Working with Sign Language Interpreters
What is an Interpreter? What
does an Interpreter Do?
A professional sign language interpreter translates between spoken
language (such as English or Spanish) and a form of manual
communication (sign language). The interpreter facilitates
communication so that the parties involved have equal access to
information. The interpreter is not to be involved in the discussion or
do any other tasks.
An interpreter must be fluent in both the spoken language and the
signed language used in order to accurately convey the message. Most
professional interpreters have completed a minimum of two to four years
of study of deaf community, deaf culture and sign language before
beginning their careers.
Deaf and hard of hearing persons use a variety of communication modes,
including American Sign Language (ASL, a true language that does not
follow English grammar rules), contact signing (previously referred to
as "Pidgin Sign English" (PSE, which borrows vocabulary from ASL while
preserving English word order) and the oral method (which depends
primarily on lipreading). Knowing which method an individual or group
prefers will determine what type of interpreting skills are needed and
what the interpreter should expect upon arrival.
Professional interpreters are bound by the Code of Ethics of the
Registry of Interpreters of the Deaf (RID), including:
- the interpreter shall keep all information strictly confidential
- the interpreter will accurately translate the spirit and intent
of the parties involved, using language most readily understood by
those who are being served
- the interpreter will not counsel, advise or interject personal
- the interpreter will accept interpreting assignments using
discretion with regard to skill, setting and consumers involved
an Interpreter Needed?
Many deaf and hard of hearing persons depend on a sign language or oral
interpreter to enable them to be fully involved in whatever is going on
Technically, a distinction is made between sign language interpretation
and sign language transliteration. Sign language interpretation
converts American Sign Language (ASL) into spoken English and spoken
English into ASL It involves working with two distinct languages. Sign
language transliteration converts signed English to spoken English and
spoken English to signed English. Basically, it involves working with
the syntax/linguistic structure of one language, English. For our
purposes, "interpreting" includes both sign language interpreting
An interpreter should be made available whenever a deaf or hard of
hearing person or the parent/guardian of a deaf or hard of hearing
child requests the services of an interpreter to participate in
situations such as meetings, educational classes, medical/legal
appointments, workshops, retreats and religious events. The preference
of the person requesting the service should be honored; it is the
responsibility of the sponsoring agency or institution to make every
effort to provide the interpreting service according to the format
Offering a sign language interpreter when advertising an event such as
a conference or workshop will encourage deaf people to attend, and will
equalize access to opportunities that previously have been available
only to the hearing population.
According to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), no
individual shall be denied "full and equal enjoyment of the goods,
services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any
place of public accommodation" on the basis of disability. "Auxiliary
aids and services must be provided to individuals with ... hearing
impairments." This includes the provision of professional interpreting
services. (Title 111)
Catholic churches and organizations are further challenged by the
"Pastoral Statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops on People with
Disabilities" (promulgated Nov. 16, 1978) which stated that the Church
must defend the rights of persons with disabilities to "achieve the
fullest measure of personal development of which he or she is capable
... including the right to equal opportunity in education, in
employment, in housing, as well as the right to free access to public
accommodations, facilities and services." (Section II, Paragraph 7)
"It is essential that all forms of the liturgy be completely accessible
to people with disabilities, since these forms are the essence of the
spiritual tie that binds the Christian community together. To exclude
members of the parish from these celebrations of the life of the
Church, even by omission, is to deny the reality of that community. ...
Realistic provision must be made for persons with disabilities to
participate fully in the Eucharist and other liturgical celebrations
such as the sacraments of Reconciliation, Confirmation and Anointing of
the Sick. ... Celebrating liturgies simultaneously in sign language
enables the deaf person to enter more deeply into their spirit and
meaning." "Pastoral Statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops on People
with Disabilities" (Paragraph 23)
How do I Work with an Interpreter?
Be comfortable with the interpreter; the interpreter's job is to
facilitate communication. Everything that is interpreted will remain
confidential for the interpreter; it is a violation of interpreting
ethics to reveal anything communicated while interpreting to an outside
party. Speak naturally, clearly and at a normal rate; the interpreter
will inform the speaker if he or she needs to adjust the rate of
speaking. Allow extra time for responses and discussion; the
interpreter will be a little behind the conversation. Face the deaf
person(s) while speaking; this will feel awkward at first, since the
deaf person(s) will be watching the interpreter and may not always be
in direct eye contact with the speaker. Avoid phrases such as "Tell him
..." or "Ask her ... "; speak as if the interpreter were not there.
Avoid asking the interpreter for an opinion or to explain something.
How Do I Find an Interpreter?
First, determine the basic information concerning the event (date(s),
times, duration, nature of the event) and the kind of sign language the
deaf persons/group prefers. Second, obtain a referral for a qualified
interpreter from one of the local agencies
that coordinate interpreter services.
For situations lasting two or more hours, two (or more) interpreters
should be used and should rotate every 20 to 30 minutes, at the
General Principles and Policies for
Working with Interpreters in Religious Settings
1) Interpreting is a distinct role, requiring an interpreter's complete
attention. It is not possible for a person both to participate and
interpret at an event. Thus, it is unfair to expect a parent, relative
or friend who is attending a function also to serve as an interpreter.
A third party is needed to allow all to participate fully.
2) Competence is essential in selecting an interpreter. Competence
includes necessary fluency in sign language and in the language being
spoken (English, Spanish, etc.), adherence to the Code of Ethics, and
knowledge of Catholic and religious vocabulary and signs. Knowledge of
Catholic belief and practice is certainly desirable, and may be a
necessity in some situations (e.g. a theological talk or catechetical
conference). An interpreter is expected is use the mode of
communication preferred by the deaf person(s), i.e., American Sign
Language (ASL), Contact Signing (Pidgin Signed English), etc. Deaf
persons have the right to work with an interpreter whom they understand
clearly and with whom they feel comfortable.
3) When hiring interpreters regularly, it is ideal to work with the
same interpreter or group of interpreters each time.
4) Interpreters perform a professional function and have professional
training; in justice, they have a right to compensation. Paying
interpreters is the responsibility of the sponsoring parish, agency, or
institution, not the deaf individual, the family or guardians.
Compensation rates vary from place to place and can vary with the
interpreter's level of certification and experience, the type of
setting, and time. Travel time is paid as interpreting time.Typical
rates are around $40 an hour with a 2 hour minimum, and can be
seen on Aurora's page. Some
interpreters prefer to volunteer their services, but that is the
interpreter's choice, not the sponsor's. Do not expect all interpreters
to volunteer because one or more has volunteered in the past.
5) Good visibility is crucial to interpreting. Ideally, interpreter and
deaf persons are close to each other. Sight lines need to be clear and
unobstructed; reserved seating for deaf persons in front usually
accomplishes this. Good lighting - bright, but not glaring is
essential. Ideally, an interpreter works in front of a neutral
background: i.e., plain, single dull or darker color, without
decorations or persons moving about. Interpreters generally wear
clothing that contrasts with their skin tone and little jewelry to make
seeing their signs easier. Lack of contrast or bright background
lighting/colors can cause eye strain for deaf persons. Do not position
the interpreter in front of a window in the daytime.
6) Some situations, such as working with a deaf-blind individual,
require one-on-one interpreting. In such cases, the interpreter and
participant require nearness, i.e., sitting across from or next to one
Working with Interpreters at Mass and
the Celebration of Sacraments
General Principle: Interpreting at Mass or any liturgical celebration
demands a special role on the part of the interpreter. Ordinarily, an
interpreter "facilitates communication so that the parties involved
have equal access to information." In a prayer setting, an
interpreter's role is not merely to convey information, but to
facilitate the deaf people's "full and active participation" in the
liturgy. ("Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy," paragraph 14)
Accordingly, the interpreter is best understood as one of the
liturgical ministers, with a proper role and function, as are the
lector, song leader, servers and Eucharistic ministers.
1) At the vast majority of liturgies, a single interpreter works
throughout. However, it is appropriate to utilize several interpreters
at a liturgy (i.e., a different interpreter for the presider, the
lector and the music, in keeping with the various liturgical roles),
for special celebrations. When a deaf person proclaims the readings in
sign language, the interpreter proclaims the readings orally ("voices
2) Deaf persons must focus on the interpreter for everything that is
spoken. For deaf persons to be able to see - and
therefore participate - in the action of the liturgy, it is necessary
for the interpreter be as close as possible to that action. Ordinarily,
this means that the interpreter will stand near the presider at the
chair, the pulpit, and the altar, and near the lector during the
readings. In churches with very large sanctuaries, such as a cathedral,
it may be advantageous for the deaf participants if the interpreter is
closer to them, outside the sanctuary. In such cases, the interpreter
should be in line of sight with the altar. It is never appropriate to
place the deaf congregation and the interpreter "on the side" or out of
sight of the liturgy.
3) The interpreter should be given a copy of all texts used in the
service in advance. These include the readings, petitions, lyrics for
all songs, commentary and, if possible, the homily. Translation of any
foreign language text (e.g. Latin or Spanish) should be made available
as well. An interpreter may wish to have a music stand during the
service to enable quick reference to a text.
4) Some song lyrics are difficult to translate into sign language.
Ideally, a representative of the deaf community or an interpreter can
be part of the liturgy planning process, to enable the choice of
selections meaningful and accessible to all.
5) Changes to a liturgy plan, especially in the texts or choice of
music, need to be given to the interpreter as soon as possible. It is
also helpful to inform an interpreter of any special aspects or
elements to the service, such as a procession.
Interpreters are expected to be available to sign for any pre-service
announcements or practices.
6) Interpreters may wish to consider wearing colors that coordinate
with the liturgical season or feast, especially if other liturgical
ministers do so. Wearing a gown or choir robe (as liturgical ministers
do in some parishes) may be problematic for an interpreter because of
the long, flowing sleeves typical of such gowns/robes.
7) Especially when a parish begins providing interpreted Masses on a
regular basis, it is appropriate to provide some orientation to the
hearing congregation. This orientation can include basic information
about deaf people and sign language, the role of an interpreter in
allowing deaf persons to participate fully in the liturgy and practical
information about which Mass(es) will be interpreted, where the deaf
members of the congregation will be seated, etc. It can be particularly
effective when a deaf person can address the congregation and explain
what interpreting the liturgy means to him/her. It may also be helpful
to ask the regular interpreter to provide input for or give one of
these orientations. Most hearing persons find that the interpreting
actually adds to the beauty and prayerfulness of a liturgy. Even those
few who initially find the interpreting distracting usually become
accustomed to it within a few weeks.
Adapted from the
policies of the National Catholic Office for the Deaf