Stealth SLI: Extreme Interpreting

Our Stealth SLI is back, talking about the extreme environments that an interpreter find themselves in…

No, I don’t mean interpreting at the top of a mountain whilst body-boarding, mid-bungee jumping…but how cool would that be….!

Interpreting assignments can vary from (let’s be frank) dull, to average, to out-of-this-world, Sophie’s-Choice, get-me-a-tissue emotional. Personally, I prefer a nice mixture of mundane and marvellous- but each ‘terp to his/her own.

If you come across a booking for a wedding/birth/funeral, it is imperative that you prep yourself with the heaviest, sturdiest Armour going, before even clicking the ‘reply’ button. Ask yourself: Just how thick is your skin? Have you been through a trauma yourself lately? Are you the sensitive, softie type? A ‘Terminator’ type of terp, or somewhere in between? If you aren’t sure, you’re about to find out, and it might hurt a bit…or you may surprise yourself.

We are all mortal, and we must prepare ourselves for the reality of human emotion and its impact on us. Being such an integral and visible part of someone’s special or sad day is even more challenging than usual. It is our duty to remain outwardly impartial, no matter how loudly we are sobbing inside. It’s only natural to feel emotion when faced with elation, devastation, agony or grief, even when the participants are entirely unknown to us. Our role is that of a conduit translator, not a robot, but the last thing the families need is to see you tearing up.

Think realistically about all the possible reactions you may experience on the day and how you plan to manage each eventuality, bearing in mind that the day ahead is likely to be unpredictable (much like all terpy tasks). If it helps, write a list of previous similar experiences you may have had and think back to how they made you feel. Talking to other, more experienced interpreters is likely to be useful, too.

For a funeral I recently interpreted (my first one), I was emailed the order of service a few days before. Reading through, I got a real picture of the deceased; their life, family, hobbies, and personality. The pamphlet was filled with funny memories, beautiful family photos, several songs and some exceptionally touching tributes. I sat down at home, had a good read, listened to the songs, had a good cry, and dealt with my personal reactions in private.

This permitted me to move through the service knowing what was coming and being able to remain professional and dispassionate…I’m no Ice Queen, so it went against many of my natural responses, but I feel I did myself proudly as I did not let my emotions impinge upon the job at hand. However, don’t beat yourself up if you feel you are getting emotional- take a deep breath, and remind yourself of your role and aims for the day.

No two funerals, christenings, weddings, or births are the same; as obvious a statement that is, it does help us to remember that just because we managed one without shedding a tear, not all will be as manageable. Just keep that professional mask of yours well glued on.

Here are a few thoughts for interpreting funerals/weddings:

  • Dress code- is there one? If so, follow it. If in doubt, smart, dark colours are probably your best bet
  • Are you expected to go to the wake/reception? If so, is that as an interpreter or guest?
  • Songs/hymns- do the D/deaf people want you to interpret these? If so, in what format (SSE/BSL/other)? YouTube can be very useful for signed songs, but make sure they use the correct language!
  • Speeches/eulogies- do you have a script? Will you be providing voiceover/using a mic?
  • Positioning- where does the D/deaf audience want you? I was asked to make myself as inconspicuous as possible at one funeral and to stand on a platform at another
  • Invoicing- it is best to organise payment prior to the service, as discussing your pay cheque after the service is far from comfortable
  • Religious terminology and customs – are there any religious customs you need to be aware of?  Do you have knowledge of religious vocabulary? If not, speak to an experienced interpreter, or refer to one of the websites or interpreter Facebook groups around, which may help

Here are a few religious BSL websites:

For Christian ceremonies, look at, or contact Signs of God

Muslim Deaf UK could help you prepare for Islamic ceremonies; take a look at
The Jewish Deaf Association may help with Jewish services, have a look at
Consult The Catholic Deaf Association for Catholic ceremonies.cda-uk.comIt is worth Googling BSL signs for the appropriate conviction prior to attending the service.Good luck, and learn as much as you can from each extreme interpreting scenario, and (dare I say it)…enjoy it if you can!