Sign Language vs Foreign Language Interpreters

interpreter sign

An Interpreter’s Balancing Act:

Sign language interpreters. What do they do? For those unfamiliar, it may seem pretty simple…similar to the work of foreign language interpreters. However, there are issues particular to this profession that only come to light when one looks deeper.
Foreign Language Interpreters are interpreting one spoken language to another. The vast majority of the time, the language they are interpreting is much the same regardless of assignment. There may be medical or legal jargon that is unfamiliar , but every day conversations are based on the same basic foreign language.

Here is one area where sign language differs. The language itself can vary from region to region within the United States. The language is always evolving. There are various versions of sign language that are commonly used. Signed English is completely different from ASL. So when an interpreter is listening to an English speaker, they must instantly translate to the core language of the deaf person. Some phrases do not translate well, so an alternative phrase must be substituted immediately and conveyed in the understood sign language. Do this for a couple of hours and you realize how challenging it can be.

When the deaf person replies in ASL, the interpreter must interpret the ASL into proper spoken English for the hearing person…which also doesn’t always translate. Phrases in ASL such as “Train go, sorry” would make little sense to an English speaker. This phrase actually translates to having ‘missed the boat’ or missed out on something. But it’s not a phrase commonly used among hearing people.

Now we can also mix things up by adding  tri-lingual interpretation. For instance, the Doctor speaks English, but the patient is deaf and grew up in a Spanish speaking household.
Or possibly we have a deaf person who learned to speak in their own version of ASL. Now we may find a Deaf Interpreter working with a Hearing Interpreter is our best choice for clear communication.

Physical Ailments – Interpreters often experience discomfort from the continual movement of their fingers, hands and arms. “Repetitive Motion Injuries” are common among sign language interpreters. Many are independent contractors and only get paid when they are working. Their work causes the injury, but the work must continue even if there is a need for occupational therapy. Hand warmers, yoga, acupuncture, massage and even chiropractic care may be included in an ongoing effort to relieve pain and cramping.

Emotional Ailments – An interpreter may find himself / herself in the middle of extremely emotional situations. Their job is to remain professional, maintain their role, remain emotionally neutral in very trying circumstances. 

* Interpreters bridge communication gaps between patient and doctor. 

* Interpreters bridge communication gaps between patient and therapist…….

* Lawyers and clients

* Teachers and parents

Priests and parish members
* Funeral Directors and family members

Interpreters are there when a patient learns of dire news following tests. 

Interpreters are there when parents are in court battling over custody agreements. The list is truly endless. 

One Interpreter shared with me that she interpreted for a deaf client’s group therapy meeting and she found it extremely difficult staying out of the discussion. Everybody was voicing their feelings and their fears and she was desperate to participate , but knew she was to remain as invisible as possible. Every Sign Language Interpreter has a story. 

Every single day, Sign Language Interpreters have to remind hearing people to please talk to the deaf person…..that they are not there as a counselor or even as an advocate. They are there simply to interpret and help hearing people communicate with deaf people. It’s a tightrope to walk for interpreters … to interact with those who have no connection with the deaf and have no experience with the interpreter’s role.
Often signals and expectations are crossed.
While critical communication services are provided by both, Sign Language Interpreters and Foreign Language Interpreters are very different career choices.
From our perspective, we are especially fond of those who help bridge the communication gap between the hearing and the deaf.

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About Evelyn

Evelyn Hunter is a SODA with years of experiential study in Deaf Culture. She attended Gallaudet University to immerse herself in this unique deaf world while working for the University and studying sign language to hone her skills. Evelyn has served in training, relationship sales, and marketing -- always seeking to expand awareness of Deaf Culture and the unique challenges the deaf face on a daily basis. The Sign Language Company has recently established a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a website with a blog, as Evelyn coordinates the marketing and outreach efforts for the agency. Her goal is to attract new clients seeking exceptional service, while maintaining optimal relationships with clients who have selected The Sign Language Company for over 20 years.

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