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EFSLI Annual Conference Scotland 2010Deaf Interpreting


A deaf interpreter (preferably registered) is person who is deaf, is fluent in a particular signed language and may also have excellent communication skills across other signed languages.  This person is knowledgeable on the linguistic composition of signed languages and Deaf culture.  A professional deaf interpreter has the ability to transfer information from the standard form of the language into a target language or target form of language.  The deaf interpreter may work between two differing languages such as ISL and ASL, BSL or international signing.  They may work within one language, to facilitate communication with responsibility to ensure that the final output is produced at an appropriate level of complexity ensuring that communication is meaningful.  The service is impartial, non-judgemental, confidential, and non-advisory/representative. 

The role of the deaf interpreter

Oral texts

A deaf interpreter often, but not always, works with an interpreter who can hear.  They work as a team and each team will find a way of working that is appropriate to the particular setting.  When working from speech into sign language, the hearing interpreter works from English (or source language) into Standard ISL.  The deaf interpreter modifies language to suit a variety of registers, cognitive ability, levels of education and world knowledge of the end user.  This may mean interpreting from the standard interpretation into an international form of signed language for foreign signed language users, or modifying the standard interpretation into a less complex form of language for vulnerable adults or young children.  It may also be necessary to elaborate, expand and explain concepts that are represented by single words or signs in the original message.


Written texts

A deaf interpreter may also work from written texts.  Vulnerable adults, deaf children, and deaf people from other countries who may be less articulate, less sure of their rights to request service, less certain about systems may find working with a deaf interpreter a more safe and reassuring service.  The familiarity of a shared deaf experience, or of coming from a shared equivalent of a ‘mother tongue’ can create trust and confidence that communication is meaningful beyond the surface level of words, expressions, and culturally embedded values and ideas into something familiar, safe and reliable.


A deaf interpreter is not an advocate or representative of the end service user.  The deaf interpreter is an impartial actor who is confined to the task of ensuring that the communication is meaningful and accessible to the end user.  Therefore, there may be some situations that require the services of social workers, or advocates in addition to the communication team.

Deaf Culture

A convention of using a capital ‘D’ in deaf refers to deaf people who identify with being members of a linguistic community with its own heritage and culture.  Irish Sign Language is the first and preferred language of this community.  Not all deaf interpreters are culturally deaf.  It is not an essential element to being an interpreter, though fluency or near native like fluency of ISL, together with knowledge of and respect for the Deaf community and its culture is an essential quality.

Service users may or may not be culturally deaf.   Many service users have lived for many years in mental health and sheltered care institutions and are isolated from the Deaf community.

Irish Sign Language

Irish Sign Language, ISL is not a substitute for spoken or written English.  Irish Sign Language is not a crutch to support people with a disability.   It is a separate language, and is linguistically complex.  ISL can express abstract concepts, and concrete facts, numeracy, ask questions, express emotions, give instructions, and communicate all functions of language.  Anyone can learn it.  It's linguistic composition is similar in many ways to spoken languages and it has features that are unique to manual expression in 3-dimensional space.  5,000 deaf sign language users live in Ireland and as many and more hearing people use ISL. The Deaf community is a global community with an international-global network of sport, cultural and political organisations. Signed poetry, storytelling, & theatre, comedy are available in live performance and on DVD.  Enjoy!