Translation, interpretation, transliteration in sign language

What are the differences between translation and transliteration? Translators and interpreters? How do Deaf bilinguals use languages? What is glossing?

Translators and interpreters

Translators and interpreters, though both share the same passion (i.e. love for language), are two different professionals. Mainly the difference lies in the medium and time.

An interpreter translates orally, while a translator interprets written text. ASL-English interpretation is a live translation from one language into another language in a real-time activity. In contrast, translators, translate written materials from one language into another language, which is not bound by time limitations.

Regardless of the modalities, both languages are different -- languages of their own. ASL and English are two distinct languages, independent of each other. It sounds like a common sense, but many hearing people aren't aware of that.

Simultaneous and consecutive interpreting

Two modes of interpretation are simultaneous and consecutive.

In simultaneous interpretation, an interpreter works in real-time, listening to what is being said (whether spoken or spoken) in one language and concurrently translating it in another language with a few seconds delay.

This modes requires interpreters to be skillful enough to quickly translate, because there is very little processing time between L1 and L2 languages. Ideally, simultaneous interpreters prepare by reviewing other materials available before an event, a class, or other presentation.

In consecutive interpretation, an interpreter listens the whole message before interpreting what the speaker said to the other speaker. And, then the interpreter listens to the other person's message before interprets back to the speaker. This takes more time, but with processing time between L1 and L2, it gives more accurate message in either languages.

Simultenous interpreting is commonly used in ASL-English interpretation in any situations. Consecutive interpreting is occasionally, if not rarely, used. Although, simultaneous interpreters can often ask for clarification and repetition to ensure that the interpretation is as accurate as possible.

Deaf and hearing interpreters

There are two groups of ASL-English interpreters. One is a hearing certified interpreter whose native language is usually the spoken language (e.g. English) and the second (non-native) language is ASL. The other group is bilingual Deaf certified interpreter whose native language may be ASL and they are fluent in English. (Be aware that for some deaf bilinguals, English may be their first language and ASL as their second language, since many deaf children attend mainstream schools.)

In spoken languages, interpreters generally work into their native language, meaning they listen in their second language and execute into their native language. This is not the case in sign language interpreting profession. It's often a native language for hearing clients and a second language for Deaf clients, because the majority of hearing interpreters are not native to signed languages. The hearing interpreters who are the most fluent in ASL are often coda (children of Deaf parents) and a few talented ones.

For interpreting between Deaf ASL speakers and hearing English speakers, hearing interpreters are commonly used. However, for translating from English text into ASL (target language), Deaf interpreters native to ASL (L1) are (and should be!) hired for a maximum quality and fluency of language for ASL speakers.

In one real-live scenario, a bilingual Deaf interpreter was hired to interpret for a young Deaf student in a post-secondary course due to unavailable hearing interpreters. How? The Deaf interpreter worked with a captioner who listened and typed onto the laptop while the Deaf interpreter translated from English text into native ASL.


Transliteration is a word by word literal translation from a target language text into the source language to understand the grammatical structure of the target language. This method is known as glossing.

It's used in linguistics classes, some advanced ASL classes, and some ASL-English interpretating classes for analysis and writing notes.

You may see a common use of transliteration in Deaf-hosted meetings at a club or organization where a Deaf president or representative reads aloud a letter from English text into ASL transliteration (especially when a projector is not available). Another common use of transliteration is the titles of books, movies, etc.

It's not unusual that many Deaf bilinguals use some short literal translations (transliteration) here and there for interpreters to convey how they want interpreters to use the terms instead of other possible interpreted phrases or words to avoid misunderstandings or undesirable choices of words.

Deaf bilinguals sometimes use word or phrase transliteration in their daily languages (e.g. an ASL gloss in written English or English gloss in ASL).

Deaf bilinguals

In modern time, nearly all Deaf signers in North America are bilingual (or some multilingual) in ASL and English and sometimes other additional languages.

In the past, many deaf signers were fluent or native in ASL (or other signed languages) but might not be fluent in written (and/or spoken) language used by hearing speakers due to the oppression of language acquisition in their first (signed) language or primary language through eye. Sign language was forbidden in oral schools, hearing teachers were not fluent in sign language, and so on.

However, in modern time since the 1980s, bilingualism was introduced into deaf schools and sign language became more accepted. Bilingual deaf children acquire languages to the full-fledged and become fluent in hearing people's written language (regardless of the speech skills which are variable).

While most hearing interpreters (except for many codas) acquire signed language later in adult life, Deaf ASL-speaking bilinguals acquire both languages from early age and they are "inner interpreters" on a daily basis -- speaking ASL and writing/reading English all the times.

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