Sign Language Interpreter Role Expectations

Many people are uncertain what to expect when working with sign language interpreters.  Below are some general misconceptions you may have and insights on sign language interpreter role expectations:

Sign language interpreter role expectations assume they will interpret everything said.

Though an interpreter must interpret everything, it is not uncommon for them to neglect periodic “small talk” between Deaf clients. This is because this conversation may lack significance due to cultural norms or interpreting logistics.  In the same way, the interpreter may interact with hearing staff using “small talk” which may not be interpreted back to the Deaf client (i.e.: “I told your boss good morning.”)

Small talk can occur in a waiting room, lobby, or in the general area where services are provided. Interpreters should always be alert and discontinue small talk immediately if pertinent communication occurs. For example, in a medical office waiting room an interpreter may interrupt small talk when the patient’s name is called to see their doctor.

Sign language interpreters may use downtime to prep for their job.sign language interpreter role expectations- downtime

Interpreters may not be able to communicate with Deaf consumers during downtime due to time constraints or business office obligations.  See our blog about ASL Interpretation Choices.

Interpreters are not trained to do what you can do, and are not employees of your business.

Staff members often ask interpreters to step outside of their role to complete tasks on their behalf. For example, it is not uncommon for interpreters to be asked for assistance washing a Deaf client’s laundry, changing their bed linens, or giving them a bath.  Sign language interpreters may be available to interpret these tasks, but they should not be handling any personal activities for the client.  Why?

  1. It is likely that the interpreter’s insurance or your insurance does not cover non-job related duties in the event something liable occurs.
  2. Interpreters should only be present when an interpretation is needed, and if a staff person is not there then an interpreter should not be there either.

Interpreters do not always know the Deaf client.

It is critical for interpreters and Deaf clients to have a few minutes to introduce themselves to each other and to discuss critical aspects of interpreting logistics prior to getting started.

Staff members are trained on how to properly handle clients/patients/new employees and interpreters do not have this training.

It is an industry standard in medical and other settings for interpreters to wait outside of a patient’s room until interpreting services sign language interpreter role expectations- meetingare required. There are many reasons for this and each setting may require different arrangements.  Some examples may include the following:

Interpreters are sensitive to patient’s needs, but they are not there for entertainment or socializing with patients. An interpreter’s resources and energy should be stored for equal access to communication.

If the patient needs emotional support, then an appropriate professional should be utilized, such as a social worker or a chaplain. The sign language interpreter role expectations are that they will interpret for the expert.

Interpreters may be put in a position of liability if alone with a patient and interpreting services are not being rendered.

Business Associate-HIPAA/proprietary information impacts an interpreter’s role.

As we spoke in our blog about proprietary business information in relation to interpreters, all information is protected with the business associate clause under HIPAA and under the Interpreter Code of Professional Conduct. Neither of these should be a concern if you hire a reputable local sign language interpreting firm because they manage legal liability issues carefully.

Interpreters may require basic information before interpreting or ask for clarification while interpreting to provide the most accurate interpretation.

Sign language interpreter role expectations assume they remain unbiased.

Interpreters should not provide personal opinions regarding the Deaf patient or the hearing staff. They provide equal access to communication only; and decisions are made by the participating persons (Deaf or hearing), not the interpreter.

If you are wondering how to work with a sign language interpreter in your business, see our blog about working with interpreters in work environments.


Additional References:

Deaf and Hard of Hearing Expectations for the Role of Sign Language Interpreters

The Interpreter Role in Medical Settings


Photo Credit:


MT & Associates | Sign Language Interpreting Practice BBB Business Review