgatroyd], is she really that great?”
Depending on the season, I work with Nyle up to six days a week.
Sometimes we’ll be travelling for a month together, as we did around Europe just before the pandemic. Then other times, when he’s working on projects and has less meetings, he doesn’t need me as much, so I work with other clients.
On a typical day if I’m traveling with Nyle, I wake at 6 a.m. to find some coffee, while Nyle will already be at the gym. We discuss the day’s plans over breakfast, then usually have a couple of meetings before going to a venue or event. I will already have done my prep. At the end of the day, I go to the gym for two hours in the evening to mentally unplug from translating all day. There are a lot of interpreters who often don’t want to speak at the end of the day because they’ve already been talking for hours.
Even when it’s challenging, I’m so thankful for my job as an interpreter and look forward to something interesting happening every day.