Events with sign language interpretation – practical tips for organisers

Most of us associate sign language interpretation with a person gesticulating in the corner of the screen during a television broadcast of a speech or another event of major importance. However, sign language interpretation is guided by the same basic principle as other forms of interpretation – mediation between languages. In most cases it involves mediation between a spoken language and sign language. Nevertheless, the particular features of sign language mean that organisers have to take a number of important issues into account. This blog post takes a look at some of these challenges.

First of all, just like for spoken language interpretation, it is important to clarify the basics – i.e. the target language and whether consecutive or simultaneous interpretation should be used. Rather than one universal sign language, there are in fact almost 140 different sign languages across the world, with many local dialects. Establishing which sign language is the target language is therefore vital. It should also be noted that sign language can be mediated as fluently as spoken language, so simultaneous interpretation is indeed an option.

One of the key features of sign language is its use of gestures and non-manual expressions. When choosing and preparing a venue, the position of the sign language interpreter is therefore of paramount importance. While a spoken language interpreter does not even need to be in the same room as the speaker, sign language interpreters have to be positioned up front where both the interpreter and the presentation can be seen. Of course, visibility can be enhanced by reserving places for members of the audience who are hard of hearing, allowing the interpreter to address them directly, or screens can be used. Whichever option you choose, it is important to create an environment where equal opportunities means not only that sign language interpretation is available, but that members of the audience who are hard of hearing can learn from and enjoy the event as much as their hearing colleagues.

Given the demanding nature of interpretation, interpreters often work in pairs, especially if the event is long or requires particular expertise. Due to its physicality, sign language interpretation is especially tiring for the interpreter. When planning an event with sign language interpretation, you should be aware of that aspect and make sure to book a sufficient number of interpreters.

Finally, working together with the client and the presenters is also of utmost importance. It is essential for background documents, summaries and even the presentations themselves to be provided to the greatest possible extent, since questions such as names of organisations and terminology (e.g. whether fingerspelling or a sign counterpart should be used) require background work and might present difficulties on the spot. Of course, provision of supplemental materials is strongly advisable when you organise any form of interpretation, but for sign language interpretation you should make doubly sure that the interpreters can use an array of documents and glossaries for preparation.

While event interpretation is an important part of sign language interpretation, Deaf culture as a minority culture often uses sign interpreters for navigating and facilitating everyday life. However, the challenges there revolve not so much around technical or practical issues as the need to keep on improving availability and accessibility.

Written by Zsolt Beke

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