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10 Tips for Working with a Sign Language Interpreter

American Sign Language sign for interpreter

Sign language is an essential tool that enables people to communicate and connect with each other. A sign language interpreter’s role is to translate spoken English into sign language for deaf and hard-of-hearing (HoH) users and interpret American Sign Language into English for hearing persons.

The interpreter acts as a communication tool for deaf and HoH individuals, and they are responsible for signing everything that is said and saying everything that is signed by the deaf or HoH person. Interpreters can work in various settings such as meetings, trainings, and other events when translation is needed.

Here are 10 tips on how to work with a sign language interpreter:

  1. Look at and speak directly to the person who is deaf. Face the person and do not look at the interpreter. Yes, sign language can be fascinating to watch, but you are having a conversation with a person who is deaf. For example:

    Appropriate: "What is your name?"
    Inappropriate: "Can you ask them their name?"

  2. Use your ordinary language and speaking style. Speak in the first person just like you are having a voice-to-voice conversation with a person. Avoid phrases such as “tell them” and “explain to them.”
  3. Translating conversations is different in that the interpreter will position themself next to you so the person who is deaf can glance at you both and pick up your non-verbal cues. You may be used to watching an interpreter during an event when the interpreter stands in front facing the audience.
  4. Speak in your normal tone at your normal pace. The interpreter will tell you if you need to pause or slow down. If you use a word the interpreter is unfamiliar with they may ask you to spell it.
  5. Offer a copy of your written notes to the person who is deaf and the interpreter in advance if possible.
  6. Give the interpreter a copy of the presentations and any other materials beforehand. When distributing agendas, minutes, or other written materials, offer one to the interpreter.
  7. Maintain enough light so the interpreter can still be seen. Use a small directional spotlight if you can.
  8. Be aware that the interpreter must interpret everything that is said. Do not ask the interpreter to refrain from interpreting some of what you say. Further, as outlined in the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf's Code of Professional Conduct, interpreters adhere to standards of confidential communication. Whether your meeting is regarding patient care, grant applications, or personnel matters, you can expect all information to be kept confidential.
  9. Avoid personal conversations with the interpreter during the professional situation. They are working as a means of language transmission and not as a participant. If you need to communicate with your interpreter, you can direct message them in chat (if virtual) or set up a time before the meeting to discuss matters such as logistics.
  10. Relax. If you are unsure of the appropriate way to proceed in a particular situation, just ask. Conversing through an interpreter with a person who is deaf can be very comfortable. It is such a natural process you may find yourself forgetting that there is an interpreter.

At NIH, sign language interpreters can be requested by contacting the Access Scheduling team by email at Also, visit our Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Accessibility webpage for more resources.

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