What does a NZSL interpreter do?

This section explains what a NZSL interpreter does, and provides guidelines to ensure that you hire a qualified NZSL interpreter.

Skills and characteristics

An interpreter facilitates communication between people who do not share a language in common. The interpreter converts the messages said or signed by one person into the language of the other person and vice versa.

NZSL interpreters in New Zealand are trained to interpret between spoken languages (mainly English and/or Māori) and NZSL.

They may also carry out 'sight translation' where the NZSL interpreter translates on the spot from a written document (such as a consent form, application form or a letter) into NZSL.

NZSL interpreters often interpret simultaneously. This means that they start signing the message while you are still speaking, or that they start speaking very shortly after the Deaf person starts signing. There will be a slight time lag while the interpreter processes the information being said and converts it appropriately into the other language.

Simultaneous interpreting requires a good deal of mental processing. Either appropriate breaks should be given, or interpreters should work in teams to support each other and share interpreting during the meeting.

In some cases the interpretation happens consecutively, allowing a person to speak, or sign several sentences, or take a whole turn in the conversation before this is interpreted. This may be especially appropriate in face-to-face meetings between two people or small groups.

Although consecutive interpreting requires more time than simultaneous interpreting, the end result is often clearer communication. This is because the interpreter can take the time to listen and fully understand what the speaker is saying, which helps make a more coherent translation into the other language.

Skills and characteristics

A professional NZSL interpreter should demonstrate the following skills and personal characteristics.

Fluent in NZSL

As with all languages, acquiring a high level of fluency in NZSL requires many years of training and contact with the Deaf community. Most NZSL interpreters are not native users of NZSL. This is a point of difference with most other language interpreters, who are usually native speakers and part of a language community (such as Māori, or Chinese).

Fluent in English and/or Māori

Interpreters, including NZSL interpreters, need to adjust their language usage according to the context in which they work. This means they need a large (and at times specialist) vocabulary, and need to be able to use different language styles appropriate to the people involved in the meeting or event. They need to be competent in written language as well since sight translation may be needed.

Use a range of interpreting skills

There is often no word-for-word correspondence between languages. It takes training, practice and experience to instantaneously express the full meaning of a speaker's words in another language. Just being fluent in two or more languages does not mean that a person can interpret between these languages.

Understand both 'Deaf' and 'hearing' cultures

Deaf people whose first or natural language is NZSL have a different cultural background and a different life experience to hearing people. They may also have different expectations of how communication will take place. Since government services are largely staffed by people who are not Deaf, a qualified NZSL interpreter needs to understand both cultures to ensure they can facilitate effective communication.

Understand the setting and have the knowledge to deal with a variety of subject matters and terminology

NZSL interpreters work in a great variety of settings: from education to courts to health; and from one-to-one meetings to large conferences. A competent NZSL interpreter needs a good educational background to deal with this variety and be able to adapt to the language used in different settings.

It is advisable to check an interpreter's experience in a particular setting before booking them, so you can be sure they are sufficiently familiar with the systems and any specialist language. A booking agency can assist with selecting appropriate NZSL interpreters for a particular setting.

Behave in an ethical and professional manner and be committed to a code of ethics

Like other professionals, interpreters are party to private interactions and information and are ethically bound to protect the privacy of clients. They should also facilitate communication in a manner that is fair to both parties, without unduly intruding in the situation. The SLIANZ Code of Ethics has seven (7) principles: professional conduct, confidentiality, competence, accuracy, impartiality, clarity of role boundaries and professional development.

Read more about the SLIANZ Code of Ethics: http://www.slianz.org.nz/resources/code-of-ethics

Next section: How do I know if a NZSL interpreter is professionally competent?

A guide to working with NZSL interpreters

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