Sign Language Interpreting

Sign language interpreting is the use of a sign language to convey the information contained in the programme audio (speech and other important sounds) to viewers who are deaf and for whom sign language is their first language.

Sign languages use hand and finger shapes, movement, body language and facial expressions to convey meaning. Sign languages differ from country to country. For example, Irish deaf people use Irish Sign Language, in India people use Indian Sign Language. Different sign languages have their own unique grammar, semantics and vocabulary. Even within a country, there are often regional dialects and differences in some of the signs used by different cultural groups. Some sign languages, such as British Sign Language (BSL), are languages in their own right with no direct mapping between the spoken language of the land and the local sign language. Other sign languages are more closely related to the spoken language or are a direct visual representation of a spoken language.

It is a commonly held misconception that the provision of subtitles removes the need for sign language interpreting on television. This is false for two reasons:

  • Sign Language is the first language of many members of
    the Deaf community who may be far less fluent in reading the written language,
    especially for those sign language which are substantially different from the
    spoken language in grammar, semantics and vocabulary. It is therefore as
    important to them as a foreign translation of an English programme would be to a
    non-native English speaker.
  • Language is not just about communicating speech. It is
    also about emotion, concept formation, identity and belonging. To a person who
    learned sign language as a child and uses it as their primary form of
    interaction with their peers, only sign language can communicate these vitally
    important aspects.

Sign language can be used in television programmes in two ways:

  • As the native language used by the programme’s
    presenters, contributors and characters.
  • As an interpretation of the speech and other sounds
    contained in a programme.

A sign language interpretation is usually created separately from the programme and must be added into the programme video before delivery. An exception is where a signer is present during the recording, such as when a sign language interpreter travels with a news reporter to the scene of a news story.

As with other access services, a sign language interpretation can be provided in either an ‘open’ or ‘closed’ format. In the ‘open’ format, the programme video is delivered as a single track, in which the image of the signer is included within the video and is seen by all viewers. In the ‘closed’ format, the sign language interpreting is delivered as a separate stream associated with the programme, but in a way that allows the individual viewer to turn the service on or off. Closed sign language interpreting can be achieved in one of two ways ‘broadcast mix’ or ‘receiver mix’. In broadcast mix, two separate video streams are delivered, one containing the image of the signer and the other without. The viewer simply chooses between the two. In receiver mix, the video of the signer is delivered as a separate stream with synchronization information. The viewer’s receiver can then mix the two and display the result, at the request of the viewer. Receiver mix potentially gives viewers greater control over how the signer is displayed, allowing them to choose the preferred position and size for example. It also has the benefit that the sign language track can be delivered using a different means, so terrestrial broadcasters with restricted bandwidth can deliver the video signing over IP for example. This requires a hybrid receiver with the ability to mix the two streams.

In contrast to subtitling and audio description, there is relatively little research and guidance available on sign language interpreting in television. Some of the guidelines here are therefore somewhat speculative, paralleling issues that have been recognised for these other content access services and may be expected to be similar for sign language interpreting. They may therefore provide less guidance on what constitutes best practice and fewer tried and tested techniques for achieving that. But they have been included in order to direct attention to the issues, even in the absence of clear solutions.