Sign Language Interpreters for Deaf Clients

History, Roles, Responsibilities and Relationships

This paper is about Sign Language (SL) Interpreters for Deaf people. It offers an examination of the history, roles, responsibilities and relationships of SL Interpreters and their Deaf clients. Benefits and drawbacks for clients and interpreters will also be discussed. The conclusion suggests that greater sensitivity, increased funding, and public awareness campaigns, for example, are needed to offer hearing persons a chance to view their Deaf counterparts as equal and deserving of funding.

History of SL Interpreters

While the actual existence of the very first interpreter is unknown, it is suggested that the role of an interpreter began with cave persons. A Deaf cave person would ask a hearing person to act as an interpreter for both the Deaf and hearing, cave persons (Humphrey et al., 1996: 91). The concept of the term, interpreter, came into existence in the 20th century in which time it was used to refer to an intermediary, helper, friend or counsellor (91). Historically interpreters were viewed as volunteers, who were often relatives, friends or employers. The demand for interpreters of high quality arose after World War I (44). In the late 1960s, professional practitioners or interpreters emerged from the pool of volunteers.

In Canada, the "Canadian Hearing Society (CHS) was incorporated in 1940 to impartially serve and support Deaf, Deafened and hard of hearing people, parents of Deaf and hard of hearing children and to educate the hearing public." SL Interpreters began to be recognized as providing a valuable service in the early 1970s. This led to the establishment of the Ontario Association of Sign Language Interpreters (OASLI) in 1982. Many SL Interpreters settle for basic certifications first offered in 1989 that remain viable today. The basic certification has four segments that observe student-interpreters - performance skills as assessed through a live interview: Comprehensive Skill Certification (CSC), Reverse Skills Certification (RSC), Interpreting Certification/Trans-literating Certification (IC/TC), Oral Interpreter Certification: Comprehensive (OIC: C) and Partial Certification (OIC: CPC).

Currently, there is a need for SL Interpreters to fill the chasm between the significant numbers of Deaf persons and the availability of interpreters. In point of fact, many interpreters do not possess the linguistic skill necessary to effectively translate. As a result, they often provide misinformation that creates further confusion and frustration between Deaf persons and hearing persons (Humphrey et al., 48).

Interpreters Not Always Needed

One common misconception of the hearing world is that Deaf persons desire the presence of an interpreter in all situations. Deaf persons, by necessity, require the presence of an SL Interpreter when engaging in medical, legal, professional, educational and other matters requiring full participation in the hearing world. However, the absence of SL Interpreters does not prevent communication from taking place. There are alternative ways of communicating with each other including: gestures, lip-reading, writing and text messaging. [Guide note: also computers, e.g. notepad]

Educational Interpreting in Canada

Concerning SL Interpreters roles in Canadian, educational settings, Marty Taylor (1988) asserts that their presence for Deaf clients will enable the latter to "achieve equal accessibility" (38) for those seeking academic success. To aid students in all educational levels, interpreters are required to hold a specialist certificate in one of the following: Specialist Certificate: Legal (SC: L), Specialist Certificate: Performing Arts (SC: PA), or Masters Comprehensive Skills Certificate (MCSC).

The stages of obtaining one of these certificates begin at having to pass a written test questioning the student's knowledge of: the history of the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada (AVLIC) and other related organizations, the practices of SL Interpreting, and the language and culture of Deaf persons (124). After an individual completes the written portion of the test, s/he undergoes the performance part of the exam referred to as the Test of Interpretation (TOI). Once an individual has completed all requirements for the specialist certificate, s/he is granted one by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). In so doing, s/he joins the rank of other professional SL Interpreters. Interpreters are then qualified to work with diverse clients in a vast array of settings: one-to-one, small and large group discussion.

Interpreter Training in Canada

The following list of institutions currently offer training courses for SL Interpreters: George Brown College, Ontario, Douglas College, British Columbia, and Red River College, Manitoba. Many institutions offering training courses for SL Interpreters have been forced to close as a result of failure to attract and maintain classroom numbers.

One main obstacle for colleges offering SL programs is the low number of graduating students. The large numbers of students failing or dropping out of the program relates to the high level of stress involved in learning American Sign Language (ASL) at the same time as understanding how to translate it into English and visa-a-versa. It is necessary to note that ASL is a "visual language with its own grammar and syntax that is completely different from English." As such, the challenges of becoming a SL Interpreter are great that sadly results in many SL students discontinuing their studies and terminating their career goals.

David Howell (2003) notes some of the obstacles colleges face by discussing the closing of the SL Interpreter program at Grant MacEwan Community College: "Last week, Grant MacEwan College announced its sign-language interpretation program will end when the current class of 10 students graduates this month. 'It's a high-cost program with low demand,' college spokeswoman Michelle Leveille said at the time. The cut is part of an effort by the college to trim spending by $2 million in the coming year" (Cityplus, June 5 2003. Following the trend to save money, and the subsequent reduction in government funding for such programs, many other Canadian colleges have closed their SL programs, for example: Sheridan College, Ontario, St. Mary's University, Nova Scotia, and Cambrian College, Ontario.

Further Obstacles for SL Interpreting Graduates

Students who do graduate face another obstacle when commencing their careers-lack of field experience, certification does not translate into a seasoned interpreter ready for the discipline. The low number of recent graduates, through no fault of their own, find themselves ill-prepared to act as SL Interpreters.

Graduated SL Interpreters desire programs geared to assisting graduates in field work. To this end, many go onto post-secondary studies to earn the necessary credentials to be successful in their field. To this end, they desire extensive knowledge of the Deaf culture, English and ASL or Canadian Sign Language (CSL). According to Humphrey et al., the average professional SL Interpreter holds a "Bachelor's or Master's degree" (369). However, the authors point out that the success rate for post-graduates mirrors those of undergraduates, roughly ten percent of those originally enrolled.

The lack of government, business and private funding for the advancement of educating, equipping and paying qualified SL Interpreters negates the needs, desires and rights of Deaf persons striving to live a full, balanced life in a dominant hearing culture.

SL Interpreters' Roles and Responsibilities

According to Ron Hahn (1996), most SL Interpreters "possess strong interpreting skill[s]," that enable them to develop and establish "his/her own reputation" (12). Acting as accountable professionals, SL Interpreters are responsible for facilitating communication between sign language users (Deaf and hard of hearing) and non-sign users (hearing). After all, the word, interpreter, refers to a person who translates between two or more people with alternative ways of communicating or who speak different languages.

Qualified interpreters seek to bridge and join the two worlds together-hearing and Deaf. Although SL Interpreters' responsibilities center on translating information to hearing and Deaf clients, "language problems create the potential for enormous tension among interpreters, school officials, and Deaf students" (Lane et al., 1999: 259). It is the SL Interpreters' responsibilities to ensure that the information is communicated clearly to both parties, including ASL vocabulary and the structure of transmission.

In regards to the problems in transmitting information to both parties, one of my interviewees, Bob, an experienced SL Interpreter, responds: "Often times with interpreting assignments there is a clear beginning, middle and end to my role as an interpreter" ("Interview," 19 February 2006). Bob's statement reflects how relevant the relationships between SL Interpreters and Deaf clients strive to follow a clear, linear path to ensure that the translation of information is transparent. This supports Lane et al.'s argument that all SL Interpreters, while working with culturally Deaf clients, should have "the skill involved [that] requires a much more comprehensive knowledge of ASL" (258).

The knowledge and expertise of SL Interpreters is especially needed when Deaf clients find themselves in critical situations that require clear communication. For example, when Deaf clients are in situations dealing with the law, children's aid or medical emergencies.

To become an interpreter, a person must be culturally sensitive and willing to act as a mediator between the Deaf and hearing worlds. When a person becomes an interpreter, s/he is the aware of the communication occurring in both worlds-English and ASL-whereas the other parties do not.

Thus, "interpreter's skills and knowledge vary widely" (257), which is the primary reason Deaf clients require access to qualified, competent, SL Interpreters. They need to be able to draw on their backgrounds in ways that are useful so that they can interpret in any type of situation, such as conferences, meetings, performances, schools, law courts or hospitals.

Interpreters Are Professional but Human Too

A Deaf client, Lola, applauds SL Interpreters as professionals because she believes they "are doing a good job, and they are kind enough to go to college to learn how to translate for the Deaf" Lola continues, "We need them, without them, we would be frustrated, struggling and have limited communication." Lola's appreciation reflects most clients' thoughts on qualified interpreters. Deaf clients have great respect for SL Interpreters, who took the time to complete their education to become professional interpreters.

RID is "the national professional organization of interpreters-it has a special interest group for educational interpreters" who seek to become better qualified (Lane et al., 257). Lane et al., argues that "it is appropriate [for SL Interpreters to] be required to hold a college degree if they choose to work in the educational setting" (261). However, an interpreter I interviewed, Mike, exclaims, "I am not a machine!" The term machine is a powerful statement that stresses the responsibility and pressure for the interpreter to translate two languages simultaneously using physical and mental faculties. As Mike points out, professional SL Interpreters cannot be expected to be emotionless and painless while working the long hours required at times. Thus, Mike's exclamation reflects the needs of interpreters to be seen as human and not as mere "tools."

According to Jan Kanda (1990), one way interpreters maintain self-care in a demanding, yet fruitful, occupation is to adhere to professional decorum. As such, the interpreter maintains a professional distance from her/his clients in order to "avoi[d] causal and social interaction with their professional clients" while working (2). Sal, a client, implies that many interpreters are doing their best to "empower the parties involved, [because] balance is important and so is neutrality. It is important to adhere to these principles to offset the rather emotional conversations taking place at times. Involvement can become a problem and interfere with the interpreting process"

To say the least, the role of SL Interpreters is a challenging one since they need to maintain awareness of their roles and responsibilities by not becoming intellectually, physically and emotionally involved while working with clients to ensure proper care is taken so as to be of use to their clients and to themselves.

Relationship Between SL Interpreters and Clients

In discussing the relationship between clients and SL Interpreters, I wish to note that I am writing from a biased position: a culturally Deaf, young, black, female student. That having been said, I have attempted to approach my subject in a scholarly manner. The following section explores first-hand accounts from Deaf clients and SL Interpreters. The interviews were drawn from a pool of personal friends, representative of all walks of life, and SL Interpreters I have worked with in the past.

A 1998 case study concerned the elements of professionalism: ability to treat one's client with respect and dignity, detaching from one's own interests and biases to better serve the client, striving to meet the needs of the client rather than to superimpose structures and procedures that disempower them. During the writing of this paper, I became familiar with the following case study and found the underlying issues of trust or its lack thereof, relevant to this section.

The client was a fifteen-year-old girl, "Rose," who attended a regular high school for the first time. As Rose entered grade 10, having been previously educated in Deaf schools, the CHS assigned her a "wonderful" woman, "Pat." Rose and Pat had a mutual regard for one another that meet the criteria of professionalism listed above. Pat was gracious, kind and encouraged Rose. Rose, an adolescent facing the public school system for the first time, bonded with Pat and was very sorry to see her go on maternity leave. However, Rose was assured Pat would return at its end and so welcomed Pat's replacement, "Beth."

Rose began to notice disturbing trends in her relationship with Beth. For example, Beth often was impatient with Rose. The CHS, the Deaf schools and the public school system that Rose attended failed to inform her of her right to a note-taker. So Rose tried to take her own notes. When Rose would bow her head to write, Beth would become irate and impatient, humiliating Rose in front of her classmates. Beth would wave to get Rose's attention and then tell her to "listen" and not lower her head.

Rose understandably became hurt,

frightened and embarrassed by Beth's hostile behaviour. Rose's "eyes would swell up with tears," and Beth would "roll her eyes and become angry." Beth then broke her confidential client-interpreter relationship when she spoke to another interpreter during a lunch break, mocking Rose for showing her visceral reaction to Beth's unreasonable demands to "only listen" to her.

Rose's suspicion and mistrust of Beth grew as Beth's inappropriate behaviour progressed. Fortunately, Rose's classmates showed great support for her since they were sympathetic to her situation. Beth became an unwanted intruder in the classroom and Rose's classmates would often "rescue" her from Beth's tirades. In spite of classmate support, Rose suffered from loss of self-esteem, difficulty concentrating and anxiety attacks when in contact with Beth. Rose, a dedicated and successful student, failed a test out of fear and anxiety by Beth's hostile presence.

Finally the day came when Pat returned and Beth left. Beth's effects on Rose dissipated under the care and respect of her former interpreter, Pat. Rose felt validated to learn that Beth's conduct was in direct violation of the AVLIC's "Code of Ethics." However, the most troubling aspect of Rose's relationship with Beth resulted in Beth damaging Rose's trust in interpreters and the damage done to her school work while under Beth's direction.

Rose's experience demonstrates what happens when a SL Interpreter, such as Beth, lacks respect for her client, Rose. On the one hand, the effects on Rose resulted in a long-term distrust and fear of having the same situation occurring again when meeting a new interpreter. On the other hand, Rose empowered herself by becoming informed of her right to immediately terminate such a SL Interpreter as Beth.

Client's Rights Regarding Interpreters

In terms of the relationship between client and SL Interpreters, Angela Stratiy (1995) contends that clients have rights regarding the hiring of a professional SL Interpreter:

1) We have a right to equal access of information.
2) We have a right to choose our interpreters.
3) We have a right to refuse to accept an unqualified or unskilled interpreter.
4) We have a right to tell an interpreter that we have difficult understanding or that we feel uncomfortable with her/him.
5) We have a right to tell an interpreter and/or his/her employer that further upgrading is necessary.
6) We have a right to believe that our opinions regarding an interpreter's ability are valuable. (Editorial Guest: Are You Satisfied With Interpreters? 3)

Stratiy's list of Deaf client rights and obligations reinforces the sentiment of another client interviewed, "Sherry": "Hiring a SL Interpreter is part of the larger ethics governing their relationships that are to serve the practical reasons for their service to Deaf clients." Sherry highlights the fact that Deaf clients should always use a professional who serves the needs of clients. "SL Interpreters are to be trained, impersonal and professional." Many clients desire SL Interpreters with many years of experience and who adhere to AVLIC's "Code of Ethics."

A professional ASL/English Interpreter, Martin Koob (1996) discusses in the article, "Looking to the Future: Becoming a Professional," three problems that plague some relationships between clients and their interpreters:

  • If a person who is working as an interpreter is not qualified to do that work, there is nothing that can be done to prevent them from working as an interpreter.
  • If a person who is working as an interpreter does not behave in an ethical manner, there is not really a way to censure them.
  • If an interpreter breaks the law while carrying out her/his duties as an interpreter, there is no formal mechanism preventing her/him from continuing to work as an interpreter (14).

Koob goes on to suggest that these problems need to be solved if clients are to be protected from the misconduct of unprofessional SL Interpreters. Proper governance of the client-interpreter relationship, and a willingness on both sides to come forward in a safe and secure environment, without fear of reprisal, to report infractions is necessary to ensure the clients and interpreters rights are met.

According to a Deaf client, "Elizabeth," it falls on the interpreter to not create a situation where potential conflicts could arise between clients and SL Interpreters. In order to deal with conflicts that do arise, Elizabeth believes it best to "deal with it pragmatically and swiftly." Clients and SL Interpreters have many ways to deal with all types of conflicts that emerge during the course of their time together.

For example, Manny, a Deaf client, speaks of her strategy in dealing with conflicts with her interpreter: "I wait until after a class, find a private place, such as in a corner of the hallway,

to discuss privately my concerns over 'this and that', things I do not like and wish changed. I then offer alternatives for us to agree on." It should be noted that SL interpreters have the same right to be treated with respect by their clients. Mike's earlier statement, "I am not a machine," bears repeating. Neither party is to mistreat the other, but is responsible to communicate respectfully and professionally.

According to Cynthia B. Roy (1995), a SL Interpreter's role can be defined as professional if one has the following:

  • Complete fluency in two languages (in this case, American Sign Language and English)
  • Interpretation skills
  • A wide general knowledge
  • A knowledge of the field in which he/she interprets
  • Bicultural sensitivity, and
  • A highly developed sense of professionalism (137).

Roy's list encourages Deaf clients to approach the hiring of a SL Interpreter with confidence knowing their right to professional etiquette and treatment. The relationship between SL Interpreters and clients work effectively when both parties are familiar with the boundaries and codes of conduct governing them.

According to "Sylvia," a SL Interpreter: "Most conflict comes from consumers not knowing what my job is (or isn't!). This seems to arise from more hearing consumers than Deaf. Most Deaf know about interpreters and don't push the boundaries. Some hearing consumers become uncomfortable with me and the Deaf person, whereby the hearing become awkward, even demanding sometimes."

Yet, the boundaries do get crossed. For example, when the professional distance begins to be transformed into a personal relationship. This arises for many SL Interpreters working with Deaf clients (as well as hearing clients) as Sylvia emphasizes: "The longer you work with someone the harder it becomes to maintain a professional, detached stance. You can't help but get to know the people you work with, and often the Deaf consumer will talk with the interpreters more than the hearing people (and vice versa), which only deepens their bond."

Developing a mutual regard is not to be seen as something disadvantageous to either party since it often creates a sense of human connectedness to the other world desired by either the hearing or Deaf client. Such a growing appreciation for each other's different world is made possible by the interpreter. The interpreter's personal involvement, as long as it is within the confines of professional decorum, may benefit the hearing or Deaf client.


SL Interpreters are hired solely to facilitate the communication between hearing and Deaf clients. As a matter of fact, while hearing and Deaf persons converse, SL Interpreters need not be noticed, but treated as non-existence or invisible after the initial acknowledgments and introductions have been exchanged. Issues (in Canada) relative to SL interpreters include: government cutbacks, significant lack of students being attracted to the profession, lack of qualified SL interpreters and the demand on the part of the hearing and the Deaf world for interpreters.


So You Want to Be An Interpreter? (2nd Edition) Humphrey & Alcorn copyright 1995
AVLIC. (2006). Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada. July 2000.
Bryman, Alan. (2004). Social Research Methods 2nd Edition. NewYork: Oxford University Press.
Butterworth, Rob R. and Flodin, Mickey. (1995). The Perigee Visual Dictionary of Signing. New York: A Perigee Book.
Canadian Hearing Society. (2006). "Ontario Interpreter Services." 14 April 2006.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice In Wonderland (1869). IIIust. Ralph Steadman. New York: C. N. Potter, 1973.
Howell, David. (2003). "Cancelled Course a ‘Huge Loss’ for Deaf: Sign Language Interpreters Already in Short Supply." Cityplus. 5 June 2003.
Humphrey, Janice H., and Alcorn, Bob J. (1995). So You Want To Be An Interpreter? An Introduction to Sign Language Interpreting. 2nd Edition. Texas: H & H Publishers.
Kanda, Jan. (1989). What makes a "Good" Interpreter?" Convention, Northern California.
Koob, Martin (1996). "Looking to the Future: Becoming a Professional." The AVLIC News, 10 (2), 14.<br/>Lane, Harlan, Hoffmeister, Robert and Bahhan, Ben. (1996). A Journey into the Deaf World. New York: DawnSignPress.
OASLI. Ontario Association of Sign Language Interpreters. (2006). OASLI Documents. Milton, Canada.
Roy, Cynthia B. (1993). "The Problem with Definitions, Descriptions and the Role Metaphors of Interpreters." Journal of Interpretation. 127-154.
Stratiy, Angela. (1996). "Are you Satisfied with Interpreters?" Deaf Canada, 2 (3), 2-3.
Taylor, Marty. (1988). "Sign Language Interpreters Education in Canada." Papers from the 1988 Conference of the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada. Edmonton: AVLIC.

Was this page helpful?