Placing a sign language interpreter at center stage for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was a sign of respect for the deaf community in South Africa and around the world. But that act was overshadowed by the interpreter’s failings. Kojo talks with the chair of Gallaudet University’s Department of Interpretation about how interpreters are trained and certified and what the norms are in their profession.


  • Melanie Metzger Chair, Department of Interpretation, Gallaudet University

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  • 13:06:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, author Paul Dickson, rules for life, "The Official Rules," like Murphy's law, if something can go wrong, it will. But, first, an impressive array of world leaders praise the incredible life and legacy of former South African President Nelson Mandela at a memorial service in Johannesburg last weekend. But it's the sign language interpreter standing just a few feet from President Obama and other dignitaries at the podium that everyone is still talking about.

  • 13:07:28

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe man was apparently a fraud, moving his hands in signs that were not recognizable in any of the world's many sign languages. He later said that he suffers from schizophrenia and heard voices in his head during the service. His bizarre story raises serious concerns about security and how he entered up at center stage at such a momentous event. But it also raises questions about how interpreters for the deaf are trained and certified, and the need for skilled sign language interpreters around the world. Joining me to talk about sign language interpreting is Melanie Metzger.

  • 13:08:08

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe is chair of the Department of Interpretation at Gallaudet University here in Washington D.C. Melanie Metzger is going to communicate in American sign language, which you can watch on a live video stream on our website, You can also follow a live captioning of this discussion on our website. The voice you hear interpreting for Melanie is that of Carolyn Ressler from Gallaudet Interpreting Service. Melanie Metzger, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:08:42


  • 13:08:44

    NNAMDIYou, too, can join this conversation. Call us at 800-433-8850. Do you know American sign language or international sign language? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Have you worked as a sign language interpreter? You can also send email to or send us a tweet at kojoshow. Melanie Metzger, what should the South African interpreter have been doing? Which sign language should he have been translating into at an event like the memorial service that was being watched around the world?

  • 13:09:23

    METZGERWell, I guess that would depend. I mean, obviously, one of the options would be for him to use South African sign language. But, in addition to that, sometimes at international events, as this was, they will use international signs. So either one of those options would have been acceptable. A third option might be to have several interpreters available, each of them using their native, indigenous sign languages. So that would have been what the conference organizers would have stipulated for that kind of an event.

  • 13:09:52

    NNAMDICan you describe international sign language and how it differs from American sign language?

  • 13:09:59

    METZGERWell, you know, every country has an indigenous natural sign language that's true for that particular country. There may be one or two or more than that, actually, in each country. But often sign languages have certain features, linguistic features, that are shared among different sign languages. And this is also true with spoken languages. There are language families, if you will. So those linguistic features are put together and agreed upon.

  • 13:10:23

    METZGERAnd shared lexicons or signs are used to create an international way of communicating with individuals, so that many signers from around the world are able to communicate with one another.

  • 13:10:32

    NNAMDIIt is my understanding that American sign language has more in common with French sign language than with British sign language. Why is that?

  • 13:10:45

    METZGERWell, actually, sign language was developed through the history of the deaf community. And, that being the case, it just so happened that in the United States, here, someone from the United States actually traveled to France and was able to understand their model of teaching deaf children, and brought that teaching, pedagogue, back to the United States. And, as a result, those two languages influenced one another.

  • 13:11:07

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. You can also send us a tweet at kojoshow. Have you ever held an event where you needed a sign language interpreter? How did you find that interpreter? You can also go to our website, Ask a question or make a comment there. The phone number, again, 800-433-8850. We're talking with Melanie Metzger. She is chair of the Department of Interpretation at Gallaudet University. Here, in the United States, what does it take to become a professional sign language interpreter? How are interpreters trained? How are they certified?

  • 13:11:46

    METZGERWell, there are two parts to that answer. First, there's the instruction of teaching an individual to become an interpreter. That's the educational component. But there's also the assessment that's required to determine if a person is able to be certified. In the educational end of things, we offer different types of degrees and different levels of degrees. Here, at Gallaudet University, we offer a B.A. Degree, which is a four-year degree in sign language interpreting. We also offer a Master's Degree in that same subject matter.

  • 13:12:11

    METZGERAnd both of these programs teach individuals who already fluent in American sign language, how it is they are to understand the cognitive processes and the work that's required, mentally, and the social interaction requirements to allow for professional interpreting to happen.

  • 13:12:29

    NNAMDIYou also offer a Ph.D in sign language interpretation. What would that entail?

  • 13:12:38

    METZGERRight. Actually we have offered the very first doctoral program in sign language interpreting in the world at Gallaudet University. And, in this particular program, there are three options for our students. We can look more at the research to help ourselves better understand the multiple issues as they relate to sign language interpreting. In addition, we prepare interpreters in teaching interpretation or interpreter pedagogue. And, thirdly, people are able to combine both of those two earlier aspects and create a program.

  • 13:13:05

    METZGERThe doctoral program requires individuals to have already been certified and already having experience as a working interpreter.

  • 13:13:11

    NNAMDICan you describe the three areas you teach each of your students, from what happens in your brain when you listen to one language and translate into another to the protocols of making logistical arrangements for interpreting?

  • 13:13:28

    METZGERSure. Absolutely. The process of interpreting on a cognitive level is quite complex. So, when someone's actually interpreting between any two languages, be they spoken languages or sign language, it does require that an individual is able to take in that source message and fully comprehend its meaning and then, in the way of processing it, able to create meaning in that target language and express that meaning. So that's the first step that we do in our program, is to teach students how to better understand what language means and how you manipulate that language to get to the meaning of it.

  • 13:13:59

    METZGERAnd then how you separate two languages and create meaning from one language to the other language. And that's the process that the interpreter's learning to translate those languages. And that does take time. We have the student's first come to an understanding of how to conceptually translate meaning in a consecutive fashion, from one language to another. So someone might be using spoken language or sign language, and then, after a short period of time, they're asked to pause while the interpreter thinks over the meaning and then is able to produce that interpretation.

  • 13:14:28

    METZGERSo the process of consecutive interpreting is just seen to be the most accurate. But, of course, in the world we live in today, simultaneous interpreting is much more desired. And, in that case, interpreters have to have the skill to take in that source message, understand the meaning and simultaneously produce a target message having the same equivalent message. It's very complex, but there are, of course, issues of messages -- information being deleted just because the cognitive process being as complex as it is.

  • 13:14:55

    METZGERSo, this being the case, our program really teaches students to better understand the cognitive processes. And that's one of the skills that we work with our students on developing. And then there's the social process that comes to interpreting. You know, any time you talk about language -- language occurs in different specific situations, be they medical situations or legal situations, mental health arenas, business arenas, government, education, and a variety of other settings.

  • 13:15:21

    NNAMDIOur guest is Melanie Metzger. She is chair of the Department of Interpretation at Gallaudet University. She's communicating in American sign language. You can watch on a live video stream on our website, You can also follow a live captioning of this discussion on our website. The voice you hear interpreting for Melanie is that of Carolyn Ressler from Gallaudet Interpreting Service. You can also call with your questions or comments, 800-433-8850. How important do you think it is for sign language interpreters to be certified? 800-433-8850.

  • 13:15:54

    NNAMDIOr you can send email to Melanie Metzger, what was your reaction and the reaction on campus at Gallaudet to the interpreter at the Mandela memorial?

  • 13:16:09

    METZGERWell, you know, that's a very good question. I think there were different layers of experience that people had in terms of their reaction -- first one being that of outrage that, at such an important international event, that deaf people, of course, wanted access to be able to understand what was happening. Nelson Mandela was a staunch supporter of the deaf community in South Africa and, of course, a human rights proponent throughout the world.

  • 13:16:32

    METZGERAnd so there were some comments as well that it was understood that, in that particular situation at the memorial service, this has brought worldwide attention to the issue of sign language interpreting and communication rights that come from that for people who are deaf and the deaf community. So that's an issue that's often overlooked. So bringing highlight and attention to that issue and understanding how it impacted a number of deaf people was seen positively.

  • 13:16:56

    METZGERPeople around the world who are deaf face this issue of having unqualified interpreters in their doctors' offices, in their schools -- and sometimes they've endured this for a number of years -- as well as in their places of employment or in the courthouse. So these types of situations impact people's daily lives. They can be life or death situations. I mean, think about the educational development that happens in the school setting and how critical it is, in terms of a human rights issue, to have qualified interpreters.

  • 13:17:20

    METZGERSo, in that sense, it's a good thing to actually bring worldwide attention to the issue of sign language interpreters and qualities. And that's an issue that's often overlooked.

  • 13:17:28

    NNAMDIOften overlooked because of this incident in South Africa, a lot of people I know who are deaf or people who have deaf friends said their deaf friends told them that they would be surprised at how often this occurs. And what you seem to be saying is, that incident brings that reality to the attention of the hearing world.

  • 13:17:49

    METZGERYes, exactly. You know, to have a qualified interpreter at that particular event or in the lives of people on a daily basis really comes down to three issues. One relates to the education of sign language interpreters, as I've mentioned. And there are academic programs throughout the United States and around the world that address the educational component. Secondly, you know, to have the ability to analyze a person's skill and assess as to whether or not they have the qualifications and they have the professional ethics to function in that capacity is another component.

  • 13:18:20

    METZGERThirdly, you have to satisfy the hiring criteria. And all three of those components are very important. So you might have skilled interpreters. And you may also have interpreters who are certified. But if those individuals who -- hiring agencies are not hiring those qualified skilled interpreters, then communication access is still a barrier.

  • 13:18:39

    NNAMDIYou have said interpreters often translate from their second language into their first. Can you explain that and explain why it's preferable?

  • 13:18:51

    METZGERWell, that's often true if you look at spoken language interpreters as well as sign language interpreters. So, if you have options to interpret from your L2, your second language to your first language, your L1 -- that language that you're most fluent in is the language that you would typically want to express your interpretation in, because that's the most natural use of your language. Going from your second language to your first language is preferable. Not that that always happens. It's not always required.

  • 13:19:16

    METZGERBut, nonetheless, people do have a preference towards working in that direction of language interpretation.

  • 13:19:21

    NNAMDIWhy is there a growing trend to work with deaf translators and deaf interpreters? And how does it work?

  • 13:19:32

    METZGERWell, one reason for this growing trend is because deaf individuals have been raised using American sign language as their native language, their L1 language. And so, that being the case, deaf interpreters are working in a variety of different settings including international settings, international types of arenas, sometimes working from one particular indigenous sign language into international sign language, or from international sign language into a specific language of sign language.

  • 13:19:59

    METZGERAlso there are deaf-blind individuals who want to be able to have access to a visual language. And they do that through the use of either close vision or tactile interpreting, as provided by a deaf interpreter. And there are also individuals who will work with hearing interpreters and they will actually get the source message fed to them through a hearing interpreter who is seated in the audience. And the deaf interpreter stands on stage and gets the message fed to them in the American sign language and they reproduce that for the audience.

  • 13:20:24

    METZGERSo there are a number of ways that deaf interpreters are used. Sometimes they also work from a frozen text where they actually take a text that's in a written language and express it in a sign language. So there's a number of ways that deaf interpreters work in the area of translating and interpreting.

  • 13:20:37

    NNAMDIAre there any international norms for certification, because I think what bothered me most about what I saw in South Africa was that we had no information after the event about how this individual was vetted, how this individual was certified and how this individual was chosen. Are there any international norms for certification?

  • 13:21:03

    METZGERWell, I think we're talking here about a couple of different things. Certification is one of those things and the other is actually the hiring of interpreters. And that's a little bit different from certification. When it comes to certification there is no international certifying body. There is an organization called WASLI and that's the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters. That association actually works to promote international use of professional sign language interpreters around the world.

  • 13:21:30

    METZGERBut generally speaking right now, even here in the United States we have a national organization, which is the registry of interpreters for the deaf RID. And that association provides a certification exam for interpreters. Some states actually offer an examination to assess an interpreter's skills and qualifications. And in addition, agencies -- individual agencies will offer screening tests as well to vet their interpreters before hire.

  • 13:21:55

    METZGERSo there are a number of ways that we can evaluate interpreter skills. Even after they've completed their preparation, their education study, there's then a separate issue of actually going about hiring working interpreters. And that probably is perhaps the most challenging issue of this whole issue because often the hiring agencies are not qualified assessors of interpreting. They're not involved in the deaf community. They don't know the sign language. And so those individuals have to make sure they have connections with people who do know how to go about finding a qualified interpreter, a certified interpreter to ensure that quality interpretation is provided.

  • 13:22:29

    NNAMDIWe had a caller Jeannie who couldn't stay on the line who wants to know, "Why is it called interpretation and not translation?"

  • 13:22:40

    METZGERWell, actually when you think of the word translation -- and this is particular to our field of study -- when you think about translation you're thinking about working between two languages and translation. You're working from a frozen text, something that's in written form to another kind of frozen text or written text form. And that's how we describe it in the field of interpretation. Translation is something that you actually are given sufficient time to read and research, get resources to better understand the text as it's written and then produce a similarly written interpretation of a different language.

  • 13:23:15

    METZGERInterpretation, however, when we're working with individuals either face to face communication or we may be using technologies, video phones and that sort of thing to provide interpretation between two languages. There's less time involved. It actually can be done in a consecutive or simultaneous way. So that's the best way to describe it.

  • 13:23:36

    NNAMDILet's go to the phones and talk with Laura in Silver Spring, Md. Laura, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:23:43

    LAURAHi, Kojo. Thank you very much for taking my call. I want to bring up something that a lot of people aren't familiar with. It's called cued speech. It's spelled C-U-E-D. I have a son that is deaf -- born deaf and has a cochlear implant. And it's one of the modalities that we found that is most helpful in allowing him access to language on top of what his implant gives him. And this is something that it's familiar in this area, but -- and other areas of the country. And I'd like to have people's opinions or just talk about your familiarity with cued speech.

  • 13:24:15

    NNAMDIWell, we can certainly get Melanie Metzger's opinion about it. Melanie Metzger.

  • 13:24:23

    METZGERWell, cuing is something very different from using a natural sign language. So if someone invents some kind of a handshake and combines that with a lip movement that allows you to show the way that the spoken language can be reduced in the visual form, and it's suggested that sometime in the past that this might be equivalent to providing language access to individuals who are deaf. When you're working with someone who's translating from cued speech to a spoken language, it's a very different process that takes place in your brain because you're processing more on a phonological level. And you're providing a translation and -- in that level.

  • 13:25:00

    METZGERSo it's a bit different from looking at interpretation where you're using a visual language, American sign language and you're using what we call more of a translation -- or rather a transliteration between that language and another.

  • 13:25:15

    NNAMDIMelanie Metzger is chair of the Department of Interpretation at Gallaudet University. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:25:22

    METZGERAnd thank you very much.

  • 13:25:23

    NNAMDIThe voice you heard interpreting for Melanie is that of Carolyn Ressler from Gallaudet Interpreting Service. Carolyn Ressler, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:25:33


  • 13:25:33

    NNAMDIAnd our thanks of course go out to the Speech Communications and for providing the live captioning for our conversation today. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, author Paul Dickson rules for life, the official rules like Murphy's law if something can go wrong it will. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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