Language & Communication29th October 2015

So you want to be a sign language interpreter?

A Road Map for those interested in becoming a BSL/English interpreter

by SL First Team

Members of the SL First team are often asked questions about how long it takes to become a sign language interpreter and what you have to do to get qualified. With several different routes, we decided to pull together some information for anyone interested in going down that path.

What does an Interpreter do?

Many people don't realise that BSL/English Interpreters transfer meaning from one signed or spoken language and convey that same meaning in another signed/spoken language to facilitate communication between people who do not share a common language. With BSL interpretation, it is not as simple as translating one sign to a word, or a word to a sign, it is translating meaning. Ideally, as well as translating meaning, interpreters need to have a good knowledge of the culture of both languages and people, so that an appropriate interpretation is provided.

What skills are needed?

Apart from needing an excellent understanding of two (or more) languages, interpreters need to have excellent people skills and be a really good communicator. An interpreter needs to be able to communicate well with people of all ages and abilities and be able to modify their behaviour so that it suits the environment they are working in. Interpreters have to be totally respectful of people’s privacy and dignity and understand they are sometimes observing the worst and most private moments of a person’s life (e.g. work disciplinaries or a terminal illness diagnosis).

Where do interpreters work?

The short answer is, wherever they are needed! It could be any situation in which a Deaf person or people are interacting with hearing people who don’t know any sign language. This could be in an education setting, or at a Doctor’s appointment, conferences, office meetings, Police stations, court room, any business/work environment – the list goes on. There are some interpretating situations when a trainee interpreter is not allowed to work and those are usually legal environments (police stations, court rooms …) and some medical environments, especially those involving mental health issues.

There will also be engagements when an interpreter recognises they are not the right person for the job, due to the technical or specific nature of the language going to be used.

The early years (Level 1 – 2)

For those just starting on the journey, be prepared, it is likely to be a long one. At a minimum you are probably going to need at least seven years to get to, ‘fully qualified’ or Registered status, and lots of people tend to take longer than that, especially if they are not able to be a full time student and what to be an interpreter that is trusted and accepted by the Deaf community.

If you have not done any BSL classes before you will need to get yourself enrolled on a ‘Level 1’  or Introductory course. These are offered in many places across the UK, and are typically linked to one of two awarding bodies, the Institute of British Sign Language (the Deaf-led awarding body) or Signature (the hearing led awarding body). Either one of these will allow you to get the qualifications needed to become a registered sign language interpreter. Level 1 courses are sometimes run by local colleges, so if you are looking for a course near you, a good place to start is to check the website of your local council. If there is none at the council then check out your local community centres for posters, search online or contact iBSL or Signature to find details of centres near you.

The Level One course typically lasts for 1 educational year doing 2 hours a week, although intensive versions do crop up. Intensive courses cram everything into several weeks by studying for up to 8 hours a day, with exams immediately afterwards. Useful in quickly acquiring language, medium and longer term benefit will depend on follow-up use of the BSL that has been learned. 

Once level one has been reached, you will need to do a Level 2 course, these are usually undertaken over 1-2 years and start allowing learners to have more meaningful conversations. These too, are also often run by local councils so check out your own council's website to see what they have on offer. If they don't have anything then it's probably worth checking with local colleges that offer evening classes as they sometimes provide them too.

Even at the introductory levels, learners benefit from contact with people within the Deaf community, applying their learning to real life conversations.

It’s getting serious (Level 3 – 4)

When you achieve your Level 2 Certificate, you will be looking to do the Level Three course. This course will build upon the language acquisition of previous levels but also involve Deaf studies, linguistics and more portfolio work (amount of each depending on the awarding body). At this stage, it is usually recommended that learners are getting regular contact with Deaf people, either via their work or socially (at Deaf Clubs/events) to ensure that they are meeting a range of BSL users and getting exposure to different signs and styles. Meeting different Deaf people will help to improve receptive skills, as fluent use of BSL is more difficult than classroom based signing.

Level Four is more advanced and is typically the qualification suited to those who want to work with Deaf people on a regular basis, such as Teachers of the Deaf, Communication Support Workers with Deaf Children and those working in or with Deaf organisations. This course is also one educational year and starts to do more in depth analysis of BSL as a language, taking an in-dpeth look at it's linguistic features, while also continuing to expand into more advanced vocabulary and unfamiliar topics.

Judging by the conversations that prevail on Facebook and other social media, some BSL students think they can go from Level 3 straight to Level 6, with one of the awarding bodies, seeming to support this. That is not a step endorsed by SLFirst, with the linguistic studies involved at Level 4 seen as essentail to prevent many of the bad linguistic practices that are currently on show.  

Nearly there! (Level 6 upwards)

At this point you will have been studying BSL for around 4-5 years and are getting to the final stages – although there are still a couple of years to go. It is at this point that the options tend to branch out a bit more There will be courses available to study NVQ Level 4 but it is at this time that some learners choose to go to University to continue their studies.

The NVQ Route

This route is generally split into two parts. You will first need to complete the Level Six qualification in BSL, this shows that you have the language skills to operate at a professional level. It also allows people to register with the NRCPD and start working as a trainee interpreter. The second part is the Level Six qualification in Interpreting. This is what you have to complete to be allowed to become a ‘Registered Interpreter’.

The University Route

An alternative way to becoming a registered interpreter is to enrol for a university course that covers both of the Level Six components. These post graduate courses will allow you to continue studying and researching BSL as a language, while also learning about translating and interpreting. Students learn about different styles of interpreting (e.g. simultaneous or consecutive) and when these might be most appropriately used, discuss scenarios and coping strategies of dealing with unfamiliar language, ….

Those who attend university courses are often required to do large written assignments too, sometimes in the form of ‘learning logs’ and sometimes as a dissertation.

There are only a small number of university post-graduate qualifications across the UK that lead to Registered Interpreter status, they are:

  • UCLAN Postgraduate Diploma in BSL/English Interpreting and Translation
  • Heriot-Watt University - MA (Hons) Languages (Interpreting and Translating)
  • SLI Advanced Diploma in Interpreting and Translation: BSL-English
  • University of Durham PGDip (Not available at present??)
  • Leeds MA Interpreting (BSL/English) (Not Available at present)

University all the way

For those who are still in school or further education, or want to return to full time education, there is another route available. There are a handful of undergraduate degree courses that can take students with zero previous knowledge of BSL and over a 3-4 years get them to fully qualified / registered status. These course are available at:

* Wolverhampton University BA (Hons) in Interpreting (BSL/English)
* Wolverhampton University BA (Hons) Interpreting (BSL/English) with Foundation year
* Heriot-Watt University - MA (Hons) BSL Interpreting, Translating and Applied Language Studies

Then What?

At this point you have hopefully got yourself registered with the NRCPD, got your ‘yellow badge’(proof of registered status) and you are done forever right? Absolutely not! You are now allowed to work in any setting that you feel you are suitably prepared for, but you still have to complete CPD (Continuous Professional Development) every year in order to retain your licence, and make judgements about whether you have the refined interpreting skills for a particular engagement. Your CPD could be things like going on refresher courses, training sessions to expand knowledge to work into areas you have not done previously, going to conferences, or taking part in mentoring / discussion groups.

Languages are not fixed things, they constantly evolve and with technology changing at such a quick pace, new terms and phrases are often needed. These are the kind of things that CPD are meant to help you keep on top of, as well as keeping up to date with current interpreting theories and best practices. But remember, BSL belongs to the Deaf community, so it is up to the Deaf community to introduce new signs, not interpreters.

​Most BSL/English Interpreters are freelance workers, so you get the benefit of being able to manage your own time and to work independently, but you also get the hassle of having to sort out all of your own paperwork, tax returns and manage your budget carefully to ensure you have got money to cover any quiet times. But done well, with a service ethos towards the Deaf community, being an interpreter can be highly rewarding.


Article by SL First Team

posted in Community / Language & Communication

29th October 2015