What does a Sign Language Interpreter do?

K T Solis

Sign language is a type of language spoken silently by using the hands to make specific signs. It is used by deaf people to communicate with others. A sign language interpreter is someone who translates spoken language into hand signs, facial expressions, and movements so deaf and hearing impaired people can understand what is being spoken.

Sign language may be used by the hearing impaired to communicate with others.
Sign language may be used by the hearing impaired to communicate with others.

The sign language used by North American people who are deaf is called American Sign Language (ASL). In contrast, deaf people in other countries have their own form of sign language. ASL developed through the common local sign languages established by deaf people combined with signs learned from a French teacher named Laurent Clerc who established an American school for the deaf in 1817.

A sign language interpreter provides spoken word translations for the deaf and hearing impaired.
A sign language interpreter provides spoken word translations for the deaf and hearing impaired.

A person can become a sign language interpreter by studying sign language and interacting with the deaf community. Becoming fluent in sign language is a necessary task since interpreting the language requires an in-depth knowledge of ASL grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure. Only by using the language with native speakers can an aspiring sign language interpreter become skilled at interpreting the language.

Basic sign language can be learned through a variety of ways. Purchasing books on sign language is an obvious choice. It allows the reader to see the signs and practice basic words that will provide a foundation for learning ASL.

Another way to learn the language is to purchase videotapes or DVDs that teach sign language. This provides an added benefit as the sign language student can see sign language in action. He or she can also view the facial expressions and movements of the person signing words and sentences. Such a visual way of learning allows the student to incorporate gestures and facial expressions in his or her own signing.

Another excellent way to learn sign language is to find computer software that teaches ASL. Similar to videotapes and DVDs, a sign language software program allows sign language students to see exactly how signs should be presented, complete with animated facial expressions and movements. Before spending the money on a specific sign language learning program, some people may prefer to visit their local library to check out a language program for free. This way, the students can determine if a learning program fits their needs.

Sign language interpreters can work for schools, theaters, courtrooms, hospitals, and other facilities where deaf people are present. An interpreter is responsible for helping deaf people communicate with the hearing population. The sign language interpreter also translates spoken language to the deaf so that deaf people can be provided with important information they are unable to hear. Those who wish to become sign language interpreters sometimes need to have a college degree to be considered for a position. On the other hand, a person who is fluent in sign language can find a position even if he or she does not have an advanced education.

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Discussion Comments


@Iluviaporos - Are there that many problems though? I've actually found this to be encouragingly widespread as a second language. I suspect problems are only reported more often because they seem more scandalous, since the deaf are viewed as a more vulnerable minority as a whole than foreigners in general (whether or not that is always true).


@Fa5t3r - There have been some highly publicized sign language interpreter mistakes in the past, but I suspect that's got more to do with the way the translation happens than because there are so few people who can understand both languages.

With foreign language interpretation, usually the onus is on the foreign speaker or organization to organize an interpreter and they will go to some trouble to get a good one for their own benefit.

Sign language interpreter services are often used by governments and other organizations because they are legally required to do so and they don't really care one way or the other as to the quality of the interpretation.

In one case it's seen as good business sense and in the other it's seen as pandering. If the legal responsibility to provide sign language interpretation was more clear, I don't think there would be as many problems.


A sign language interpreter is often put in a position of relative power, because the people they are translating for have no way of knowing whether or not the translation is accurate.

This goes for a lot of other interpreters as well, of course, but often if something is being changed from one language to another it's likely that more than one person with some proficiency in both will be listening and able to tell if the translation isn't adequate. There aren't all that many people who are fluent in sign language but also able to understand spoken language and this is even more difficult since there are many more than one sign language types.

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