Sign Language Interpreter

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Sign Language Interpreter


Just because someone can't hear doesn't mean they can't attend a university lecture or laugh at the boss' jokes at the company banquet. Deaf people can communicate with hearing people in a number of ways. They share information through lip reading, written language, and, of course, sign language. Hearing and non-hearing people can learn a series of gestures and finger spellings that allow for fluid, coherent conversations to be shared by many people.

So what happens if the boss is too nervous to sign the jokes and make a speech at the same time? What if that university professor has to run the slide projector, and can't sign and speak the lecture? Sign language interpreters are fluent in both English and American Sign Language. They work for government agencies; schools, colleges, and universities; court systems; individuals, and businesses, either as full-time employees, freelancers, or as representatives of a interpretation agency. They translate spoken word into sign language, or sign language into spoken word, trying to get the translation as accurate and realistic as possible. They cannot interpret, advise, or give their personal opinions when they interpret, and they must always remember to observe confidentiality rules.

Interpreters work in one of two ways. Some work as simultaneous interpreters. They listen to the speaker and translate the language at the same time it is being spoken. This requires extreme fluidity between languages, and excellent concentration skills. This is used at conferences when attendees want to follow discussion as it happens. It may also be used in some court proceedings or during debates or speeches, or situations when time is of the essence.

The other type of interpretation involves pauses--the interpreter waits for the speaker to break, and quickly translates what has just been said. Either that, or the two have pre-planned set pauses in which to translate. This is called consecutive interpretation, and comes up in most situations when the exact interpretation is crucial. This type of interpretation is used when witnesses and victims testify in court. It requires good note-taking and a good memory.

In educational settings, sign language interpreters must read the class material beforehand, in order to fully understand the subject matter being discussed, ensuring an accurate translation is being presented to the students.

As well as having excellent language skills, interpreters must have a good understanding of their community's deaf culture. Sign language interpreters are encouraged to socialize with deaf people, and ask as many questions as possible about living within this subculture. This helps with their interactions during their interpretation work, especially when translating sign language into English. By understanding their background and the cultural environment in which they were nurtured, it becomes easier to understand what it is they are trying to say.
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  Interests and Skills  
Interested in working as a sign language interpreter? Sign language interpreters need to be intelligent, and interested in linguistics, and the formation of all types of languages. They need to feel comfortable within the deaf community, and have a nonjudgmental attitude. They also need to be flexible, adaptable, and think well on their feet. They are able to work well independently and with others. Sign language interpreters have a good memory and concentration abilities. They must have good social skills and be open to and respectful of other cultures and beliefs. They are patient and empathetic by nature. It is also a good idea for sign language interpreters to have a good head for business, as they may have to work as a freelance interpreter.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Translate speakers' words into American Sign Language, or signer's words into English, either during a pause or simultaneously
  • Study and practice languages constantly
  • Research cultural differences
  • Interpret these cultural identifiers and behaviors
  • Analyze and resolve conflicts related to the meaning of words and concepts
  • There is no such thing as a typical day for a sign language interpreter. Each day will involve some translation, but the circumstances and locations change all the time. The interpreter must spend some time promoting their services if they are freelancers, or they must meet with supervisors and other interpreters if they work for an agency or a business or organization. Interpreters may travel, especially if they work with a tour group, a traveling dignitary, or a government official.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Sign language interpreters can freelance or work by contract, either independently or as part of an agency. They offer their services to universities and colleges, conference organizers, court systems, tourism boards, and tour groups. Some work as personal escorts or guides, for government departments (such as social services), religious groups, international businesses, and international agencies and non-profit organizations.
  • Sign language interpreters work wherever they are needed. They can work in classrooms, office buildings, attend parties, doctors' offices, television studios, banquet halls, theaters and music halls, visit jail cells and courtrooms. They may work alone, unless they work as simultaneous interpreters. These interpreters must translate as the speaker talks. This is hard work, so these interpreters work in teams, switching off every 20 minutes. All interpreters sometimes find themselves at work in the evenings and on weekends.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Sign language interpreters can open their own interpreting agency. They can become American Sign Language teachers, they can become teachers at schools for the deaf, or university and college sign language instructors. They can become advocates for deaf persons, lawyers, signing tour guides, linguists, or journalists. They can find work in any field that involves working closely with language, as well as other people.

  Educational Paths  
Sign language interpreters need to be fluent in both English and American Sign Language, including gestures and finger spelling. There are university and college courses designed to teach American Sign Language, courses which they can supplement with English classes, sociology, psychology, linguistics and humanities classes. Sign language interpreters may need to be certified by a professional association; make sure to check with the instructors before you start looking for work.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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