become a sign language interpreter

How do I become a sign language interpreter in the UK?

So you want to become a sign language interpreter! We break down the journey to get to the hallowed status of interpreter and give you an insight into the highs and lows of working in the interpreting profession.

Table of Contents

What do sign language interpreters actually do?

A sign language interpreter does not do a ‘word for word’ translation. They transfer meaning from a signed or spoken language into another spoken or signed language – they relay information between deaf and hearing people.

The best way to explain what an interpreter does is by way of examples:

News broadcasts: an interpreter relays spoken language into BSL. Here is an example from BBC news:

Doctor’s appointments: an interpreter relays the deaf patient’s health problems so the doctor can determine if the health issue can be easily resolved (e.g. by giving antibiotics) or by a referral for further medical investigation.

Job interviews at a deaf business: an interpreter relays BSL into spoken English, then relays spoken English responses back into BSL.

Benefit application: an interpreter translates the written questions into BSL and then assists the benefit applicant with the written English responses.

The examples above are just a glimpse into the kind of activities an interpreter could be involved with. This is why interpreters need to be competent in BSL and the English language. You also need to be competent in relaying information between two or more people as you could be involved in any situation where two or more people are communicating.

Note that an interpreter is not a ‘signer for deaf people’. Interpreters work with both hearing and deaf people to facilitate communication between them.

Learning British Sign Language

The vast majority of interpreters learn sign language as a second language which means attending Ofqual registered courses. Unfortunately, the UK government does not fund BSL courses so attending courses needs to be viewed as an investment for your future career. All specialist services involve some sort of training cost (nursing, teaching, accounting etc) so learning sign language is no different.

Language Studies

To become proficient and fluent in BSL, you normally need to complete courses from Level 1 – Level 6. The NRCPD only accept qualifications from the awarding body, Signature. Once you have achieved your BSL Level 6 you can then attend an interpreting course which gives you the training to be able to apply language skills competently in a range of situations. Interpreting qualifications are also achieved via Signature.

An alternative route to completing different courses is to attend a full-time course at university. There are a handful of universities (e.g. Wolverhampton University) that offer undergraduate courses. These courses enable full-time students to go from a complete starter to interpreter status.

How long does it take to become a BSL interpreter?

The average length of time from complete beginner to fluent and competent interpreter is seven years. Some people are able to achieve qualified interpreter status sooner e.g. they are born to a deaf signing family or they attend a full-time university course. Others may take longer e.g. those who already have a full-time job or have family commitments.

Anyone who wants to be an interpreter also needs to learn about the deaf community because they are present for deaf people and hearing people. So a good knowledge of both languages and cultures is vital to be an effective communication professional.

It is important to note that deaf interpreter certification (for Deaf Translators) follows a similar route to becoming qualified.

Trainee Sign Language interpreter (TSLI)

Once you have achieved a BSL Level 6 qualification in BSL. The next stage is to seek an interpreter training course or an approved development plan. This allows you to start work as a trainee interpreter under supervision.

Trainees (or TSLIs) are limited in the work they can do. For example, TSLIs can’t do police work. This is to protect the deaf person against potential interpreter errors but also to protect the interpreter from situations that require more knowledge and experience. The ultimate goal is to ensure all interpreters meet the national standards established for spoken and signed languages.

Fully Qualified BSL Interpreter (RSLI)

A fully qualified interpreter is someone who has achieved Level 6 fluency in BSL and passed an interpreting course. Once you have completed both qualifications, interpreters register with the National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD).

Registered Sign Language Interpreter (RSLI)

NRCPD identity badge for sign language interpreters

You need to be registered with NRCPD to work as an interpreter. The register is a voluntary register for a number of communication professionals:

  • sign language interpreters,

  • trainee sign language interpreters

  • sign language translators

  • Lip Speakers

  • Speech to Text Reporters

  • Electronic Notetakers

  • Manual Notetakers

  • Interpreters for DeafBlind people

Additional registrations

In addition to registering with the NRCPD annually, interpreters also need a DBS certificate and professional indemnity insurance. To maintain registered status, all communication professionals registered with NRCPD have to complete 24 continuous professional development (CPD) hours to keep skills and knowledge up to date.

RSLIs can also join the Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI) or the Regulatory Body of Sign Language Interpreters (RBSLI). They are both voluntary organisations that focus on ensuring best practice is followed and interpreting standards are maintained. They also provide support and training.

RSLIs are also encouraged to join the National Union of BSL Interpreters (NUBSLI) which is part of the Unite union. Many public services have had funding cut and this has impacted interpreter fees. NUBSLI was set up to counteract the reduction in fees and now provides guidance on the typical fees interpreters can charge for their services.

Many interpreters work freelance so being able to charge the appropriate fee is vital to make interpreting a viable business.

British Sign Language interpreter – what’s it really like?

Each day is as varied and different as you want it to be. Most RSLIs are self-employed so accepting work depends on a number of factors. For example:

Availability: most interpreting jobs are offered via agencies and it is the most convenient way of obtaining work. RSLIs tend to work with specialist agencies as they have a better understanding of what BSL interpreters need to do a job to the best of their ability.

For example, agencies are in a better position to explain why two interpreters are needed for a booking, instead of one. Working with agencies means the work that is offered can be in any location and at any time of day or night, including weekends. So you do need to be available for more hours than the usual 9 – 5.

Some interpreters work with deaf professionals so perform tasks like telephone interpretation and staff meeting interpretation.

Competency: RSLIs are trained to be competent across a number of areas. Most interpreters provide interpretation services to the NHS. This is important for treatment as any treatment needs informed consent. Some areas of work need specialist skills and as a consequence, some interpreters choose to specialise. For example, you could focus on doing legal work (police stations, courts and solicitor appointments).

Other specialist domains include mental health, media, performance, education and community. If you choose to focus on a specialist area, then you will need additional training to work in that domain e.g. mental health. Additional training is needed so you have a solid understanding of terminology as well as the capacity to understand a variety of deaf BSL users.

Commitments: interpreting is ad hoc and some weeks are busier than others, (although there is often more work than available interpreters). The ad hoc nature of interpreting makes it difficult to plan ahead so some professionals work part-time as they have commitments elsewhere.

A degree of flexibility is needed for some types of work e.g. working in law courts or police stations. For example, you may be called to attend a police station and you may need to stay there for a number of hours to assist with interviewing a suspect.

police station interview with interpreter present

How much do Sign Language interpreters earn?

Sign Language interpreters working full time can earn between £26,000 – £60,000 per year before tax. The income range will depend on a number of factors (including expertise in a particular domain e.g. legal).

Many learners want to know the BSL interpreter hourly rate. However, an hourly rate only applies to employees. As most interpreters are freelance (i.e. self-employed), they charge fees according to the costs of running a business. NUBSLI, the National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters publishes guidance on daily rates that could be charged by interpreters.

Are Sign Language Interpreters in high demand?

Yes, there is still a high demand for BSL interpreters, particularly as many interpreters now work both face-to-face and online.

A career in interpreting is a fulfilling and meaningful role as you enable both hearing and deaf people to connect and communicate with each other. British Sign Language interpreters play a vital role in accessibility and inclusion and make a valued contribution to the deaf community.

Are there any free interpreter courses in the UK?

Interpreters, like many professionals, are self-funded. Government support to pay course fees was stopped many years ago. In the event we find a free course, we will post the details on this course so you can access up-to-date course information. In the meantime, check out where you can learn the basics of BSL.

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