The following is an archive of questions I’ve answered about ASL Interpreting. Below the archived questions and answers is the comment section of questions and answers since this page became capable of supporting comments.
What interested you in sign language interpreting?
Everyone asks me how I came to learn sign language. I don’t have any Deaf family. I was born to hearing parents. However, my mother and grandmother loved foreign languages, and I can’t remember a time when I was not exposed to and fascinated by foreign words and phrases. I couldn’t wait to learn a foreign language myself. As soon as I entered junior high school, I took French. I studied French for three years, and then took Spanish for the last two years of high school. In college, I took an intensive summer course in French. I have maintained and expanded my skill in these languages with continual practice.
In 1987, when I was a theater student at the UCLA College of Fine Arts, I went to a monologue competition, and saw a young woman deliver Sarah’s speech from Children of a Lesser God. The young woman spoke and signed at the same time, and she looked fluent and expressive. I remember the line, “you will never understand my silent world until you learn my language.” I knew then that I must learn ASL! It would be another two years before I actually took my first ASL class.
In 1989, I took an ASL course at San Diego Mesa College, and “it changed my life!” I decided to take all four courses in ASL, moved in with a Deaf person, learned quickly and, after only a year-and-a-half, began interpreting at the same time I began my Interpreter Training Program (ITP). I received my associate degree in American Sign Language/Interpreting with from San Diego Mesa College in 1993.
Since June of 1990, my main profession has been ASL interpreting. In 1991, I earned a Level IV (Advanced) Certificate of Competence from the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). When I re-took the NAD assessment in November 1998, I scored only five (5) points below the top level, V (Master). In 1997, I joined the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID); in 1998, I became a certified interpreter (CI), and in 1999, I became a certified transliterator (CI). I am a member of the San Diego County chapter of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (SDCRID), for which I previously served as secretary, membership chair, bylaws chair, and Webmaster.
What was the process that you went through in becoming a freelance interpreter?
I completed an Interpreter Training Program (ITP) at a community college. I got my first job from someone who knew me from the many deaf community events I had attended during my education. I had just passed my first interpreting skill evaluation, and I received a call from the late Sonny Romero, then president of the local chapter of the Southern California Recreation Association of the Deaf. He asked me if I would be willing to interpret for Deaf Day at Sea World. I told him that I would like to do this job, and let him know that I had passed an interpreting skill evaluation and was now charging for my services. He agreed to my terms, and I interpreted all the shows and tours at Sea World that day. It was a high-profile assignment, and you might say it was my début as a professional sign language interpreter.
How did you go about making a name for yourself?
I participated in the Deaf community by going to events and being friendly with people. I let people know I was in an interpreter training program and was working on becoming an interpreter. I ate lunch with the deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the cafeteria at Mesa College , where I received my associate’s degree in ASL Interpreting. I have done community service my local chapter of RID, and have gone to many interpreter training workshops. In addition, I wrote a column in my local RID chapter’s newsletter, and of course, this Web site helps acquaint a vast potential readership with my work. All of these activities introduced me to potential colleagues and clients.
What resources did you use?
I spoke to other interpreting students, interpreter trainers, deaf students and community members, became certified by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), joined the Registry of Interpreters of the Deaf (RID) and earned my Certificate of Interpretation (CI) and Certificate of Transliteration (CT). I approached Network Interpreting Service (NIS) and Deaf Community Services (DCS) about working for them, and began to get freelance work through those agencies.
Why is a freelance interpreter business different from a regular business?
Because there are many kinds of businesses, I believe an interpreter’s private practice is as regular a business as any.
My business comes from referrals from agencies and contracts with individuals, organizations, and businesses. The bulk of my work, agency referral, involves receiving an assignment request from an agency. The agency receives a request from one of their customers, usually the hearing party responsible to offer “reasonable accommodations” to the deaf or hard-of-hearing party per the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. The agency contacts me and asks me whether I am available to do it. As a freelance interpreter, I have the freedom to accept or decline based on my availability and self-assessment of whether I am an appropriate match for that assignment, taking into consideration the consumers’ language needs and my ability to meet those needs.
At the end of every week, I send an invoice to the agency, billing for my time in half-hour increments  at a two-hour minimum for each job. The agency usually mails me a check within two weeks of receiving my invoice. They bill the consumer who requested the service, and the consumer pays the agency directly. This relieves me of the need for billing multiple parties, and it relieves the consumers of the need to contact multiple interpreters to find one who is available. The agency does not pay me as much as the consumers pay them, but this is a fair deal in that it saves me the hassle of bidding and billing.
I do occasionally receive an interpreting request directly from a consumer, in which case I bill for more than what I charge an interpreting agency, but usually less than what an agency will charge a consumer. The only times I have received interpreting requests directly from deaf consumers were for weddings and receptions, in which case I might charge a bit less than what I charge an agency, especially if the wedding party will let me stay for the banquet. =)
What does an interpreter need to know to interpret effectively at a wedding?
Find out about: dress code, music, lyric, religion, readings, special vows, deaf person’s relation to wedding party and/or role in wedding party (unless they’re the bride or groom), number of deaf clients, indoor or outdoor, get script if possible, have a contract signed, get half payment up front if possible, ask whether they want you for just the service or the service and reception. Do they want you at the rehearsal and will they pay you to attend it?
Is it important for interpreters to socialize with the Deaf community?
I socialized with deaf people a great deal when I was first learning to sign. For the first year-and-a-half or so, I went to almost every deaf social event I could get to. I had a deaf lover for over a year (and we met 3 months into my first ASL class). I certainly went the “immersion” route. In addition to socializing, however, I also spent hours poring over ASL dictionaries, learning every sign in every book, and watching deaf people on ASL videotapes.
Once I became an interpreter, though, I stopped doing so much socializing. I still go to the occasional deaf theatrical event to see a deaf comedian or performer, or to go to a party once in a while. Once in a while, I might have lunch with a deaf friend or acquaintance. But that’s about it. I guess it’s a matter of keeping a professional distance from my clients, or maybe just respecting their space. I would also have to admit that, at this point, I don’t feel so much of a need to socialize with deaf people in order to learn ASL. ()
I get most of my “socializing” with my clients before and after interpreting. We might engage in small talk in the medical office waiting room, or in a lobby before a job interview, or in a hotel café or banquet room during a conference, or in a board room while waiting for a business meeting to begin. I do appreciate these moments not only as a chance to learn a client’s communication style, but also to warm up to the client, have the client warm up to me, and feel that our relationship is just a bit more human than “professional/client.” Socializing on the job means that I’m not invading their community space or the social time they reserve for their deaf friends. It feels natural, not awkward. It is on a professional level, a bit higher register than that used in casual socializing. Socializing with deaf clients helps us to feel like “colleagues” or “teammates in the communication process.”
Depending on the interpreting situation, I might not “socialize” with my clients at all. On a legal or mental health assignment, I keep socializing to a bare minimum so as not to create any appearance of bias or partiality. Plus, for my self-protection, I don’t want to get chummy with a criminal. Even if the deaf person is innocent or perfectly sane (and who am I to judge?), I do find it best not to develop too much of a rapport, lest they or anyone else feel that I am their ally or advocate.
What do you love/hate about interpreting?
I love communicating, I love telling stories, I love processing language, I love going all over the place and learning new things every day. I love helping people gain access to the world and each other. I get tired of always saying what someone else is saying, and losing myself. I get tired of spending long days interpreting highly technical and specialized language rattled off by speakers who don’t give it a second thought. I hate the physical pain. My wrists are in pain now even typing this!
How do you find out about Deaf events in my community??? One more thing ~ For now I was thinking about just getting my A.S. (Associates in Science) and going straight to the business world, but what would you suggest I do, should I stay in school to finish with my bachelors or go for my masters?
You should be able to find out about Deaf community events from your ASL and/or ASL interpreting teachers. You could also look up your local chapter of NAD (National Association of the Deaf) and RID (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf).
If you want to be an interpreter, you should at least graduate with an AA from an ASL interpreter training program. If you get a BA or MA, you will probably earn more money as an interpreter, and you will better understand what you are interpreting.
Other than Freelance Interpreting, what other kinds of interpreting have you done, i.e. Staff interpreter, Educational interpreter, Theatrical interpreter?
I have worked as an employee of the San Diego Community College District and the Maricopa County Community College District, respectively, in the role of Academic Interpreter and Staff Interpreter. I have also worked as an employee of Deaf Community Services of San Diego, Inc. in the role of Community Interpreter and Staff Interpreter. As a freelance interpreter, I have contracted with theatres, producers, and artists to perform theatrical interpretation.
How has freelance interpreting in your area changed in the past 5 years (business aspects)?
One of the changes I saw in San Diego from 1999–2004 was that more interpreters were becoming employees and there was less work to go around for freelance interpreters.
Between 2003–2005, a big change happened in the business of interpreting. I am speaking of the emergence of video relay centers. With the ubiquity of broadband Internet connectivity came the ability for deaf people all over the country to sign to each other using remote video conferencing. With funding for telecommunications for the deaf and hard-of-hearing regulated by the FCC, video relay call centers began to spring up in many cities. These call centers need qualified sign language interpreters to be on hand all day, every day. Suddenly, there is no shortage of work for ASL interpreters. Conversely, Deaf consumers’ demand for interpreting services is harder to meet than ever.
I can honestly say now that I never want for work. I have all the interpreting work I can possibly do. I wish the profession had been this way during my first 13 years! Now, it’s time to make a massive effort to develop qualified interpreters!
Do you expect any more significant changes in the freelancing field in the near future? If so, please explain.
As long as the demand for video relay interpreting remains where it is or increases, I predict a steady demand for interpreting services 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; there will still be slower times overnights and weekends, the work is not as sporadic or seasonal as interpreting has been historically. Let us not forget that, in addition to meeting the constant demand for qualified video interpreters, interpreters must also be available in all the physical locations where deaf consumers need access, such as doctors’ offices, classrooms, vocational and athletic fields, performance spaces, etc. Whether as independent contractors or employees, I expect there to be plenty of work for interpreters in the near future.
Would you recommend/encourage new interpreters to freelance in this area (lucrativity of business)? please expand..
If you had asked me that in 2003, I would not have been so encouraging. I would have explained to you that, even though deaf people perceive a shortage of interpreters, that is because many people want interpreters at the same times, such as 9a–11a, 11a-1p, 1p-3p, and 3p–5p. Let’s say the deaf people in a particular city need 100 interpreters to fill each of those time slots. Let us remember that interpreters need transportation time to get from one place to another, so some interpreters could fill the 9–11 and 1–3 slots and others could fill the 11–1 and 3–5 slots. If there are 200 interpreters in that city, there might be enough interpreters to satisfy those consumers’ needs, but each interpreter will only be working 14 hours a week! The consumers might be satisfied, but the providers are not.
Your question comes to me in 2005, so my answer is very different. Not only do I encourage you to become an interpreter; I urge you to become an interpreter! There is now enough work to keep everyone busy all the time! As for freelancing or being an employee, that is up to you, but get yourself trained and join us! :-)
Your site is very informative and extremely helpful. Thank you so much for providing it! I just moved to San Diego from….where I received my associate’s degree in a Sign Language Interpreting program….I am so lost as to where I might look for jobs…
I would suggest you look into the San Diego Community College District, Cuyamaca Community College District, San Diego City Schools, La Mesa / Sweetwater School District, Chula Vista School District, Deaf Community Services of San Diego, Network Interpreting Service, and Sorenson Video Relay Service. Good luck!
I am researching foreign language instruction for deaf students. Can you give me a sense of appropriate techniques for signed language interpreters in spoken foreign language classes. What would you recommend that the SLI [sign language interpreter] do to bridge the two languages? Any advice you can offer will be greatly appreciated.
Fingerspelling and mouthing have worked for the deaf students I’ve interpreted for in foreign language classes. When the focus is on new vocabulary, and it is assumed that the students already know the rest of the words in a sentence, I might sign and mouth the known words and then fingerspell and mouth the new word. One must be careful not to “give away the answer” by signing the new word in ASL, so it is best to have one consistent team of interpreters who know what is new and what is old. That way, when the teacher asks something like “Qu’est-ce que veut dire PROMENER?” the interpreter can sign “WHAT MEANS P-R-O-M-E-N-E-R” while mouthing “Qu’est-ce que veut dire ‘promener’?” Obviously, the interpreter would have to be following along with the class and using the book so as to know that “promener” is the new vocabulary word. One wouldn’t want to sign “WHAT MEANS WALK?” and give away the answer to the question.
I am an Surgical RN and my mother has done volunteer work in signing at our church. I am interested in changing careers and seriously looking into to this as one for myself, especially since I see a need for it in the medical arena. However, I need to keep up a certain income to meet my monthly expenses. Is this a better paying job and would it be something a nurse would especially be good at considering the experience I have (16 years). Thank you!
I don’t know what you earn now, so I don’t know if interpreting would be a better paying job for you. I also don’t know whether interpreting would be something a nurse would be especially good at. I think your best bet would be to contact your nearest ASL interpreter training / education / preparation program (ITP / IEP / IPP). Here’s a page of links to get you started: http://cit-asl.org/links.htm
Hello, Mr. Greene. I came across your web site while searching for ASL info and videos on youtube.com. I am not deaf nor am I hard of hearing, but I find your job (or at least your main job) quite interesting and have a couple of questions that I was hoping that you might be able to answer for me. My questions are as follows:
- Can you tell me the difference between something called PSE (I think that is right), American Sign Language, and Signed English?
- Which is more common of those listed (PSE, ASL, or Signed English)?
- Can the people who used Signed English understand the people who use ASL and PSE or does it cause a lot of confusion?
PSE and Signed English are almost synonymous, although PSE (Pidgin Sign English) might connote signing that combines features of ASL and English syntax, while Signed English, I believe, connotes signing that more strictly follows the syntax of English. Another term for “pidgin” is “Contact Language.” Related terms are Conceptually Accurate Signed English (CASE), Sign Supported Speech (SSS), and Simultaneous Communication (SimCom) — though SSS and SimCom include audible speech while CASE includes only inaudible English mouthing.
ASL has a syntax that differs from English; i.e., the order in which signs appear in a sentence follows the rules of ASL, not English. The grammar of ASL is also expressed in eye gaze, head tilt, torso shift (forward, back, twisting to the left, twisting to the right), and mouth morphemes.
I’m not sure there are any statistics about prevalence of usage of ASL and PSE, but it has been widely noted that many people “code switch” between the two. That is, there may be people who are monolingual in either language, but many (if not most) express themselves in ways that swing along a “diglossic continuum” somewhere between the two.
As to whether people who use ASL can understand people who use PSE and vice versa, some can and some can’t. I don’t know the statistics.
Hello. I was surfing the web and found you site. You are really great with ASL! I am interested in becoming an ASL Interpreter also. However, I can not seem to find any schools that offer the program in my state. Do you know of any sites that may have a list of schools that offer this program? I live in Kentucky by the way. I’d be really [grateful] for any light that you may be able to provide on this. Thank you!
I would suggest visiting the The National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers website.
There are many more questions below. If yours has not been answered yet, please leave a comment. Thanks!