Discover the world of sign language interpretation

Posted on September 21, 2020

Sign language interpreters have always shown incredible adaptability in their work. Regardless of the language or client, sign language interpreters around the world must quickly grasp the meaning of a speech while listening to it and then render the message as faithfully as possible. Simultaneous interpretation allows the audience to follow the message in real time. As you can imagine, this no small feat during a health crisis like the one we’ve been experiencing since March 2020.

Journey to the heart of a quickly growing field

Did you know that several sign languages are used in Canada? They are American Sign Language, langue des signes québécoise (Quebec Sign Language), Maritime Sign Language and Indigenous sign languages. Sign languages are languages in their own right; they have their own grammar and syntax, which are distinct from those of spoken languages.

In Canada, some colleges and universities provide training in sign language interpretation. According to the Association québécoise des interprètes en langues des signes (Quebec association of sign language interpreters), sign language interpreters must be very adaptable, as they’re required to work in a variety of environments and deal with situations that can change very quickly.Footnote 1 Despite the various training programs offered across the country, there aren’t enough sign language interpreters to meet the increasing demand.

Challenges faced by interpreters in 2020

During the COVID-19 pandemic, interpretation services were sought to cover various media scrums and daily press conferences. However, a significant increase in demand, attributed to a desire to better meet accessibility standards, had already been noted long before the pandemic. Businesses and institutions across the country were increasingly using the services of sign language interpreters. In addition to having to meet the high demand, these language professionals had to deal with a daunting challenge during the pandemic: the appearance of new terms and expressions, and rarely used words. Commonly used expressions like “flattening the curve” were fairly easy to interpret. However, you can only imagine the cognitive effort required to correctly and quickly interpret the term “ageusia,” which is rarely used in everyday language. According to the Translation Bureau’s Glossary on the COVID-19 pandemic (opens in new tab), “ageusia” is the complete or partial loss of the sense of taste. The emergence of neologisms and scientific terms as the health crisis progressed pushed interpreters to demonstrate exceptional creativity in addition to their usual professionalism. When encountering completely new words with which no sign had ever been associated, interpreters had to use various approaches, including paraphrasing and spelling.

Sign language interpreters relay information to sign language users. Interpreters must understand the message, take ownership of it and re-express it. This requires them to use facial expressions (which are essential elements of sign language grammar), make extremely precise gestures (in terms of physical points of contact, rotation, movement, etc.), use various approaches to render neologisms, and establish a line of communication with the audience, all while maintaining the speaker’s rhythm.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, sign language interpreters have been working closely with members of Canada’s Deaf community to ensure that they correctly express concepts and are understood. Keeping up with current affairs, understanding national and international issues, and carefully preparing for assignments are part of interpreters’ everyday reality and are the keys to quality interpretation. Because televised media scrums and press conferences have been interpreted into sign languages, the Deaf and hard of hearing communities have had access to crucial information. Interpreters have therefore played, and continue to play, an essential role in the transmission of information relating to the COVID-19 health crisis.

Accessible Canada Act

The Accessible Canada Act came into effect on July 11, 2019. Its purpose is to identify and remove barriers to accessibility, and prevent new barriers in areas of federal jurisdiction, so as to make Canada a barrier-free country. The Act states that American Sign Language, langue des signes québécoise and Indigenous sign languages are recognized as the languages most commonly used by Deaf persons in Canada to communicate.

As a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Canada has committed to ensuring “the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities.”Footnote 2 Canada also recognizes that sign languages and spoken languages have equal status.

Sign languages in a nutshell

The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed September 23 the International Day of Sign Languages with the goal of celebrating and encouraging the use of sign languages. According to the United Nations, there are 300 sign languages in the world.Footnote 3

There are several professional associations of interpreters and various groups for Deaf persons. In Canada, the most well-known organization is the Canadian Association of the Deaf (opens in new tab), which is affiliated with the World Federation of the Deaf (opens in new tab).

If you’d like to know more about this topic, the Language Portal of Canada has compiled a list of resources relating to sign language learning and interpreter training in the Sign languages section of the Collection of Canadian language resources (opens in new tab).

The bloggers would like to thank Marie-Christine Carrière and Anne Missud for their valuable contributions to this post.

Translated by Denise Ramsankar, Language Portal of Canada


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Frank Folino and Mélanie Guay

Frank Folino and Mélanie Guay

Frank Folino was born Deaf. His lived experience has helped him in his role as Special Advisor, Strategic Policy, Planning and Analysis on Accessibility, at the Translation Bureau. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science with Honours. He enjoys collaborating on various national and international projects in both his professional and personal life.

Mélanie Guay is a communications advisor with the Language Portal of Canada. She holds a master’s in education and a bidisciplinary bachelor’s in French and moral education. She enjoys collaborating on various projects in both her professional and her personal life. In fact, she spends countless hours volunteering in the field of sports and in other areas.


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