One might think that all it takes to be a sign language interpreter is the ability to sign. But what most people don’t realize is that American Sign Language (ASL) is a language all its own – not just a visual interpretation of English. Its grammar structure is different, and there are elements other than the signs themselves that are required for accurate sign language interpreting. For example, facial expressions, body language and even lip movements are integral parts of a professional sign language interpreter’s job.
There are hundreds of sign languages in use around the world; the sign language used in England is different from that used in the United States, for example. ASL uses a different word order than spoken English and leaves out many words such as “the” and “a.”
Professional sign language interpreting requires specific skills, some of which you might not have considered:
1. Knowing every sign perfectly.
Although a sign language interpreter might have to use finger spelling for jargon or industry-specific words, he or she must be able to sign anything in common usage without a moment’s hesitation.
2. Exceptional observation skills.
Sign language interpreting is highly nuanced and includes reading not only the words but the tone, facial expressions and body language of the speaker.
3. Quick thinking.
Most sign language interpreting is done simultaneously with spoken language, but the differences between the structure of spoken English and ASL are vast and varied. The sign language interpreter needs to be able to synthesize the ideas of the spoken language and translate them properly into ASL grammar and word order.
4. Experience in many fields.
Sign language interpreters work in the legal, medical, social work, education and media worlds, among others. Many interpreters specialize in one field, but the need for skilled interpreters can occur anywhere.
Of course any sign language interpreter must be a professional with a complete vocabulary of signs and an agile mind. An exceptional interpreter will be expressive, quick and experienced, as well.