BSL English Interpreters Awareness Guide

There may come a time when you need to engage a BSL/English interpreter, either for yourself or for someone else, such as a client, colleague, friend or family member. This could be for a number of different reasons for a number of people – for yourself, a client, friend or family member whether it is because English is not the first language, the person in need is hard of hearing or finds it difficult to communicate or be understood in stressful situations.

  1. It is important to understand from the offset that the ‘English’ prefix is important because interpreters work from spoken English into BSL and it is the same when a deaf person signs, therefore it makes it clearer when making references to this service.

This information will help you find the most suitable person to meet your needs – the best support you can find at the fairest rates.

It is so important to know you can trust whoever you engage whether this is the first time you have looked for an interpreter or signer or you use either or both on a regular basis. This guide is designed to show you how straightforward the process can be and to give you easy access to the experts currently available.

Here you will find a lot of useful information for you and the person you are helping from what your interpreter or signer needs before they represent you, when it is the right time to use them, how much they’re going to cost and how you go about booking them as well as additional options for alternative situations and how to best to protect yourself and everybody you are working with.

  • Anyone, in any circumstances, who is unclear on how to utilise and book a representative either for signing or interpreting
  • British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters who want a clear and succinct reference document with everything they need to know in one place
  • Those who are deaf or hard of hearing who would like to use a BSL interpreter or anyone who wants to share this information with colleagues and contacts who have no hearing difficulties

This will also help those who employ or have clients who are deaf or hard of hearing. It will also serve those who are obliged to offer this type of support.

You will also find this guide beneficial if you are deaf, hard of hearing or have any communication difficulties and need help with accessing the most suitable person to meet your needs. Or, it may be you already employ BSL or English interpreters in your workplace and this pack would be a useful resource for them to have access to.

By reading this, you will gain a comprehensive overview into the work of BSL/English interpreters and it will help you to be prepared and understand their needs. You may have struggled with situations in the past which could have been made a lot simpler by having access to accurate and appropriate information making the whole process a lot easier and far more manageable.

The advice here is not exhaustive but designed to be an ideal reference point, a good source of assistance and provide useful information or to signpost you in the right direction if you need any additional help.

There are of course rules and regulations that many organisations, public bodies and various other groups have to adhere to but this is to make sure that everybody whether they have communication difficulties, are interpreters or indeed employers have easy access to what they are entitled to and what they need while at the same time understanding each other’s roles.

People who are deaf have a legal right to ask for a fully-qualified BSL/English interpreter. They will then relay any conversation between deaf BSL users and hearing people by translating BSL into spoken English and vice versa to create easy communication between both parties.

BSL/English interpreters hold a nationally recognised qualification in BSL and interpreting theory and practise and they will have fluency in BSL and at least one other language, usually English. It takes about seven years of studying to become a BSL/English interpreter and many reach post-graduate level. There are of course many skills involved including interpreting and processing the language – as well as the trust and management of interaction between those who use BSL and those who don’t. Someone with deaf parents, for example, may be able to communicate but won’t have had the formal training.

It is a different language with different rules including grammar and it does not come from the English language nor is it a form of it. Interpreting is an action of listening to someone speaking or watching them signing, understanding what is meant and then conveying an equivalent and appropriate message in another language.

Interpreting is a live process that takes place between speakers of other languages for example a witness in a courtroom may not speak English but is required to give evidence or it could be a deaf person attending a job interview or doctor’s appointment. Translation is not always a live process and could be for written documents like travel guides into several languages or keeping international company handbooks uniform.

Put simply, BSL/English interpreters take information from its source language (BSL or spoken English) and reproduce it in its target language or the other way round.   It is impossible to compare BSL and spoken English and the role of the interpreter is complicated and intricate because there is no alignment in a grammatical sense. The interpreter must therefore understand not just the words or signs but the intention, meaning and context to make sure the closest possible translation is given and bear in mind this includes emotion and sarcasm – people will often have highly different experiences or perceptions of the same scenario. It is a highly skilled role and a native BSL user can express an entire concept in one or two signs that might take two or three full sentences to express.

  • Be fluent in English and at least one other language
  • Have the ability to communicate quickly, accurately and smoothly
  • Understand slang and informal speech
  • Know and understand regional differences in language
  • Understand the culture of the country where the language is spoken
  • Usually you will need a degree in languages or interpreting and a postgraduate qualification in interpreting

As a trainee interpreter, it is commonplace to register with the National Register for Communication with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD) or in Scotland, the Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters (SASLI). This allows trainees to provide some community and workplace interpreting but trainees should not work in Child Protection, Legal or Mental Health settings.

As a qualified interpreter, they can then become a Registered Sign Language Interpreter (RSLI) with the NRCPD or one of the alternatives SASLI or the Regulatory Body for Sign Language Interpreters and Translators (RBSLI).

There are two types of interpreting – simultaneous and consecutive. The former is fast paced where the interpreter has to relay what is expressed in a matter of seconds. Examples of this might be where there is a mixed audience such as in a training session, public meeting or classroom lesson. While this is usually accurate and the message is conveyed with the correct level of detail, because of the speed, there will naturally be more scope for small mistakes that may need correcting or clarifying which could involve small pauses in the procedure which is not as free flowing.

In a situation like in a court room or in a medical situation, the interpretation is more consecutive with deliberate pauses for absolute accuracy. The interpreter will ask the communicator to pause every so often to allow them to properly process the information so when it is relayed it is precise.

An interpreter will assess whether to use simultaneous or consecutive interpretation with advance warning of what is required of them.

If you need to speak to someone who doesn’t speak your language – be that sign language or the language of another country, you will need someone to help you. If you are deaf and go to a doctor they will need to understand your needs and you will need to understand what they are saying to you. An interpreter can relay what you want to say to the doctor and then tell you what the doctor advises.

Similarly, the European Parliament is a good example of where interpreters are also frequently seen wearing headphones doing a ‘live translation’ of what is being said in one language to another.

Interpreters have a duty of care for all parties and an ethical responsibility to do no harm. Trust is paramount for a fair and accurate representation on both sides.

If your hearing loss fits the definition of a disability, The Equality Act (2010), protects you against unfair treatment. The National Union for British Sign Language Interpreters (NUBSLI) recommend that in particular public sector organisations familiarise themselves with all the terms under this Act. It also advises that the NHS does the same with the Accessible Information Standard which also extends to private companies that operate public sector contracts.

Also, private companies that operate commercially have obligations – services must be accessible to everyone with visual, hearing, motor or cognitive disabilities otherwise you may be in breach of the Equality Act.

Find out more about the Equality Act 2010 here:

Access to Work (AtW) is a government funded programme that supports disabled people to gain work or to continue in their current role. It is a discretionary grant scheme that provides tailored support to disabled people (as outlined above in the Equality Act) allowing people to be able to offer their full potential at work. This includes adjustments to the physical working environment such as the way the workspace is laid out, getting into the building, bathroom facilities as well as working practises to make sure that everyone can be included equally and have the same opportunities to make the most of their talents. The support is for anyone with a disability from paid employment through to apprenticeships and you can apply for help for interviews also.

You can request a communicator, advocate or BSL/English interpreter for a job interview if you’re deaf or have communication difficulties. This is especially useful for when interpreters are needed regularly so deaf BSL users and their colleagues who do not have hearing difficulties need to communicate.

This scheme has allowed and continues to allow deaf people have very successful careers. Lots build trust with interpreters they become familiar with. This means that trust is built and deaf or hard of hearing employees will keep their own list of preferred interpreters for regular bookings. This is useful for companies and other employees as it creates awareness and diversity in the workplace.

If you have new employees or those who are unaware of what they are entitled to through AtW, they can book an interpreter for meetings, proofreading and translating emails and other written communication, interpretation of phone calls and any other communication between deaf and non-deaf people.

Boundaries should be in place when interpreters are booked. They can be an invaluable asset to employees and their teams if they are utilised well and properly deployed. They should not be used to do the work of the deaf person or another member of the team as this cannot be justified as interpretation work. If this happens claims forms submitted to the DWP for the work of the interpreter will be viewed as fraudulent and may therefore affect any future claims.

The deaf person will make the claims to the AtW, it is their responsibility and the contract is between the interpreter and the employee who needs them. This is unless the company or organisation has policies in place that state otherwise or provide alternatives. This should all be agreed and clear before any bookings are confirmed.

First of all make sure this is the preferred option for the person you are making the booking for.

Lots of BSL/English interpreters work freelance as sole traders and NUBSLI suggests the best way to research and book is to do it directly. As well as having their own websites which should provide all contact details and you can check the regulatory bodies’ portals. You will find a comprehensive list of interpreters directly through the National Register of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Blind People (NRCPD) or SASLI if you are in Scotland or there are a number of agencies.

Don’t forget to check with your interpreter that they have the right qualifications for the job, for example, interpreters still in training are unable to work in the mental health or legal fields until they are fully qualified. All interpreters whether fully qualified or not follow a strict code of conduct – everything communicated during an assignment is strictly confidential and interpreters will not give advice or opinions during their time with you.

You’ll also find that lots of interpreters network in their locality. Lots of regions in the UK will have mailing lists, social media groups (such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.), and group text and WhatsApp set-ups so if something crops up and they are unable to fulfil a commitment, it is more than likely that they will be able to find a reliable replacement rather than you having to.

The Police, NHS and government departments are examples of organisations that are likely to already have a preferred list of suppliers in place and an interpreter will either be arranged for you or you will be provided with a list to choose from. It is usually the responsibility of supplying interpreters or compiling recommended lists to ensure that only those with the correct qualifications and experience are booked in order to protect the deaf BSL user. Stringent procedures should be in place should something go wrong.

Book early, interpreters are in great demand as there aren’t a lot of them, if possible allow at least a month’s notice but preferably six weeks if possible. If you need an interpreter in an emergency, your best bet is to go through an agency.

Try and book an interpreter with relevant experience for the assignment you would like them to undertake. It is beneficial to everyone if they are at least familiar with the correct jargon/terminology for example legal, health, or corporate. Ask at the time of booking because someone with basic interpreting skills might not be up to the standard you require.

Provide any preparation material that may be useful in advance including any teaching papers, handouts, agendas, presentation slides and any interview questions. This will be extremely useful and will help make sure the interpretation process is as free-flowing and natural as possible and therefore greatly increasing the chances of the desired outcome for all parties. Similarly if you are intending to show any videos or use any recordings, it would be advantageous to everybody if they interpreter could familiarise themselves with the material first. It is a good idea to allow at least 15 minutes preparation before the start of a session so everyone understands the aims of the assignment, so that key factors and people can be identified as well as any other interpreting essentials.

You should also think about the layout of the room where the meeting is to take place. The interpreter and the person they are representing need to be able to see each other clearly and anybody relying on spoken English will need to be able to hear the interpreter clearly. Take into account visibility and lighting also.

Place any overhead projectors, flip-charts, film clips or handouts near to the interpreter so the person using BSL doesn’t have to keep moving or change directions.

Extra tips:

  • When you are using visual aids allow for plenty of extra time, the BSL user can’t study these and watch the interpreter at the same time
  • Avoid abbreviations and jargon
  • Make sure only one person speaks at a time (particularly in potentially heated situations) – it is not possible to interpret two people speaking at the same time
  • Talk at a normal speed and look at the person who is deaf rather than the interpreter
  • There will be short time delays – the interpreter needs time to understand and relay what is being communicated in English what has been signed in BSL and vice versa. This is really important during questions and discussions

The interpreter will abide by their strict code of conduct but should you have any concerns about confidentiality or anything else, it is best to talk to them first but if you are unable to sort the matter out directly, you must contact the appropriate regulatory body to make a formal complaint.

Video interpreting services are not intended as a replacement for face to face appointments, but it has been set up to try and make it easier to get an interpreter at short notice or for brief meetings.

This can be done if you have a webcam and a computer with good internet connection or a videophone.

Places that are starting to use this option more regularly are councils and police stations as it is particularly useful for meetings or appointments up to about half an hour in length. Video relay services (VSR) are being used by a lot of banks now as they appreciate that losing a debit or credit card happens to everyone but can be much more frustrating for a deaf person to communicate.  VSR offer almost immediate access to registered and qualified sign language interpreters and provide a service for deaf people to be able to communicate in ‘real time’.

Video remote interpreting (VRI) is used in a remote setting like an A&E doctor who needs to speak to their deaf patient. It’s another on-demand service that provides communication between deaf or hard or hearing people and hearing people that are in the same location using a computer with a webcam and internet connection (or tablet/video phone) using an interpreter.  This is a good alternative solution for schools, business meetings, and medical and hospital appointments.

However, this form of communication is not appropriate for sensitive situations where a misunderstanding could have serious repercussions such as any legal proceedings or anything involving child protection or any other equally sensitive situations.

Interpreting is physically and mentally demanding so you may well need two or more interpreters depending on the length and intensity of your assignment. The interpreter should go through all of this with you at the time of your booking. You may find you need larger teams in specialist settings particularly in situations such as Crown Court hearings and large conferences.

How many interpreters you need is not connected to the number of deaf BSL users who will be present. There are specific occasions where two interpreters should always be present. Sensitive situations such as child protection meetings and any legal proceedings require two to make sure moral and ethical principles are adhered to. This is naturally beneficial to all parties and helps to avoid any misunderstandings.

In terms of physical requirements, interpreters are prone to or at risk of Upper Limb Disorder which is also known as Repetitive Strain Injury. To make sure your interpreters’ health and wellbeing is not being put at risk, it is important to consider whether the job needs two people. It is always best to ask the interpreter themselves if this is what they would prefer well in advance of the event.

An interpreter’s fee will include preparation and administration time as well as travel time – to and from the location. Usually they work in full or half day sessions but some do offer a lower call out fee if the assignment is short, such as a routine appointment like an eye test or a short work meeting. Normal business hours are usually considered to be Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm and anything outside of these hours is likely to incur additional fees.

NUBSLI provide fee guidance which is regularly updated but remember in exceptional circumstances where travel is significantly longer or more expensive, you will have to consider accommodation costs as well as time and travel.

No two bookings will ever be the same and freelance interpreters will have different rates. You must also take into consideration the amount of experience and particular expertise as this may add to the rates and fees in certain areas may be higher than standard rates. Agency mark-ups will also increase the fees.