When ASL interpreters show-up:
Hearing People Ask
Inspiration: www.TerpTopics.com/AskAnInterpreter.htm (Retrieved: 20090605)
Where interpreters go, questions abound. Here are some questions of a general nature that we have received from hearing consumers or others who happen by or have previously seen an interpreter at work. Elsewhere on TerpTopics.com, Q&As are being compiled that are specific to certain groups or settings. Additionally, you may have an interest in browsing the TerpTopics.com FAQ for new signers or interpreters.
1. How did you learn sign language? Is it hard to learn? How long does it take?
Find answers to these and other basic questions on the TerpTopics FAQ.
2. Can the deaf consumer hear anything?
Questions of a personal nature are best addressed to the deaf consumer.
Even if the interpreter knows the answers to such questions (s/he may or may not), it is inappropriate, a breach of confidentiality, and would necessitate stepping out of role, for him/her to answer.
If you asked the question within earshot of the deaf consumer, the interpreter signed what you said. The deaf consumer might not respond because you were not speaking to him/her.
If you would like an answer to this or another personal question, speak directly to the deaf consumer.
3. Why are you signing everything I say? That question was for you, not for the deaf consumer.
While on duty, it is the interpreter’s job to facilitate equal communication access. With this in mind, when you speak within earshot of the deaf consumer, the interpreter will sign what you say.
Whether on duty or not, it is customary and common courtesy for hearing signers to sign what is said in the presence of deaf persons.
4. This homeowners’ meeting must be very dry for you to have to interpret - especially if you don’t live in this neighborhood. Are you bored?
It is not easy to be bored while working hard to facilitate equal access and dynamic equivalence.
Interpreters are just like everyone else, so it depends upon what is or isn’t the interpreter’s cup of tea.
Some of us become bored right along with everyone else in the room. In other words, if others are bored, the interpreter might be feeling the same way. On the other hand, if everyone seems to be having a wonderful time, the interpreter might also be having a wonderful time. Either way, the interpreter (bored or captivated) is there to do a job.
If you notice that an interpreter is him- or herself a particularly animated person, but then becomes subdued with limited facial expression when interpreting for a specific speaker, this apparent change of personality is because the interpreter is reflecting the energy and enthusiasm of the speaker. The interpreter is not presenting him- or herself; rather, s/he is presenting the speaker’s affect and so on. Conversely, if the interpreter is ordinarily understated him- or herself, and then seems to come alive when interpreting a particularly invigorating presentation, it is because s/he is conveying the high-energy or emphasis of the speaker or intensity of the topic.
5. I am finding it very difficult to look at the deaf consumer because you’re the one who’s talking to me. Surely, deaf people are used to that; s/he will understand if I don’t look at him/her, won’t s/he?
While it may be the interpreter’s voice you hear, the deaf person is speaking to you, not the interpreter.
When working with an interpreter for the first time or two, we know it can be a little awkward to remember to look directly at the deaf person when speaking with him/her because hearing persons are in the habit of looking toward the source of a sound. Please continue trying to maintain eye contact with the deaf speaker. You will soon find that your awareness of who is speaking will come sharply into focus, and will feel like second-nature (we promise).
Most people, hearing or deaf, prefer to be addressed directly.
6. Would the deaf consumer be more comfortable seated? Maybe s/he would like something to drink. Filling out these forms can take forever.
Much as we interpreters might wish it were so, we are not mind-readers.
Please remember to speak directly to the deaf person.
7. What difference does it make where the deaf consumer sits? Won’t you just be interpreting everything anyway?
Support columns, glare, equipment, props, people, and more can obstruct the view, which will interfere with visual communication (equal information access).
Deaf persons often sit where they can best see the interpreter, the presenter, and the presenter’s visual aids (maps, videos, etc.), as well as the other attendees (audience members, meeting participants, etc.)..
The only way to know for sure where a person would like to sit is to ask him/her. We encourage you to ask the deaf consumer where s/he would prefer to be seated.
Keep in mind that a light source behind either the interpreter or the deaf consumer can create glare and make effective communication difficult, even impossible.
8. We thought it would be better if you just stand right here, in front of the window; that way you won’t be in the way.
Interpreters are very happy to work with you and the deaf consumer to determine the optimal location. We do not wish to be in the way. At the same time, we are there to facilitate communication for everyone in attendance.
Oops! Not in front of a window, lamp, projector, or other light source. A light source behind either the interpreter or the deaf consumer can create glare and makes effective communication difficult, even impossible.
9. It looks like we’ll need you to stay another 30- or 45-minutes.
If the interpreter’s schedule and the demands of the assignment permit, s/he may be available and able to stay.
If the interpreter is not physically or mentally able to maintain interpretation quality (due to exhaustion resulting from the demands of the assignment), then s/he is not qualified to do the job and will be unable to continue.
If the interpreter has a prior commitment, s/he will not be able to stay beyond the scheduled time for this assignment because of the previous obligation.
10. Several of our customers are deaf, which is of course no problem. But, we have a new deaf customer who has special personal care needs. Do interpreters also perform personal aide duties?
Some interpreters are specially qualified to administer or assist with personal care. Interpreting and provision of personal care services are different jobs with potentially mutually exclusive responsibilities.
If you are seeking an interpreter who is also qualified in personal care duties, be sure to specify your needs when making service arrangements.
Here is a valuable resource we think you will find useful.
11. Can’t you hurry this up? I have someone else waiting.
We understand that first-time users of interpreting services may not have the experience that informs subsequent arrangements. The power to change the pace of the conversation is squarely your hands and those of the person with whom you are speaking - not in the interpreter’s hands.
If you are unable to adjust the pace, consider rescheduling for a time that meets everyone’s needs, or schedule a second meeting to continue today’s session.
12. Here’s the form. If you have any questions, you can ask the office assistant. You were here last week, so you know the drill. Just tell the deaf consumer how it all works.
Oops! Interpreters are not qualified to step into your professional role. We leave the responsibilities of your job to you.
We are qualified to interpret, and are happy to meet our professional responsibilities.
13. Our business can’t afford an interpreter for every appointment. Tell the deaf consumer we’ll just write notes next time.
Please speak directly with the deaf consumer, rather than with the interpreter.
Your business may or may not be subject to the ADA or other laws that establish and protect the rights of deaf and hard of hearing persons.
OBTAIN GUIDANCE FROM A QUALIFIED LEGAL ADVISOR concerning if and how laws, statutes, and ordinances that protect the legal rights of deaf and hard of hearing persons, might impact your business practices.
For a sense of some of the laws that may apply, see Laws and Statutes.
Not every deaf person communicates effectively using written English. Work with each deaf consumer to reach agreement upon what for him/her is reasonable accommodation under applicable law.
14. Turn down the music? Why? It’s Mozart! How can loud music make a deaf person uncomfortable when s/he can’t even hear it?
Please remember to speak directly to the deaf person, not to the interpreter.
It is not possible to know what sounds, pitches, or frequencies are heard by others unless we ask them or they tell us.
Sound vibrates (especially low-frequency sound waves) and impacts our bodies and the things around us. Our chest, head, and stomach feel sound vibrations. Our feet pick up vibrations through the floor, and our hands or arms feel it through tables, chairs, and so on. These vibratory sensations can be distracting, even disturbing, to deaf, hard of hearing, or hearing persons who are especially sensitive to sound or sound vibrations.
15. Does the deaf consumer have any questions?
Please remember to speak directly to the deaf person, not to the interpreter.
16. Do you read Braille, too?
Among people in general, some (including a few interpreters) understand Braille; however, most people (including most interpreters) do not. Your interpreter probably does not understand Braille; but, might be one of the few.
Deafness and blindness are not the same thing. Braille is used by blind persons.
17. What’s wrong with saying “deaf and dumb?”
This is an outdated label and is considered by many to be offensive.
It is not accurate to assume deaf people are unable to speak. The voices of most deaf people work as well as those of most hearing people.
Unfortunately, some people misunderstand the meaning of the word dumb in this context, which can lead to the erroneous belief that to be deaf is to be unintelligent. Interpreters will be among the first to tell you that nothing could be farther from the truth.
18. Why do deaf people jump when, for example, a chair falls over? Do they hear it?
Some deaf people can hear sound within specific frequency or decibel ranges, which may explain why they, like hearing people, are startled by loud and sudden noise.
Because sound, especially strong and sudden sound, travels as waves through not only air but also through walls, windows, floors, tables, and chairs (among other things), a deaf person may startle at the sudden and strong vibration that manifests when sound is sudden and loud.
19. Don’t your hands get tired?
Yes, they do. Interpreters’ hands tire and are subject to repetitive motion injury, as are their wrists, elbows, shoulders, and other joints.Interpreter Health.
For more information, start with
20. Why do you need a break?
Interpreting is intensive work that requires continual linguistic and cultural gymnastics (mental strain), as well as physical work (muscle and joint strain, and repetitive motion).Interpreter Health; Repetitive Strain Injuries; and Hiring An Interpreter.
For more information, check out
21. Why do we need more than one interpreter?
More than one interpreter may be advised to accommodate an audience that could include consumers who do not all use the same signed language (i.e.: signed English and American Sign Language).RID Standard Practice Paper.
If your audience is large and spread out, the hands of only one interpreter may not be clearly visible by all in attendance. Positioning two or more interpreters throughout a room or to stage-right and stage-left will better support equal information access.
Interpreters are especially at risk of work-related injury. For information about how interpreters are at risk, see the response to item number 20 (above).
To avoid injury and to maintain mental and visual acuity, lengthy, intense, or highly technical assignments require more than one interpreter. Team members will rotate about every 20-minutes.
For more information about interpreter teaming, see this
22. So, the second interpreter is getting paid for sitting there half the time and doing nothing?!
Interpreters working as a team take turns being “on,” which means the previously on interpreter takes a seat out of the way and within easy view of the interpreter who has now assumed the primary interpreting role.
The second interpreter is physically resting and is relieved of the primary mental stress, but has eyes fixed upon his/her team member and is carefully following the discourse and interpretation process, ready to assist when called upon by the interpreter who is on.
Some interpreters say that being on is in one sense easier than being off because of the emotional stress associated with the responsibility that goes with the secondary role.
23. You would have thought that the interpreter for President Obama would have at least worn fancier high-heels, for goodness’ sake.
Happily for us all, high-heels are no longer requisite to respectability and formality.
Health and proper ergonomics are hard to come by for a human wearing high-heels or who is otherwise off-balance or unnaturally positioned.
24. Why do interpreters always wear white [or always wear black]?
To help postpone the inevitable eye-fatigue that comes from observing lengthy or frequent interpretations, interpreters wear plain-colored clothing that contrasts with their skin tone, providing a good background for clear visual communication.
In addition to wearing a skin-contrasting color, interpreters typically avoid vivid or neon shades, and stripes or other visually complex patterns or color combinations that could cause eye strain or visual distortions.
25. If the interpreter is just going to say whatever we say, why does s/he want a copy of the text/presentation/ play in advance?
Interpreted deliveries benefit from practice and preparation in the same way your delivery benefits from your knowing what you will say and how you will say it.
26. Don’t all deaf people everywhere understand sign language? It’s universal, right?
No. American Sign Language is as different from Spanish Sign Language, as spoken Italian is from spoken Norwegian; each is a separate and distinct language.
27. Isn’t ASL just signed English? They’re really the same language, right?
No. American Sign Language (ASL) is not signed English. And, British Sign Language (BSL) is not signed English, either. Australian Sign Language (Auslan) is not English, either. ASL, BSL, Auslan, and English are separate languages.
While it may be possible to literally transcribe some Italian sentences into English (word-for-word), chances are good that if you speak English (not Italian), you will not be able to understand much of the result. The same is true of ASL and English. An interpreter may be able to transcribe some English sentences using signs (sign-for-word) but chances are good that if you use ASL (not English), you will not be able to understand much of the result. Of course, if you are bilingual, you might understand it as presented in either language, no matter how mangled it becomes in the translation. (smile)
28. I don’t understand why the hearing people in the room have to take turns talking. Why can’t you keep up?
It is not possible to say in one sentence what two people said at the same time. We must first say what one of the people said, then say what the other person said … that is if we clearly understood them (remember, they were both speaking at the same time).Ed Sullivan Show who used to do his best to keep all those plates spinning on skinny poles. Come to think of it, he probably had the skills to become a dynamite interpreter. (grin)
To get a sense of the task faced daily by interpreters, try to repeat everything said by everyone in, say, the lunch room at work, or the check-out line at the grocery store, or by your family members around the supper table tonight. Don’t repeat aloud what everyone says, though, because people would surely begin to wonder about you. Instead, quietly (mentally) repeat everything that everyone says. Just try it for five or ten minutes … okay, two minutes. We think this experiment will clarify the importance of turn-taking during interpreted communication.
Just to make the above experiment a little more interesting, try mentally repeating what everyone is saying while simultaneously responding to questions put to you by someone in the room. Yikes! That’s what interpreters must do when someone speaks directly to the interpreter. If you’re old enough (or have seen the re-runs), you’ll remember the guy on the
When deaf students are mainstreamed:
Hearing Teachers Ask
[Inspiration: TerpTopics.com/TeachersAsk. Related: TerpTopics.com/AskAnInterpreter.]
As the end of yet another academic year looms, we find ourselves reflecting upon questions and comments educational sign language interpreters receive from hearing teachers. We thought we would share some – by no means all – of them, along with some – by no means all – of our thoughts. The items are in no particular order, but are numbered for ease of reference.
NOTE: Used here, the acronym DHH means deaf or hard of hearing; DHH student means a student enrolled in a school district’s program designed for students who are deaf or hard of hearing or who learn best when using or incorporating sign language or for whom sign language interpreting is otherwise provided as an accommodation.
1. I have several DHH students in one of my classes. Two interpreters are scheduled, each works with a small group of two or three students. When I really watch what they’re both signing, they don’t seem to be signing the same thing. How can I know the students are receiving the material being presented?
We completely understand your question (we get this one a lot).
One way is to compare a DHH student’s academic performance (grades, participation, etc.) with that of other students in the same class. Another is to direct questions about the material to the DHH students. Additionally, ask your educational interpreter if s/he is confident that each student is receiving the material, and why or why not.
LANGUAGE NOTE: In English, a concept can be expressed using a variety of word choices (shut the door; see that door? please shut it; do you mind shutting that? [points to door]; go ahead and close the door for me). Sometimes word-choice specificity is critical; sometimes not. Signing is sort of like that. Different interpreters make different sign choices based on a number of factors, many of which are discussed throughout TerpTopics.com. Also, interpreting is not the same as translating. Here’s a glossary that we hope helps a little.
2. One day last week, students were rewarded with about 90-minutes of pizza and a captioned movie. I told the interpreter s/he could go ahead and leave since we weren’t really doing anything important. But, s/he said s/he couldn’t leave. Why not?
The interpreter is assigned to facilitate communication and provide dynamically equivalent access to information. It is his/her job to be available for the duration of the assignment and to provide services as needed. Even if there seems to be no immediate interpreting need, in the event of an unanticipated situation you would be glad to have him/her at hand.
3. Why does the interpreter feel it necessary to interpret everything? Students make inappropriate remarks, or I might say something under my breath … s/he even interprets bodily functions, for crying out loud. Why is it important to let the deaf student know there’s a helicopter outside, or an argument in the hallway? I’ve told him/her not to interpret those things, but s/he does it anyway. Come on …
When you and the interpreter whisper privately in such a way that students cannot understand your conversation, the interpreter will not sign the conversation (likewise, if you and another student or adult speak privately).
Deaf students are not let out of the loop (isolated) when the rest of the class knows there’s a helicopter outside, or when the students in the front know what you said under your breath. Interpreters facilitate dynamic equivalence to the best of their ability.
We hope it is helpful to browse the RID Code of Professional Conduct, which informs the behavior of professional interpreters.
4. Rather than take the extra time required for an interpreted communication when I’m already stressed out, it’s just easier for me to explain and give assignments to the interpreter, then have him/her tell the DHH student what I said. But, the interpreter insists that I go through the whole process so s/he can interpret what I say. It’s frustrating, and I don’t know why s/he won’t cooperate.
Classroom teachers are pretty much expected to speak directly with students (hearing, DHH, or otherwise). We know that an interpreted conversation may require a couple of extra moments. Hearing students frequently require extra time, too; yet, teachers continue to communicate with them.
Interpreting services are available for that student because it is the accommodation of choice to best support his/her education. Interpreters join teachers in support of I.D.E.A. and providing the accommodations designated on a student’s IEP.
5. At my middle school, sometimes I ask a DHH student to stay after class for a minute or two, but the interpreter is unable to stay longer than a few seconds because s/he has to dash to the next class. How can I speak privately with a DHH student when the interpreter always has to leave?
This happens often - almost daily in a middle school setting!
Your interpreter is faced with the choice of extending the present assignment and arriving late to the next (where people are awaiting his/her arrival before beginning class), or of leaving the present assignment as scheduled and arriving at the next on time. Unless there is an overriding urgency at the present assignment, his/her primary obligation is to get to the next one on time.
Arrange for an interpreter to be available before or after school. You might also problem-solve with the interpreter in question, or ask for ideas from your school’s interpreter liaison (if your school has one), other teachers, deaf education specialist, ESE coordinator, or other support personnel.
6. When I present material that wouldn’t ordinarily elicit smiles, I notice that sometimes the interpreter and DHH student exchange grins. What’s that about?
An interpreter error can elicit a grin; so can a student misunderstanding followed by the interpreter’s clarification.
LANGUAGE NOTE: Facial expression used during English discourse is linguistically different from that which is American Sign Language (ASL). In fact, facial and bodily expression between these two languages can be dramatically different. Naturally, such language differences are subject to misunderstanding. Feel free to ask your classroom interpreter for information about how mouth and facial expression in English and ASL differ. And, while you’re at it, ask if s/he can recall what the grin was about. (smile)
7. Often, the interpreter continues signing for a couple of seconds after I’ve finished speaking - sometimes I think it’s as long as 10 seconds, which seems like a very long time to me. How come?
Happily, the distractibility factor of continued signing ratchets down quickly. After a week or so you won’t even notice.
We refer to what you’ve described as “lag-time.” It happens because an interpreter can’t say what you’ve said until after you’ve said it, so his/her hands will not stop moving until after you have stopped speaking.
Additionally, the interpretation may have required expansion on one or more concepts, which requires an extra few moments and may tend to stretch things out a bit, showing up as lag-time at the end. This is especially noticeable when the interpreted discourse is brief. Lengthier discourse can offer the interpreter an opportunity to tighten-up a little on the lag-time, like when the teacher pauses, to think for dramatic effect, before before continuing to speak. By the way, a skilled interpreter will not miss your subtle yet well placed pause intended for emphasis. (smile)
8. Isn’t an educational interpreter the same as a classroom aide? S/He’ll manage the classroom while I step out for a few minutes, make copies for me, grade papers, create classroom graphics, organize my storage closet, or run quick classroom-related errands, right?
Not really, no. Try to bring your expectations more in line with those you have of teachers and you’ll be closer to the mark. There are some interpreters and some teachers who would not at all mind doing the occasional favor. Alas, duty time is duty time. If you would not ask a teacher to abandon his/her duty to do you a favor, then you probably would not ask it of an interpreter. Here’s a handy-dandy guide that may help. Here’s another one. Feel free to contact us for additional information or clarification.
9. Occasionally, my classroom management may not be what I’d like it to be. If my students misbehave, or if I come up short on discipline, will the interpreter inform school administration, or perhaps gossip about my moment of weakness?
Gosh, no! Interpreters would be booted out of every school if we routinely tattled or gossiped about every little thing. Interpreters are there to interpret, so that’s what we aim to keep to. We’re terps, not tattles. (smile)
10. I admit it! I’m human. I may occasionally misstate a fact or misspeak in some other way. How does the interpreter handle that?
The interpreter signs what you say. If you say, “Seven plus three is twelve,” that’s what comes off the hands of the interpreter. If you say, “A Freudian slip is when you mean one thing, but you say your mother,” all the students, hearing and deaf, will know it (and likely giggle).
An exception to the practice of “saying what the teacher says” might be if doing so would endanger the student. For example, if threatening sounds are coming from a door to the right and you mean to direct students through a door to the left but say “right,” the interpreter would very likely do his/her best to support the safety of all concerned and to heck with the practice of.
11. If a teacher endangers a student, or otherwise breaks a local, state, or federal law, how will the interpreter handle that?
Interpreter ethics do not supersede safety or the law, statute, or ordinance. Where law-breaking is concerned, consumers are not protected by an interpreter’s oath of confidentiality. The interpreter is presumed to be a responsible staff member and adult, and can be expected to act accordingly.
12. Who is responsible for managing the behavior of a DHH student, the classroom teacher or the interpreter (who is sitting right there in front of the student)?
Generally, classroom management is a teacher’s responsibility. Interpreters will manage their relationships with students, including how students behave toward, address, and interact with the interpreter. However, managing the general classroom behavior is the responsibility of the classroom teacher. Here’s a quick video clip as a reference, and check out these for more information.
13. While I am presenting the lesson, why does the educational interpreter sometimes follow me around the classroom and sometimes not?
It’s all about line-of-sight. Interpreters attempt to position themselves where the deaf student most needs to look. If the teacher is speaking about a map on the wall, expecting all the students to look at the map while s/he presents the material and strolls about the room, the interpreter will be at the map (where the students are looking), not chasing the teacher up and down rows of desks. (smile)
14. When should I expect the educational interpreter to use his/her voice? Are they quiet all the time? Sometimes, I forget they’re there and then they speak and startle me. We both laugh.<
We know what you mean; we have had the same thing happen.
The interpreter will speak when interpreting the signed communication of the DHH student.
The interpreter may occasionally ask you to repeat a word or phrase. For example, s/he might say something like, “I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, would you please repeat that last sentence?” or “Mr. Jones, you said the plantation owners “did” or “didn’t” want the tariff repealed?”
15. It is nice to have another adult in the room with me. Sometimes I like to include the interpreter during classroom discussion … you know, ask the interpreter about something related to the lesson … but s/he seems uncomfortable when I do this. Aren’t they allowed to participate?
Pretty much, no. Interpreters are not there to participate. In fact, interpreters try hard to avoid becoming any part of the action at all; their purpose is to interpret it (the action), not be it.
16. I’ve been a reading teacher for several years. My first experience with a DHH student and interpreter was last year. Wow, did I learn a lot! For example, a few weeks into the year, the interpreter approached me privately to say s/he was concerned that the DHH student’s ability might not have been accurately reflected in the grades. I was insulted … that is, until I learned that the student was getting her older brother to do the work for her. How did the interpreter know?
Educational interpreters consistently monitor a student’s comprehension of interpreted material. The interpreter constantly checks for understanding, not only by observing classroom interactions, but by asking probing questions during moments of one-on-one communication.
When a student feels unclear or demonstrates lack of understanding, interpreters will attempt to clarify the information by changing the interpretation to match the student’s language level or contextual knowledge or experience.
Due to the focused intensity of communication between the student and interpreter, it is not at all unlikely that the interpreter has unique insight concerning a DHH student’s language and communication skill, knowledge, and ability.
Original, relevant, and timely content of interest to
ASL and sign language interpreting students and practitioners,
including introductory information on deafness and American Deaf Culture.