Sign Language

7 Deadly Sins of Sign Language Interpreting

7 Deadly Sins of Sign Language Interpreting

I have used hundreds—no really, hundreds—of interpreters over the years.

As a certified deaf interpreter (CDI) myself, I’ve had the rare opportunity to see both sides of the conversation: what it’s like to be an interpreter and what it’s like working with an interpreter as a client.

Having talented interpreters at my fingertips is a huge blessing, but being a client isn’t always a walk in the park. Don’t get me wrong, most interpreters are genuinely great at their jobs. But every now and then common mistakes and embarrassing mishaps occur out in the field. And most of them are avoidable.

If you’re a new interpreter or you have the pleasure of teaching them, read on. I’m about to divulge my own personal list of things NOT to do when you’re interpreting for your clients. Some of these you’ve experienced firsthand and cringed right along with me. Others might just surprise you . . .

#1 Pretend to Understand Me When You Don’t

Now I know what you’re thinking: these are professional interpreters! Of course they understand you. Well . . . you might be surprised.

I have definitely had interpreters look at me like they were hit by a bus and still try to interpret what I just said. And I have had the pleasure of watching my interpreter make up what I said before my very eyes. I’ll give him creativity points, but the experience wasn’t particularly fun.

If you’re ever unsure what your Deaf client is saying, just ask. I promise we’re not scary. In fact, we prefer that you pause and clarify instead of faking your way through. That makes things difficult for both sides of the conversation and only results in lost trust in the interpreter.

Accuracy is the ultimate goal of interpreting, so do whatever you must to stay true to your client’s words. Blazing onward to save time, adding extra thoughts between the lines, or chipping in your personal opinions—gasp!—are usually not okay while interpreting. You are the voice of your client, so try as much as possible to honor their original meaning. Even if you don’t like that meaning or feel like it makes you look bad, it’s not about you.

#2 Accept Interpreting Assignments You Shouldn’t

Nothing will harm your long-term credibility like this one. Situations that require an interpreter are endless, sure, but if you’re not familiar with medical vocabulary, interpreting for patients in doctors’ offices isn’t a great idea. Have the bravery to turn down jobs that just aren’t in your area of expertise, no matter how much you want them.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be learning new skills. If you want to make yourself qualified, do your homework so you can say yes! Doctors did their homework. Lawyers did their homework. As a professional, you’re held to the same standard. You can become an expert in any area you choose with a little practice and mentoring.

One last thing to keep in mind: stay a mile away from conflicts of interest. Personal or financial relationships with clients can absolutely make it inappropriate to interpret for them. Even your social and ethical views can make it hard to interpret to the best of your ability in certain situations. So be smart. Every client deserves an interpreter who can do their best on the job. If you ever do accept an assignment you shouldn’t have, it’s your job to find a replacement and never, ever leave a client hanging.

I had an interpreter once who completely stopped interpreting in the middle of a live event because he didn’t agree with the message. I kept telling him that it was for me, not him, but he refused and just folded his arms and closed his eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to punch a human being more. This guy didn’t just go back on his word to interpret for me; he also took away my access to an important event. This should never happen.

#3 Dress Wrong for the Job

This happens often enough to mention it. Dressing right for an interpreting gig is the best possible way for your presence and skills to do the most good. And dressing wrong is always going to harm your client’s image as well as your own.

This article from StreetLeverage covers the basics on this, but here are some of my personal dos and don’ts:

  • Have the humility to dress as unobtrusively as possible.
  • Avoid loud fashion choices that will overpower your interpreting.
  • Dress one level above the dress code of the event. If it’s casual, go business casual. If it’s business casual, go one step higher. This will really help your professionalism.
  • Wear accessories, nail polish, or jewelry.
  • Show up sloppy. Wrinkly clothes and body odor are unbelievably distracting. Trust me.
  • Dress up too much. The one step up principle is all you need. I once attended a Harley-Davidson conference, and my interpreter showed up in a suit and tie. Every person I talked to the rest of the day assumed I was a very uptight guy. These things happen.

Side note: If you choose to wear a skirt, BEWARE. Ladies, I beg of you, be considerate of how you sit in a skirt. Sitting across from a client, it’s far, far too easy to reveal way more than intended. I wish so much I was making this up, but I’ve been the target of many older guys asking me for the interpreter’s number so they could hook up with her. Ugh.

If you choose to wear a skirt while interpreting BEWARE. Or wear slacks to be safe. Share on X

#4 Show Up Late

This is the shortest deadly sin on my list, but it deserves its own slot. Please, please show up at least 10 minutes early to every interpreting appointment. You just never know when you’ll get lost or have trouble finding your client in a crowd. Finding parking is no laughing matter either, especially at hospitals and colleges! Showing up early will ease a lot of worry for your client too. Those precious few minutes to get set up, meet your client, and figure out what needs to happen are priceless to the person you’re working with. In my book, these couple of minutes separate the mediocre interpreters from the truly exceptional ones who made me feel completely at ease in difficult situations.

#5 Assume You Know What’s Best for the Client

I’ve gotten to know a lot of interpreters on a personal level, which is awesome! This becomes less awesome if they don’t recognize where confidentiality starts and ends.

I had an experience once when I visited a doctor and had an interpreter who was very familiar with me. Out of a desire to help, my interpreter shared way more information about me than I was ever planning to tell that doctor. I know the urge is strong to help out and share what you believe you should, especially if you know your client well. But one of the hardest and most important decisions you’ll make as an interpreter is only to interpret what your client says.

Respect your client enough to let them decide what information they give, just like they were speaking for themselves. You can ask for clarifications and work with your client, but going beyond that is inappropriate. Understanding this principle is absolutely necessary to be a great interpreter.

#6 Forget that You’re a Human Being First and an Interpreter Second

Where does client confidentiality start and end? Exactly where the client decides. Period. Share on X

Sometimes interpreters are so focused on their job that they forget to just be human in normal, everyday situations.

Recently my wife and I were walking into a building alongside our interpreter. My wife accidentally dropped her bag, scattering personal belongings everywhere. While we were on the ground gathering her things, the interpreter just stood there and watched. Not helping. Not even asking if we wanted help.

Another friend of mine saw a similar experience when he hired an interpreter for his deaf son’s baseball game. The little boy was walking out to the field and holding a baseball. When he realized he forgot his bat in the dugout, he asked his interpreter if she could hold the ball for him while he ran back to get his bat. The interpreter looked at him and said no. I was shocked that someone would respond that way to a simple, short request that honestly didn’t have lasting consequences.

Now, I realize that interpreters get completely unreasonable requests too. I’ve experienced a few of these myself. But the opposite extreme is refusing to perform any small courtesy because you’re the interpreter. We are all humans working with other humans, and it’s more than okay to be empathetic on the job. In fact, there are situations when it’s absolutely vital.

What if you’re the interpreter who tells a client they have cancer? Or that their mom just died? Take that extra moment to let someone know how sorry you are and ask if there’s something you can do. Our profession can have a huge impact on someone’s life in tough moments like those.

Interpreters, don't be so focused on your job that you forget to be human Share on X

#7 View Other Interpreters as Competition Instead of Teammates

I saved this point for last because it’s far and above the mistake I run into the most. Both as a CDI and a client, I’ve witnessed firsthand the kind of cutthroat competition that exists in the interpreting world. There’s a phrase I’ve heard before that goes “Don’t eat your young.” Instead of chasing off and criticizing young interpreters who don’t know the ropes, all of us can make an effort to nurture interpreting newcomers, even after they’re self-sufficient.

More than anything, I’d love to see us all throw out the hierarchy and start working together as a team. Let’s collaborate and care for each other instead of competing; after all, we are working together to improve each other and provide better access for our clients. The number one priority of sign language interpreting is to serve the Deaf community, so let’s all work together and to live up to our mission.