5 Tips for Working with a BSL Interpreter

Are you a deaf professional looking to book an interpreter regularly? Are you an event organiser and need to secure an interpreter to ensure access? Have you had a request to provide an interpreter but have no idea how? Read on!

We’ve put together 5 tips for working with a sign language interpreter: from how to book, to ensuring they are right for the job and making the whole process smooth for everyone.

Why provide an interpreter?

Remember, an interpreter is there for all parties involved – they are not just there for the deaf person! The best way to view a BSL interpreter is as part of the team: another expert in the room that you can rely on so the whole ‘event’ or meeting is a success. When integrated into the thinking and planning, they can support your efforts to remove barriers in education, employment and beyond.

It is important to remember that providing access is not a good-will gesture, an after-thought or an inconvenience – access is a legal right under the Equality Act in the UK, and the ADA in the US. 2021 saw several landmark cases being fought and won against event organisers, service providers, health trusts and even the UK government for failing to anticipate access requirements or provide interpreters when asked!

An event with a sign language interpreter

So, before you start booking: here’s 5 tips for using a BSL interpreter.

1. How to book

You can find an interpreter by checking databases like the NRCPD or the Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI) who store many interpreters’ details. You can email them directly and explain your request and they will tell you whether they accept the booking or not. You may find that you need to email many interpreters to find one who accepts your booking – there is a shortage of interpreters and as many are freelance, they can choose whether to take a job or not. You might also be able to find an interpreter through recommendations from other deaf individuals or asking another interpreter you have worked with in the past to put the job out to their network.

There are agencies who can help you find an interpreter, but be aware that they will charge a fee. Agencies are not regulated, which means that they can charge whatever they like for the service of sourcing you an interpreter. There are some wild agencies out there who will charge extortionate fees, so get a range of quotes before going with one! Do they specialise in BSL interpretation? Are they run by an interpreter or a deaf person, or are they just a nameless, faceless company? Have other deaf people or interpreters heard of them before? Do your research!

It’s important to be open minded when it comes to finding an interpreter, as they have different styles, skill sets and ways of working. The most important thing is to find an interpreter who you feel comfortable working with, which may take a few tries.

If you are going to need an interpreter regularly, it’s best to find a few you like working with, and create a list so you have someone to call on in case your first option is not available.

Remember too that the event or meeting may require a certain interpreter. For example, if you have an event aimed at women or BAME-issues, make it clear in the booking description if you have a preference of interpreter. Contact the Interpreters of Colour Network (IOCN) for a diverse pool of interpreters, but remember not to only do that for BAME events – diversity is always needed, every day!

Diverse sign language interpreter as shown by pencils

2. Check their skills and qualifications

‘Skills’ and ‘qualifications’ are very different things.

Qualifications – Interpreters can be either ‘trainee’ or ‘qualified’ interpreters. There is no such thing as a ‘qualified signer’ or a ‘Level 6 interpreter’.

A trainee interpreter is someone who has achieved a fluency in sign language, and is now enrolled on an interpreter-training course. They will have a fluency in the language but not a competency to deal with all interpreting scenarios. Depending on the type of booking, a trainee could handle it by themselves, or if working with a qualified colleague.

A qualified interpreter is someone who has completed their interpreting qualifications and is competent to deal with most interpreting scenarios. They understand the interpreting process and have proven their ability to work in most everyday situations, like in an office, in a doctor’s appointment or in an interview.

As with any ‘professional’ – doctor, teacher, lawyer – you would expect a BSL interpreter to be registered with a professional body and to undertake regular professional development. In the UK, the two bodies are ASLI and VLP who ensure their members are qualified and insured. They also require their members to update their skills and knowledge through obligatory CPD.

Something that often gets conflated with being ‘qualified’ is the term ‘registered’. In the UK two bodies regulate qualified and trainee interpreters: NRCPD and RSBLI – these organisations check that an interpreter is appropriately qualified and allows them to be listed on their books. As a consumer, if you are not happy with the conduct of an interpreter, you can approach their regulatory body and make a complaint.

Interpreters are not required to register with a body and if an interpreter is not, it doesn’t mean that they are not qualified or not professional – but be aware that if you are not happy, you won’t have anyone to complain to. Registration is encouraged within the industry as it ensures a professional standard and protects the consumer.

You will see these terms: RSLI – registered sign language interpreter (who have a yellow ID badge) – and TSLI – trainee sign language interpreter (with a purple ID badge).

Skill is a whole other discussion. Just because someone is qualified and an RSLI, it does not mean that they are the best person for all jobs. Interpreters have different skill sets which vary from person to person. They may be more comfortable or more competent with certain types of interpreting over others.

Find out what your interpreter’s strengths are, and check if they match the skills you require. This is why it is important to give as much information as possible when making a booking. Telling an interpreter you need them ‘for a meeting’ is not going to give them enough information to decide if they are right for the job or not. ‘A performance review meeting’ or ‘a meeting with the Board to discuss fiscal planning’ – they are two very different things with different skill sets!

Equally, if you attend a lot of conferences, you’ll need an interpreter who feels comfortable and competent in the conference arena. If the conference is focused on International Policy, Finance or Legal matters, you will want an interpreter who works in that field regularly and will be able to process the information accurately.

Using a sign language interpreter on Google Meet

With the boom in work-from-home, interpreters can provide their services remotely through Skype, Zoom, Teams or other platforms. Many interpreters have invested in their technical set up to ensure high quality services… others have not. If you need to use remote services, ask an interpreter to send a picture of their set up. If they are sitting in a cluttered room with bad lighting, that is probably not good enough for your needs. Some interpreters struggle when working online, others specialise in it, so ask the interpreter their experience and make sure they are happy working remotely on various platforms.

3. Be upfront about your budget 

Staying on top of your finances is important, and the cost of interpreters can mount up. If you are running an event or if you are using an Access to Work budget, your budget constraints will differ. It is important to build access costs into project and event budgets from the start – if you have to suddenly find money for interpreters days before an event, you are going to struggle.

Be upfront with your interpreter about your budget from the start. Together you can agree on a fair rate per hour, session or time frame. Recommended rates can be found from the interpreter’s union: NUBSLI

The fee will depend on the context where you are using the interpreter. Working in the evening work, being filmed, or working alone are likely to have an effect on the cost.

No-one likes to fight over money, so be reasonable and open. Appreciate that the interpreter is a professional who has invested in their career progression to reach this point. At the same time, interpreters need to appreciate that you are maybe not the person controlling the purse strings.

If you are not sure about Access to Work, visit the Deaf Access to Work website for advice. If you need to save money, be careful about going for a trainee or unqualified person, as at the end of the day, you get what you pay for.

4. Prepare useful information 

Starting with a new interpreter? Have an important event where presenters have been practicing for weeks? Make the process as smooth as possible by preparing some key information to help the interpreter understand your specific needs.

For example, if you’re using an interpreter for employment purposes, you could provide them with an outline of your job description, responsibilities, regular daily tasks, team structure, jargon and any meetings or training you’ll need them to interpret. You could offer for them to shadow another interpreter you use, so they can see what is involved and make sure they are comfortable and know how you to like to work.

If you have an event, remember that for the interpreters to give their best, they need time to prepare. Provide them with all the slide-decks and behind-the-scenes information and invite them to the technical run-throughs. As mentioned, see them as part of the event team, not a bolt-on. They most likely are the expert in the room when it comes to access, so involve them in the preparation.

5. Be fair and professional 

Your interpreter is providing a service to support all parties and your communication event, so respect is important across the board.

Be fair and professional in your working relationship, and make sure you give the interpreter regular breaks. They are a human too, so they can be affected by the topic under discussion and can become exhausted if the content is intense or protracted.

Interpreters must also follow a code of conduct, which gives them certain rules and regulations to abide by such as confidentiality. Trust that they are working with your best interests at the forefront and be open with them about how you would like to work.

If you feel an interpreter is not acting professionally or has breached your confidentiality, you can make a formal complaint via the regulatory board they are registered with.

3 Key Takeaways: 

  1. Find an interpreter that matches your needs using databases or through a recommendation. Make sure to check the interpreter’s skill set and qualifications.
  2. Be prepared – help your interpreter understand you and your needs by preparing key information before the session.
  3. Be fair and professional – be upfront with your needs and your budget, and always treat your interpreter as a respected colleague.


Planning on interpreting online or using Zoom? Take a look at our tips for using BSL interpreters on Zoom here.

If you would like to write for Deaf Unity and share your journey, your personal experience of deafness or learning in education or employment, get in touch!

Looking for more support? We’ve made it our mission to improve the lives of deaf people everywhere. Check out Deaf Unity’s projects to find out what we can do for you. If you’d like to get in touch, contact us here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *