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What is a Sign Language Interpreter?

Image of interpreter signing in front of a stage.

Sign language interpreters are highly skilled professionals who facilitate communication between hearing individuals and those who are deaf or hard of hearing. They are a crucial communication tool used by all people involved in a communication setting. Interpreters must be able to listen to another person’s words, inflections and intent and simultaneously render them into the visual language of signs using the mode of communication preferred by the deaf consumer. The interpreter must also be able to comprehend the signs, inflections and intent of the deaf consumer and speak them in articulate, appropriate English. They must understand the cultures in which they work and apply that knowledge to promote effective cross-cultural communications.

More than Fluency

Interpreting requires specialized expertise. While proficiency in English and in sign language is necessary, language skills alone are not sufficient for an individual to work as a professional interpreter. The Commonwealth of Kentucky requires that all interpreters be licensed in accordance to KRS 309.300 to 309.319

 


 

Do interpreters specialize in certain areas?

Interpreters may have expertise and special training in some areas and not others. For example, some interpreters work primarily in medical settings, while others work mainly in court and legal settings. Familiarity with the subject and vocabulary is crucial for effective interpreting.

 


 

Different types of sign language interpreters:

Certified Interpreter/Transliterator - A sign language, oral or cued speech interpreter/transliterator who has demonstrated an advanced level of expressive and receptive skills. Certified interpreters have a thorough knowledge of the codes of ethics and role of the interpreter. An interpreter/transliterator who works in Kentucky must be licensed by the Kentucky Board of Interpreters for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) - A deaf or hard of hearing individual, who is able to assist in providing an accurate interpretation between standard sign language and variants of sign language (including home signs) by acting as an intermediary between a deaf or hard of hearing person and a qualified interpreter. A CDI working in Kentucky must be licensed by the Kentucky Board of Interpreters for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Deaf/Blind Interpreter - The tactile consumer places her/his hands over the hands of the interpreter in order to read signs through touch and movement. Tactile signing can be taxing for the interpreter and may require more frequent interpreter rotations or breaks. The interpreter supplies both auditory and visual information to the consumer. Tactile signing is used by consumers who have very limited vision and by those who are blind. A deaf-blind interpreter working in Kentucky must be licensed by the Kentucky Board of Interpreters for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Oral Interpreter - Transliterators transliterate a spoken message from a person who hears to a person who is deaf or hard of hearing. They possess the ability to understand and repeat the message and intent of the speech and mouth movements of the person who is deaf or hard-of-hearing. An oral interpreter working in Kentucky must be licensed by the Kentucky Board of Interpreters for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

 


 

What’s the difference between a signer and a sign language interpreter?

Can anyone who signs be an interpreter?

The biggest misconception by the general public is that anyone who has taken classes in American Sign Language (ASL) or Signed English or knows the manual alphabet is qualified to be an interpreter. Such an individual is referred to as a "signer." A signer is a person who may be able to communicate conversationally with deaf persons but who may not necessarily possess the skills and expertise to accurately interpret complex dialogue or information. A signer is not an interpreter, and using or hiring a signer in situations that clearly call for the provision of a professional interpreter can have serious legal consequences.

Sign language interpreters and signers function in different settings, using language at a different pace with different content. Signers are usually present in natural, conversational settings, covering day to day topics such as chatting. Signers have control of their own intent, content, pace and message. Interpreters, on the other hand, work in situations where they can’t control the content of the message, but are trained to accurately convey another person’s message. The interpreter operates in an environment where terminology is much more advanced and unpredictable. The interpreter must keep up with the speaker, without knowing in advance what will be said. The interpreter must render the message faithfully, conveying the content and spirit of the speaker, using the language understood by the person they serve.

Often, people who have learned some sign language are incorrectly used as interpreters. A person who only knows conversational sign language does not possess the skill required to perform effectively in the role of an interpreter.

To become an interpreter, an individual must not only display bilingual and bicultural proficiency, but also have the ability to mediate meanings across languages and cultures, both simultaneously and consecutively. This takes years of intensive practice and professional training.

A licensed sign language interpreter demonstrates proficient and ethical interpreting skills and has the knowledge and expertise required to function in a professional capacity. Interpreters work to ensure effective communication between those who know sign language and those who do not. Interpreting requires intensive training and expertise before proficient levels of skill are attained.

Resources:

RID – Registry of Interpreters of the Deaf

Mass.gov

North Carolina Department of Health & Human Services