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Helpful hints when working with Interpreters

Sign Language interpreter
Sign Language Interpreter using BSL

Helpful hints when working with interpreters

When two parties use different languages, interpreters are used to facilitate 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. 

Having worked with the Deaf Community for nearly 20 years, I have created a list of ‘helpful hints’ for those that want to make sure communication is effective when communicating with a deaf person who uses British Sign Language (BSL). 

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

Interpreters 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 guess work, at best) as well as using the interpreter, 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 (or the interpreter) 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 interests to use an interpreter as efficiently as possible so 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 an interpreter “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 interpreting quality. Processing two languages simultaneously is like revving a car engine continuously – eventually the engine gets hot and wears out. The same applies to interpreters – 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 interpreting. If you need the interpreter’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. Interpreters 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.


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Common misconceptions about communication


I attended several meetings recently where organisations have tied themselves up in knots about the word ‘support’. What is unsettling, is that these organisations are staffed by people who are articulate and are required to deliver key messages to the public on behalf of other organisations.

How can such a simple word such as ‘support’ cause organisations to become entrenched in their own ideology and cause disharmony, when the aim is to do the opposite?

One of the many hats I wear, is that of a sign language interpreter, so knowing how to work between two languages is second nature. I am always intrigued by how people use language – the words that are used, the manner in which they are used and the message that is conveyed to others. As an interpreter, I frequently facilitate communication between sign language users and people who speak English. However, English speakers quite often assume that because they have a wide range of vocabulary, can speak English and vary the tone of their voice that they communicate well.  Yet there are many instances, as described above, where communication has clearly failed, and information has been misunderstood. Needless to say, there are many English speakers who could improve their communication skills.

Communication is ‘the act of conveying information’ yet many people are unclear how to convey information effectively. There are many misconceptions around communication, so I have highlighted some of the most common misconceptions below:

  1. Communication is about talking or writing:

Communication is a two-way process and involves understanding the message and then being understood when responding. When information is conveyed to us via speech or in writing, the brain actually needs time to process the information. Our brain uses a number of biases as filters to discern meaning so if we respond without fully listening or understanding, our emotional trigger centre (the amygdala) responds, not the parts of the brain that are used to understand information. So, my tip is to listen and understand, not listen and reply. Responding comes later after you fully understand the information being conveyed.

  1. Communication just happens:

‘To assume, makes an ‘ass’ of ‘u’ and ‘me’. Just because you open your mouth and say something or put something in writing does not mean you have conveyed information that will be understood. It is a good idea to get someone else to check that what you want to say (or write) is clear and that your information will be understood. My additional caveat to this, is to ask someone who is ‘different’ to you. We all have differences – cultural, age, gender and so on. If you are going to convey information to a wide range of people, avoid checking with someone who is like you. To get a true sense of whether information is understood, you ideally need to ask someone who is outside your normal ‘in group’.

  1. We all use the same language so everyone should understand:

It is wonderful that some people want to play linguistic gymnastics with information but ‘keep it simple’ works wonders too, especially if you don’t want people wasting time trying to decipher acronyms or work specific jargon. Time is money and life is short, so keep it simple.

  1. Everyone got the email so they’re in the loop:

Effective communication works when each person is consistently updated. Don’t assume everyone has the same information or has understood the information. Communication is about repeatedly checking that everyone has received information and understands it.

  1. We don’t have time for questions:

I honestly believe there is no such thing as a stupid question. There is always that one person who attends meetings then constantly asks questions throughout, winding everyone up because the answers seem obvious or the questions seem trivial. Questioning is how people develop critical analysis skills and are also a good indicator that someone is actively listening because they are trying to make sense of information within their own understanding. Questions are great and should be encouraged. If you don’t like people asking questions, then you probably need communication training.

  1. Visual information has limitations:

The brain processes visual information far quicker than aural information and is a significantly better way of conveying information than text. This is fundamentally why social media apps like Snapchat and Instagram work – a picture paints a thousand words.  Flow charts, graphs, timelines and maps all help with conveying information. Using colours for key information can also make information clearer. Visuals can help avoid miscommunication and misunderstanding so if information can be conveyed visually, then use visuals instead of text.

  1. Videos communicate our message:

Subtitles, subtitles, subtitles! I cannot say this enough – when you create vlogs, use videos on your website or in presentations then you need to include subtitles. Some of us may well appreciate your dulcet tones. However, your message is important so why would you waste time creating videos that are inaccessible. Second language users, people with hearing loss or people that don’t want to use the sound on their media device, can’t hear what you have to say. Why go to all that effort for nothing!? My simple tip is that subtitles go with video just as strawberries go with cream.

Great communication can be achieved by everyone if we all take the time to think about how we convey messages and give ourselves time to understand.

I have been lucky enough to experience great communication when interpreting and it’s  wonderful, when it works for all parties involved.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”

Let’s try to avoid the illusion of communication and learn to connect with others properly.

Any suggestions for other communication tips or comments generally, would be most welcome.