Top 10 tips: working with BSL Interpreters

Never worked with a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter before? Here is our top ten list of handy tips and actions you can take so you can work with a BSL interpreter confidently.

When two parties use different languages, language professionals are used to facilitating communication. Contrary to popular belief, communication is not a given. Interpreters relay all elements of language, including the linguistic and cultural nuances from both languages. When effective communication is achieved, it is a rewarding experience for all, including the interpreter. 

Below are our top ten tips for those that want to make sure communication is effective when working with a Sign Language interpreter:

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

Where a lot of information needs to be given to others, it is in your interest to give resources to the interpreter beforehand, so they can prepare for the assignment. An interpreter is there to help you ensure your communication is effective. It helps if the interpreter has an idea of the subject matter, the topics you are intending to discuss, any jargon you need to use and the aim of the meeting/training session. Interpreters are not mind readers, it is helpful if they know what tools are at their disposal to perform an effective job.

Speak directly to the other party

Communication professionals and regular users of interpreters, understand that communicating via a BSL interpreter can be confusing for you – you speak to one person yet hear the voice of another. Yes, it is true that the person you are addressing cannot hear your voice, but your body language and facial expressions convey valuable information too. Whenever you speak to someone, you usually address the person directly – the same applies to a deaf person who uses Sign Language. Deaf people, rely on visual clues so if you address the interpreter instead of the deaf person, communication becomes confusing.

This also means addressing questions directly to the deaf person e.g. “did you have any questions?” as opposed to “can you ask him/her if they have any questions?”

Eye contact

As with any conversation, your eye contact will be with the person you are communicating with – the same applies when you are communicating with a deaf person. However, please bear in mind that the deaf person may be using a combination of communication strategies to understand what you are saying. They may be lip-reading (which is guesswork, at best) as well as using the communication professional, so you will need to maintain a consistent approach to communication by following standard conversation behaviours.

Speak at your usual pace

BSL interpreters have trained for several years so know how to convey spoken language into BSL. If you pause…….before saying….….your next…..…. point, it……..disrupts……..the………flow….of ….communication.

Avoid jargon

This is pretty much a universal rule when communicating, whilst you may know what acronyms are, the person you are communicating with may not. If you must use jargon, it is a good idea to follow the same rules for writing acronyms i.e. using the full term and then give the abbreviation.

Asking questions

It is normal for an interpreter to occasionally ask parties to clarify something – a phrase you have used or to check that they have not misheard something. At times, this may seem inconvenient, but it is in your interest to make sure that communication is effective.

Jokes, idioms, metaphors

These rely on some level of cultural knowledge and cannot always be translated into other languages so consider whether the joke, metaphor or idiom is necessary for getting your message across.

Definite no, no’s

Never say to a communication professional, “don’t interpret that”, an interpreter is present to facilitate communication. Professional conduct rules also require interpreters to communicate everything that is said. If you do not wish something to be communicated, don’t say it. (In reality, you will find that most interpreters have already interpreted what you said, anyway).

Interpreter breaks

A sign language interpreter must use both visual and aural processing whilst interpreting so regular breaks are essential to maintain the quality of the information being conveyed. Processing two languages simultaneously is like revving a car engine continuously – eventually, the engine gets hot and wears out. The same applies to communication professionals – the cerebral processing becomes impaired affecting the ability to interpret coherently. So if communication takes place over an extended period, then two interpreters are required so interpreting quality is maintained.

Interpreter’s opinion

Interpreters are there to facilitate communication and are not a source of advice or information when they are working. If you need the professional’s opinion, you need to ask before or after interpreting has taken place. A word of caution – it is not appropriate to ask about the deaf person. Any question that relates to the deaf person, should be addressed directly to the deaf person.

These tips aim to help you feel more confident when using BSL interpreters. Communication professionals are there to help both parties access communication so if you can support the communication process by using the tips above, you will find communicating across language barriers a positive and rewarding experience.

If you want to know more about BSL, you can check out our BSL Faqs. Or if you need to book an interpreter directly, then check out our list of local interpreters.