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5 Surefire Steps to Overcoming Skill Plateau For Sign Language Interpreters

5 Surefire ways to help sign language interpreters

Experienced interpreters may often find themselves struggling for continuous improvement in their product. Diane Lynch references strategies and tools to help long-standing professionals break out of business as usual to take sure steps to improved practice.

Perhaps you have decades of sign language interpreting experience, have been to countless workshops and trainings on skill development, yet feel that you have hit a plateau in your skills. You may notice obvious erroneous patterns in your work. For example, your fingerspelling reception needs improving, or you sometimes produce miscues.

I was there until a few days ago.

I had the great honor and privilege to attend a three-day training opportunity with Dr. Carol Patrie and Sharon Neumann Solow, who in my opinion are consummate beacons of enlightenment to members of the ASL/English interpreting profession.

My Journey

The pair presented milieu evidence-based data to a group of highly motivated professional sign language interpreters. Carol and Sharon insisted throughout the training period that the group was already advanced…I, on the other hand, held some skepticism and thought to myself, “Why do I hold this skepticism? And, if this is so, then why am I here? My journey had begun.

Patrie and Solow assigned pre-reading material- Daniel Gile’s Basic Concepts and Models for Interpreter and Translator Training. Revised edition. The text is written in an idiomatic style that was easy for me to digest. As I was wading and navigating through the printed description of the interpreting process, reality hit me like a lightening bolt, and I came to and even greater understanding of the incredible complexity of the work that I do on a daily basis.

After digesting this resource, it felt to me, like I just completed an ITP. During the training, I learned to use this shared language and terminology that are both transparent and current to accurately describe and dialogue about the work that we do.

Identifying Patterns

Experts in every professional field were not simply born as experts. The difference between a practitioner that is an expert and one who is not is “pattern recognition” (Kaufman- Ungifted; Intelligence Redefined) Professionals which learned through procedural process (music, swimming, long-distance running, tennis, math, chess) spend many hours every day perfecting their craft. They develop neural pathways that allow a person to unlearn bad habits and to develop fine-tuned complex tasks. Brain plasticity remains present throughout a person’s life. The old phrase, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” is simply erroneous. Deliberate practice is how the expert’s greatness is achieved.

Deliberate Practice

Interpreting is not an automatic task. It takes effort! Practicing our craft while we work is just not possible. Working and practicing have a different focus altogether. So, let’s be honest with ourselves-we need to embrace the idea that practice requires grit. It requires a professional to put forth a sustained intense effort and concentration for incremental periods focusing on one specific task. Kaufman cites a ten-year rule for propelling one’s self from mastery to eminence.

Gile’s “Effort Model” contains a “Tightrope Hypothesis” which describes in detail the complexity of the interpreting work in terms of a person’s capacity for success given the demands of the work and maximizing the tools which are possessed to perform the task. Avoiding failure, the breakdown of the interpreting process, is our most important duty.

Once we attain those required skill subsets necessary to interpret through routinization, the effort needed to recognize and encode the learned patterns are less rigorous. The more skills that are available in our tool box (supply), the more likely we are able to avoid saturation through allocation of our resources to meet the demands using a reduced amount of effort. It’s the skillful coordination effort which allows us to perform this delicate balancing act. Cognitive stress…who needs it?

Advanced interpreters are motivated to propel their skills to the next level. How does one refine one’s thinking in order to reduce information lost in translation? Patrie and Solow recommend a five-step systematic approach to self-analysis for improved performance.

5 Steps To Improved Performance

  1. Render a 3 minute sample of your work to analyze. Find your errors and correct your interpretation. (write them down)
  2. Find the level at which your interpretation broke-down. Was it on the comprehension level? The transfer level (from one language to the other), or the reformulation level?
  3. Think about the impact that the miscue had on communication. How severe was the consequence?
  4. Revise the interpretation and render again.
  5. What actions will you take to focus on improvement?

The best interpreters push their skill sets to work towards becoming an expertise. How will you fill your tool box to coordinate your effort?

Change The Way You Finish 

The Chaos Theory tells us that if you change the way you start, you’re going to drastically change the way you finish. The best way to begin is to practice often with materials that are directly related to the tasks. Recommended resources include:

  1. Carol Patrie’s “The Effective Interpreting Series” and “Rapid Sequential Visual Processing (RSVP)”- both evidence-based resources that are available through Dawn Sign Press.
  2. National Clearinghouse on Rehabilitation and Training Materials (NCRTM)

Paradigm Shift 

I am grateful that I am consciously aware of my skill development requirements and relieved that I still have plenty of time left in my career to begin serious remediation. And to my colleagues- morally and ethically speaking, the Deaf community, our fellow colleagues and society at large deserve no less than our very best work. The fact of the matter is, the consequences of our lack of action could potentially be severe.

I would like to thank Dr. Carol Patrie- the kindest and most prolific writer and academician in our field, and Sharon Neumann Solow- the most patient and shiniest professional that I know. You both have caused a paradigm shift within me. And, many thanks to Sorenson Communications for providing this stellar training.

My journey begins and continues with deliberate practice today, and I invite you join me.

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Why Do Qualified Sign Language Interpreters Get Less Work?

Sign Language Interpreter Wondering Why He Doesn't Get More Work

How has the professionalization of interpreting impacted interpreter referral? Kendra Keller takes a hard look at the bypass of traditional entry into the interpreting field and offers ideas to reset and recharge key stakeholders in service provision.

In a recent conversation with Tom Holcomb about certified vs. qualified sign language interpreters, he said something that surprised me. He shared that approximately 90% of the interpreters referred to work with him outside of his professional faculty position and public presentations, were not certified. From inside my bubble of privilege and pursuit of my own credentials and qualifications, this was shocking.

I took a minute and then asked, “What type of appointments?” Tom replied, “Trips to the doctor, consultations about house and home, travel, and school meetings.” Thinking to myself that perhaps I’d been mistaken about the value of certification to Tom and the referral services that sent the interpreters I asked how these appointments had gone.  He said, “I was just glad someone showed up…he presumed that most good interpreters were already busy with other assignments.”

Bypassing Traditional Routes of Entry

We all have experiences where certification does not always equal qualified or ensure quality work.  Tom said that the overall quality of the interpreters was “so-so.”   I suggested to Tom that there were qualified, certified interpreters who were not being referred. To which he responded, “if good interpreters are being passed over and consequently I’m forced to settle for less…I may have a different attitude about what to expect.” The realities we spoke of surprised us both.

Do consumers of our service really expect less?  I think they do.

I believe we can attribute the current state of affairs to many factors—all of which are tied to how we have chosen to meet the demand for the service we provide. As we know the demand for interpreters has skyrocketed. In response, a supply chain was created that has shifted the influx and approval for readiness of sign language interpreters out of the hands of the deaf community, as expressed in Molly Wilson’s vlog “Bypass” (Bypass, Molly Wilson). We have created a detour, a diversion and it is having a powerful impact on all of us. This bypass has excluded necessary and important voices regarding the quality of interpreting services.

How does this bypass practically play out so folks like Tom have experiences that create the experience and perspective that they are required to “settle?”

The Referral Agency 

Since the spring of 2012, we in the northern California area have been holding forums to assess and remediate the impact of spoken language agencies on the quality of interpreting services.  The advent of spoken language agencies taking on the contracts for ASL interpreter referrals combined has created financial struggles for our traditional referral agencies.  Competition is forcing the referral of less expensive interpreters—the non-certified or less experienced.

Through a survey of colleagues throughout the greater San Francisco Bay area, across the board they feel that as their qualifications and experience increase, the amount of work through referral sources has decreased. Sign language agency forums are reporting that they indeed are cutting back on referring the more qualified interpreters (and I include CDIs and DIs here), due to cost and the current threat to the agencies’ economic survival.  Our seasoned interpreters are struggling to find enough freelance work and resorting to other sources of income and employment.

Increased Use of Non-Certified Interpreters

If qualified interpreters are facing a decline in work and non-certified interpreters are being called more frequently, what does that say about the value of experience and certification?  Does it matter if the majority of interpreters who are being referred are not certified? What is the balance of availability and access with qualifications?  While imperfect, the current certifications at both national and state levels are our measure of readiness to begin working as interpreters.

Who are the non-certified and what is the relationship to quality and the definition (legal-ADA- and professional) of qualified? What is the experience of people who use/work with interpreters of quality? What are we doing to learn about, include and support them, or to assess their impact on both the interpreting and Deaf communities?

Interpreter Preparation Programs

When IPPs and ITPs do not include dynamic and responsive curriculum designs, qualified faculty and engage in an active participation of and by the Deaf community, the bypass model is reinforced. IPP students and newer interpreters are being actively recruited by spoken language agencies, sometimes for full time work and often for work in medical settings. Faculty and coordinators have a responsibility to shape a school–to–work expectation of graduates. These students are the most vulnerable to undeveloped professional judgment and the capacity to say “no” when appropriate.

Are the values of fluency and active engagement with the Deaf community being upheld? Are program coordinators and faculty discussing the changing nature of gatekeeping and creating a response in alliance with the Deaf community? Are working interpreters able to respond to increased work demand while maintaining a relationship with the Deaf community? There are many new demands that we must respond to, together.

Credentialed Interpreter

What is the status of highly credentialed interpreters (including CDIs and DIs) in your area? Are the experienced and most qualified interpreters finding work which sustains them?

The obvious impact with less qualified, credentialed interpreters working is that true access to communication is more likely to be denied.

Our Responsibility

As we are being requested to work by a burgeoning number of spoken language referral agencies, online marketplaces, temp agencies, direct contracts and direct referrals from colleagues places more of the responsibility on the individual interpreter to exercise professional judgment in assessing skills and qualifications. For example, are we quick to accept an assignment and slow or neglect to assess our readiness before, during and after the assignment? We need the work. Does that need outweigh the rights of deaf people (and hearing consumers) to effective communication?

How do we Remodel and Rebuild?

Values and Collective Change

As the true cost of the bypasses becomes evident, where does the healing process begin?  Understanding the problem is key, so that we can design the solutions together. In his book, “Introduction to American Deaf Culture”, Tom Holcomb refers to “The Vibrant Deaf Community’, and ‘Solutions for Effective Living’.  I ask us to remember to work together to create vibrant solutions.

Here are some ideas about how to do this:

Safe Spaces. Create places and effective ways to speak out.  I believe it is inherently unhelpful to demonize any one person, group of people, the system, or to claim that experiences that are outliers are the norm. While there is power in speaking out and having a voice, I believe the forum of public or social media, which, while a critical place to have a voice when other avenues are closed or nonexistent, will not necessarily encourage the individual conversations needed for healing and improvement.

Ask Questions. Decide which questions to ask. Are we talking about our competencies, are interpreters literate in the language of qualifications and certification, as well as the factors which make up quality interpretation?

Reflective Practice. Establish a reflective practice, which is a compassionate, critical analysis of our work. Develop a process and language for doing so. Use any of the many ways that already exist: The Etna Project, supervision by trained facilitators, facilitated conversations with all stakeholders in your home communities, the  Demand Control Schema, the northern California project Improving Interpreting Project” (, which provides draft documents for agencies, consumers and interpreters.  Seek out and use your own community’s cultural wealth, especially DCCW, Deaf community cultural wealth.

Through reflective practice, I believe interpreters can and should address these challenges and create effective solutions. To begin, I ask us to think about what motivates the values that we uphold or deprioritize in each decision we make. If we are mostly afraid and functioning on a survival level, how can we create a focus on the greater good, co-create solutions for these changing times?


Here are a few of the values and important factors in my work that I think about and that I think are important for consideration.  What are yours?

Do no harm. Stephanie Feyne, in her article: “Is it Time to Certify Sign Language Interpreter Referral Agencies?” addresses the harm done by agencies:

“Alarmingly, sign language referral agencies are sending increasing numbers of unqualified signers to interpret for Deaf consumers, causing harm to the communities we serve and to the interpreting field…. many of the sign language interpreters on their rosters are self-professed “interpreters,” who have passed no screening or certification exams.”

Encourage. Promote interpreter availability through teaching, mentoring, supervision, teaming, opening the door and welcoming newer interpreters in a way appropriate to their level of professional development.

Contribute. Have standards, opinions, being a critical thinker, while avoiding black and white, right/wrong thinking and judgmental language.

Take Action. Be aware of and take action to stop and to prevent the horizontal violence, micro-, meso- and macro-aggressions evident and experienced by so many in our field and communities.

Use Whole Language. Uphold and practice the use of whole language, ASL, especially as a non-native language user.

Take off the Blinders. Take off the blinders and ask to know the impact of my privileged status.

Reflective Practice.  Engage in reflective practice to continue professional development and self-assessment.

Professional Literacy. Develop and refine the ability to negotiate both in social and professional settings, which requires one to be literate in the language of professional standards.

Seek Guidance. Seek feedback and guidance from the deaf and coda communities…without making them responsible to manage my interpreting skills or advocate while trying to live their lives.

Accept Change. Sit with the discomfort of change, share the control, and be willing to move through feelings of disorientation before the reconstruction and reorientation into a stronger self.

Collective Change

In this I include agencies (by which I mean sign language, spoken language, temp agencies, VRS agencies, and online marketplaces):

Become involved within your communities for input about interpreting needs and concerns.

Find and work with consultants and mentors who are content experts, native users of ASL, and mentors trained and experienced in mentoring and supervision.

Request/Refer qualified interpreters, including CDIs when needed and appropriate, to provide/receive quality interpreting.

Look to all the stakeholders to guide the process.

Support non-certified interpreters in their process to become certified.  Understand why they are not yet certified.

Work to uphold the value and requirement of certification.

What Should Tom Expect?

If the experience is relief that someone showed up to interpret and that all the good interpreters are busy, how do we get from there to a world where someone who is truly qualified to interpret shows up and the more common experience is that the interpreting went well? Where qualified interpreters, quality interpreters are the expectation—the norm?

If we addressed our bypass practices, what would that look like for each of us? What could we expect?  A few thoughts:

  • To be included in a shared decision making process about communication dynamics and language preferences, to have a voice in the process.
  • To understand what is required to be a part of successfully interpreted communication.
  • To understand that a qualified interpreter means the focus of the communication shifts away from concerns about being understood and being represented accurately, to the actual communication.

Let’s remember what Paddy Ladd suggested in his Deafhood Pedagogies presentation, he cites Dr. Marie Battiste in saying that cognitive imperialism inflicts a soul wound on indigenous peoples… “We all must become critical learners and healers within a wounded space.”  I would apply this to interpreters and the ever more urgent need for self-assessment of our qualifications and quality of our work.

Responsibility begins with being responsive.  Engage.  Begin, resume, or continue the dialogue.  Take the time to ask vital questions of our communities and our selves. Define the problem together.  It is time to ask…and listen to the answers.