What’s the difference between a sign language interpreter and a sign language translator?

Interpreting and translating are closely related but are, in fact, different language activities. On the surface, the only difference is in the medium. We usually see an interpreter working between spoken language and sign language, whereas a translator works from text into sign language. Here, we examine both roles and the way they help support better communication for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people.

What does a Sign Language Interpreter do?

An interpreter is usually fluent in two or more languages and works by accurately interpreting between spoken English and a signed language for all parties to understand one another. For example, if you have a meeting with a Deaf person, an interpreter will sign everything you say, as well as tell you what the Deaf person is signing in response.

Sign language interpreters are also an ideal way to provide accessibility at events. Whether it be for employees or external clients, providing sign language interpreters will allow you to meet the needs of the Deaf community, ensuring you adhere to your responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010.

BSL/English interpreters work to provide indispensable communication services, enabling inclusion and equality of access for Deaf sign language users.

Why are translators needed?

Deaf people who use a signed language communicate entirely using their vision (observing hands, arms, body, face). Signed languages can’t be written down like spoken languages and have a very different construction to spoken languages. For many sign language users, learning to read and write a language they don’t speak and can’t hear is an almost impossible task. As a result, many Deaf people do not read or write fluently, making written communication difficult and ineffective.

Translators usually work from text and provide a sign language version of the content as a video. Videos can be shared directly with a Deaf person if the content is personal or private. However, most translations are for public or customer information and uploaded to websites, used in TV programmes and in educational settings.

Key differences between translators and interpreters

While they both essential roles in improving communications for Deaf people, there are several differences between the work that translators and interpreters do, including:


Interpretation takes place in real time, whether in-person or remotely and is part of the ongoing discourse between the deaf and hearing parties. Translation projects are conducted as independent projects utilising translation, filming equipment, quality assurance and is likely to be completed by a Deaf Translator who has academic qualifications.

Duration of assignments

Interpreting is mentally challenging, which can lead to mental fatigue. Sign language interpreting is usually done simultaneously meaning that interpreters must listen, understand, translate and produce all at the same time. To combat this fatigue, interpreters will often work in pairs or groups to provide regular rest breaks and support one another. Translators tend to work alone as the work they do is completed at their own pace and filming can be stopped and started at any time. Translators may also decide to refilm some elements if they are not satisfied with recorded translation.


Sign language interpreters are in use anywhere that people need to communicate, so work across most domains. From education, medical, legal and community interpreters can be found in all areas of life. Translators mostly work in media settings and can be found in studios, TV and broadcasting and web-based content.

Why do businesses need sign language professionals?

Effective communication is crucial for businesses and organisations of all sizes.

It helps develop better relationships with colleagues, leadership and management, customers, service users and other stakeholders. It also helps to create a diverse and inclusive culture that engages everyone and doesn’t discriminate.

Regularly using BSL interpreters or translators within your business will send out a clear message that you take inclusion and accessibility seriously, care about all your staff and customers, and strive to treat them all with the same level of respect.

We provide BSL interpreting and translation services, in-person or online, plus expert consultancy, to help ensure your organisation is as accessible as possible.

All the skilled language professionals we work with are DBS-checked and NRCPD-registered and can provide a high-quality service to Deaf people across the UK.

We can also provide a range of accredited communication professionals for Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing users and employees, regardless of the type of business or organisation you operate.

To find out more, and for expert advice on which type of communication support will meet your needs, give us a call on 0843 178 0773, email bookings@signsolutions.uk.com or contact us via a BSL video interpreter.