About Auslan-English Interpreting

Auslan-English interpreters work in very much the same way as spoken language interpreters do.  That is, the aims and outcomes of the interpreting process remain the same.

There are a number of areas where Auslan-English interpreting work does differ to that of our spoken language colleagues working in Australia.

These include, but are not limited to:

  • practicalities in positioning the interpreter
  • the domains in which interpreting occurs
  • consideration of the Deaf client’s language use
  • team interpreting

Practical Differences

In a setting where there are only two parties – the English speaker and the non-English speaker – spoken language interpreters usually either sit next to the non-English speaking client or, where possible, in “neutral” space between the two speakers.  This is called triad interpreting.

In a triad setting, an Auslan-English interpreter will always sit opposite to the Auslan user, next to the English speaker.  This is so the Auslan user is able to see both the interpreter AND the English speaker with whom they are communicating.  This is very important for a number of reasons, not least of which is that eye contact is crucial for Deaf people.

In a meeting setting, an Auslan-English interpreter will again sit opposite to the Auslan user, but will usually ask who will chair the meeting and/or who is most likely to speak the most during the meeting.  Depending upon circumstances, the interpreter may change his or her position during the meeting.  This may occur if the main speaker shifts to another person for a significant period of time or if some type of overhead visual presentation is used for part of the meeting.

Finally, in larger settings where there is a speaker addressing an audience, an Auslan-English interpreter will stand as close as is practicable to the speaker.

Domain Differences

In Australia, spoken language interpreters often work across a broad range of domains (e.g.  medical, legal, Centrelink and other government departments, etc.).

This is also true for Auslan-English interpreters; however, there are some specific differences.  The most common one is that Auslan-English interpreters will work in the classroom in educational settings (primary, secondary and post-secondary) where spoken language interpreters do not.  English is the language of education in Australia and those who speak a language other than English are expected to participate in their education in English.

Deaf children and adults cannot access the spoken language of the classroom and so sign language interpreters are used to make the classroom accessible.

Similarly, Auslan-English interpreters are regularly used in the workplace and their use is supported by the Australian Government’s Employment Assistance Fund (EAF).

Another difference is that Disability Discrimination Law enshrines the right of Auslan users to protection under the law to access all aspects of the community.  For a sign language user, this means an interpreter.  There are no such legal protections for non-English speakers’ right to an interpreter.

Spectrum of Language Use and Language Variation

Auslan-English interpreters need to be able to adjust to a broad range of language use and/or preferences of Deaf consumers in relation to interpretation.  Within the sign language that is used in Australia, there is significant language variation.

Briefly this includes, but is not limited to:

  • Australian Sign Language (Auslan), which is the primary language of most Deaf individuals. Auslan is a language with its own grammar, structure and pragmatics. It is not English nor is it a visual form of English.  It is unique to Australia [i.e.  sign language is not universal].  There are two clear, distinguishable Auslan dialects, known as the Northern and Southern dialects.  As well, similar to spoken English, there are also notable language variations between states and, sometimes, even within states.
  • Auslan signed in English, which is used by some Deaf people – often professionals – whereby Auslan signs are produced in a grammatical structure that more closely reflects English grammatical structures. Often, fingerspelling of English words are more heavily used.
  • Signed English, which is a system – not a language in its own right – of signing to exactly replicate the English language. This system is usually used in compulsory educational settings and consists of signs that have been specifically contrived for the purpose of replicating the English language as well as including some Auslan signs that have been borrowed.  After leaving compulsory education, most Deaf people cease using Signed English as a “total” language approach; however, they often retain some of the lexical items (signs) from Signed English, using them in a more traditional Auslan grammatical structure.
  • Indigenous Sign Language, which, as the name implies, is used by some Deaf people from an Indigenous background. These individuals may use a dialect or even a variation of standard Australian Sign Language.  For example, Deaf people from Far North Queensland may use Torres Strait Islander Sign Language, Aboriginal Sign Language or a mixture of both.

A professional interpreter is expected to understand language variation and be flexible enough to work within this wide spectrum.

Team Interpreting

In spoken language interpreting in Australia, it is commonly the case that an interpreter works on his or her own.  Often this is the true even for assignments which are highly demanding, such as all-day court interpreting.

In the Auslan-English interpreting field, for assignments that are highly demanding and/or that exceed two hours in length, two interpreters are used.  This is done in order to provide physical breaks – as overuse injuries do occur – as well as to ensure that the quality of interpretation is maintain over time.  To elucidate, even though one interpreter is “resting” he or she is still monitoring the work of the working interpreter, providing prompts and support to ensure the integrity of the interpretation.

On occasion, a Deaf Interpreter may also be required to work in tandem with an Auslan-English interpreter.  This person may be fluent in a language other than English or Auslan (i.e.  an Indigenous Sign Language or a foreign sign language) or may have specialised skills in ‘unpacking’ Auslan and delivering a modified, highly visual form of signs and gestures for Deaf clients who may have special language needs.