Sign Language Interpreters: A Bridge Between Two Worlds

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Whenever somebody asks me, “What kind of work do you do?” I always hesitate for a moment, debating how far down the rabbit hole I want to dive.

Down the rabbit hole we go. If the person is interested enough, I dive into the well-rehearsed musings I have had over the last 12 years in my field. I started interpreting American Sign Language (ASL) in 2012 after graduating with a B.A. in Deaf Studies: Interpreting at Cal State University, Northridge, and have worked in preschool, elementary, middle, high school, college, church, the general community and also at NASA. It sounds simple enough: some people cannot hear, so I interpret for them. But it is far more complicated than that. 

Sign Language Interpreters create a bridge between two worlds. Image of two drawn heads with a line connecting them

Interpreters create a bridge between two worlds: the world of the Deaf and the world of the hearing. To the general hearing/non-signing world, interpreting in  ASL can often be misunderstood to mean “using hand signs in place of English words.” On the contrary, it is not interpreting English word for word, but it is interpreting meaning-for-meaning as ASL is an entire language all in its own. With its own syntax and grammar, ASL is a myriad of developed visual language components of nouns, verbs, idioms, etc. — even slang. The only real difference between ASL and most other language is that it is visual instead of aural. 

Sign Language Interpreters help others express themselves. A hand is signing the I love you sign.

So how does this translate in the classroom—or any place for that matter, since the Deaf and Hard-of-hearing (HoH) community utilize interpreters for every type of human event (doctor appointments, concerts, church, social gatherings, funerals, the list is endless)? I have created a list of 5 tips for hearing people that may be helpful when interacting with an interpreter and a Deaf/HoH person:

1. Always talk directly to the Deaf/HoH person, not the interpreter

Sign Language Interpreters focus on communicating directly to the deaf/HoH. Image of two men facing each other and signing.

While it may seem pointless to communicate orally with someone who cannot hear, talking directly to the person you are trying to communicate with is a sign of universal respect. Besides, that’s why there is an interpreter there. It may feel rude or funny to not be talking to the actual interpreter who is listening to your words, but trust me, this is part of the job and it is normal to them. In fact, many interpreters will ask you to speak to and look at the Deaf/HoH person and not to the interpreter once communication has begun. Our job is to be a like an intercom between two languages so that communication can happen seamlessly between the hearing and Deaf.

2. Don’t expect the Deaf/HoH person to look at the you during interpreting, but they might! 

Sign Language Interpreters understand that the deaf will not always look at you while you are signing. A young man is looking away to the left.

While it may feel like a double standard in that you are expected to look at the Deaf person but they are not expected to look at you — think about the dynamics. A Deaf person needs visuals in order to understand others. Lipreading among Deaf/HoH people is not as common as you may think. Even as a hearing person, have you ever attempted lipreading? I am an interpreter myself and I can’t even understand what my husband tries to say across the room if I can’t hear him. Even further, hearing people miscommunicate with each other all the time, so it is unfair to expect Deaf/HoH people to understand lipreading constantly. Therefore, the Deaf/HoH person may be primarily looking at the interpreter. While it may feel awkward, once the communication is flowing steadily, it will feel more normal as the conversation progresses.

3. Allow time for interpretation

Sign Language Interpreters know that leaving time is important.

The interpreter is working hard to make sure the messages conveyed in both languages are as accurate and correct as possible with vocabulary, inflection/facial expression, tone of voice/sign, and a thousand other factors all at once. Sometimes interpreters are able to process the information in English and produce it in ASL (or vice versa) very quickly, and sometimes the concepts in one language do not translate seamlessly into the other, which results in slightly longer processing time. While this can feel unnatural at first, give grace to the Deaf/HoH person and do not assume that the delay of a few seconds in communication means they don’t understand, but rather that it takes a couple of extra seconds for the interpreter to accurately convey the message. Sometimes if you are having a conversation in front of a large group, the hearing person may feel pressure to keep the conversation “lively” so that it keeps the attention of the group. But please simply understand that translating languages takes a little more time than a conversation in the same language. 

4. The interpreter is a working professional, but also a tool

Sign Language Interpreters are professionals but they are also valuable tools.  A young man is smiling and holding a wrench.

While the interpreter is a living person that you may have questions for, please save the conversations/questions not directly related to the situation for later when the interpreter is done working. As an interpreter, our job is to be the ears and voice of another person which can require an immense amount of mental aptitude and concentration at times. We, in essence, are a tool used for communication. Also, the interpreter’s entire job revolves around what the Deaf/HoH person needs or wants to listen to or express, so it is absolutely pertinent that our attention is on the Deaf/HoH person the entire length of our work hours. This is not to say that interpreters cannot have conversations with others, but it does mean our priority is the Deaf/HoH person at all times. If you happen to talk to an interpreter (not the Deaf person) and the interpreter notices but quickly seems like they are ignoring you (or being a tool) — please understand it is often only due to the nature of the job and it probably means they needed to start interpreting in that moment and cannot give you their full attention at the moment.

Sign Language Interpreters know that they will not always have the full attention of the deaf. A young woman is focused elsewhere.

Sometimes when interpreters are working in a classroom setting, the teacher  or someone else will want to ask questions to educate themselves. This makes sense, however sometimes it turns into the person asking question after question of the interpreter, drawing far too much unwanted attention to the Deaf/HoH person and the interpreter, and making the interpreter more of a distraction, and even worse, possibly making the Deaf/HoH person feel very awkward and on-the-spot. On top of all of this, if the interpreter is doing their job, they will be signing everything you are saying (even if you are talking to the interpreter) to the Deaf/HoH person so that they can have equal access to the conversation. Everything you say will be relayed to the Deaf person. The interpreter may choose to answer back, but will probably be speaking and signing simultaneous, in what is known as SIM-COM (simultaneous communication), which is often not the best form of interpreting for many reasons. Please be considerate in how and when you speak with the interpreter, considering that they are trying to do their job always with the Deaf/HoH person as first priority. 

5.  Expect Deaf/HoH people to be different, just like hearing people

Sign Language Interpreters know that the deaf are each unique and different.

It is human nature to want to categorize people. We label people by gender, race, looks, and a myriad of other factors. While sometimes categories can be useful, they can frequently be harmful. In an attempt to equalize the playing field of life, it is important for hearing people not to expect Deaf/HoH people to all be the same and recognize that everyone is different. Deafness is a condition that can affect every race, gender or type of human on the planet. One Deaf person may be able to lipread exceedingly well, another may not be able to at all. One HoH person may be able to speak for themselves, while another may rely on an interpreter’s voice. One Deaf/HoH person may love being the center of attention, another may loathe it. Whether hearing or Deaf, no one should be put in a box of someone else’s expectations. 


Sign Language Interpreters

If you’re unsure of what communication preference a Deaf/HoH person has, ask them — and look at them when you do so. Don’t expect them to always look at you when the interpreter is translating your words, and give time and space for the interpreter to work effectively. After all, the interpreter is a tool—an important tool—for communication between two worlds: the Deaf and the hearing. 

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