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10 Tips for Using a Sign Language Interpreter

Did you know that when you hire a sign language interpreter, there is appropriate etiquette? Here are 10 tips for using a sign language interpreter that will ensure a professional, ethical, and pleasant experience for everyone involved.

Tips for Using an ASL Interpreter

  1. Speak and look directly at the person who uses sign language. Eye contact is very important to those who use sign language. Face the person, and avoid looking at the interpreter. People who use sign language heavily rely on facial cues and body language to fully affect what they are saying.
  2. Remember that your conversation is not with the interpreter, so don’t engage the interpreter in the conversation. It is normal to want to include them but consider that they are working and are not there for casual conversation. They are ethically bound to avoid personal involvement. Also, avoid asking the interpreter, “Tell them …” or “Ask them…”  The interpreter’s responsibility is to interpret everything they hear and see while on assignment.
  3. Give the interpreter or the agency any relevant materials in advance. Everyone will receive a better interpretation experience if the interpreter can prepare ahead of time. Therefore provide meeting agenda, lists of names, a script for a performance, song lyrics, a PowerPoint presentation, etc. That way, the interpreter will have time to review and can ask for clarification before the event starts.
  4. Speak in your normal tone, at your normal pace. The interpreter will tell you if you need to repeat yourself, pause, or slow down. If you use a word that the interpreter is unfamiliar with, they will ask you what the word means or to spell it.  Effective communication happens when everyone is involved.
  5. Maintain enough light so that the interpreter is always visible.  If you lower the lights during part of the service appointment, consider using a small directional spotlight. Remember that sign language is a visual language!
  6. Never assume people can read your lips or hear you if you speak louder or slower. The best lip readers catch only about 30 percent of what is said, consequently leaving them to figure out the context of 70 percent of the conversation! Hearing loss is different for each individual; many have some residual hearing, and it may or may not be usable. Again, if someone has requested an interpreter, use the interpreter.
  7. The interpreter is not a companion, tutor, or helper. The interpreter is there for one thing and one thing only: to facilitate communication. Interpreters ethically maintain their roles and boundaries. Know that the interpreter will arrive a few minutes before the assignment and may take a few moments to assess the forms of language the client uses. However, they won’t engage in an in-depth conversation about their own or clients’ lives.
  8. When in a group setting, speak one at a time. Be mindful that the interpreter can only interpret one message at a time. Whereas, a hearing person can pick up most of a conversation when multiple people are talking. But this is not the case for interpreters.  Designate someone to regulate turn-taking and remind people to announce who they are before they speak. Avoid adding the responsibility on the interpreter to steer the conversation.
  9. Two interpreters are sometimes needed.  Interpreting is taxing both mentally and physically. After 20-30 minutes, this mental exhaustion becomes a significant stressor for interpreters, which may cause unavoidable errors. Jobs that warrant two interpreters may include those with longer times or dense content. Hiring two interpreters helps avoid repetitive motion injuries, maintains the integrity of messages, and fosters effective communication. Further, check in with the interpreters often, and schedule breaks when necessary.
  10. Remember that you both are the consumer. The interpreter is there to facilitate communication between the individuals involved. Don’t refer to the interpreter as “your interpreter” or “their interpreter.”  What’s more, know that the interpreter will keep all communication confidential.

Need to Hire a Sign Language Interpreter?

Gateway has been serving people who use sign language to communicate for almost a century. Our mission is to create a society where everyone can understand and be understood. We believe in equitable language access for everyone. A vital part of that mission is our Sign Language Interpreting Services. Whether on-site or virtually, at a convention or medical appointment, or in the community at a concert, art festival, or theater, you will experience the difference experienced interpreters make. Furthermore, when you apply these tips for using a sign language interpreter the experience will be seamless for everyone! Contact us today to learn more about our interpreting services.

First published on November 1, 2022.