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The role of a BSL / English interpreter


If you’ve arrived at this page wanting simply to find information about the role of the interpreter please scroll down to the heading in bold. For those who would like some background to the subject of my work, please continue reading.


When someone asks me what I do or where I work, I explain that I’m a freelance sign language interpreter and I work with deaf people who use British Sign Language (BSL) and hearing people who use spoken English but do not use BSL. Most people are somewhat fascinated by the role, having not met a sign language interpreter or deaf person before and they are often curious as to why I became an interpreter and what sort of interpreting work I do. I take this opportunity to share information about BSL, deafness, the Deaf community, and the role of an interpreter. People are often surprised that I do this full-time. Just this week I was asked if  I make enough money doing this job and I’m often assumed to be the wife, girlfriend or friend of the deaf person, and here is my point … how my role is perceived, or rather misunderstood, by others. 


When I arrive at a booking I introduce myself and present my yellow, registration badge (explained below). I think the job title interpreter is pretty straightforward but fifteen years’ experience tells me otherwise. I’ve been called a signer, translator and interpretator all of which are within the interpreting domain but should be distinguished. The more ridiculous I’ve heard are interruptor and hand-waver. Clients are sometimes told to pretend the interpreter is invisible although this perception of interpreters seems to be thankfully being replaced with a more positive understanding that we are part of the communication process.


The most telling remark came in a question asked of me a couple of years ago. I was interpreting for approximately ten hearing and two deaf people. The deaf people had briefly left the room when a hearing man turned to me and asked, “So, does your husband have a proper job?” This question is wrong on many levels: his assumptions about my sexuality, martial status, financial independence and what constitutes a proper job. I shan’t feel the need to explain these but what follows is a brief explanation of  the role of a BSL / English interpreter:


The role of a BSL / English interpreter is to facilitate communication between deaf and hearing people who do not share a language or who are not sufficiently fluent for the purpose of the interaction. Interpreters must have excellent communication skills. They should be proficient in BSL and English and have undertaken interpreter training. Often interpreters have attained an undergraduate or postgraduate interpreting qualification. In addition, interpreters must complete Continuing Professional Development (CPD) which is a requirement for registration with the National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD). Those registered with NRCPD must submit evidence of their CPD on an annual basis and a random sample are assessed. The yellow registration badge also demonstrates that the named interpreter has indemnity insurance and a DBS check.


It is not acceptable for someone with Level 2 or NVQ3 to work as an interpreter. Always ask to see an interpreter’s yellow badge and do check the registration date. You may also search the NRCPD website to check details or to search for an interpreter in a specific region. If you are require an interpreter within the London area I recommend the following website which lists experienced, qualified interpreters:


Interpreters work in a variety of domains such as the community, education, media, medical and mental health. Put simply, anywhere you have ever been in your life an interpreter may be required to attend. I have interpreted antenatal scans, four births and a whole range of assignments with children and adults, and sadly, one funeral. The interpreter is there for the deaf and hearing participants. Frequently, it is assumed that the interpreter has been booked because it is the deaf person who needs their services when in fact if the hearing participants were fluent BSL signers the interpreter would not be required. 


Interpreters must also have good knowledge of the subject area in which they are working which is why it is important to send preparation materials in advance of the assignment. These may include keynote presentations, presenter scripts, agenda and minutes from the previous meeting. 


Interpreters are impartial and as such do not participate, or comment on any aspect other than the interpreting. Interpreters do not carry out any other duties such as note-taking or office duties. All information shall remain confidential unless disclosure is required by law. Please refer to the NRCDP code for further details.


When interpreting what the deaf person is signing (voicing-over), the interpreter will often use the first person i.e. “I want to …” Additionally, the interpreter may seek clarification from either parties (deaf or hearing) if something is not clear. 


Interpreters require a break every 20-30 minutes. Therefore, if the nature of your booking does not allow regular breaks, or if the duration exceeds 2 hours, a second interpreter must be booked. This is a guideline and you should discuss the details of the assignment with the interpreter at the point of making the booking.


In addition to language and interpreting qualifications, and subject knowledge, interpreters must also demonstrate professional conduct and manner, be good time-keepers and well-organised. These matters are covered in the NRCPD Code of Conduct. 


Most interpreters have their own terms and conditions of business and you should familiarise yourself with this document prior to confirming the booking. Please visit my interpreting page to view my terms and conditions. 


Useful links


The NRCPD Code of Conduct


Frances Lewin’s Terms and Conditions of Business 




For those who read the background, I’m not sure what work constitutes a proper job but assume my outline of the role of a BSL / English interpreter would fit this description. 

Derek Barretto - 4th August 2016
I really liked the blog Frances, good luck with your full-time studies. Yes, the River Lea is nice for spotting wildlife. I must confess that I quite often saw herons and or storks from the vantage point of a London Overground train bound for Stratford. Congratulations on your running too ( mens sana in corpore sano). I will try nipping down to Hastings once Southern/South Eastern trains get their act together!