Quality of Sign Language Interpreters

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This document, when complete, seeks to answer various questions related to the quality of Sign Language interpretation; and to provide information what is needed from someone who wants to be very good Sign Language interpreter.

Is it necessary to be CODA in order to be good Sign Language interpreter?

It is usually accepted that hearing persons who master Sign Language are children of Deaf adults (CODAs). Such persons are often employed as Sign Language interpreters. Since they interpreted for their parents at childhood, they usually do good job of interpreting.

However, it is not necessary of sufficient to be CODA in order to be a good Sign Language interpreter, as Patricia Trowbridge testifies:

I know some interpreters who are CODAs and aren't good. I know also some interpreters from hearing families who are good.

What is needed so that someone will be good Sign Language interpreter?

(Contributed by Patricia Trowbridge and Christine Lange at 12 Oct 1995.)

Great attitude and acceptance toward Deaf Culture are a big plus.

However, it's not just the attitude and acceptance that are important but also the hard work and dedication that an interpreter from a hearing family puts forth in learning about the language, culture, and the code of ethics of Interpreters.

In one way it's more difficult for a hearing interpreter to learn about the language and culture and become involved because they have to create their own ties to the deaf people and become accepted by them; whereas, a CODA interpreter was born within the culture and have been accepted. On the other hand, in many cases (not all by no means), it's more difficult for a CODA interpreter to learn and adhere to the Code of Ethics since for many years growing up in the deaf culture, they've had to interpret for their parents as a child without any Code of Ethics taught to them.

Interpreters of hearing families find the Code of Ethics easier to adopt. These are just the obstacles I've seen in my own experience as an interpreter from a hearing family and being best friends with a CODA interpreter. Either of these obstacles by both interpreters can be overcome with the hard work, dedication, attitude and acceptance.

Quality of Interpreting in Demanding Situations

Some Deaf persons, who utilize the services of interpreters, noticed that:
  • Interpreters provide full access to group conversations only if members of the group speak one at a time and at a speed that the interpreter can keep up with.
  • Much depends upon the skill level of of the interpreter. Highly skilled interpreters are in shortage at present, especially in primary and secondary educational settings.
  • Several Deaf persons are not aware of the amount of information, which many interpreters filter out, because they cannot possibly interpret absolutely everything in group situations. Examples:
    • Cross-talk
    • Heated discussions, in which people interrupt each other and/or talk over each other.
    • Side comments, puns and plays in words, which may be important to the converstation, but are rather awkward to translate.
    • Specialized terms, for which no signs exist yet in Sign Language, so the interpreter has to spend time fingerspelling them and/or explain them using longer sequence of signs.
    Some interpreters totally ignore this kind of information.
  • All the above may be some of the numerous dirty secrets of interpreters, who don't want Deaf persons to realize that their interpretive services have only limited usefulness.
At any case, those problems won't go away even if people (Deaf, deaf or hearing) pretend that they don't exist. Another section discusses how Deaf persons can monitor the quality of the interpretive service which they get. What can be done about this situation is another question.

Monitoring the Quality of Interpreting

When relying upon the services of interpreters, it is difficult for deaf people to gauge the quality of interpreting they get from those interpreters. There are several cases of carelessness, laziness, misinterpreting, or omitting important information.

Those cases are found out, if at all, by one or more of the following means:

  • A classmate who is CODA and is fluent with both spoken and signed languages.
  • Lipreading the original lecturer once in a while, if the deaf person has some lipreading ability. When used for this purpose, lipreading ability does not have to be as good as that required for following a speech without interpreting.
  • Comparing notes taken by the deaf student to the notes of a classmate.
  • Review with the lecturer of the course, after the lecture (of course, such a review can be conducted only on sample basis).
It can also be determined whether the interpreter asks the lecturer to slow down or repeat when the lecturer speaks too fast for the interpreter to keep up. Those interpreters who are modest - have suspect quality.

In one of the universities, several Sign Language interpreters were fired after a Deaf administrator found out about their poor quality of interpretation. They were replaced by notetakers.