NEW YORK - Even amid the grim news of doomsday forecasts and subway closings, New Yorkers who tuned in to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s televised storm briefings found themselves distracted by the unusual activity on one side of the screen.
That would be Jonathan Lamberton, the mayor’s sign-language interpreter, whose arsenal of rapid gesticulations, vigorous frowns and mime-like smiles - a stark contrast to the mayor’s sober mien - raced around social media this week, earning equal parts awe and amusement.
“That guy nailed it,” Jon Stewart declared on Tuesday’s “Daily Show,” which featured a compilation of Lamberton’s more theatrical moments. Dozens of websites deemed him a breakout star, and BuzzFeed suggested Jason Schwartzman, the hipster actor, could play him in a movie.
The seemingly melodramatic style, it turns out, is by design. Lamberton, 38, is deaf, a relative rarity in his profession, and he uses an innovative form of interpreting that can be easier for some hearing-impaired people to understand.
He is also a bit bemused, he said with a smile on Tuesday, by his newfound fame.
“I have some mixed feelings about it,” Lamberton said, speaking in sign language translated by his wife, Andria Alefhi. “I want to emphasize, I’m really not there to put on a show. I’m not part of the entertainment. I’m there to facilitate communication.”
Typically, interpreters are trained in American Sign Language and can hear the words they are expected to translate. But Lamberton works with a hearing partner - during the mayor’s briefings, it was Alefhi - who signs an initial translation to him. Lamberton then signs his own take on the sentence, adjusting for meaning and nuance.
The difference, he explained, is like hearing the subtle accent of a native speaker, rather than someone who has picked up a foreign language. “As a deaf person, as a native user of the language, I’m able to make the message more clear,” Lamberton said.
Emphatic gestures and facial expressions can be critical in a language that by definition is highly visual and spatial. “Trust me,” Lamberton said, “I could be much more expressive.”
This is not the first time a sign-language interpreter has stolen New York’s weather-emergency spotlight. Lydia Callis, who interpreted for former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg during Hurricane Sandy, was lampooned on “Saturday Night Live” for her full-body expressiveness.
Lamberton conceded he is not a shy person, but he said he was not seeking attention when he signed up for the job. He recalled, in the wake of the city’s Ebola cases, meeting a deaf person who said it was Lamberton’s signing at a news conference that helped him understand that it would be safe to go outside without being infected by the disease.
“How many other deaf people are out there that are really lacking in important information?” he said. “That’s the job that I do, and I feel really good that I’m able to do that for people.”
Lamberton said he had long maintained a signature look of trim goatee and shoulder-length hair. “Perhaps for the mayor’s office, I might seem a little more hip than the average worker,” he said. “But if you put me down in Bushwick or another neighborhood, then I might not look quite so hip in comparison.”
He and his wife live in the East Village, and Lamberton confirmed Tuesday that his street had been plowed.
“But,” he added with a smile, “I live right next to the police station.”