Requirements of educational sign language interpreters being altered

Story by Shannon Hunter

Should educational interpreters of American Sign Language master the subject they’re interpreting as well as the language? Some say no, while others involved in the culture are beginning to require it.
Currently, there is no overall agreement on what the qualifications of a certified American Sign Language interpreter should be. Specifically, whether a college degree should, or shouldn’t, be required before certification completion of educational interpreters at the college level.
Interpreting certification programs have various requirements. Some common steps include: completing a formal interpreting training program, and taking both a writing and performance test. Aside from those basic stages, different companies who hire interpreters do not always hold the same standards.
The majority of interpreting companies prefer the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) or the Registry of Interpreters of the Deaf (RID) certification for their interpreters. RID requires the interpreters they certify to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. In the past, NAD has not.
However, in 2003, NAD passed a motion that requires hearing candidates to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree starting June of 2012, and the same for deaf candidates starting in 2016.
While standards are changing within the process of certification, there are still people who believe that a degree is not necessary for educational interpreters as long as the language has been mastered.
“Having a degree is of course beneficial for anyone… That said, I do not think it is essential for an ASL interpreter to have a BA/BS degree in order to interpret for college students,” said Julie Smith, the interpreter coordinator at Salt Lake Community College.
“The certification process is very strenuous and the amount of time required to become an interpreter at the Professional State Certification (level) or to hold National Interpreter Certification literally takes years.  These folks are highly skilled in working between English and ASL,” said Smith.
Smith mentioned the advantage interpreters have going into college-level courses because of the way classes build on top of each other. She used the example of if an interpreter is assigned to a deaf student who declared a major in Engineering. The opportunity to interpret the basic classes would help in “gaining a background in the topic and then (become) more prepared to interpret in advanced/upper division courses.”
On the other hand, there are those who believe that an interpreter should have personal experience in the setting they are interpreting in.
“I strongly support interpreters to have college degrees because of the educational context, environment, and language,” said Carol MacNicholl, the coordinator of Deaf Services at the University of Utah.
Kathleen O’Connell, a student of American Sign Language at the University of Utah, agrees.
“I think of it as what you would want a tutor or a teacher’s assistant for a class to know. Even though they’re not the teacher, you want them to have at least a little background on the subject, right?” said O’Connell.
Though there is a consensus that mastering American Sign Language should be the main priority of interpreters, some people want to shine a light on the value of understanding what is being interpreted; a quality they believe should be a locked-in standard.
O’Connell said, “I would want the same for an interpreter so they themselves understand what they’re translating.”