What Makes an Interpreter Satisfactory or Acceptable?

So, I recently had a couple conversations with a pretty cool person, Robin*, who is just really starting to really dive into the field of sign language interpreting. We had some conversations about expectations of interpreters, etc. Robin admitted wanting to work on his/her [guess Robin’s gender!] interpreting skills so that one day I might consider hiring Robin. I found myself in the slightly awkward, but pretty awesome, position of dispensing advice on interpreting.

I’ve been around sign language interpreting the last 20 years, first in middle school, then in high school, college, grad school, community events, theatre… You name it, I’ve seen it. As someone with two degrees and who has parents with six degrees total, I’m pretty well-versed in academia. And one of my loves is linguistics.

To me, interpreting is applied linguistics. To be a good interpreter and have “champ” skills, I expect you to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the foundation of language. Not just grammar—language. Understanding how language works, how people process linguistic information, understanding the nuances of culture, community, and the context of the words used in any given environment… to me, that’s important. Interpreting is not just taking one word in English and providing a sign for it in American Sign Language.

Interpreting is about the message, yes, but it’s so much more than that. SO MUCH. It’s also about the people involved in the conversation. It’s understanding the tone of voice – is the speaker stressed? Calm? Happy? Bored? Does the person talk a mile a minute or take his sweet time thinking and pausing every two or three words? (Believe me, I know people who do that.) Does the person have an accent? If so, should that information be provided somehow?

I have high standards for interpreters. I want interpreters who are not just passionate, but motivated to be the best. That means going to professional development workshops, working on their performance skills (signing and voicing), and conducting themselves in a professional manner. I especially appreciate those interpreters who really take the time to learn and understand that interpreting is not just about words, that it’s so much more. In my experience, those interpreters tend to be the ones who hone their craft, and study it. Time and time again, I’ve discovered that my “favorite” interpreters are the ones with a linguistics background. And there just aren’t enough of those.

But what about YOU? What are your standards for interpreters, and why? What do you expect of them and from them?

[Editor’s notes: *Robin is a gender-neutral false name selected to protect the identity of the interpreter mentioned in this article. Furthermore, the author has requested that this forum not be used “to name interpreters who are fantastic or terrible; and the same request applies to any interpreting agencies or independent businesses. This is about general interpreting expectations/standards.” To honor this request, comments about a specific interpreter or company will be removed.]

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