Accept or Decline? Questions Sign Language Interpreters Should Ponder

September 21, 2016

Michael Ballard suggests that sign language interpreters must begin making decisions before an assignment ever begins. Utilizing pre-assignment questions can bring practitioners more clarity when determining readiness for a job.


Hello, everyone. I’m Michael Ballard and I’m thrilled to be with you today for Street Leverage. It’s an exciting time. A little about myself: I grew up learning speech and lip-reading in California and I learned to sign at age 15, and I sign still today. My identity underwent a significant change when I started to learn ASL as I began to interact with a variety of Deaf peers at my high school. Through their instruction, my signing ability greatly improved, and I’m still always learning. I also have to thank the friends of mine who are interpreters. Without your hard work, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

[Click to view post in ASL.]

I had been giving thought to this when Brandon Arthur approached me at the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf conference in New Orleans and asked if I was interested in filming an article. I agreed, and after some thought decided to speak on an issue close to my heart and mind: an interpreter’s thought process when accepting or declining a job.


Defining the Lens

This article’s lens uses as a foundation Dean and Pollard’s 2001 research on Demand Control Schema, or DCS[1]. An interpreter needs to fully grasp both concepts of what constitutes the various demands and controls before accepting an assignment.

Demands and Controls

The category of “demands” can be broken into four parts:

  • environmental demands: terminology, technology, roles, physical environment
  • interpersonal demands: that which is specific to the interpreter and clients involved
  • paralinguistic demands: That which is specific to the expressive skills of the client (deaf or hearing)
  • intrapersonal demands: That which is specific to the interpreter (inner thoughts, feelings, bias, physical/emotional state)

The concept of “controls” describe what a person can exert influence over in the situation, such as:

  • actions or behavior,
  • Particular translation/interpretation decisions
  • Internal/attitudinal acknowledgments

Accurately Assessing Readiness

Before I go on, I would like to note the word “anosognosia,” a term coined in 1999 by Dunning-Kruger in an article at Cornell University[2]. The phenomenon of anosognosia arose to describe research participants’ excessive overestimation of their skills and abilities, and the tendency of we as humans to inflate reality so it reflects positively on ourselves. However, it is only through recognition of error that we can reflect and grow. It then follows that interpreters could be prone to the overconfidence that comes with anosognosia, and should make every effort not to overlook that tendency.

Pre-Assignment Analysis

I’d like to pose some overarching questions for interpreter analysis. As an interpreter, one should ask: Do I possess enough controls to satisfy the demands of this assignment? Each of the following sub-questions should be considered through self-analysis and review using a Likert scale approach (1=weakest ability to 5= strongest ability).  

  1. Do I have sufficient linguistic skill and content knowledge in the necessary languages to meet the needs of this assignment, and to interpret or translate with accuracy and cultural equivalency?

It is incumbent on the interpreter to communicate with the managing entity to get all relevant details and demands of the assignment to make that determination. That process takes experience.

At my first staff-faculty meeting at the start of the semester- I am an ASL instructor and moved recently for the job- it so happened that several colleagues wanted to learn some signs, so I invited them to join my class. After two weeks, we attended a meeting to which an agency interpreter had been assigned. The interpreter was not certified or licensed and was clearly incompetent. I was consequently unable to participate in the meeting because I couldn’t understand the content. During the meeting, a colleague texted me and asked about the interpreter because they were noticeably confused and fumbling. I gave feedback about the interpreter to the agency after the meeting on the need to improve the quality of services, and it is my hope that in the two years since that meeting that they have improved. That is an example of the necessity of an interpreter possessing the linguistic skills and knowledge required in an assignment in order to interpret effectively and accurately.

  1.  Am I psychologically and emotionally stable enough to perform the job requisites? Can I interpret without having a negative influence on the parties involved?

Due to the unpredictability of assignments, an interpreter must be mentally and emotionally capable of handling unexpected events.

For example, at the birth of my oldest daughter- we have four children- the interpreter at the hospital was respectful, competent and professional and made the experience as seamless as possible, even given the 3:00 A.M. delivery. I’m grateful to have had that positive of an experience. We specifically requested the same interpreter for our second child’s birth because the first experience had been so wonderful, and it made the day that much more fun. However, at the birth of our third child my wife and I were terribly disappointed at the assigned interpreter’s lack of professionalism in their behavior- they were flirting, making jokes and in general being inappropriate. It was upsetting for my wife to be actively in labor with an interpreter interjecting in the midst of everything. Unfortunately, it’s an example of an interpreter not possessing the mental and emotional clarity to navigate that type of situation, and that lack of self-regulation has a serious impact. 

  1. Am I taking this assignment because I’m qualified, or because I want the experience?

As I mentioned, our first two childbirth experiences were exceptional because the interpreter was qualified, but I wonder if the interpreter in the third birth accepted the job solely to gain more medical interpreting experience. I didn’t think to inquire at the time because I was focused on my wife, but the question for me remains. I suggest in those situations that an interpreter looking to gain experience instead ask to observe or mentor with a qualified interpreter and select appropriate assignments rather than cause a situation where communication access in high stakes settings is in jeopardy due to ill qualifications.

  1.  Does my preparation vary based on my views of what kind of Deaf client or position is seen to be “high profile” or not?

My belief is that there is no hierarchy of clients or professions- a Ph.D. should be approached with the same respect and care as a welder, teacher, nurse, carpenter, stay at home parent or any other occupation or station in life. All have value, but are interpreters investing the same amount of time and energy in preparation to reflect that? Interpreters should take the time to examine assumptions of what merits varying levels of preparation and not unfairly weight some assignments or clients above others. Providing interpreting services in a kindergarten or first grade is just as critically important as interpreting doctorate courses, and we need to examine bias, appreciate the human element and rethink how to approach “high profile” vs “low profile” assignments. 

  1. Am I able to keep my bias in check?

A common phrase among interpreters is one on neutrality in assignments: “I’m neutral, not getting involved,” etc. Metzger (2011)[3] states that the idealistic “neutral conduit” does not exist. Your biases affect and effect how exchanges take place. Will my presence lead to further oppression of a marginalized group or build bridges that bring groups together? An interpreter should be aware of biases and look for ways to mitigate any negative impact on the interpreted product. For example, if an interpreter finds themselves in a situation where they feel strongly about communication modes being discussed for cultural or educational reasons, or perhaps are interpreting political views that may contrast their own, it is important that the interpreter recognize biases and thoughtfully consider their ability to provide quality service. If it’s not possible, they need to excuse themselves from the assignment or allow a team interpreter to interpret. An interpreter not possessing adequate controls will ultimately deliver a flawed product. Ideally, an interpreter should be mentally and emotionally aware enough to recognize biases and determine qualifications and fit prior to the assignment.

Post-Assignment Considerations

I’d like to shift focus from pre-assignment self-analysis questions for considering to post-assignment questions. In my estimation, it’s rare that in-depth analysis post-assignment happens as often as it should, but it is worthy of thought. Similarly to the initial set of questions, these would be helpful to answer using the Likert scale method:

  1. Am I confident that my interpretation was linguistically and culturally accurate in both English and ASL?
  2. What would I do differently if and when I am in a similar context, linguistically, interpersonally, etc?
  3. Finally, did I approach the client after the assignment to provide clarifying comments or check in about comprehension?

Considering these questions both before and after each assignment will help develop a stronger awareness of self and decision-making process.

In the End: Gratitude

Again, I want to reiterate that without interpreters, I wouldn’t be where I am in my life today. My life journey would look completely different. For all of your hard work, the hours of training, your minds and hearts, blood, sweat, and tears- many, many, thanks. I look forward to seeing you around in the community and will gladly accept any questions on this article. Enjoy your day.

Questions to Consider:

  1. How might I better solicit meaningful advice and feedback from my clients as a resource to maintain a healthy self-appraisal?
  2. What do I do to gauge emotional readiness to interpret in any given environment?
  3. What mechanisms do I employ to keep my bias in check while interpreting?
  4. What does “high profile” mean and how does that definition play a part in my preparations?


[1] Dean, R.K., & Pollard, R.Q. (2001).  Application of demand-control theory to sign language interpreting: Implications for stress and interpreter training.  Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 6, 1-14.

[2] Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77, 1121–1134.

[3] Metzger, M. (2011).  Sign language interpreting: Deconstructing the myth of neutrality.  Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

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21 Comments on "Accept or Decline? Questions Sign Language Interpreters Should Ponder"

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Dee Collins
Michael, thank you for thoughts and presentation on this topic. I truly enjoyed reading it through. As a newer interpreter, it is incredibly important for me to thoughtfully consider what work I accept. It allows me to self-advocate for what I believe fits in my skill set. As a result, my reputation is being built from the bottom up, which can go on to produce a successful career of trust in the community. Basically, by carefully choosing what work I take sets me up to advance, because I am in control of the work, but the work does not control… Read more »
Suzanne Terrio
When my husband and I use and have used experienced interpreters, in all three to four states we have lived in over the years, through childbirth, raising our children, and life’s events, we appreciate interpreters who respectfully engage in full disclosure, and we, as well, communicate our needs to them. Even the most skilled interpreter could have a tragic event on their way to work, jostling their most sound mind. We would rather hear it from them, and we would rather they hear from us what is going on in our minds. For example, Interpreter discloses,”Sorry I am late for… Read more »
Gwenever Birgell

Hello Suzanne
You have in a exellent way described the perfekt cooperation between an interpreter and there klients.
From my experience, as a sign language interpreter, most interpreters strive to be genuin and proffesional and want nothing more then to accomidate the needs and expectations of there klients.
By communicating this to your interpreter you have createt the best conditions for the interpreter to meet your needs and deliver a qualitativ performance.
Thank you and keep up the great work!

P.s would like to post your reply on my facebook page. Is this ok?
Gwenever Birgell, Stockholm, sweden


You are right, sometimes we can’t prepare for everything and some things can only be taught via experience (whether positive or negative). My hope is we can all be more understanding of individuals and show a little more love.


Thank you for your words! Also, thank you for being willing to self-advocate for what is appropriate. Also, I know some individuals who feel they are under-confident with their work. It is important to recognize our strengths as well instead of focusing on the negatives all the time. I believe that you’re on the right track!


Michael, I thoroughly enjoyed your article/video. As a K-12 interpreter i especially enjoyed your comment “Providing interpreting services in a kindergarten or first grade is just as critically important as interpreting doctorate courses” at times I feel this point is overlooked. There should be no hierarchy of clients including deaf children. They also need highly qualified interpreters who can provide a solid language model. Something we as interpreters should consider before accepting a K-12 assignment. Thank you for your pre an post considerations, I’m excited to put them to practice.

Great article!


Thank you for your comments! My hope is that we can be more understanding of all people, no matter where they are in life, children and adults alike.

muriel buie
Michael, In the arena of agency work, there are many agencies that are still giving their interpreters assignments the day before the assignment at the end of business day. Thankfully, I don’t work with an agency such as that. I work for agencies that allow me to pose a variety of questions before accepting an assignment. As interpreters, we must prepare as much as possible for the assignment. Being given a cause number for a court case and purpose given as proceedings interpreter, is not enough. That is a nightmare in the making. It goes back to professional business practices… Read more »

This is an excellent comment. One of the hardest things to do is ask for more information about the assignment. Sometimes employers, or the people who are in charge of contacting agencies, don’t share what the purpose of the assignment is; thus rendering it close to impossible to prepare. Much of that is communication, and as a society, we can love each other more by communicating more one with another. How we communicate messages is important to all parties involved.

Thank you Michael for acknowledging that there are many times when the customer does not provide enough information and despite prodding by the agency, still refuses to provide anything more than an “employee meeting” when in fact it is an employee firing. In my work as an agency owner and interpreter, it comes down to a simple fact customers quickly realize the close knit relationships that interpreters have with deaf people. My agency provides confirmations to our deaf clients when a request comes in. It lets them know the name of their interpreter with a link to see their interpreter… Read more »
Ruann – Thanks for the note! Sometimes there is dark in the light and light in the dark–especially when it comes to ethical considerations and reaching out to which interpreter could satisfy the assignment/request. Given that no two situations are exactly the same, it is challenging to really meet every need. I think it is great that you ask follow-up questions to get more information. Have you thought about trying to ask the same question using different words? Sometimes this brings out responses that are enlightening. No interpreter likes to be blindsided (or any of us in any situation) with… Read more »
Mani Garcia

This article is fantastic! I love the question: ”
What do I do to gauge emotional readiness to interpret in any given environment.” Do you have suggestions about how interpreters may engage more fully with the emotional aspects of their work and decisions?

Mani – Thanks for asking for suggestions. While I am not a counselor or a psychologist, I believe that the first thing to do to engage more fully with the emotional aspects of the work and decision is to first engage more fully with the emotional aspects of the self. The ancient Greek maxim comes to mind, “Know thyself” or “gnothi seauton.” Another phrase comes from Jesuit philosophy (I attended Gonzaga University, a Jesuit institution, for my Master’s degree), “Cura personalis,” which translates to “care for the whole person” or “care for the whole body.” When we are more fully… Read more »
Terry Druehl

Well stated Sir! Important for the novice and certainly important for the seasoned interpreter like myself who sometimes operates on auto-pilot. each situation deserves the same mindfulness before and after the “work”. Thankyou.


Thank you! Sometimes it is easier to just stay on auto-pilot because we know what we’re comfortable with. One of the ways we can improve is to at the end of the day self-evaluate what we did well with that day, and what can we improve for tomorrow. MBB

What a wonderful article and certainly food for thought. In this day and age of more and more agencies becoming “Uber” like (reference SL article: in their business practices. I struggle greatly with agencies that send “Blast” e-mails out to book the assignment. Frequently these “Blast” e-mails contain only a zip code and time. They all state that they assign criteria for which interpreters to send the assignment out to, and I am sure most do. But if you take the time to ask questions before accepting, bam! The job has been scooped up by someone else before you… Read more »

Anon – thanks for this! Certainly something we can all keep an eye out for. There are several platforms that interpreters are using not just for receiving assignments, but also delivering assignments (VRI, interpreters on demand type of work to go along with Uber-like services). The key is to keep quality in the ever changing mediums of services received/rendered.

Jack Higgins
Michael, I have had my fair share of experiences with interpreters who unfortunately do not take the extra mile in making sure the services they offer are exceptional. Professionally speaking, we must always strive to get the best possible outcome in the services that we offer to clients. Dedication to one’s work and much thought into preparation is essential because every client is unique and their situation will always be a factor in how we relate to them. True, there should be no preferential treatment or difference on how we deal with people based on their financial situation or educational… Read more »

Jack – Thanks for the reminder! Of course everything is case-by-case. I think that is where the challenge is. How do we accurately interpret if we don’t have anything to relate to our clients needs? My hope is that even if though someone might not relate to another in any situation, the level of respect, trust, and admiration is 100% evident.

Thanks for writing!

Brenda Muntz
This article is a good reminder and has caused me thought. However, I am in secondary education. Some of these questions I can ask myself. Except for the basic idea that more often than is best for the student I do NOT know the subject and connected vocabulary. I am not giving the clearest and most comprehensive work to match the educational information. I realize this, yet my hands are tied. Can you offer advice for educational interpreters from maybe the negative experiences you had going through public school? One suggestion that always comes up is for the interpreter to… Read more »
Scott Huffman

Great article and careful consideration of how interpreters can always look for ways to be the best fit for each assignment accepted! #Salute Sir

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