Posted on Leave a comment

What Are We Really Saying? Perceptions of Sign Language Interpreting

Kelly Decker examines common ways sign language interpreters frame the task of interpreting and peels back some of the implications and impact on the field and the larger communities served.

Sign Language Interpreter Framing Their Work

Sign language interpreters are taught that meaning is conveyed through accurate word choice. Do we give the same considerations to word choice when we label and describe interpreting itself? How do our words and actions frame our work?

As a professional sign language interpreter, I would like to address some of the language used when conversing with colleagues, training new interpreters, and depicting the profession to the mainstream media. The frames we use, as a profession, have the power to devalue the work we do, and by extension, the communities we serve. Continued reinforcement of these frames impacts public perception of sign language interpreting.

[Click to view post in ASL.]

It takes years of intentional practice, reflection, and dedication to develop competence as a sign language interpreter. Platforms such as Street Leverage allow us to continually highlight and examine the ways we have yet to grow. MJ Bienvenu’s Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilingual and Carol Padden’s Do Sign Language Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension? illustrate two fundamental problems we face in the field.

While we have begun to address the language we use to talk about our work, there is more work to do. I have selected four examples which demonstrate various ways interpreters contribute to current understandings of our work. There are many other examples that could be analyzed. I encourage you to contribute to this conversation online and with your colleagues to further examine how our use of language can contribute to a misperception of our profession and the disenfranchisement of the Deaf community. These types of conversations lead to greater awareness, which can be a catalyst for change.

The Labels We Use: “Terp”

It is not clear to me where this abbreviation came from. A cursory search on the internet found that it is cited as slang for “interpreter” and paired with the word ‘deaf’. We work with marginalized communities who are continuously disenfranchised regardless of the abundance of evidence and research regarding language, intelligence, and Deaf Gain [1]. We deflate our profession and the work we do for the sake of a few saved keystrokes.

This word “terp” (and I call it a word since it has become commonplace nomenclature and somewhat of a phenomenon within our field [i.e. TERPexpo],) is used primarily in written English when interpreters communicate with and refer to each other, and when interpreting agencies make requests for “terps”. The use of the term “Terp” does not stop within sign language interpreting circles. Since it has become somewhat the norm internally, it has spilled out into the larger community as the preferred label for what many interpreters want to be called. I feel this does a disservice to the field. I am an interpreter.

Misleading Terminology


As I understand it, in most instances, this phrase refers to actual interpreting. I come across it when dialoguing with ASL/English interpreting students. This term is used in practicum to indicate a requirement that is different from observation hours – the need for “hands-up” hours.

When sign language interpreters in the field and educators in interpreter education programs use this term to talk about the work we do, it implies that interpreters only interpret in one direction, into American Sign Language. It implies that Deaf people have nothing to say nor contribute. In reality, our work is working between – at least – two languages. This misguided idea is further bolstered by how our national organization frames the act of interpreting. The interpreter certification exam tests interpreting capabilities and decision-making. Yet ASL vlogs, created by RID, refer to the performance portion of the interpreting exam using a gloss that gives the literal impression that the exam is a “signing test”[2].

As explained above, “hands-up” addresses only half of the work we do. Or does it? When colleagues say “I prefer to work into ASL, it’s easier” or “I don’t do any ASL to spoken English work,” is it because interpreters, too, believe that interpreting is only done in one direction?

Additionally, the term “hands-up” perpetuates the erroneous notion that sign language interpreters, most of whom are second language learners of ASL, prefer to work into ASL because they are “comfortable”, “have more experience working into ASL,” or “feel they are clear”.  Substantial evidence is to the contrary [3].

Interpreting, and more broadly, signed languages, have little to do with the hands. While sign language is expressed in a visual modality, the hands are but one element of that mode. Language is rich and complex. It conveys thoughts, emotions, and abstract ideas and it results in human connections. Language is influenced by and interwoven with culture. It is impacted by generational, intersectional and regional influences. Reducing an entire language to its modality is a prime example of how the dominant language and culture exerts power over and diminishes a linguistic and cultural minority.


This term “voicing” has become commonplace within our field as a descriptor for the spoken language work we do as interpreters. It is a descriptor that oversimplifies the nature of the work, as if it requires no cognitive decision-making by the interpreter, nor cultural brokering between the two languages, and that the interpreter functions simply as a sign-by-sign voice over.  In Jessica Bentley-Sassaman’s article, Taking Ownership: Defining Our Work As Sign Language Interpreters, she states “voicing” does not appropriately state what we do, what does is naming what we are actually doing when interpreting.

As the profession continues to use the term “voicing”, I believe that we perpetuate a medical perspective on deafness. It bolsters the idea, that when deaf people use sign language they need to be fixed somehow, given a voice, and that’s what interpreters are doing.

This portrayal of the work reinforces a view held by the majority culture that  the language used by the Deaf community is somehow deficient. This misconception is propagated by the Alexander Graham Bell Association, whose position was made public [4] after the televised accomplishments of Nyle DiMarco, that desirable language development and outcomes for deaf children are only possible when focusing on listening and speaking, both of which are deeply rooted in the deficit-based medical model of what it means to be deaf.

As sign language interpreters, I believe we ought to unpack the implications and impacts of how we frame our work.

Perceptions of Professional Interpreters: Shake It Off [Interpreter Version] [5]

This video was so popular on social media after its release in December 2014, that the video’s participants were a part of the entertainment during RID’s 2015 national conference in New Orleans, LA. I have cited this piece not based on its participants but as an example of how we portray who we are, what our work entails, and how we approach the task of interpreting.

From what I gather, this video was made as a parody, a day-in-the-life of a sign language interpreter. All joking aside, what I cannot shake off while watching this video without audio input, is that it clearly represents misconceptions about the work we do:

(1) we only work into sign language, as the tired arms, hands and fingers portray;

(2) we only do this work for the money, as the interpreter runs off screen following the dollar bills;

(3) we self-medicate, as the abundance of pills clearly shows; and

(4) we can brush off the significance of the task of interpreting, as the title of the song conveys.

This day-in-the-life video makes no mention of the substantial cognitive work we do, which is the foundation of the product we produce. The sole focus is the self-aggrandizement of the interpreter. We must consider how this can contribute to the  mainstream media’s abundance of misleading and demeaning pieces about sign language interpreters while #DeafTalent continues to go unnoticed.

Holding Ourselves Accountable

These examples are both subtle and not so subtle. As these flawed representations proliferate, we, as practitioners, as educators, and as a professional organization, become complacent and immune to the deleterious effect they have on our profession. We may dismiss it, saying, “This is the way we’ve always talked about the work,” “This how my interpreter training program said it,” or “I never really thought about it.”

We need to think about it. We need to talk about it. We need to question and remind each other when we use language that trivializes our work.

Mastery of interpreting is no easy feat. It is a labor of love, a demanding cognitive endeavor, and a dedication to craft. Above all, we are collectively accountable to representing our work with the utmost respect for the Deaf community.

How will you model talking about the work we do?

* Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox?

Simply enter your name and email in the field above the green “Sign Me Up!” button (upper right-hand side of this page) and click “Sign Me Up!”

Questions for Consideration:

  1. The ways in which we, as a profession, talk about the work we do is anchored upon our understanding of what interpreting means. Are the ways we portray the work, the profession, and the communities we serve accurate?
  2. How do you think the ways that we talk about the work impact the profession?
  3. Do you have examples of times when dialoguing with colleagues where how they were talking about the work just did not sit right?
  4. With those examples in mind, how can you further explore what it is that did not sit right?


[1] Bauman, H-Dirksen and Murray, Joseph. Editors. Deaf Gain Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity. University of Minnesota Press. October 2014.

[2] Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. RID Announces Moratorium on Credentialing You Tube Posted 9 Aug 2015.

[3] Nicodemus, Brenda and Emmorey, Karen. Directionality in ASL-English interpreting Accuracy and articulation quality in L1 and L2. Interpreting. Vol 17:2. 2015. p. 145-166.

[4] Sugar, Meredith. Dispelling myths about deafness. Online: Posted 1 April 2016

[5] Ott, Stephanie. Shake It Off [Interpreter Version] You Tube watch?v=DS2UdoXS3xA Posted 13 Dec 2014.


Posted on Leave a comment

StreetLeverage: The 2015 Posts that Moved Us

Best of StreetLeverage 2015

As a way to welcome 2016, we handpicked 10 posts that inspired reflection, demonstrated courageous thinking, or generated spirited conversation. It is our guess that you were moved by some of these 2015 gems as well. If you missed one, take a moment to enjoy the goodness. * Posts not listed in any particular order.

1.  Sign Language Interpreters and the “F” Word

Sign Language Interpreters and the 'F' Word

One Headline We Wish We had Created Ourselves

Provocative headline aside, Jackie Emmart brings forward the art of asking for and receiving feedback. While the jury is still out on whether “feedback” is a four-letter word or not, it’s a topic that isn’t going away.

Read More…

2. Recognizing Polite Indifference: Sign Language Interpreters & Power

 Polite Indifference

A Personal Story that Resonated

Michele Vincent’s willingness to open up about a work experience gone sideways in order to share her own journey of self-discovery and shine a light on an important issue had staying power for many.

Read More…

3. Missing Narratives in Interpreter Education

Erica West Oyedele at StreetLeverage - X

A Post We Thought Worthy of Even More Attention

Looking back in our history and comparing the statistics shared in Erica West Oyedele’s StreetLeverage – X presentation, not much has changed in the demographics of the profession. Hopefully, as we extend our vision and open our hearts to truly understand, we can invite and support interpreters from underrepresented groups which, in turn, supports the Deaf community in all its diversity.

Read More…

4.  Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters

Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters

A Positive Outlook on VRS Interpreting

While not as uncommon as one might think, it was refreshing to read a post about VRS that displayed some of the positive aspects of interpreting in video relay. Judi Webb’s long-term experience as a video interpreter shows that longevity in VRS is possible with the right attitude and practice.

Read More…

5. Do Sign Language Interpreter “Accents” Compromise Comprehension?

Carol Padden

A Post that Made Me Conscious of My “Accent” In a Good Way

Carol Padden’s StreetLeverage – Live presentation on sign language interpreter accent will likely resonate for many readers, particularly non-native second language learners. Rather than perpetuating signing errors and disfluent language use, this is an opportunity for interpreters to reflect on their own accent and how they might remedy some of the issues with a little concentrated effort.

Read More…

6.  Self-Awareness: How Sign Language Interpreters Acknowledge Privilege and Oppression

Stacey Storme - StreetLeverage - Live 2015 Talk

I Wanted to Call the Presenter So We Could Have Coffee and Talk

Powerfully, Stacey Storme reminds sign language interpreters that while the situations we enter into as interpreters have nothing to do with us, “Our work has everything to do with us.” The interpreter is the third context in an interpreted communication and it behooves us never to forget that fact.

Read More…

7.  Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Language Interpreters Break the Cycle?

Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Language Interpreters Break the Cycle?

The Most Popular Post This Year

Clearly, many sign language interpreters have had negative experiences with colleagues which could fall into categories like bullying, harassment or intimidation. Kate Block explores how reflective practice might positively impact the interpreting field. It appears that people agree.

Read More…

8.  Deaf Interpreters: Shaping the Future of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession

Eileen Forestal - StreetLeverage - Live 2014

A New Paradigm Emerging for Hearing Interpreters

Eileen Forestal’s StreetLeverage – Live presentation explores the dissonance many hearing interpreters feel about working with Deaf Interpreters and encourages practitioners to come to the table open to the possibility that both groups have something to offer as professionals.

Read More…

9.  10 Lessons from my First Year as a Freelance Sign Language Interpreter

10 Lessons From My First Year as a Freelance Sign Language Interpreter

There is Encouragement and Positivity in the Field of Interpreting Today

Brittany Quickel’s 10 lessons illustrate the power of self-determination and positivity. Sign language interpreters everywhere can benefit from these simple, but sage, tips.

Read More…

10.  National Treasure

Patrick Graybill - StreetLeverage National Treasure 2015

Those Who Inspire

While this wasn’t a post, our 2015 list of goodness would not be complete without one important addition. StreetLeverage was proud to honor Patrick Graybill at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 as the first StreetLeverage – National Treasure honoree.

Read More…

Our Hope

Join us for another year of discovery, vulnerability, and meaningful conversation. We look forward to the magic of the journey that will be 2016.

* Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox?

Simply enter your name and email in the field above the green “Sign Me Up!” button (upper left-hand side of this page) and click “Sign Me Up!”

Posted on Leave a comment

Do Sign Language Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension?

Carol Padden presented Do Sign Language Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension? at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. Carol’s talk  establishes that there are indeed accents in sign language and therefore interpreters need to consider “voice coaches” if they want to deliver clear interpretations on the public stage. 

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Carol’s presentation from StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin.  We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Carol’s presentation directly.]

Through Observation

It’s nice to be here. I’ve been meeting lots of people, and I find this conference and its format to be quite interesting. It seems that the other speakers have presented on their material before. I haven’t presented on my topic publicly, so you will be the first to see it. I’ve been pondering this issue for a while, and I’d like to give you some background on how I came to it.

I’ve worked on the analysis of sign languages and sign language linguistics for over 30 years. I’m very familiar with the structures of ASL, though we’re still finding new elements. In the last 10-15 years, however, I’ve focused on sign languages from different parts of the world. While I’ve done some of this work in Europe, in the last 10-12 years I’ve begun studying an emerging sign language used by a small community of about 3000 people, 130 of whom are deaf. In their communication with one another they’re developing their own sign language. It’s interesting that, having worked for about 20 years on American and European sign languages, I thought I knew a lot about the facets of sign languages which are generally shared, such as the use of space, role shifting, and directionality. When I first went to this small, remote community, however, there seemed to be no influence from other sign languages. It seemed that within the last 70 years, they were forming their own, unique language.

Thus, when I arrived, their sign language was still new. I first assumed that this emerging language would share the common features of other sign languages I had studied, but it didn’t. That fact really changed my ideas about language. It caused me to rethink the work I’ve done on sign languages over the last 30 years. Through my observations, an idea started to take form. I realized that when we explicitly teach sign languages, we teach vocabulary, sentence structure, discourse, role shifting, and use of space. These are the discrete markers of language we can identify, such as the use of an incorrect sign in a certain position, the semantics of a sign, etc.

Defining Accent

Through this realization, I was struck by the fact that we never discuss something called accent, those features that are neither in the lexicon nor in the grammar. Rather, accent exists between and alongside the overt properties of language. It’s the rhythm, the prosody, a certain quality. That’s not the right term, but it’s something in the quality of the signing.

I’ve studied languages extensively, and I use interpreters every day. In my travels, often where we discuss very technical matters, we use many, different interpreters, some of whom I don’t know. While watching their work, I find that some produce language that’s easy to understand, while others produce a message that’s more difficult to parse. This happens regardless of their skill level, as some indeed may be highly skilled, or how many years they’ve worked in the field. Some may have been interpreting for 20 years, but in reading their ASL, there’s something amiss, and I realized that it can be attributed to accent. So, that’s what I want to talk about here.

I first want to make clear what accent is not. Accent is not style. Style is a personal feature. For example, people who grew up in another country using a different sign language bring with them certain language features. These features are identifiable as different, but the signer is still intelligible.

Accents in sign language?

What is accent in sign language? Is it good? Is it bad? If I grew up signing in ASL and go abroad and begin learning German Sign Language, I will have an ASL accent when I sign in German. It’s unavoidable. That’s simply my native language influencing how I sign.

Take a person who learns sign and later becomes an interpreter. We teach sign vocabulary, syntax, etc., but there’s not enough attention paid to those fine-grained details of the language. They’re little things that, if changed slightly, would improve comprehension. That’s what I’d like to try to get you to begin thinking about. One might say that an interpreter isn’t good, when in reality maybe she just needs a bit of practice with those little things that are often overlooked. I’ll give you some examples below.

Now, some accents are very difficult to understand. A person with such an accent might need only to make certain modifications to her production. For example, if I was a public speaker, an actor, or on stage in some capacity, I would be counseled to modulate my voice to make sure I was clear. Many people think that to sign more clearly, one must sign bigger, but that’s not the case. Being clear can have to do with what happens between the signs. When some very common mistakes are rectified, signing can become much clearer.

As part of my job, I’m always looking for interesting, different elements that people might not have noticed, so that’s what I want to bring to the fore. We have a room full of interpreters here. You can start this discussion, and I’m open to your ideas. Maybe you’re already doing this, and if so, I’d like to hear from you. I make heavy use of interpreters, through VRS, lectures, etc. Every day they stream in and out. Occasionally, I see one I’ve never met before, and I think their signing is wonderful. I think, “Wow, they have a really nice accent!” The interpreter may be new to the field, may not be a CODA, but they have a really nice accent. Other times, I’m met with people who are very difficult to understand. So, we have this contrast. As trainers, Deaf people, attendees at this conference talking about partnering, can we work together to identify those fine-grained elements, that which happens in between the signs? Can we address that certain quality?

The purpose here is firstly to improve understanding, and secondly, while we grapple with misunderstandings of the interpreted message, to examine the ease of comprehension and the comfort of the presentation. This is crucial in the platform setting, where we often counsel women to speak more slowly, or we tell speakers not to mumble. I think we can raise the same issues in the signing medium.

“Voice” Coaching?

Now we’ll move on to some examples, and I’ll demonstrate what I mean by that certain quality I mentioned before. I’ll begin with what I think are more straightforward examples and then work my way down to those examples I think are more difficult to capture. I encourage you to send me more examples of your own.

Accent and Sign Production

Infixes in ASL

Some of the features I think are not fully understood are what I call infixes, that wiggle of the fingers within a sign such as FAR-OUT. The misunderstanding is that all such signs will incorporate this finger wiggle, and that notion has spread. Interpreters don’t realize that this inflection is very rare and connotes emphasis. Signs such as LONG-AGO, COLLECT, and AMAZE should normally be uninflected, but we often see them articulated with this finger wiggle. These emphatic inflections have erroneously spread, such that they’re used when emphasis is not called for, which becomes quite distracting. That’s what I see as an accent appearing in the interpreter’s work.

Extraneous Movements

Another example is when one adds an extra, circular movement prior to the beginning of a sign, such as SPECIFIC or HIT or FOR. This added flourish becomes confusing, and one must decipher its function, and whether it’s connected to the previous sign or to the following sign. It’s an extraneous movement. Other examples include ACTING or FOR-FOR. These create a visual distraction, and I would like to see them addressed by a voice coach.

Sign Location – Too High, Too Low

I see that you’re all starting to recognize what I’m describing here. The next example occurs when the location of a sign is altered, where the level of the sign is pitched too low or too high in the signing space. Again, this is important in platform interpreting. Watching the interpretation, we often find ourselves having to alter our gaze to read the signs. The interpreter may not be aware of this and may need some coaching.

We also have to think about when the right time is to raise these issues. In encouraging someone’s sign practice, we coach on vocabulary and sign choices, but when is the right time to address the issue of signing too low or too high or perhaps off to the side? In the course of interpreter training, when do we address this before it’s so ingrained that it’s difficult to remedy?

Vocabulary Issues

Accent can sometimes mean choosing the wrong sign. Someone might use a sign I’m unfamiliar with. I work in a community that uses some signs that don’t have an exact translation in ASL, no real equivalent, and I often make mistakes as a new signer in that community. There’s a certain sign that means embarrassed, ashamed, scared, or that sense of being watched, and I often get feedback on my use of that sign. This is a vocabulary issue. There’s a lot of vocabulary that I would consider too young for certain situations, too “in-group”, so to speak, for use in the general population. Examples include FAR-OUT, WOW (var), KISS-FIST, EXPERT, and SKILL. Now, the signs SKILL and EXPERT or FAR-OUT and WOW (var) differ in nuanced ways. Some of these signs are more appropriate in conversational settings, while others work better in a platform setting, and still others are more suited to the classroom. Interpreters have to make these sign choices based on the setting. If someone has worked 20 years in a classroom and then suddenly finds himself interpreting on stage, he may look like a 12 year old signer. Am I right? He may be a skilled interpreter, but his sign choice is accented, if you will.

Rhythm of production

Within the vocabulary there’s the production of the sign or the rhythm of the signing. Different rhythms are appropriate in different settings. In a one-on-one setting, the rhythm is faster than it would be on stage. In a sense, it’s the speed. There are many things you can do in a conversational setting that you cannot do on stage. Ultimately, some signs are overused and should be replaced by others that are more appropriate for general audiences.

Unnecessary Repetition

This next category is a tough one, but it’s something that happens quite frequently. It’s the repetition of signs that should not be repeated, such as WILL-WILL, HAVE-HAVE, DON’T-KNOW-DON’T-KNOW, and MANY-MANY. There are times when WILL can be repeated in a specific way, but that alters its meaning. Interpreters may see this type of repetition and over-apply it. This production error is confusing and dramatically affects comprehension. The inaccurate repetition of single-movement signs is far more common than the failure to repeat dual-movement signs.

Inappropriate Mouth Movement

My last example has to do with erroneously mouthing the gloss of a sign, such as mouthing ME WANT or FOR-FOR. You all know this problem; it’s very common for interpreters to mouth what they’re signing. It’s these little things. Examples include WANT GO ME where ME is mouthed. HAVE can be mouthed, but never as the third person HAS. It’s incorrect to change the mouthing according to the English inflection.

Addressing Accent for Remediation

Carol Padden
Carol Padden

Hence, it is little things like these. When do we counsel learners on these features? No sign language book addresses which signs should be mouthed, when signs should or should not be repeated, or when signs should use infixes. Some of these errors spread and become commonplace. As my husband talked about yesterday, the body of the interpreter is never constant. It’s always in flux. Whether in person or on screen, interpreters are frequently replacing one another, and consistent comprehension across those changes becomes increasingly important. Given these frequent changes, there’s simply not enough time to correct each one’s errors. This is a challenge I submit to you as mentors and trainers. Sometimes I’ll offer feedback on these issues, but I’ve wondered for a long time about what makes some interpreters so hard to understand. They might be very skilled and have years of experience, but they have some entrenched bad habits, and if only they could work with someone to get rid of those habits, like a voice coach would for a presenter, their work would improve.

Comprehension is Critical

Finally, my intent is not to take away a person’s language history. Someone may come from a different country and use a different sign language, and in my view, their signing is absolutely clear. Also, I’m not talking about someone’s personal style. Some people I’ve seen have a wonderful, beautiful, different way of signing, and that’s not what I’m addressing here. I’m talking more about the awkward features that impede understanding. As we progress in the field of interpreting and we see changes in how interpreters are used today, it becomes a matter of comprehension. Deaf individuals want to know. They need to understand the message. Whether it is a life and death situation or a professional matter, if there’s an important person talking, it is critical that the message is clearly understood. The nature of the interpreted interaction requires that we create a strong communicative bond between Deaf individuals and sign language interpreters.

So, I welcome your thoughts and ideas on the right time, the right place, and the right ways we can broach these issues. Also, if you have additional examples, send them to me. I’ve yet to try to address them myself, but I’ve always wondered about them, and maybe there’s something fun we could do with this. I welcome your thoughts. Thank you.


* Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox?

Simply enter your name and email in the field above the green “Sign Up!” button (upper left-hand side of this page) and click “Sign Up!”

Posted on Leave a comment

Carol Padden Joins StreetLeverage – Live 2014 Line-up

January 16, 2014:

Carol Padden PictureIt is with great excitement that we share Carol Padden has joined the StreetLeverage – Live 2014 speaker line-up.  Carol will be a great addition to the program and is sure to inspire.

Join Carol and other industry thought leaders for a weekend of discussion and critical thinking about how we understand, practice and tell the story of the sign language interpreter?

Read Carol’s bio here and connect with her on Facebook below.

Connect With the 2014 StreetLeverage – Live Speakers

Read speaker bios and more by clicking here.

Connect with the StreetLeverage – Live 2014 Speakers on FaceBook by clicking on their name. Carolyn BallMj BienvenuDoug Bowen-BaileyEileen Forestal, Tom Humphries, Robert G. LeeCarla MathersGina A. Oliva, Carol PaddenStacey McIntosh Storme, and Chris Wagner.