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If you’re a long-time reader of our blog, you’ll know about the differences between translation and interpretation; how each of these tasks requires a specialized set of skills, mindset, and temperament; and how each has its own distinct advantages and inconveniences for those who perform them. Translation is, to put it curtly, not much fun. In keeping with other jobs centered on writing, a translator’s workday includes a whole lot of sitting in a chair, eyes fixed on a screen, dealing with one word after another, after another. Translation is meticulous, painstaking, sometimes grueling work. By contrast, an interpreter gets to interact with people in the world away from the desk (or maybe at the desk, in the case of telephone interpretation), to speak out loud, to engage with language in a more vivid and exciting way. However, a translator has one luxury that interpreters don’t get: time.

If a translator gets stuck on a passage, or needs a moment to work out why this or that phrasing feels wrong, she can leave her chair and go for a walk. She can consult reference materials, or even a trusted colleague for advice. For interpreters, this is definitely not the case. An interpreter has one chance to get it right. Just one, and that’s it. Perfect command of two spoken languages, expert knowledge of the subject matter at hand, near-instant reaction time, with a clear and engaging communication style – do you know anyone who meets all of these qualifications?

You can compare the differences between the two to acting for the screen, and acting on the stage. A film or TV actor can count on a rehearsal period, and multiple takes, and a chance to turn off the cameras and consult the script, if needed. For a stage actor, there’s one chance per show, and one alone… and in the case of an interpreter, it’s a different show every night, with no script available until the show starts. In brief: never assume that a translator can do an interpreter’s job, or vice versa.

At TrueLanguage, if we offer translation services in a particular language, we can also provide interpretation services in that language. We have more to come in future blogs on the challenges of interpretation. Today we’re thinking about interpretation services in one particular language: ASL, or American Sign Language.

As you’ll know, a sign language is a system of communication with the hearing-impaired, making use of the hands, arms and face. ASL is specified above because, yes, there are different national standards of sign language to accompany the world’s spoken languages (one of many important facts to bear in mind when preparing an ASL interpretation project). ASL interpreters face all of the same challenges as spoken interpreters, with a few additions. To wit:

Fatigue – Did you know that spoken interpreters often work in pairs? For sessions that will exceed an hour in length, it’s good practice to engage two interpreters. One reason for this is efficiency – one interpreter may have to make quick decisions about how to translate context-specific terms, and the other can take notes to ensure that these terms remain consistent throughout. Another reason is simpler – interpreting can wear a person out! If you’ve ever been a teacher, you will know all too well how tired you can be after talking for a full class period, let alone a full school day. Take that fatigue, apply it to an interpreter, and multiply it for one working in ASL (adding repetitive hand motions to the mix). Two interpreters working together can take turns, one jumping in when the other gets tired, to avoid fatigue-based mistakes.

A recent in-office discussion at TrueLanguage made us aware of an ASL situation that could tire an interpreter in no time at all: interpreting for the deaf-blind. In such cases, a person who can neither hear nor see will place his hands around the interpreter’s hands to feel the signs as they’re made. After an hour of performing to such high need and expectations, a break is absolutely called for.

Wardrobe – Yes, what you wear is an essential consideration for interpreting work, ASL or otherwise. Imagine, for a moment, an American industrial plant opening up in Venezuela. The English-speaking heads of the company want to give tours of the new facility to the Spanish-speaking stakeholders on the ground in Venezuela, and hire an interpreter. The factory includes heavy machinery, conveyor belts, vats of boiling chemicals. And on the day of the tour, the interpreter arrives, wearing loose, flowing garments and open-toed shoes. Problem. Without proper clothing, the interpreter won’t even be allowed to enter the facility. General lesson for interpreters: always be aware of where you’ll be working, and dress appropriately.

Specific wardrobe lesson for ASL interpreters, however: since your hands will be hovering at or around your upper body as you sign, take extra care in choosing the color and shape of your clothes. Your torso will be the “screen” against which you’ll be signing, so make sure your hands and fingers will be easy to read. Wear a plain color that sets off your skin tone without being jarring. Avoid busy patterns, and anything that could draw the eye away from your hands. No flashy rings or bracelets, and no loose sleeves that could obstruct the hands. Business casual and neutral colors will be a safe bet… your distinctive fashion sense can wait for later!

Drama – Interpreters of any kind are like actors, as suggested above. When you’re lending your voice to someone, with your mouth or with your hands, it’s not difficult to become caught up in the drama of the situation you’re helping to communicate. Interpreting a conference or business gathering is one thing, but what about a custody hearing? A trial? An account of any large-scale tragic event? It’s vital for an interpreter to keep all personal reactions as hidden as possible; on the job, your own input is neither desired nor required. One successful American Sign Language interpreter we know told us of a few highly emotional jobs where, once the interpreting was finished, he had to take a few moments in his car and let it all out.

Vulgar words – There was a panel on interpreting at the AAIT conference last fall, and someone in the audience raised a point that applies just as well to ASL: how should an interpreter handle profanity? It’s a question that might provoke laughter, but the situation itself certainly wouldn’t – what if you’re in a court of law, and the person you’re interpreting for starts dropping f-bombs all over the place? Well, it might feel awkward, but the thing to do is muscle through it and interpret the words. Those in the room will know you’re only passing words along, and an interpreter’s job is not to censor, any more than it is to contribute.

Tip about profanity for interpreters: if you’re really bothered by something you’re asked to say/sign, it might be permissible to follow in the above American Sign Language interpreter’s footsteps: once, in court, when a plaintiff he was interpreting for signed that the judge was a “big fat b—ch”, he paused, turned to the judge, and said, “He says you’re a big fat b—ch.”

Even if you don’t need the services of an ASL interpreter, exposure to a new language is never a bad idea! Here are a few handy signs, useful for anyone at any time – do you know any of them?