Sign language interpreter challenges and tips to communicating virtually

With the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, many jobs shifted online. Some careers had a tougher transition than others based on the nature of the job, including sign language interpreters. 

The importance of interpreters is often ignored by members of the hearing community, but the pandemic has brought new visibility to the field. 

According to the Frontier, political announcements have frequented the news this year, and next to the speaker is often a sign language interpreter. The key difference is that they are not off to the side like they would have been at in-person events and speeches.

Sign language interpreter Jessica Spearman believes increased visibility has allowed for a “much needed conversation of ASL, the Deaf community and interpreters” to begin. 

Spearman is a managing member at Signing Pros LLC, a Michigan-based company offering sign language interpreting services. She described that transitioning online was difficult for all of the normal reasons, like having to learn multiple platforms, screen fatigue and connection issues. 

However, these transitioning difficulties had unique problems as well. Regarding connection issues, the interpreters cannot do their jobs effectively if the video is freezing or jerky. It was also important to find and learn software programs that could embed the interpreter into original videos, which Spearman describes as taking “many hours” to do. 

As for day-to-day work, interpreting virtually is very different from in person. 

“ASL is a 3-dimensional language… using a 2-dimensional screen decreases clarity,” Spearman said. “Eye contact is important and it is more difficult communicating through a screen. Interpreters often work in a team of two. Virtually, there is the ability to have two interpreters, however, it makes it difficult for them to work as a team.”

She also listed a number of technological constraints, saying she suddenly “had to buy a high quality camera, ring light and solid backdrop… increase my internet speed.”

“Normally interpreters are responsible for wearing clothes contrasting their skin color,” she said. “Now we have to worry about appropriate lighting and a background that is not distracting.”

The numerous challenges facing sign language interpreters today significantly complicates the work Spearman and her colleagues are doing, but she remains optimistic about the increased visibility of interpreters because of the shift online. 

She saids shifting online “caused people to pause and think about how others access info.” This representation  may help with awareness of the community and ultimately help the poor working conditions faced by many interpreters. 

In the meantime, Spearman has a number of tips to offer interpreters working virtually:

  1. Increase Wi-Fi speed
  2. Have a good camera
  3. Have a background that isn’t distracting to reduce eye fatigue
  4. Two screens are great if you can
  5. Know all the platforms and have accounts for each
  6. Try to sign on early so you can make sure you can connect and make any necessary adjustments
  7. Be aware of your sign speed — if you move too quickly the image sometimes becomes unclear
  8. Remember soft skills are needed in this realm as well”

Despite the challenges faced while transitioning online and currently working online, interpreters continue doing important work to increase accessibility for the Deaf community and anyone primarily using ASL. 

Additional tips for interpreters can be found here and here