Illustration of man using hand signals to patient


Victor Collazo, an American Sign Language interpreter, works for CyraCom, a national company specializing in medical interpreting.

Illustration by Daniel Baxter

The call came in July from a friend who had just recommended Victor Collazo for a freelance job with the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Collazo CCAS’05, an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter in Tucson, Arizona, explained to his friend that he couldn’t fly across the country for a single job. Then she told him that the job would be interpreting for the Pope on his upcoming visit in September. Collazo replied that, yes, in fact, he could fly across the country.

As a Puerto Rican growing up in a Spanish-speaking home in Camden, New Jersey, Collazo had always been fascinated with languages. He was in the French Honor Society at Camden Catholic High School, and he studied Russian at Rutgers University–Camden, where he’d enrolled in 1993. But it wasn’t until 1997, when he attended a cousin’s graduation at Camden County College, that he fell in love with ASL. “I thought it was a beautiful language,” he says.

He was sufficiently moved to enroll in a two-year ASL program at Camden County College, which he completed while getting his bachelor’s degree in general science at Rutgers–Camden. But he never considered ASL a calling until he met Naureen Farooq, an accounting major at Camden County who was profoundly deaf. They started dating and she introduced him to her friends, who were also deaf. Immersed in ASL, he quickly became proficient. By the time he and Naureen married in 2000, he had decided to pursue interpreting as a career.

In his 12 years as a professional interpreter, Collazo has plied his craft in job interviews, college classes, public lectures, and countless business milieus. From 2006 to 2008 he worked as an interpreter in the U.S. House of Representatives, a job that he loved but also found exhausting—in part because politicians are notoriously long winded. To focus, interpreters try to get a sense of where a speaker is headed. But with politicians, Collazo says, “the main point often doesn’t surface until the end of a speech.” 

Interpreting demands patience. Only with dogged practice can interpreters get to the point where there’s virtually no mental lag between the spoken words and the signed. And they have to be willing to be lifetime learners, because ASL, like all languages, is in flux. They also have to grasp subtle regionalisms. “The sign for ‘birthday’ in Arizona is different from the sign for ‘birthday’ in Pennsylvania,” Collazo says.

He now works for CyraCom, a national com­pany specializing in medical interpreting. Given the almost daily inevitability of encountering unfamiliar terminology, the job can be especially challenging. And yet, of all the settings in which he’s worked, this one affords Collazo the greatest satisfaction. Part of that derives from a love of science, nurtured at Rutgers–Camden by Patrick McIlroy, now associate professor emeritus of biology.

The other part is deeply personal. In 2002, his wife experienced a sudden heart arrhythmia. Because Collazo wasn’t yet certified in ASL, and because he wanted to concentrate on her emotional and physical well-being, he asked the emergency room doctor for an interpreter. But by the time the interpreter arrived, Naureen had died, at the age of 24. “I was playing both a loved one and an interpreter,” he says. “A loved one should just be a loved one in that situation. It was the hardest thing I hope I’ll ever experience.” At that point, Collazo made it his goal to help people avoid a similar predicament.

At CyraCom, he’s able to interpret remotely when there are no ASL interpreters onsite. Recently, he interpreted for a deaf woman undergoing a Caesarian section. Allowing the family to concentrate on the birth and not have to struggle with the demands of communication, he says, was incredibly rewarding. “I witness this kind of thing every day,” Collazo says. “I love what I do.”