10 QnAs on Sign Language and Interpretation


Maintain interpretation quality

  • Simultaneous processing of two languages is a cognitively demanding task - it results in fatigue both physically and mentally: studies have shown that interpreters can process up to 22 cognitive skills such as attention control, comprehension, memorising and chunking while doing their job! The interpreter’s brain will tire after constant use without proper rest, and studies have also shown that significant errors in meaning occur after 30-45 minutes on task in simultaneous interpretation. In order to facilitate effective interpretation, we usually have two interpreters working interchangeably with each other every 15-20 minutes, so that the interpreters can rest and ‘recharge’, and the interpretation quality can be maintained.

Provide interpretation between multiple language pairs

  • Different interpreters can work with different language pairs (eg. Cantonese and HKSL only, English and ASL only, HKSL and ASL only…). We team different interpreters with different language pairs so that support different communication needs.
  • eg. a Japanese signer using Japan Sign Language (JSL) has a meeting with an English-speaking hearing person - sign interpretation arrangement: a hearing interpreter (responsible for English - HKSL) teaming with a Deaf interpreter (responsible for HKSL - JSL).

To monitor and ensure interpretation quality more effectively
Team interpreters can support each other in different ways

  • Supplementing information (eg. in an opening ceremony, if the on-stage interpreter misses out information / has difficulty recalling the right word or sign / has a hard time comprehending the incoming message, the team interpreter downstage can remind and cue the on-stage interpreter, so that the on-stage interpreter can relay the message clearly and completely; during a conversation, the team interpreter can also pay attention to the interpreted content, and provide corrections and supplementations if the working interpreter misses information)
  • Help manage the conversation (eg. Reminding the participants to speak up when the on-stage interpreter can hardly hear their speech, or suggesting the teacher to switch on the lights - this reduce the load of the on-stage interpreter)
  • Interpreting together (eg. When there is a whole class of participants, and there is a heated discussion in class, we can expect very fast speeches and a lot of overlapping - in such situations we definitely need more than one interpreter to ensure all the information is conveyed.
  • Psychological support - sometimes interpreters work in intense situations, and team interpreters can provide psychological and emotional support to each other.
  • Observing each others’ interpretation and carrying out team evaluation after the assignment.

Team interpretation can better support the communication needs of both hearing and deaf participants, for example

  • The off-stage interpreter can jot down technical terms, jargons, and brief notes for the client to refer to;
  • When the deaf participant would like to ask the hearing participant sitting next to him, the off-stage interpreter will be extremely useful.

The need of the setting

  • eg. During a performance when there are Deaf individuals standing on stage facing the audience, and at the same time there are Deaf audience sitting below the stage, more than one interpreter will have to interpret together at the same time to allow Deaf participants from all directions have access to the speaker’s speech.

To learn more:
Team Interpreting: Does it really work? (Giovanna L, Carnet) (Featured Article from the ATA Chronicle November/December 2006)
Interpreter Cognitive Aptitudes (Brooke Macnamara, 2012)

‘Are teachers who teach classes every day free of charge?’
‘You work diligently every day - is it free?’

A sign interpreter not only has to be proficient in two or more languages (which include at least one spoken language and signed language, or at least two signed languages), but also has to receive different training and strive for professional and continuous development. A sign interpreter has to equip oneself with particular skill sets, just like a spoken language interpreter has to develop his/her particular skill sets. Are spoken language interpreters free of charge? The same answer applies to sign interpreters.

A sign interpreter has to equip oneself with different knowledge and capabilities: physical well-being, emotion control abilities, sufficient interpretation and life experience, and knowledge in terms of language and culture. According to Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada (ALVIC), the ‘professionalism’ of sign interpreters refers to -

  • Language competence: capable of determining the intent and the spirit of the speaker and being able to express that intent and spirit in an equivalent manner in the target language and culture.
  • Flexibility: being able to adjust communication methods so that services can be provided in the client’s preferred language or mode.
  • Being cognizant of the task and of one’s own capabilities: being able to determine if s/he is able to function professionally and competently, given the specific assignment (with specific clients, setting, topic, and type of skills required)
  • Committed: Strived to continue one’s professional development by expanding one’s competence to be better able to serve one’s clients

A professional sign interpreter has undergone rigorous training and actively seeks to develop his/her career in this professional field. Therefore, it is reasonable for s/he to earn an appropriate income.

At the same time, clients are invested with power to select whose professional service they will purchase. As a professional, it is our responsibility to respect the preference of clients, and to set appropriate fees for our services in a fair, market-appropriate manner.


‘Where does your money come from, so you can pay for your meal, your shelter and your transportation?’
‘So you think interpreters do not have to eat, do not need a shelter, or transport?’

There are ‘man-hours’ involved in sign interpretation assignments

Interpreters spend time and effort to:

  1. prepare for each interpretation assignment - researching, reading and digesting related information,
  2. Practising language skills,
  3. Preparing and discussing with team interpreters, and
  4. Carrying out on-site interpretation in the event.

All these involve certain people’s ‘man hours’ and ‘effort’. At the same time, to provide on-site interpretation services, interpreters need to take transportation, and we also have to feed ourselves, live, and pay our rent...The work of sign interpreters is like the work of other occupations - there is labour value in it.


To learn more:
So You Want to be An Interpreter? - An Introduction to Sign Language Interpreting 4th edition (Janice H. Humphrey & Bob J. Alcorn, 2007)
Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada website: http://www.avlic.ca/

‘It is the deaf participant who does not know sign language, it is the deaf individual’s responsibility to call an interpreter for help!’- do you agree with this?

Sign interpreters interpret for both hearing and deaf participants

  • Imagine this: a deaf individual is interviewed by a hearing journalist. The interpreter relays the questions asked by the journalist into sign language for the deaf interviewee. However, when the deaf interviewee is answering those questions in sign language, the interpreter does not convey the signs into spoken language for the journalist. Under this circumstance, can the interview take place smoothly? Is the goal of arranging interpretation achieved?
  • Interpreters are present because both the deaf and hearing sides are not familiar with the language used by the other side. Interpreters are therefore required to convey spoken messages to sign language, and signed messages to spoken language, such that both sides can communicate successfully. In short, interpreters serve both hearing participants and deaf participants at the same time.
  • Interpreters do not only serve ‘the deaf participants who do not use spoken language’, we are also serving ‘the hearing participants who do not know sign language’.
  • According to foreign law and policies, the responsibility of providing communication access (eg. hiring sign interpreter, providing live captioning) goes to the event organisers (i.e. the service provider, such as government, public agencies, corporates, NGOs, schools). The purpose is to ensure all participants with different communication / language preferences can have equal access to all information in the event, and can smoothly interact with each other. If you are the event organiser, and you know that there will be deaf participants in your event, we encourage you to embrace the corporate / organisation social responsibilities, and make your event an accessible one in which both Deaf and hearing participants can communicate without barriers and enjoy themselves.

According to government information, the current policies related to ‘sign interpretation’ are

  • Subsidizing some social and recreational centres for the disabled and two multi-service centres for the hearing impaired persons subvented by the Social Welfare Department (SWD) to organise sign language training courses and provide sign language interpretation services. The sign language interpretation services provided include interpretation service for persons with hearing impairment in relation to job interviews, court hearings, wedding ceremonies, and medical consultations.
  • SWD will continue to monitor the utilisation and effectiveness of the sign language training courses and interpretation services, and review the use of resources as appropriate.

Currently, there are limited government resources allocated to sign interpretation services. The sign interpretation services provided by only several centres subvented by the Social Welfare Department in limited settings are inadequate for deaf citizens to engage fully in the community in various aspects, such as education, and cultural and leisure activities.

Therefore, we encourage different organisations, companies and event organisers to start with ourselves and embrace our social responsibility through making our event accessible. Let’s also walk hand in hand to fight for more public resources allocated to the development of sign interpretation, and eliminate communication barriers in our society.

To learn more:
ADA Requirements: Effective Communication (US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division - Disability Rights Section) (Retrieved from https://www.ada.gov/effective-comm.htm)

  • Native Deaf interpreters are very proficient in sign language. Their signings are much more natural and can better suit the language habits of different deaf audiences when comparing to hearing interpreters who are second language learners of sign language. Deaf audiences usually find themselves more comfortable and comprehend the message better when watching the signing of Deaf interpreters. In Deaf-hearing team interpretation, the hearing interpreter will first listen to the Cantonese, and convey it in Hong Kong Sign Language (HKSL). The Deaf interpreter will look at the signing of the hearing interpreter, and make adjustments such as correcting signing errors and modifying the expression, converting it into a version that is more natural and is closer to the language use of the target Deaf community. This increases the quality of the interpretation output.
  • Some Deaf interpreters can interpret across different language pairs, such as language pairs involving American Sign Language, Japan Sign Language, International Sign, and even gestures.
  • Hearing interpreters are late learners of sign language, and may not have close contact with many deaf individuals. As a result, hearing interpreters sometimes find it hard to understand and adjust their signing styles according to the language styles of different deaf audiences (eg. the ‘older variants’ of sign language used by some deaf elderly, the ‘laxed’ signs expressed by deaf toddlers). This negatively affects interpretation quality, and may also result in misunderstandings and communication breakdowns. On the other hand, Deaf interpreters who grow up in the Deaf community are more familiar with different signing styles. They are therefore more used to handling the variants within a sign language, such as the older variant of HKSL, the signing of deaf individuals with limited motor skills, the signings of deaf individuals with low language competence. Deaf interpreters can better suit the needs of different audiences, and at the same time maintain intertration clarity and completeness.

Spoken languages make use of audio-vocal channels, while signed languages make use of visual-gestural channels. Although we received and expressed spoken languages and signed languages with different channels, both of them are natural languages, and we can always find design features of natural languages in spoken and signed languages. For example, sign languages also have their own grammars, and can effectively and completely communicate all concepts even when they are not immediately present spatially or temporally (eg. things happening before and in the future, abstract concepts, complicated concepts, and things that do not even exist). Sign languages are also ‘productive’ languages, as they can naturally develop new vocabulary to express new concepts as time goes and our society develops. Sign languages are also languages that can be naturally acquired - a child can naturally acquire the language if s/he is exposed in different social environments with sufficient sign language input - as a result, sign language and the culture embedded in it can be passed on from generation to generation.

Some examples of design features of languages:

  • Bound by grammatical rules: HKSL grammar vs. English grammar (YOU BIRTHDAY WHAT-MONTH-WHAT-DATE vs. When is your birthday?)
  • Can communicate all concepts: not restricted by the present time (eg. Last wednesday, you told me that you will go travel next year), not restricted by the present space (eg. I want to migrate to the planet that is one billion light-years away with my previous classmate), abstract concepts (eg. autonomy, ethics, brotherhood, consciousness, justice), complicated concepts (eg. photosynthesis, Special Need Trust), things that do not even exist (eg. unicorn).
  • Can be naturally acquired: This video demonstrates how a American Deaf child acquired American Sign Language (ASL) vocabulary when he has been exposed to ASL since birth.
  • Language functions are lateralized to the left hemisphere in our brains. When we are speaking, the language area in our left hemisphere will be active. Some sign linguists actually found that when people are using sign languages, the same language area in our left hemisphere is activated. This proves that sign languages share the same language status as spoken languages. (Reference: What sign language teaches us about the brain

Then what is the origin of Hong Kong Sign Language (HKSL)? According to previous research, sign languages are naturally developed when Deaf individuals come together and communicate. Deaf schools, especially deaf schools with dorms, are excellent social environments for the development of sign languages. The research paper ‘Early Deaf Education in Hong Kong and Its Relation With the Origin of Hong Kong Sign Language’ found that the origin of HKSL was closely related to Hong Kong’s local deaf schools: at the very beginning, deaf children spontaneously developed a gestural system of communication among themselves in schools and in their dorms; later on, the Nanjing/Shanghai variety of Chinese Sign Language were introduced into HKSL because of the establishment of a deaf school by a pair of Deaf couple from Shanghai, which also contributed to the development of HKSL. At the same time, the emergence of different deaf associations and different social activities and gatherings within the Deaf community had provided nice environments for deaf individuals from different backgrounds to interact with HKSL. The process ‘harmonised’ the differences of HKSL between signers from different backgrounds, and gradually developed into the HKSL we are using today.


To learn more:
What sign language teaches us about the brain (Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/what-sign-language-teaches-us-about-the-brain-29628)
From cooing and babbling to utterance in American Sign Language (網址:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChsODznkINQ)
‘Early Deaf Education in Hong Kong and Its Relation With the Origin of Hong Kong Sign Language’ (Sze et. al, 2011)

We can make use of different ways to communicate with our Deaf friends. The key is to respect the preferences and choices of each deaf individual.

  • Using sign language
  • Gesturing
  • Writing / typing
  • Using pictures
  • Using visual cues (eg. flashing lights)
  • Using touch (eg. patting their shoulders, slightly push the table to generate vibrations)
  • Calling an interpreter

No. Natural Hong Kong Sign Language and Chinese are two distinct languages with distinct grammars. If we interpret everything in a word-to-word manner into sign language, the expression will be very unnatural, making it very hard to understand for our deaf audience who are natural HKSL users. Imagine a word-to-word translation of Cantonese to English (that is, using english vocabulary but following cantonese word order) - I piano day buy left three dice sugar (我琴日買咗三粒糖) - this greatly hinders the understanding of the audience.

At the same time, an interpreter should also consider the cultural elements embedded in each language, and the implications of the interpretation output to the audience. Despite only interpreting word after word, the contextual force (eg. teacher’s intent to make students laugh by telling a stupid joke during the class, a politician’s intent to win the crowd’s support by provoking people emotionally through making a speech) should be precisely reflected and relayed in the interpretation to bring the same impact to the audience.

Word-by-word interpretation is a type of literal translation, and interpreters have to make use of both literal translation and semantic translation flexibly according to the needs of the audience.

  • eg. In a Chinese class, the teacher is teaching students different Chinese idioms. The interpreter can first make use of semantic translation to let the deaf students understand the meaning of the idiom, and then use literal translation to make sure the students know what the Chinese characters making up of that idiom, so that students can identify the idiom when they are reading and can use the idiom in their future writings.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals come from different backgrounds. They graduate from different schools, and have different habits in terms of language use. Some may prefer the use of ‘Chinese sign language’ (Signing according to written Chinese grammar) in communication. In such situations, interpreters have to follow the language preference of the target audience, and sign in a word-to-word manner.


  • Improve your language proficiencies (both spoken and signed languages) to the level of being capable of fluently communicating and participating in in-depth discussions of different themes with the user of that language.
  • Receive systematic and recognized interpretation training (the training should cover topics like linguistics, discourse analysis, interpretation skills, and ethics and professionalism).
  • Interact with our Deaf community frequently.
  • Get more hands-on experience (you are always welcomed to be part of our team as communication assistants, interpreters, and volunteers!)

‘I have completed a 50 hour HKSL class, can I provide interpretation services in LegCo meetings?’
‘I have learnt Spanish for 60 hours, can I apply for the position of interpreter in the Spain Consulate?’
‘I have completed the english classes in beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels - can I apply for an interpretation programme?’

  • In an university translation department, what are the courses about? Are they about vocabulary and making sentences?
  • ‘Language learning’ and ‘interpretation training’ are completely different. ‘Language learning’ emphasizes on students’ competence on understanding and expressing meaning in a specific language, which is sometimes understood as ‘listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills’ in our formal education system, or ‘the abilities of comprehending and expressing’ in other language classes. In language classes, the teacher will teach students the elements of that specific language, such as the correct pronunciation of sounds, and the vocabulary and the grammar of the language. When you have reached a high level of language proficiency, you can consider receiving ‘interpretation training’. ‘Interpretation training’ does not stay on the level of ‘words, vocabulary and sentence’ (these elements are only at the language learning levels). ‘Interpretation training’ emphasizes on training 1) your interpretation skills in different discourses, 2) your capability of analysing different discourses thoroughly, 3) your conversation management strategies, 4) your understanding of interpretation theories, and 5) your mindset on interpretation ethics and professionalism. 。
  • Being proficient in two or more languages is a basic requirement for an interpreter and a prerequisite for one to go for interpretation and translation related training. However, simply being bilingual or multilingual but not being familiar with interpretation skills and relevant knowledge does not make one a qualified interpreter.

Everyday we find ourselves in different ‘settings’ - at school, in the workplace, at a friend’s place, on public transport, or in a clinic. We communicate with others in these various settings. Have you ever noticed that the communication styles differ across settings?

During a lesson, we have to raise our hands before we speak; but when we are chatting with our classmates, we can talk whenever we like.
In a courtroom, people are always solemn and serious; while at a close friend’s place, we can chat very casually and even tease each other.
Talking to a doctor in a clinic, we will be listening to and talking about illness and medication related issues; while in the Legislative council, we usually expect topics related to public policies and affairs.

When interacting with people in different ‘settings’, we have to make use of different knowledge, and have to communicate in different ways - ‘discourse’ refers to what and how we communicate in specific situations.

Knowing the discourse and setting of your event, we can prepare for the interpretation assignment thoroughly, and assign the most suitable interpreters to your event according to their specific knowledge, their familiarity of the specific discourse, and their experience in interpreting that specific discourse. This can ensure effective conveying of information and interpretation quality. Click here to learn more about different discourses.

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