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Characteristics of Effective Sign Language Interpreters

Updated on December 15, 2017
Carola Finch profile image

Carola has studied yoga for many years while going through through intensive dance training, breast cancer, and aging.


As someone who has worked in and advocated for the deaf community for many years, I have observed that there is no doubt that there is something fascinating about sign language interpreting. As Hurricane Sandy raged in 2012, Americans were captivated by the sign language interpreter for the New York City mayor during his press conferences. The interpreter, Lydia Callis, was all over the media for some time and was even spoofed by TV programs such as “Saturday Night Live” and “Chelsea Lately.” She was praised for her accurate interpreting by deaf people and fellow professionals.

An example of sign language interpreting

At Nelson Mandela's funeral in November, 2013, a sign language interpreter gave the media weeks of fodder. Deaf organizations condemned the interpreter, saying his signing was inadequate. The media had a jolly time reporting that he was schizophrenic and digging up his past for other juicy tidbits.

Deaf advocates and interpreters used the media firestorm to educate the public about the need for qualified sign language interpreters. In spite of more exposure to the deaf community on TV and this kind of publicity, the public does not know much about this challenging profession.

Here are some insights in the characteristics of effective sign language interpreters. Please note that I am deliberately ambiguous or have slightly changed details to protect the privacy of those involved in some cases.



There is a severe shortage of qualified sign language interpreters. The interpreters who are qualified are in demand and can be quite expensive. Interpreters often need to be booked weeks or months in advance.

There are interpreters available through remote video interpreting services (VRI) where the interpreter and the clients are projected onto a screen from another location through a webcam. The United States has several companies that offer VRI services (known as video relay services) for phone calls through their websites.

Interpreting services cost money, however, and most places do not want to pay. They would rather use unqualified volunteers or the children of deaf family members to save bucks, not understanding the potential harm they could be doing to their deaf clients or the volunteer interpreters. This practice is still common even though some countries such as the U.S, Canada, and the United Kingdom have laws in place that require sign language interpreting services in most settings.

Sign language interpreting looks deceptively easy, but is actually difficult to master. Sign language is not a form of English. It is a complete language with its own unique characteristics. Interpreters must study for several years at a college or university, as well as having regular contact with the deaf community. A sign language interpreter must not only master one language but two languages – English and sign - to be effective.

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf
Code of Professional Conduct

Interpreters are required to:

  • Only accept assignments for which they are qualified
  • Faithfully convey messages as accurately as possible
  • Maintaining confidentiality about all aspects of the assignment
  • Remain impartial
  • Conduct themselves in a professional manner
  • Respect both clients and colleagues
  • Commit to ongoing training and development of their interpreting skills

Code of Conduct

Interpreters must learn and practice a strict code of ethics set by their regulating organization, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. These rules are designed to protect both the deaf and the hearing clients, and the interpreters themselves.

On the surface, this code of ethics looks straightforward and logical, but in actuality, it takes a special kind of person to follow them.

I did explore the idea of becoming an interpreter at one time. I studied and decided the profession was not for me. It required a high level of confidence and skills that I did not have. I will interpret informally for deaf friends if they ask me, but that is all.

Keith Wann, a hearing child of deaf parents and comedian, spoofs interpreters

Problems with Unqualified Interpreters

As a reporter, I have seen disasters much worse than the Mandela debacle when unqualified interpreters are used or interpreters are not called in when needed:

  • People end up in the hospital emergency room but have no idea what is wrong with them, or what tests or treatment were coming up because they do not have an interpreter
  • The deaf do not understand a doctor's diagnosis or how to take their medication properly because of poor or no interpreting
  • Innocent deaf people end up in jail –for example, a deaf woman who is beaten by her hearing husband calls the police. She is so distraught that police don't understand her. The police believe the hearing husband’s lies and she is arrested
  • A deaf youth is walking or running down the street. Suspicious, the police yell at them to stop. When the deaf person does not obey, the police shoot him

Characteristics of Effective Interpreters

Characteristic: Interpreters are accurate

One of the rules of conduct interpreters follow is that they convey their message accurately and impartially, conveying the true meaning of what a person is saying. Interpreters are required to interpret everything they hear, including background noises. Deaf people should be able to know everything that is audible, even their boss’s side discussion on a cell phone with their partner about what to have for dinner during a staff meeting break.


Characteristic: Interpreters are impartial

Interpreting impartially can be very difficult at times, especially if the interpreters vehemently disagrees with what is being said or is forced to use swear words they would never utter in their own conversations.

Another challenge is that many hearing professionals do not understand that interpreters will not offer personal opinions or give out confidential information about deaf clients. Sometimes a potential employer might ask the interpreter for their impressions of a deaf job applicant’s qualifications or a psychiatrist will ask for the interpreter’s opinion of the deaf person's mental state.

A deaf person may also put the interpreter on the spot by asking the interpreter’s opinion about the professionals involved in the assignment. A professional interpreter will resist any attempts to drag him or her out of a state of impartiality and stay in his or her role of an interpreter.

Characteristic: Interpreters interpret faithfully

Interpreters are required give their best interpretation of what is being signed or said. They also interpret any relevant noises. They don’t edit or add their own embellishments. If the speaker is animated and enthusiastic, the interpreter will mirror that. If a speaker is boring and dry, the interpreter is also boring.


Characteristic: Interpreters Maintain Confidentiality

As the previous examples show, interpreters are privy to very private information about their deaf clients. They may hear that the person has HIV or is being sued, for example. For this reason, deaf clients must not only have confidence in their interpreters, they must trust the interpreters not to blab their personal business.

The deaf community is often like a small town where gossip spreads like wildfire. An interpreter needs to know how to keep his or her mouth shut. The relationship between a deaf person and a sign language interpreter is a deep trust that must not be violated.

Characteristic: Interpreters Stay in Their Roles no Matter What Happens

An interpreter's role is to faithfully interpret what he or she hears. That's it. The interpreter may be able to provide some useful general information about deaf people or interpreting beforehand if it helps the assignment go more smoothly, but that is all. During the assignment, the interpreter must stay in his or her role. She is not a notetaker, CPR dummy, or animal holder (yup – happens all the time).

If a hearing client asks the interpreter a question directly during an assignment, this can cause confusion for the deaf person. The deaf person will think: Who is speaking? Is the interpreter sharing what the hearing person is saying, or is the interpreter answering the hearing person’s question directly as themselves?

Interpreting requires such intense concentration that interpreters often work in teams. If the assignment is more than two hours, two interpreters should be hired in order to ensure accurate interpreting.

Concluding Thoughts

Sign language interpreting is a really tough profession. Interpreters are sometimes under a lot of stress while conveying sensitive information. They have to deal with people, deaf and hearing alike, who are unaware of the interpreters’ role and code of conduct, previously known as the code of ethics. They need an extraordinary amount of self-confidence to handle their assignments. They must be able to handle to stress well.

Interpreters are constantly learning new signs and expressions to increase their knowledge and keep up with changes in the language. They handle difficult situations well with a sense of humor and a determination to adhere to their code of conduct. They deserve our deep respect and admiration.

© 2014 Carola Finch


Submit a Comment

  • Carola Finch profile image

    Carola Finch 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for your comments. The whole Mandela debacle shocked me and the deaf world.

  • MsDora profile image

    Dora Weithers 4 years ago from The Caribbean

    Thank you for these insights into the role of the interpreter. I confess I'm one who thought it was as easy as just learning to sign. I can see the importance of this role in bridging the communication gap between the hearing and deaf. Voted Up!

  • Sheri Faye profile image

    Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

    Very interesting hub! I was shocked when that fake interpreter got so close to all those heads of state.