Working with Sign Language Interpreters: 5 Helpful Hints

By Ray S
October 30, 2018

Working with sign language interpreters can be easy and straightforward. As long as you follow some simple rules and meet some basic expectations.

In this article, we’ll take a look at how to work with a sign language interpreter in some detail. How to plan the event or service you’re organising. As well as how to act during it. All while helping you avoid awkward situations along the way.

What is British Sign Language?

British Sign Language (BSL) is the sign language most popularly used in the UK. It is a true language (it gained official recognition as such in 2003) comprised of gestures, hand shapes, body language and facial expressions. It’s important to note here that BSL has a grammatical structure and vocabulary which are completely different from English. So it’s not comparable to using your hands to act out English words.

BSL is used by over 80 000 of the more than 9 million people in the UK who have some sort of hearing loss as their first language. But despite this prevalence, BSL isn’t the only sign language based on English. It’s not even the only one in use in the United Kingdom. This makes it vital to…

Step 1) Make sure it’s an English to BSL interpreter that you need

If you don’t regularly come into contact with sign languages, it’s easy to assume that they are all the same. They’re not though. It is likely that if you hear someone say “sign language” in the UK that they’re referring to BSL…

But it’s not a certainty. Because even in different parts of the UK there are different sign languages in use. That’s in addition to the regional variations, dialects and colloquialisms within BSL. This makes it important to check that you don’t actually need something else before you book your BSL interpreting services. For instance:

  • American Sign Language (actually only shares about a third of signs with BSL)
  • Irish Sign Language (is actually much more like French Sign Language than BSL)
  • Scottish or Welsh sign languages
  • Signed English or Signed Supported English are not true sign languages, but they are in common use in the UK. They use the same signs as BSL, but the word order more closely follows spoken English
  • Deafblind communicators
  • Lip-speakers
  • Speech-to-text reporters

If in doubt, it’s always better to ask.

Step 2) Booking your British Sign Language Interpreting service

It’s best to do this as soon as you know you’ll need a language service. Two to three weeks before an event is usually the latest time you should aim to book, though an emergency booking may be possible. This latter often happens when people realise that it is a legal requirement – since the 2010 Equality Act – to provide this kind of language support. Or when a request for this kind of support is made to an organiser at the last moment.

When booking BSL interpreting services, you’ll usually be asked for the following information. So it’s best to have it handy:

  1. The start and finish dates and times of the event
  2. The nature of the event
  3. The scale of the event (the number of people involved, the number of people who need to be interpreted between)
  4. Event details such as the address of the venue, name and contact number of the organiser

For longer events of certain kinds (those lasting more than two hours), you may need more than a single interpreter to carry the load. Your Language Service Provider should always be able to advise you about this once you’ve provided the information above. So again, if you have any doubts, ask.

Step 3) Preparing your event

When it comes to your event, there are a few straightforward things you can do to make things easier for everyone concerned:

  1. Plan for who is doing the speaking – is your keynote speaker one of the people who are deaf or hard of hearing? Remember that their interpreter will likely need a microphone if you are using them to aid the communication of a hearing audience.
  2. Plan for who is doing the listening – bear in mind that your linguist will be working both ways. That is to say from BSL to English and English to BSL. Allow time for this.
  3. Organise or suggest seating arrangements – the interpreter and deaf person will need to be able to seat themselves beside or within line of sight of each other. If you’re unsure about arrangements, why not simply allow them to suggest which location would be the most suitable?
  4. Think about all aspects of the event – remember that any attendees who require interpreters will need them during more than just the formal section of your event. Will there be some informal mingling before or after your business meeting? Perhaps a tea and coffee break during your presentation?
  5. Think about light levels – will you be dimming the lights during a presentation? Sign language requires light! Organise a spotlight if you need to. Otherwise, maintain some level of light.

On the day itself, you will save yourself a lot of effort and issues by simply allowing everyone time to prepare.

Step 4) Do your research (for your interpreter and yourself)

You’ll make your linguist’s job much easier (as well as getting much better results) if you put together an information package for them to work from first.

Send it to them well in advance so that they can study details such as:

  • An agenda or schedule for your event
  • Scripts for any planned speeches or presentations
  • Information relating to specialist topics which will be discussed
  • The details of any other interpreters or linguists who will be working at the event

You should also consider doing a little research into how to interact with a deaf or hard of hearing person. There is a whole vibrant Deaf culture to look into if you have the time. But even taking a few moments to read any of the many articles and books written on deafness will stand you in good stead.

For instance…

Step 5) Working with a sign language interpreter – speaking to a person

If you’re not used to working with interpreters of any kind, it can be easy to fall into a few obvious traps when actually having a conversation which involves one. Here are some helpful hints to working with a Sign Language interpreter (or in fact pretty much any type of interpreter):

a) Talk to the person you are having the conversation with (not the interpreter)

Remember, your linguist is there to facilitate the conversion between yourself and a deaf or hard of hearing individual. Speak to the deaf person directly (don’t talk to the interpreter or refer to the deaf person as “him” or “her”). Your linguist will interpret precisely what you say (so requesting that they “tell him” or “ask her” when you refer to the deaf person will quickly get confusing).

This also means you should be looking and making eye contact with the deaf person. Not your interpreter. Sign languages can be pretty flashy and can draw your eye. But don’t let them!

A friendly greeting for your linguist will no doubt be appreciated. After this though, remember that they are there to aid communication, not be part of the conversation themselves.

b) Ask the deaf person (about how it works, individual signs or for clarification)

If you’re interested and it seems appropriate to the conversation, you can ask the person you’re speaking with about how the interpreting process works. Or even how to sign a particular word.

Remember though, it’s not polite to ask your interpreter what they’re up to. Or about what the deaf person meant by their last remark. Again, your linguist is there to facilitate the conversation only. Ask the person you are actually having the conversation with if you need clarification on any particular point.

It’s also best to bear in mind that you can’t ask your interpreter “not to translate that”. They’re obliged to translate everything. It’s a professional code and they’re not going to deviate from it.

c) Speak clearly – but sensibly

Speak normally. At your normal pace. In your normal tone. Use your normal gesticulations or style of speaking. By all means, try to speak clearly so that your interpreter can correctly convey what you are saying. Of course, try not to mumble. But, equally, there’s no need to shout or try to enunciate your words in any sort of special way.

If in doubt, ask

You’ll rarely find anyone who gets offended by you asking a sensible question or two. “Is this okay?” “What have you found works best?” So, if you’re working with a deaf or hard of hearing person or an interpreter, you can’t go far wrong by following one simple rule of thumb:

If in doubt, ask.

Are you planning your first event where a speaker or part of the audience is deaf or hard of hearing? Or perhaps you’re deaf or hard of hearing yourself with a few handy tips taken from how you’ve arranged events before?

Comment below and get the conversation started!

*Image by Cowplopmorris, CC BY-SA 3.0
** Image by Lance Cheung