Working with a Sign Language Interpreter In Church

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Category: Resource Sheets Published: Monday, 01 October 2007 12:59
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This resource sheet has been prepared by the Rev Mark Smith, Chaplain with Deaf people in the Diocese of Derby to provide guidance for those working with a BSL Interpreter in Church Services, meetings and special occasions like wedings and funerals.




What is British Sign Language?

British Sign Language (BSL) is the natural and preferred language of the Deaf Community in Great Britain.  There are an estimated 70 000 users.  BSL is a true language with its own rules of grammar and syntax and is capable of communicating any concept or thought.

What is a BSL Interpreter?

The role of an Interpreter is to convey information that is given in one language into another. Normally an interpreter will seek to do this without omitting or adding anything to it.

An Interpreter will normally interpret everything that occurs in the Church, including asides or any comments you make about the interpreter or deaf people.

Please don’t expect an interpreter to do anything else in a service, or to contribute in any other way when they are interpreting


It is important to get the right level of qualification fro the job


Professional interpreters will be either Members of the register of sign language interpreters (MRSLI) or if they are not yet qualified to be full members of the register they may be TI (trainee interpreter) or JTI (Junior trainee interpreter)


Other interpreters will be ASLI members (Association of Sign Language interpreters)


Sometimes church members who have a bit of Sign Language will offer to interpret for events.  While this may be better than nothing and Deaf people will often be generous to those who are “trying their best” you should be careful to ensure you have a qualified interpreter for any events of personal or spiritual significance.

Working with  a BSL Interpreter.

Normally the Interpreter would stand or sit at the front, next to the speaker and any visual aids, such as OHP screen or powerpoint display, so that the deaf people can clearly see everything without having to turn their head.  Sometimes they may sit facing a Deaf person further back in the meeting.   The Interpreter will be able to advise you on the best place for them to be, and will take into account lighting and visibility. 

Sight Lines

When deaf people are present please try not to walk backwards and forwards across front of the church, particularly if it crosses the sight line between deaf people and the Interpreter.


Please remember when using a BSL interpreter that they must be lit at all times. If you dim the lights, for example in a carol service, there must be separate lighting for the interpreter


Please remember the interpreter can’t interpret what they can’t hear. At larger services and events they may need a an additional loadspeaker to use as a monitor so they can hear the service


Try to speak at normal pace. A sign language interpreter needs to take in a whole sentence or thought before starting to interpret it. Speaking in a slow or laboured way makes their job more difficult rather than helpful.

However it is is good to avoid rushed or gabbled speech

Songs & Hymns

Unlike the sermon when the interpreter may be signing with a time lag 8-9 seconds after you speak songs are normally signed in time with the music.


It is impossible to listen, process the words into sign language and still be in time – so interpreters will need large print copies of any songs or hymns which should be given to them in advance of the service. Larger meeting may use a monitor so interpreters can see the words of song projected onm a screen without turning to look behind them.


Please rememember too that if everyone stands during a hymn – deaf people not in the front row may not be able to see the interpreter. This is particularly important at weddings and funerals where the front rows are often reserved for family members and deaf people may be sitting further back.

Responses & Liturgy

Normally the interpreter will be signing a few seconds behind the spoken word. This is usually referred to as their “time lag”. However whenever there is a spoken response the interpreter needs to “catch up” so the deaf people respond at the same time as everyone else.

It is a real help if you pause before responses to allow the interpreter to catch up so the deaf people can make their responses with the rest of the congregation

Preparatory Materials

You should aim to provide the interpreter with a copy of any songs, liturgy, and sermon notes in advance of the service

The interpreter will read these and may contact you to clarify anything they do not understand in the English.  It does not help to hand the interpreter your sermon notes 2 minutes before the service as they need to read them through before you start.


Give the interpreter as much preparation material as you can, but if you don’t write full notes for your sermon please give them outline notes. Every bit helps


The interpreter will use their advance preparation to make sure they understand clearly what you are saying and pass it on faithfully. In addition they may attend to the following points.

-          Some jokes or stories that rely on puns will fall flat in sign language, they interpreter will usually attempt to substitute something that works in sign language

-          Many allusions and expressions, won’t mean much to deaf people – the interpreter will decide where additional background information might help understanding.  Many deaf people are unfamiliar with English proverbs and  phrases andf quotations from literature or films that we take for granted. So the interpreter  and may need to find another way to make your meaning clear.

-          Sign language has a very different structure to English. An interpreter needs to hear a complete thought before starting to interpret. Knowing in advance roughly what you are going to say reduces the need for a very long time lag


Videos & recorded songs

If you intend to use  non-subtitled videos or recorded songs, you should allow the interpreter to view them first as these are very difficult to interpret if their has not been an opportunity to preview them.


Interpreting requires intense concentration, which can only be sustained for intervals of around half an hour.  After this time most interpreter’s performance will deteriorate regardless of their experience and qualifications. It is the mark of a good interpreter that they are aware of this.    If a service is scheduled to last a long time please ensure you have at least  two interpreters so that they can take turns.


At a Baptism where candidates for Baptism , parents and Godparents often come out to the font/baptistery it is often difficult for an interpreter to place themselves so they can be clearly seen by those in the congregation and Deaf people “up front” facing the congregation. Allow time to chat with your interpreter as to how this might be achieved and be ready to change you usual “layout”. If you can’t organise this in your venue you may need another interpreter or a deaf person fluent in sign language to “relay” what is signed


If the couple are deaf they will need to see the interpreter at all times.

The interpreter will also voice their vows if they are using sign language.

You will need to spend time at the rehearsal with the couple and the interpreter working out where everyone will sit and strand for maximum visibility


The practise of reading sentences from scripture out loud while leading the coffin into the chapel or church can be a problem as deaf people cannot see the interpreter. It may be best and more inclusive to walk in to the chapel silence and then read the sentences when everyone is in position

Other issues

Please use the interpreter to help you to greet and say goodbye to deaf people after church. Ensure they have access to the social side of attending church as well as to the words of the service itself.