What You Should Know About Sign Language and Interpreting Services

When you hire an interpreter for a meeting with someone who uses sign language, you need to have a professional with years of experience and knowledge of the signed language, of English, and of Deaf culture. Why? Sign Language is visual. It has its own grammar and sentence structure. The term ‘translation’ refers to written text. Therefore, signed languages need to be interpreted rather than translated. 

What is Sign Language?

ASL, which is short for American Sign Language, is the signed language used by people who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing in the United States. Other countries have their own sign languages, such as French Sign Language (langue des signes française, LSF) and British Sign Language (BSL). Canada recognizes ASL and Quebec Sign Language (Langue des signes Québécoise LSQ).  

Since ASL was brought to the USA by Thomas Gallaudet, who enlisted Laurent Clerc from France to come to teach it, it closely resembles LSF. I feel the need to mention Gallaudet and Clerc because they are prominent characters in Deaf Culture. Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. is the only university in the world where students live and learn in ASL and English.

Also, ASL should always be recognized as a language of Deaf Culture. Yes, it is beautiful and interesting, but first, it is how they communicate. Every person I’ve met who is deaf appreciates someone who attempts to communicate in their language, but it is still their language. One of my professors had a sign on his door that read, “Learning to sign without interacting with Deaf people is like learning to swim with no water.”

Visual Cues Are Key in Sign Language

Without interacting with Deaf people you can’t learn the expressions, body, and hand positions that convey grammatical and semantic information. These are called non-manual markers and include mouth morphemes, eye gazes, facial expressions, body shifting, and head tilting. These nuances are learned through years of interactions with people who use ASL, and they are common among all knowledgeable users in the United States.

When an interpreter is used, they need to be a professional with experience and knowledge of those nuances. A simple example is the English sentence, “I sent the documents.” The signs in ASL are simply [paper + sent]. If these signs are merely translated, the meaning of the sentence is unknown.  If the person signing has their eyebrows raised and gestures a certain way, they could actually be asking “Should I send the papers?” This is an oversimplification of the problem with the unprofessional interpretation of ASL, but it should give you an idea of the difference between translating and interpreting a sentence.

 The person who uses ASL relies on the interpreter to convey the intended meaning behind everything they are signing. When I hired an interpreter for a new professor who was meeting with the President of a University, the professor asked me to find someone else who was more scholarly and familiar with the campus. This is not typical for a phone call with a provider, but they can usually request an interpreter who matches their gender, so the person who is hearing the interpreter is not confused by the message. Imagine a male interpreter explaining to a female patient how their pregnancy feels, or a male caller talking to a school administrator about raising a child as a single father.

Interpreters Code of Conduct

The interpreter needs to be skilled in English and able to find the right words to match the caller’s intent. Not only that, but they must follow a specific code of conduct to maintain licensure.

  • Interpreters adhere to standards of confidential communication.
  • Interpreters possess the professional skills and knowledge required for a specific interpreting situation.
  • Interpreters conduct themselves in a manner appropriate to the specific interpreting situation.
  • Interpreters demonstrate respect for consumers.
  • Interpreters demonstrate respect for colleagues, interns, and students of the profession.
  • Interpreters maintain ethical business practices.
  • Interpreters engage in professional development.

Deaf consumers know these tenets, and your interpreters need to abide by them.

Final Thoughts

If you get a chance to learn ASL, do it. If you know ASL, use it. If you have a meeting with someone who uses ASL, show them respect by hiring a skilled professional interpreter.

When you hire an interpreter for a meeting with someone who uses sign language, you need to have a professional with years of experience and knowledge of the signed language, of English, and of Deaf culture. Why? Sign Language is visual. It has its own grammar and sentence structure. The term ‘translation’ refers to written text. Therefore, signed languages need to be interpreted rather than translated.  

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