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Working with BSL Interpreters

What is the Role of a British Sign Language (BSL) Interpreter?

BSL Interpreting is the process of transferring a spoken or signed language into another spoken or signed language to ensure that effective communication takes place. S/he usually interprets simultaneously, i.e; at the same time as the language is spoken or signed. 

  • Capability – A qualified BSL interpreter is fluent in both of the spoken/signed languages in which s/he interprets. This enables an accurate reflection of the intention, information, opinions and culture of the speaker/signers.
  • Impartiality – A qualified BSL interpreter is impartial, which means s/he ensures effective communication. Through clarification, the BSL interpreter aims to achieve clarity of discussion and the avoidance of misunderstandings, either cultural or language based. S/he does not act as an advocate for either the Deaf or hearing client and adheres to a strict set of boundaries to ensure all parties are able to access the dialogue uttered in the domain without bias or preference. 
  • Confidentiality – A qualified BSL interpreter ensures that information exchanged during an interpreted session remains absolutely confidential to that domain and does not discuss or use the information for their own gain.


Qualified BSL interpreters should be registered with a professional organisation, such as the NRCPD (National Register of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People) or RBSLI (The Regulatory Body for Sign Language Interpreters and Translators). This means the interpreter has to agree to adhere to the code of conduct, as stipulated by the organisation with which s/he is registered.

As part of the criteria for registration, the interpreter usually has to provide evidence of:

  • A current, clear and Enhanced DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) Certificate.
  • Appropriate Professional Indemnity Insurance (PPI)
  • Engagement in Continuous Professional Development (CPD)

All registered interpreters with NRCPD, are obliged to wear a badge that displays their registration number and the organisation they are registered with.

Categories of BSL Interpreter

There are two categories of registered Sign Language interpreter with NRCPD:

  • Registered Sign Language Interpreter (RSLI) – Yellow Badge
  • Trainee Sign Language Interpreter (TSLI) – Purple/Blue Badge

Registered Sign Language Interpreter (RSLI) – Yellow badge

An RSLI is a BSL interpreter that has met the recognised standard of competence and professional practice through the successful completion of a formal qualification. Once qualified, interpreters are allowed to use the initials RSLI to indicate their professional status.

The courses are both academic and practical and provide in-depth interpreting theory and linguistic study as well as demanding a high level of BSL and English skill. This is to ensure the interpreter is able to process the meaning of dialogue accurately and impartially when producing BSL from spoken English and/or a Voice Over into spoken English from BSL. These skills need to be transferred in a wide variety of settings with adults and children of all language abilities.

Trainee Sign Language Interpreter – Purple/Blue badge

As stated by the NRCPD, TSLI status is available to people who are undertaking an approved sign language interpreter training course or an approved development plan leading to registered status; (this usually requires the TSLI to have achieved BSL skills of Level 6 or equivalent)

TSLIs must meet the requirements set out by the National Occupational Standards for Trainee Interpreters, which include; demonstrating Level 6 Language ability and sufficient interpreter training or experience to be aware of the professional boundaries regarding practise and competence.

The NRCPD website states that ‘TSLIs may not work in the criminal justice system or mental health settings. TSLIs must exercise caution when accepting work in a social care setting.’

Ideally, RSLIs should be used, whenever possible. However, there are some situations where it may be appropriate to use TSLIs; education, team meetings and some basic medical settings such as dentists, physiotherapy and some GP appointments.

Working with BSL Interpreters

  • Interpreting requires a great deal of concentration. The recommended optimum time for an interpreter to work is around 20 minutes. After this time, the interpreter will need a break, if they are working alone. For meetings and events longer than two hours, two interpreters are necessary so they can co-work with each other and take turns to interpret.
  • For a BSL user, watching an interpreter for a long period of time can also be very tiring. If a Deaf person stops watching the interpreter to rest, they may miss vital information. This means that Deaf people may appreciate breaks during long presentations.
  • In BSL interpreting it is the meaning of the message that is interpreted, not each individual word. It is difficult for the interpreter to deal with information they do not fully understand, so any preparatory information you can give the interpreter in advance will be most useful. Copies of scripts, handouts, presentations etc. are useful, as is a glossary of any particularly difficult terminology. This information should, ideally, be available well in advance, depending on the quantity and nature of the content. The interpreter may also want to ask some questions about the meeting or conversation before it starts to get a clear idea of the topic and any jargon.
  • If you are showing videos, ideally the interpreter should view the video beforehand. The interpreter will need to stand next to the screen to enable Deaf people to see the interpreter and the screen at the same time. Don’t switch the lights off unless the interpreter can be lit in a different way. This is also true of overhead projection and PowerPoint presentations. You will need to show the slide, talk and then give the audience another chance to look at the slide. During the meeting or conversation, the interpreter may need to interrupt the person speaking or signing and ask them to repeat the message or explain in more detail, to make sure the message is interpreted correctly.
  • There may be a slight delay in the conversation as it takes time for the interpreter to process the message before interpreting it into the other language.
  • When asking questions of a group, you may need to pause to allow the Deaf person time to respond.
  • Only one message can be interpreted at a time, so it is important that only one person speaks/signs at a time.
  • If you have planned the chance for Deaf and hearing people to socialise during a break, consider that an interpreter may be needed but remember that interpreters also need time to rest.
  • The interpreter and Deaf participants must be very easty to see so they should always be placed in good light. Interpreters should never be placed in front of a window, or with light coming from behind as this will cast shadows on their face, masking their expressions.
  • The background behind the interpreter should be plain. Vivid patterns or a harsh white background can be distracting or painful to the eye.
  • When giving presentations, speak at a normal pace. Speak clearly and naturally in full sentences. In a one-to-one situation always address the Deaf person, not the interpreter, even though the Deaf person will not always be able to look at you. The interpreter is saying exactly what each person is saying, so will say/sign ‘I’ and ‘my’
  • In a mixed setting of Deaf and hearing people, address the audience in general. Don’t ask the interpreter any questions or make comments to them; their job is not to get involved, just to pass the message on.

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