Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Other Visual Language Interpreters

In my post of May 2, I hinted that I’d describe some other kinds of Visual Language (VL) Interpreters that I’ve worked with besides the Sign Language ones.

But first a correction. Oliver Pouliot, an Expert VL Interpreter in London, England, writes to tell me that I was quite wrong to say most Sign Language interpreters are children of deaf parents. (I might have added, or siblings of a deaf brother or sister.) He goes on:
”This is in fact not true - most sign language interpreters are second language learners of the language. Although the profession began with us, it has continued and grown mainly via people who have encountered sign language later in their lives. I am not aware of any official statistics, but of our group, I am the only native signer.”
Well, it’s true my experience with VL interpreters goes back to the 1980s, so no doubt I’m out of date. Indeed, in the United States there seems to be a certain resentment felt by interpreters who are the children of deaf adults (CODAs), because some of them have formed an association called Interpreters with Deaf Parents (IDP) and their members deplore
“the lack of respect IDP's feel… in regards to our wealth of knowledge of the language and culture, and the lack of appropriate settings for codas to learn the interpreting process.”
Anyway, in view of the correction, I’ll put what follows in the past tense.

I used to interpret sometimes at meetings of the Canadian Coordinating Council on Deafness (CCCD). The participants were a mixture of deaf and hearing people. I was hired as a Voice Interpreter (see the May 2 post): my job was to translate between French and English, the two official languages in Canada. Beforehand, I had expected to be working alongside Sign Language Interpreters, and I was aware that there were two sign languages used in the country: American Sign Language (ASL) in the English community and Quebec Sign Language (LSQ) in the French one. They aren’t mutually intelligible. What I didn’t realise was that a large proportion of the hard of hearing population did not know either sign language, indeed some of them were resistant to learning them. It’s hard to determine just what proportion of the hard of hearing are signers and I don‘t have figures for Canada. The figures for the USA, for example, are very unreliable: see the Ross E. Mitchell reference below. On the other hand, there’s an official estimate for Scotland: 57,000 people with severe to profound deafness, 6,000 whose first or preferred language is British Sign Language, i.e. just over 10%. Clearly the non-signers are as important as the signers.

So how was communication maintained with the non-signers? For them, two other kinds of ‘interpreting’ were made available:

1. Oral Interpreting. Contrary to what you might think from the name, it doesn’t use the voice. Oral interpreters cater for lip readers. They repeat silently what the speaker is saying, but with well-articulated, even exaggerated, lip movements; and they place themselves where their clients can see them clearly. It might be said that it’s not really interpreting but shadowing, because there’s no change of language. Never mind; they’re called interpreters.

2. Note-taking. In this mode, a hearing person takes notes of what's being said and the notes are displayed to the hard of hearing audience. At the CCCD, the note-takers wrote on overhead projector transparencies and there were two screens, one for French notes and the other for English.

This by no means exhausted the possibilities. There were forms of communication that I did not see, for example Tactile (touch) Interpreting, made famous by Helen Keller and her teacher-interpreter Anne Mansfield Sullivan. Nevertheless, there was enough to make the interpretation set-up extremely complex. Suppose somebody made a statement in LSQ. It would go through the following stages:
1. The LSQ was translated into spoken French by a Sign Language Interpreter.
2. The spoken French was shadowed by a Francophone Oral Interpreter and summarised by a French Note-Taker.
3. Simultaneously with 2, a Voice Interpreter translated the spoken French into spoken English.
4. An ASL Interpreter translated the output from the Voice Interpreter into ASL for the English signers.
5. Simultaneously with 4, an English Oral Interpreter shadowed the Voice Interpreter and another Note-Taker summarised again.
In theory, it should have been possible to translate directly from LSQ to ASL, but there were only very few interpreters who knew both; so most of the time we had to make do with the relay method in which the Voice Interpreter acted as a pivot. By some miracle, it worked. Of course, the CCCD could count on Expert Interpreters.

In this drawing of an Oral Interpreter at work, the interpreter sits facing a deaf person and shadows what’s being said by the people at the table behind. Source: The Itinerant Connection,

The group Oliver Pouliot refers to is involved in the European Master in Sign Language Interpreting (EUMASLI),

Interpreters with Deaf Parents.

Ross E. Mitchell, et al. How many people use ASL in the United States? Why estimates need updating. Sign Language Studies, Volume 6, Number 3, 2006.

Statistics. Scottish Council on Deafness.

Helen Keller Biography. American Foundation for the Blind.


  1. I had no idea oral interpreting meant conveying speech into something that could be lip read. Interesting.

    I stumbled upon a blogpost that I thought might interest you. Although I usually don't have problems with untrained or natural translators I have to admit I have mitigated feelings about this blogpost:


  2. Thank you for the link.

    I'm wondering what bothers you about Zhenya. Something specific, or her general bubbly style?