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

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


Part two of our 'Being a BSL Interpreter - it's complicated' blog post, where BSL Interpreter, James Banks explains the ins and outs of being a BSL Interpreter. If you missed part one, click here to catch up.

BSL is essentially a topic, comment language. You name the topic and then make the comment. Think of Yoda, out of Star Wars. “Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the force are they

You build the meaning of the sentence in three-dimensional space. It’s a wholly visual language and so often times you create the language in the same order as you would draw it. It’s like creating a picture of what has been said. Like for example if you were to interpret ‘A man walked across a bridge’, you would set up the bridge first and then sign the man walking across it.

While we are reconstructing the language, we are mostly interpreting simultaneously. This means that while the English is hitting our ears, we are extracting the meaning and building this in sign language while also listening to the next sentence. It’s a totally mad thing to do and it takes ages to try to master. But what it means is that a fluent conversation can be had between deaf and hearing people. That’s why there’s often two of us. After about twenty minutes of simultaneous interpreting, the brain begins to tire and the accuracy of what we’re passing on begins to fall. It’s at that point that we generally pass the job onto our co-worker. If there’s two of us, we can keep interpreting like this pretty much all day, swapping every half an hour or so.

Then there are more complications! While all of the above is going on, we are scanning the room, the environment and ourselves for other dynamics. Is the hearing person being sarcastic? Is the deaf person in a good mood? What are they hoping to get out of this interaction? How can I ensure that this is happening? Is my presence in the room affecting the participants? How should I deal with that? Why is the hearing person speaking to me and not directly to the deaf person? How does the deaf person feel about that? How can I redirect the hearing person without embarrassing them? Where am I positioned in the room to make sure that the deaf person can take everything in? Am I being as clear as I can be? There are a million things going on in my head as I undergo my job. There’s language, culture, dynamics, position, intention, emotions, clarity, all competing for attention. I’m also usually playing catch-up on what went on before. A lot of the time we are brought in half-way through a process. I’ll give you an example: a team-meeting. I go in probably knowing only the deaf person’s name, their job and the fact that they are having a team meeting. While interpreting, my brain is playing detective. I’m working out who’s who, I’m trying to figure out where the deaf person fits into the organisation, I'm trying to understand the dynamic of the group, what the problems are, who the manager is and what they think of the deaf person, and on top of all that, what all the acronyms mean! All of this information is needed in order for me to make any sense of the language exchanges in front of me. We are ‘meaning’ machines, constantly focused on getting that right.

The worst possible thing I could do in my job is to misrepresent someone, or to interpret the meaning incorrectly. To grasp the wrong end of the wrong stick, or to sign or say something inappropriate - oh the shame! This could be a disaster for my client. It could end up with some horrible consequences. So, I am constantly assessing and then re-assessing my work. I’m looking for visual clues from the participants that what I’m doing is working. I’m hoping for nodding heads and faces that look like they’re understanding. My co-worker is also working hard. They are not on a break. They are internally processing everything going on too and they’re also assessing my work. We’re a team of two, supporting each other in this complicated task.

In other words, we are trying, with all of the skills and experience we have to hand, to get into the minds of the people around us and extract the meaning of what they are saying and then represent that to the other party as accurately as we can. The problem with trying to do that is that it's impossible. You see, we as the third party, as human beings with our own histories, experiences, biases, weaknesses and assumptions, are the filter through which the other people must communicate. We get in the way. We reproduce what we think or believe is the meaning. That’s what an ‘interpretation’ is. It’s what all of us who hear do when we are listening to the words of others. We listen and we assume that we understand but that understanding is often based on our experience, assumptions and the reading of a situation. Interpretation is language filtered through another human. As interpreters, we end up being a little obsessive about accuracy, always working to better enhance that ability so that we feel we really are passing on the pure and true meaning, yet even the 'best interpreter in the world' is really only ‘interpreting’ what they think the meaning is.

I’m not trying to over-complicate things or show off about what I do. I’m simply saying it’s a very tough job sometimes and it's quite a bit more complicated than what appears to be occurring on the surface.

There’s also a complicated relationship with the deaf people we’re working with. On one hand, we’re friends. Some interpreters are children of deaf parents. We have bonds of trust, we form life-long friendships and sometimes even romantic relationships with the deaf people around us. We are allies to the deaf community. We suffer their setbacks; we empathise deeply with their struggles and rejoice at their successes. We have an understanding of their culture and their history; we feel anger when they are mistreated and pride when they accomplish. Yet we are different. We are ‘hearing’ people. Our profession means that we are earning a fairly decent income because of the need for interpreters. There is often frustration about the imbalance of that. For deaf people, some of the most damaging incidents in their lives have been at the hands of ‘hearing’ people. Many have suffered the horrors of an education system that quashed sign language in favour of speaking and lip-reading and constantly viewed them as inadequate because of a ‘lack’ of hearing. Deaf people eventually felt they must defend their dignity, culture and language against these ‘hearing’ oppressors.

Sign language interpreting as a profession only came about because the deaf community began to fight back against the system. They demanded that their precious language be recognised and protected. They asserted that they should have the right to use their own sign language. They fought back against the perspective that they were somehow inadequate because they couldn’t hear, preferring instead to use a language that was normal and natural to them. They organised themselves and educated hearing people close to them about what it was that they needed and wanted. From this emerged the profession of sign language interpreting. Interpreters would then provide a means for the deaf community to be understood by wider society. This role is therefore a privilege because it’s gifted to us. What I mean by that is that we are entrusted by the Deaf Community with their valuable personal information, from births, deaths and marriages to deeply personal health or financial issues. They trust us to keep their information private and to not judge. After twenty years in the job, I still find that amazing.

So, we bear two identities: an ally of the deaf community but also a hearing person who benefits from the continuing struggles of the deaf community. It’s a complicated relationship but it’s still a relationship worth having. All the BSL interpreters I know, love the deaf community and feel a small part of it. I also love the deaf community and count some of its members as my closest friends and in one or two cases part of my own extended family. Yet I also know that I do not sit as a fully-fledged member of that community. I am on the outside, with a foot in both deaf and hearing worlds. I can never truly be a member because I haven’t been though the same experiences as them. While I have some understanding, I can never truly know what it means to be deaf. But I’m okay with that. I’ve found my place and I’m happy with it. I’m fiercely defensive of deaf people, their language and culture, and hope that deaf people consider me a sturdy ally.

I’ve spent twenty-something years of my life doing this complicated job and guess what? Yep, it’s still complicated.

If you want to know more about sign language interpreting or to book a BSL Interpreter for a Deaf customer or colleague, email us at or call 01452 372999.

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