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Characteristics of Effective Sign Language Interpreters

Carola has worked for agencies serving the hearing loss community for many years. She is also a freelance writer.

As someone who has worked in and advocated for the deaf community for many years, I have observed that there is something fascinating about sign language interpreting.

Here are some insights into the characteristics of effective sign language interpreters. Please note that I am deliberately ambiguous or have slightly changed details to protect the privacy of those involved in some cases.

The Code of Professional Conduct

Interpreters must learn and practice a strict code of ethics set by their countries’ regulating professional interpreter organizations. These rules are designed to protect both the deaf and the hearing clients and the interpreters themselves. In the USA, The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf sets clear standards.

Interpreters are required to:

  • Only accept assignments for which they are qualified
  • Faithfully convey messages as accurately as possible
  • Maintain confidentiality about all aspects of the assignment
  • Remain impartial
  • Conduct themselves in a professional manner
  • Respect both clients and colleagues
  • Commit to ongoing training and development of their interpreting skills
Video interpreting services

Video interpreting services

Interpreters in Action

There is a severe shortage of qualified sign language interpreters. Qualified professionals are in demand and can be quite expensive. Interpreters often need to be booked weeks or months in advance.

There are interpreters available through remote video interpreting services (VRI) where the interpreter and the deaf and hearing clients are projected onto a screen from another location through a webcam. The United States and some other countries have companies that offer VRS services (known as video relay services) for phone calls on their websites.

Interpreting services cost money, however, and most places do not want to pay. They would prefer to use unqualified volunteers or the children of deaf family members to save bucks, not understanding the potential harm they could be doing to their deaf clients or the volunteer interpreters. This practice is still common even though some countries such as the U.S, Canada, and the United Kingdom have laws in place that require sign language interpreting services to be available in most settings.

Sign language interpreting looks deceptively easy but is actually difficult to master. Sign language is not a form of English. It is a complete language with its own unique characteristics. Interpreters must study for several years at a college or university and have regular contact with the deaf community.

For those who are considering entering the profession, the book the Professional Sign Language Interpreter's Handbook: The Complete Practical Manual for the Interpreting Profession by Linda Humphreys and Duane Rumsey offers a comprehensive guide to interpreter training, certification, standards, and issues.


Characteristics of Effective Interpreters

Here are some characteristics of effective interpreters.

Interpreters Are Accurate

One of the rules of conduct interpreters follow is that they convey their message accurately and impartially, signing the true meaning of what a person is saying. Interpreters are required to interpret everything they hear, including background noises. Deaf people should be able to know everything that is audible, even their boss’s side discussion on a cell phone with their partner about what to have for dinner during a staff meeting break.

Interpreters must be fluent in English as well as sign language to achieve accuracy. Some interpreters specialize in complex terminology such as medical, legal, or scientific vocabulary.

Interpreters Are Impartial

Interpreting impartially can be very difficult, especially if the interpreters vehemently disagree with what is being said or are forced to use swear words they would never utter in their own conversations. Another challenge is that many hearing people do not understand that interpreters will not offer personal opinions or give out confidential information about deaf clients. Sometimes a potential employer might ask the interpreter for their impressions of a deaf job applicant’s qualifications, or a psychiatrist will ask for the interpreter’s opinion of the deaf person's mental state.

A deaf person may also put the interpreter on the spot by asking the interpreter’s opinion about the professionals involved in the assignment. Professional interpreters resist attempts to drag them out of a state of impartiality and stay in their role.

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Interpreters Interpret Faithfully

Interpreters are required to give their best interpretation of what is being signed or said. They also interpret any relevant noises. They don’t edit or add their own embellishments. If the speaker is animated and enthusiastic, the interpreter will mirror that. If a speaker is boring and dry, the interpreter is also boring.

Interpreters Maintain Confidentiality

As the previous examples show, interpreters are privy to private information about their deaf clients. For example, they may hear that the person has HIV or is being sued. For this reason, deaf clients must not only have confidence in their interpreters, but they must also trust them not to discuss their personal business.

The deaf community is often like a small town where gossip spreads like wildfire. An interpreter needs to know how to keep quiet. The relationship between a deaf person and a sign language interpreter is a deep trust that must not be violated.

Interpreters Stay in Their Roles no Matter What Happens

An interpreter's role is to interpret what he or she hears faithfully. That's it. The interpreter may provide some useful general information about deaf people or interpreting beforehand if it helps the assignment go more smoothly, but that is all. During the assignment, the interpreter must stay in his or her role. She is not a notetaker, animal holder, CPR dummy (yup – happens all the time).

If a hearing client asks the interpreter a question directly during an assignment, this can confuse the deaf person. The deaf person will think: Who is speaking? Is the interpreter sharing what the hearing person is saying, or is the interpreter answering the hearing person’s question directly as themselves?

Interpreting requires such intense concentration that interpreters often work in teams. If the assignment is more than two hours, two interpreters should be hired to ensure accurate interpreting.

Interpreters Continue to Train and Upgrade their Skills

Interpreters are constantly learning new signs and expressions and training to increase their knowledge and keep up with changes in the language. The book Interpreting: An Introduction, author by Nancy Frishberg has useful information about the interpreting profession.

Interpreter Keith Wann spoofs interpreters

Problems with Unqualified Interpreters

As a writer, I have seen disasters when unqualified interpreters are used, or interpreters are not called in when needed. Here are some examples:

  • People end up in the hospital emergency room but have no idea what is wrong with them or what tests or treatments were coming up because they do not have an interpreter.
  • Deaf people do not understand a doctor's diagnosis or how to take their medication properly because of poor or no interpreting services.
  • Innocent deaf people end up in jail –for example, a deaf woman beaten by her hearing husband calls the police. She is so distraught that the police do not understand her. The police believe the hearing husband’s lies, and she is arrested.
  • A deaf youth is walking or running down the street. Suspicious, the police yell at them to stop. When the deaf person does not obey, the police shoot him.

Concluding Thoughts

Sign language interpreting is a tough profession. Interpreters are under a lot of stress while conveying sensitive information. They have to deal with people, deaf and hearing alike, who are unaware of the interpreters’ role and code of conduct.

They need to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. They handle difficult situations well with a sense of humor and a determination to adhere to their code of conduct. They deserve our deep respect and admiration.


Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID)
RID Code of Professional Conduct, Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf
4 Key Skills of a Sign Language Interpreter, Affordable Language Skills
What are the qualities of a good ASL interpreter? Interpreters Unlimited

© 2014 Carola Finch


Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on January 21, 2014:

Thanks for your comments. The whole Mandela debacle shocked me and the deaf world.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 21, 2014:

Thank you for these insights into the role of the interpreter. I confess I'm one who thought it was as easy as just learning to sign. I can see the importance of this role in bridging the communication gap between the hearing and deaf. Voted Up!

Sheri Dusseault from Chemainus. BC, Canada on January 20, 2014:

Very interesting hub! I was shocked when that fake interpreter got so close to all those heads of state.

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