Mi desarollo como intérprete trilingüe

Yo sigo en aprender español para que yo lo añada a mis lenguas de interpretación. Afortunadamente, aún a este punto intermedio de mi desarollo, a veces yo puedo hacer un poco de interpretación trilingüe. Por ejemplo, quizás yo interpreto para una cita médica en esta manera: hay un médico oyente que habla español e ingles, un miembro de familia oyente que habla español y el lenguaje de señas, y un paciente sordo que usa el lenguaje de señas americano. Cuando el médico y el miembro de familia hablan con juntos, yo interpreto al paciente sordo lo que están diciendo; cuando el paciente seña, el miembro de familia comprende el paciente y yo interpreto al médico en inglés. Si a cualquier tiempo no entiendo el español del médico o del miembro de familia, este doctor es dispuesto a decírmelo en inglés. !Se sale bien!

I continue to learn Spanish so that I can add it to my interpreting languages. Fortunately, even at this point in my development, sometimes I can do a bit of trilingual interpretation. For example, perhaps I interpret for a medical appointment in this way: there is a hearing doctor who speaks Spanish and English, a hearing family member who speaks Spanish and sign language, and the Deaf patient who uses American Sign Language. When the doctor and the family member speak with each other, I interpret to the Deaf patient what they are saying; when the patient signs, the family member understands the patient and I interpret for the physician in English. If at any time do not understand the doctor’s or family member’s Spanish, this doctor is willing to say it to me in English. It works out well!

Bimodal interpreters, not just sign language interpreters

Sign language interpreters are spoken language interpreters too

To talk about our work, it helps to have efficient terms that accurately define it. Typically, we ASL/English interpreters call ourselves “sign language interpreters,” while we call (for example) Spanish/English interpreters “spoken language interpreters.” Yet signed language is only half our language pair; the other half is spoken language; therefore, we are also spoken language interpreters.

How to distinguish, then, between interpreters who work with two spoken languages and interpreters who work with a spoken language and a signed language? Saying “signed-spoken” and “spoken-spoken” is a mouthful. Luckily, there are better terms for this comparison: bimodal and unimodal (Emmorey, Borinstein, Thompson, & Gollan, 2008). What we share with unimodal interpreters is that we are bilingual. What sets us apart is that we interpret between two modes: signed and spoken; therefore, we are bimodal interpreters.

Visual language interpreters are aural language interpreters too

I like the name of the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada better than the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf because we are interpreters for the H/hearing as much as we are interpreters for the D/deaf. Yet the term visual language interpreters fails to acknowledge that we are also aural language interpreters. This is where bimodal is more accurate. We interpret in two modes: call them aural and visual or audible and visible; either way, we are bimodal interpreters.

We are also bimodal when we do sight translation; i.e., interpreting from written text to signed language for those who have difficulty reading. An interpreter might also do tactile sight translation for a Deaf-Blind person who does not read Braille or cannot obtain a certain document in Braille. There are many different ways we facilitate communication; not all of them are visual, but they are all bimodal.

We need terms as inclusive and specific as our work

Bimodal is an accurate and comprehensive term for what we do to facilitate communication between D/deaf and hearing people. We, as a collective of individuals, serve a diversity of deaf (not always Deaf) consumers using a variety of methods to make audible language visible and vice versa.  Some use American Sign Language (ASL); some use manually coded English (MCE), a.k.a. pidgin sign English (PSE), or, preferably, contact language; some use oral methods such as mouthing and gestures; still others use cued speech. Whatever opinion people have of these modes of communication, there are D/deaf people who use them, and there interpreters and transliterators who serve those D/deaf people and their hearing interlocutors. Not all of these methods are bilingual, but they are all bimodal.

To be even more accurate, some of us sometimes interpret using audible, visible, and tactile methods between hearing, D/deaf, and Deaf-Blind people, so when we do that, we are trimodal interpreters.

Let scholarship inform our practice

The demand for bimodal interpreting services has always outpaced the supply of available practitioners, and consequently, federal funding has primarily been directed at increasing the number of available practitioners, not on research and development. As a result, we contend that the field has adopted and maintains a “culture of practice” rather than a “culture of scholarship.” (Nicodemus & Swabey, 2011)

There is a time and place for specialized terminology. I am not suggesting we start calling ourselves bimodal interpreters outside of the profession. I do not plan to say to hearing clients, “Hi, I’m your bimodal interpreter!” I will continue to call myself an interpreter first, and an ASL/English interpreter second. I might even slip and call myself a sign language interpreter if I am careless. However, when talking about our work vis-à-vis the work of interpreters who work in spoken languages only, I would like to see us compare bimodal interpreters with unimodal interpreters instead of sign(ed) language interpreters and spoken language interpreters. Fellow interpreter educators could start by introducing the term bimodal bilingual, if they have not already done so, and fellow interpreters could use the term in professional discussions. It would be ignorant to use the same terminology we have always used when scholarship informs us of a better option. We are professionals, and part of professional practice is scholarship. I believe it is time for us to take a more global, research-based view of what we do, and start talking about it in ways that demonstrate greater awareness.


Emmorey, K., Borinstein, H. B., Thompson, R. and Gollan, T. H. (2008). Bimodal bilingualism. In Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 11(1), 43–61. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2600850/

Nicodemus, B. & Swabey, L. (2011). Bimodal bilingual interpreting in the U.S. healthcare system: A critical linguistic activity in need of investigation. In B. Nicodemus & L. Swabey (Eds.) Advances in Interpreting Research. Inquiry in action, 241–259. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/5270051/

Do conference interpreters make more than medical interpreters?

I find it interesting to follow the interpreting field in general, not just the ASL-English interpreting field, and the other day I saw a surprising post on a blog I follow called The Professional Interpreter: Many medical interpreters are missing out on a prestigious and profitable field. The author, Tony Rosado, a Spanish-English interpreter, says that most medical interpreters do not venture from interpreting medical jobs to interpret medical conferences. I don’t think of conference interpreting as more prestigious and profitable than interpreting in medical settings, but things may be very different between signed-spoken and spoken-spoken language interpreters.

Qualified interpreter means an interpreter who … is able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially, both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary.


According to the article, until recently there were no standards for medical interpreting. It is important to note, though, that the author is not talking about interpreting between deaf and non-deaf people; he is talking about interpreting for people who do not share the same spoken language. Interpreters for deaf people are provided as an accommodation mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act and previous laws such as PL 94-142 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Such mandates create a demand for quality; in fact, Title III of the ADA sets the legal definition:

Qualified interpreter means an interpreter who, via a video remote interpreting (VRI) service or an on-site appearance, is able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially, both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary. Qualified interpreters include, for example, sign language interpreters, oral transliterators, and cued-language transliterators.


I am interested in hearing from interpreters of all language pairs to see what you think about conference interpreting as opposed to medical interpreting. In your experience, have you found conference interpreting to be more profitable than medical interpreting? Do you find that your colleagues and/or consumers respect you more for doing conference interpreting than medical interpreting? Personally, I find both equally rewarding, both personally and financially. It can be stimulating and glamorous to interpret for someone charismatic while facing a large audience, yet it is challenging and rewarding to interpret for a doctor and patient in a private room. I like both settings, and feel respected in both settings. What do you like?

Translations for CHA-HEAD other than ARROGANT

There is a sign in ASL some call CHA-HEAD because “cha” is the mouth morpheme used in ASL for something big, and the sign for BIG is made around the head level to indicate a “big head” (figuratively speaking). The formal gloss for this sign is ARROGANT (glosses are conventionally written in ALL CAPS). Since ASL has no written form, when people want to write about ASL, or talk about it in English, they assign glosses to signs. The benefit of these glosses is they give us a way to transcribe ASL for the purposes of notation and translation. The drawback of these glosses is they tend to limit our translation of these signs that one gloss, rather than to what the signs actually mean in context.

as any good interpreter or translator knows, words and signs in one languages do not always have single word/sign equivalents in another

One example of a gloss that I believe limits our vocabulary is the gloss ARROGANT for the sign, well, let’s call it CHA-HEAD for lack of a better word other. The thing we might forget is that CHA-HEAD often doesn’t mean anything as extreme as arrogant. A few cases in point: I was interpreting a video relay call some years ago (and of the thousands of call I interpreted in seven years, this is one that stands out), and a Deaf brother signed to his hearing brother something to the effect of YOU CHA-HEAD TELL DAD. I (unfortunately) voiced, “it was arrogant of you to tell him.” The hearing brother said, “I’m not arrogant!” I realized at that moment is was my interpretation, not what his brother said, that he was responding to. I asked the Deaf caller to hold just a moment, and I explained to the hearing caller, “this is the interpreter— sorry about that interpretation. A better interpretation would have been, “you shouldn’ta done that.” I chose that interpretation on second thought because that’s what the Deaf person’s utterance “felt” like when I saw it; in other words, that was the sense of what the Deaf person signed. I had made the mistake of interpreting the form of the word I had been taught for that sign, and the translation was woefully off. When I really thought about it for a moment (and how many “moments” do we really have when we are interpreting a phone call?), I realized not only did the sign not mean arrogant; it really didn’t even translate to a particular word, but more to an expression.

Another case in point, which brought this up for me recently: I was debriefing with a fellow interpreter, and I felt I needed to call them out on something they did on the job that I felt was less than appropriate (as I’ve said, I believe interpreting teams need to be blunt with each other for the sake of consumers. We were conversing in both our languages (as bilingual people often do), and I said, “I thought that was a little [switching to ASL without mouthing] CHA-HEAD.” My colleague said, “it wasn’t arrogant!” Now, you have to understand, this colleague is an intelligent, well-educated, and seasoned interpreter, so if they thought of the word arrogant when confronted with that sign, it tells me the connotation is well entrenched among ASL-English interpreters. What I said to them was, “well, I didn’t mean arrogant; I just meant kind of liberal [in the demand-control schema sense of favoring action as opposed to inaction].” I just felt that they had done something that overstepped an interpreter’s bounds a bit. Of course, that is arguable, and the point is not which one of us was “right” or “wrong”— the point is that my colleague took exception to my ASL sign because of the denotation assigned to it by the English gloss.

A Thesaurus of Translations for CHA-HEAD other than ARROGANT

Since the sign in question means so many things milder than arrogant, here is a list of translations with a range of meanings to match a range of situations. Note these are not all single words, because as any good interpreter or translator knows, words and signs in one languages do not always have single word/sign equivalents in another. These translations are context-dependent, and are not by any means suggested to be one-size-fits-all. Pick and choose what suits the situation. Here’s my list as of now:

  • presumptuous
  • to take it upon oneself to…
  • to go right ahead and…
  • to just…
  • familiar
  • forward
  • to overstep
  • overstepping one’s bounds
  • beyond one’s place
  • crossing the line
  • a bit much, don’t you think?
  • the nerve!
  • to have the nerve to…
  • ballsy
  • cheeky
  • brazen
  • bold
  • conceited
  • big-headed
  • full of oneself
  • taking liberties
  • inappropriate
  • to think [one] can just…

I’m sure the list could go on, but that’s all I can think of at the moment. Do you have any other translations? Please leave a comment. Thanks!