The role of the interpreters, regardless of the languages they speak, is always to facilitate the communication between two different parties that do not share the same language. The same goes for sign language interpreters who help deaf and hard-of-hearing people communicate with the hearing community. 

Sign languages are natural languages that have evolved over time, and they have the same features as spoken languages. There is no universal sign language, each country has its own unique language and often there are even two or three different languages used by the population. In some cases, several countries may share a common sign language. American Sign Language (ASL), for example, is used by the United States and English-speaking Canada.  

Sign language interpretation facilitate the communication between deaf and hard-of-hearing people and the hearing community in a variety of situations. The people working as sign language interpreters are qualified professionals with experience in the field they work – education, medicine, business, etc.  

What is a sign language interpreter? 

The profession of sign language interpreter allows equal access to information and events, and it guarantees the participation of deaf and hard-of-hearing people in business meetings, community events and other activities.  

The sign language interpreter often acts as a mediator between communities, and their job is to neutrally and impartially render messages from one language into another. This is a professional who should speak one or more sign languages and should be trained in interpreting. The sign language interpreter should also be aware of the cultural differences of all speakers, and should have the linguistic competences to facilitate communication.  

Who can be a sign language interpreter? 

To be a sign language interpreter, it is not enough to simply know one or more sign languages. The ideal interpreter is a person who is qualified to do the job and has the necessary knowledge and experience.  

Historically, the job of sign language interpreter was conducted out of necessity by a person’s family, relatives or friends. Now, with the availability of professional services, this is not imperative and in many cases can even be counterproductive. 

In order to interpret a message from one language into another, the interpreter needs to understand the message and have the necessary knowledge and expertise in a particular field (i.e. healthcare, business, etc.). That is why sign language interpreters undergo special training prior to working as professionals. 

Knowledge of ASL or other sign languages is the start. Then, you need knowledge of interpretation techniques and specialization in certain fields. There are bachelor and graduate degree programs for sign language interpreters as well as specific certification requirements. 

If you want to pursue the career of an ASL interpreter, you can get certification by either the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) or the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). To find a job, most organizations will require that you have certain experience in the field. The best way to gain experience is to participate in different community events organized for or by the deaf community.  

When is sign language interpretation needed? 

There are various fields where sign language interpretation is needed and different types of service that can be provided. 

Sign language interpreters are largely employed by educational institutions, courts and medical and healthcare organizations to provide equal access to deaf and hard-of-hearing people. 

Sign language interpretation is also offered at business events or during important speeches and announcements, including missing person or criminal briefings, presidential speeches or any other important address.

A sign interpreter may also be present during large events or in personal meetings to bridge communication gaps between all sides in the conversation.  

Types of sign language interpretation 

There are several types of sign language interpretation depending on the needs of the clients and the availability of interpreters. 

When it comes to the mode of interpretation we can differentiate between: 

  • Simultaneous sign interpretation where the interpreter simultaneously listens to the speaker and signs for the deaf or hard-of-hearing audience or observes the sign language user and renders their message by speaking to the target customer. 
  • Consecutive sign interpretation where the interpreter listens to a speaker or observes signing of several sentences and then renders them into the target language. The interpreter may take note while listening/observing the speaker in order to interpret the message more accurately.  

In some cases, the interpreter may not be on location and interpretation is conducted via video-conferencing technology. This service is gaining popularity because the demand for sign language interpreters has skyrocketed in recent years. 

There are also several modalities of sign language interpretation services. The most common ones are: 

  • ASL interpretation – this is the most common and preferred type of sign language interpretation used in the USA. It includes two languages – ASL and English and the interpreter should be fluent in both of them. 
  • Transliteration is a method where the interpreter transliterates spoken English into a sign representation of English. The interpretation follows English word order and sometimes may include elements of ASL interpretation.  
  • Oral transliteration is a less common method where the interpreter silently repeats the spoken English language and uses gestures, pointing and other specialized techniques to supplement the mouthing and render the message.  
  • Tactile interpretation is used for facilitating communication with deaf-blind individuals. In this case, the interpreter creates signs in the person’s hand and also uses other tactile cues to render the full message. 
  • Cued speech transliteration is a less common visual access system where the interpreter uses handshapes that are positioned on different locations around the mouth to represent English phonetic markers. 

It is important to point out that many deaf or hard-of-hearing people also use lip-reading, and hence it is important for you to speak clearly at a normal speed if you are communicating with such individuals. 

The way you work with a sign language interpreter follows the principles of working with any other interpreter. You need to address them as a professional who is there to facilitate communication and render the message from the source into the target language without changing the meaning or expressing their personal bias towards the message.  

Sign language interpretation is an important service that is highly sought after today. It is valued by all communities, and these professionals play an important role as mediators of communication for deaf and hard-of-hearing people.  

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