Should interpreters interpret signed English to spoken English word-for-word?

How “faithfully” or “literally” should interpreters convey signed English (or Contact Language) into spoken English when sign-to-voice interpreting? Does it make sense to use the “meaning model” or “sense theory” to receive the signed English message, drop all the mouthed, signed, and fingerspelled English words, phrases, and figures of speech, conceptualize it, and speak the “meaning” of it in English?

I tried doing consecutive interpreting lately on 1:1 consultative assignments with deaf consumers who are visiting doctors, social workers, etc. These consumers signed fluently in a mostly English word order. I tried to receive their signed English, conceptualize the message more deeply than I usually do in simultaneous transliteration, and remember some of their word choices. What I found was that the processing time helped me avoid miscues or “false starts,” but I forgot some of their wording.

Does it matter if the interpreter loses some of the deaf consumer’s word choices, turns of phrase, etc.? Or is it more important that the interpreter convey the consumer’s conceptual meaning regardless of language? I would like to hear from sign language interpreters and deaf & hearing consumers of interpreting services.

I based this discussion on sources I have read, but I cannot remember whom to cite. I did read these articles this morning to jog my memory and find something specific I could use as a citation:

References About Translation.

Vicars, B. (n.d.). American Sign Language: contact signing. On “American Sign Language University” at – A resource for ASL students and teachers. American Sign Language: Contact Signing.

Wikipedia – Language Contact. (n.d.). Retrieved from





11 responses to “Should interpreters interpret signed English to spoken English word-for-word?”

  1. American Sign Language (ASL) Hangout On Air, Interpreted | Daniel Greene's TerpTrans Avatar

    […] Should interpreters interpret signed English to spoken English word-for-word? ( […]


  2. jojomccid Avatar

    We will be meeting with our “bright-minded government people” next week to seek an audience with them regarding this issue. We will also be presenting our stand on the use of Filipino Sign Language as the only language that should be used in classrooms.


  3. jojomccid Avatar

    All of that mental activity must be done within a fraction of a second. 🙂


  4. jojomccid Avatar

    In the Philippines, we call the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” English as Barok English. You voice each signed word without putting grammatically correct “attachments”. But I would definitely not want to do that because I might put the deaf in a bad light and would also make me a hilarious talker. 🙂

    However, most of the time, the signs are too fast and without spacing with which the voicing cannot catch up. What I really hate is that some of our deaf clients don’t understand the degree of difficulty an interpreter is faced when it comes to voicing. In our case, English is not our natural spoken and written language even though we use it very often. We are a bilingual country (Filipino and English). But I cannot say the same thing with our deaf since English is the only written language used in deaf schools while Signing Exact English as the “forced” sign. Outside the school, the deaf uses Filipino Sign Language.

    You could just imagine the very challenging mental process Filipino interpreters do when voicing:.
    deaf sign – > interpreter analyse sign – > interpreter gets concept -> interpreter converts concept to English -> interpreter converts English to Filipino -> interpreter voices in Filipino



    1. Daniel Greene Avatar

      Thanks for sharing your process in the Philippines.

      I just want to make sure— do you really mean “Signing Exact English” or do you mean Signed English (also known as Conceptually Accurate Signed English, Pidgin Signed English, or Contact Signing)? I ask because I see a trend lately toward using the term SEE loosely, while Signing “Exact” English has a very “exact” meaning. Here is an example of SEE:


      1. jojomccid Avatar

        Our Department of Education recently gave a memo circular imposing the use of Signing Exact English in Special Education schools although Signed English is what is actually being used. Those intelligent people in our government keeps on insisting that this is the way for our Filipino deaf. But I really beg to disagree. Here is my blog link on the letter issued by our deaf leader asking for the use of Filipino Sign Language instead of SEE which I believe is not even a language.


        1. Daniel Greene Avatar

          That’s a shame. SEE is not a language; it’s a visual representation of English that does not “speak” to deaf people who cannot “hear.” I don’t think SEE is evil per se; e.g., I see how it can be a way to “read aloud” when looking at words on a page or when representing exact grammar in an English class, but for regular instruction and communication it is unnatural and detrimental. I hate it when hearing people seek to abolish deaf cultures and their natural sign languages.


  5. J.J. Avatar

    As a deaf person, I feel that it is my responsibility to “manage” the interpreter. After all, an interpreter is *my* communication tool to use. So, when I want to be SPECIFIC I will notify the interpreter, but it helps that I already have the grammar correctly worked out in my head before I sign it in PSE. Also, when I use ASL it is usually for situations where I don’t care how the interpreter phrases my words as long as the message is conveyed and I don’t sound too stupid. I do lip read the interpreter to be sure the flow is going correctly. This is just the POV of a deaf person who uses ASL, but has the capability of speaking in grammarily (is that a word?) correct PSE.

    If I were someone who hasn’t mastered English grammar well enough, I believe I’d want the interpreter to:

    a.) Convey my message.

    b.) Make sure I don’t sound stupid.

    So, the most important thing is for the interpreter to fully understand the message and perhaps pause a bit to get it correctly then throw in a few words here and there that the deaf person used.

    Just my two cents.


    1. Daniel Greene Avatar

      Thanks for chiming in, J.J.!


  6. Kate Avatar

    The most important thing to remember while voicing for a deaf consumer is to make it sound like idiomatic English, just as they would sound as a native speaker. The biggest trap interpreters fall into is voicing what I call “me Tarzan, you Jane” English. When you do not have adequate processing time and just voice the gloss for the deaf consumer’s signs they end up sounding stupid. It is an enormous turn-off to people unfamiliar with the interpreting process. It is our job, as interpreters, to never allow that to happen. When interpreting from PSE/ contact sign into English, include the deaf consumer’s vocabulary choices but make sure that they are embedded in a grammatically correct English sentence.


    1. Daniel Greene Avatar

      Agreed! And I do. I guess I’ve just interpreted for quite a few deaf people who sign idiomatic English that doesn’t need to be adulterated with interpretation. I think it’s only when voicing gloss-for-gloss when a consumer is signing non-English-like ASL that it sounds like, “me Tarzan, you Jane” in English.


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