Being a BSL Interpreter – it’s complicated. Part one.

Being a BSL Interpreter – it’s complicated. Part one.


The other week, we shared some useful tips for working with British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters. Today, we're sharing a blog post from a BSL Interpreter, James Banks, about the ins and outs of being a BSL Interpreter...

Sign Language Interpreting is probably one of the weirdest professions you can think of. You stand there, moving your hands about in odd shapes and you pull a load of funny faces for a living. I mean, that’s bonkers isn’t it? Apart from being one of those blokes who paint themselves gold and stand in the centre of towns expecting passers-by to throw them money for not moving, I’m not sure there’s a weirder job.

The truth is, it’s only weird if you have absolutely no idea what’s going on behind the hands and face-pulling. Once you start to understand what it means and what’s actually going on, it quickly becomes one of the most interesting and incredible professions you can think of.

I’ve been a British Sign Language Interpreter for over 20 years and it’s a job that has taken me all over the world: from Somaliland to Cambodia, from the UN in New York to canapés at Number 10 Downing Street. I’ve had tea with Village Chiefs in India and dodged bullets in Uganda, I’ve seen births, deaths and marriages and have shared some of the most intimate moments in people’s lives from heart operations to police arrests to getting a life-changing job to losing a loved one. It’s been an absolute privilege to be a BSL interpreter and I wouldn’t change a moment of it.

You may have seen one of us on the news, or popping up on telly when you’re trying to watch catch-up. So why are we there, who are we and what the heck are we doing?

It’s probably safe to begin with what we’re not. We’re not ‘signers’. It’s a description that makes many of us wince. I know it's easier to say and everyone knows what you mean when you say it but it’s a nickname that seems to lump everyone together and includes those who can only sign a few signs. There’s a pretty potted history of people being used to interpret who don’t really have the skills. We go through 6 years of training to get to the point of being a ‘trainee’ BSL interpreter. We follow a code of conduct and professionalism; we possess professional indemnity insurance, are DBS checked and constantly improve our skills through continuing professional development. Without being prissy, we would just like to be called by our proper job titles, BSL to English Interpreter or Sign Language Interpreter.

We don’t use Makaton. Makaton is a communication system used mainly for people with a learning disability. Makaton borrows and adapts some signs from BSL (British Sign Language). It uses these Makaton signs alongside English to help aid communication and learning.

We’re not ‘helpers’. We’re professional interpreters in the same way a French, Spanish, Russian or Urdu spoken-language interpreter are interpreters. I think because our job involves working with someone with a 'disability', we are often mistaken for being a helper instead of a trained professional. Again, we’re not being prissy about this. We just want recognition as professionals.

So what is BSL?

British Sign Language (BSL) is the preferred language of thousands of deaf people in the UK. There are other sign languages in other countries around the world but BSL is unique to the UK. It’s a natural language that has developed over hundreds of years, passed from one deaf person to the next, in exactly the same way that any language is passed on. It is not a language created by people who are not deaf and then passed onto them as a way to communicate. It’s a full and proper language, a beautiful language, like English or Welsh or Cornish. It has the same full linguistic features of any language; adjectives, verbs, nouns, idiom, metaphor etc. In fact, it’s way cooler than that. It’s a three-dimensional language. It has verbs that move through space! It has subtlety, nuance, sarcasm and wit. It is like any language, intrinsically linked to the culture of the people who use it. Yes, deaf sign-language users have a culture! It’s borne of a shared experience and history of being deaf in the UK. Deaf people therefore see the world slightly differently from the rest of us, through the prism of their history and experience. All of this is packed into the language and in my job, all of this must be understood before any interpretation can take place.

In its simplest form, I listen to someone saying something in English and I fire out that same something in BSL, and vice-versa. However, like most things in life, it’s not as simple as that. What really happens is this: I listen to what the English utterance means. I strip away the extra stuff and hold onto the good stuff, the essence of what someone says, i.e. what they mean. Then I re-present that in BSL to a deaf person in a way that means the deaf person understands the intent and the meaning of the original sentence. To be honest, that’s simplifying the process a lot, there are chunky books and studies on the whole interpreting schema written by cleverer people that I, because, like the title says, it’s complicated.

Here’s an extreme example: imagine interpreting between an English football fan and an Amazon tribesman that has never left the rainforest. Now imagine the football fan said to the tribesman, ‘Great match, fancy going for a pint?’ Would the tribesman understand the notion of ‘great’ ‘match’ or ‘pint?’ They are completely couched in English culture. ‘Great’ in this context doesn’t mean ‘large’ or ‘giant’ but ‘very good’. ‘Match’ is not a combustible stick but a competitive game of football and ‘pint’ is not just a measurement of liquid but actually a pint of beer/lager/cider. So you see that understanding the culture of a language is really important to being able to interpret from it or into it.

So, there’s my job. It gets even more complicated though, but I'll share more on that next week.

James Banks works as a freelance BSL Interpreter and has also been with GDA as their in-house Senior BSL Interpreter since 2013.