Being Accountable: Do I Have The Required Skills And Attributes To Interpret In The Arts?

06 Jul 2015, by Paul Heuston in Articles

It is pleasing to see an increasing number of arts performances interpreted into Auslan over the last 30 years. Deaf people around the country have responded positively to this. After all, a skilled, experienced workforce of Auslan/English interpreters is required for Deaf people to enjoy quality access to the arts. In this short article, the aim is to stimulate an honest conversation, and self-reflection, among interpreters about accountability, and the skills and attributes required to interpret in the arts.


Interpreters and the Arts

In the arts sector interpreters are working with small independent theatre makers to main stage theatre productions; a plethora of festivals; circus; comedy; dance; meet-the-author and other literary events; Christmas Carols and the list goes so on. Admission prices can range from a free-ticketed event to $150 plus per ticket for main stage theatre shows.

Auslan interpreters are a variable that non-Auslan speakers do not need to think about when deciding whether to invest time and money to see a show. For Deaf audience members however, interpreted access to live-performances means they can now participate in previously unavailable artistic and cultural experiences – with all the direct and indirect benefits that this has to offer.


Positively, professional development and tailored learning means that our small workforce is better equipped today to work with artists and deliver better access. However this is not enough. Interpreters need to continue to immerse themselves in the arts as audience members to develop a deeper appreciation of different artists and their works, genres, forms and mediums. They also need to undertake reflective self-practice to achieve a good outcome for deaf audience members who have paid to see a show.


Considerations and decision-making

Let’s now turn to some of the considerations and decision-making processes a practitioner moves through when accepting or declining work in the arts sector. The following considerations are not exhaustive but serve as a good starting point when deciding whether to interpret artists and Deaf audiences.

First, we need to be accountable and honest with ourselves about the interpreting skills and attributes we possess today. This applies whether we are directly marketing ourselves to talent, or considering a job offer from a colleague or agency.


Questions to consider include:

  • Do I have the linguistic skills for the show?
  • Do I possess native-Auslan story-telling fluency and consistently deliver this when on stage?
  • When I interpret hilarious stories or tell my own funny stories, do Deaf people politely smile and nod or do they roar with laughter?
  • What creative, artistic and musical abilities do I possess?
  • Do I have stage presence? Do I have engaging eyes with the Deaf audience?
  • What relevant shows have I seen? What relevant interpreting experiences do I have?
  • What subject matter expertise do I possess with regard to the art form and medium?


Secondly, we need to think about our availability and capacity. As well as being interested and available to interpret the show dates:

  • Will I set aside and maintain adequate preparation time for script translation and attending rehearsals?
  • Will I work effectively with my team interpreter, and Auslan language consultant?
  • How will I manage pre-show nerves and ensure I am present while on stage?


Finally, we need to ask: Am I reflective? Do I respect Deaf people and their constructive feedback? Do I apply this feedback to my practice?

Approaching these questions with honesty and fairness will minimise the risk that – for example an overwhelming desire to be on stage – will detrimentally affect practitioners, artists and Deaf people.

When we interpret a show, we are accountable for the quality of our work. Deaf audience members and other Auslan users will assess our work. They will form their own opinions about an interpreter, and our individual reputations will rise or fall accordingly. As individuals, we may want to interpret in the arts. But do we have the required interpreting skills and attributes to be on that stage today?

What else can we do to enhance and improve our interpreting technical skills, experience and knowledge, relevant personal attributes, and subject matter expertise with regard to artists/talent, genres, forms, mediums and performances?

Paul Heuston is a native Auslan and English bilingual speaker, and was awarded NAATI Professional Level (Auslan – English) Interpreter accreditation in 1989. He is one of Australia’s most seasoned interpreters having worked on main stage productions such as ‘Three Sisters’ and ‘Billy Elliot’, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival for 10 years, a diverse range of festivals and community arts events. A University of New South Wales Arts and Laws graduate, he also holds a Diploma of Legal Practice from the College of Law, Sydney. Paul is passionate about interpreting, Auslan, arts, human rights and the Deaf community. 


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  • Marnie Reply

    I agree with all your points Paul. I’ve been fortunate to have skilled arts and theatre interpreting at everything I have gone to ( apart from one so-so job). It does affect the quality and enjoyment of your theatre experience which we have paid good money to. I’ve also heard of some rumblings of discontent about private bookings where interpreters sell their service for a cheaper price, but the quality really reflects their cheaper price and lack of enjoyment of performance and in interactive shows, the deaf person has been caught out and embarrassed by the interpreter’s poor work. We don’t get a rebate on our ticket prices, so why should we suffer? Most interpreters are good – there are a few who need to work on honest self-reflection, seek mentoring and PD and put the client first.

  • Peter Bonser Reply

    I agree with all of Paul’s points, and the questions we need to ask ourselves before we launch into performance interpreting….. Clearly there are interpreters out there who are punching way above their weight! Why do it? I think it is like all these reality TV shows, people putting themselves out there because they think they have talent or skill, some of them do but many of them cause me to cringe with embarrassment. Interpreters really need to be carefully selected based on their skill and experience and suitability to the performance in question, not simply their availability. The point of what interpreters do is to ensure communication equity for people who use a different language than the majority one or the one being used in the performance in question. Interpreters are there for other people not for ourselves to gain fame or fortune. Yes we do attract attention by virtue of what we do but it should not be the motivation behind why we are there. I am aghast when I hear stories about interpreters undercutting costs and then doing appalling work just to what?? Get their 5 minutes of fame? No one benefits, the deaf person doesn’t enjoy equal access which is their right, the performers are made to look like incompetents & in the end the interpreter sets them-self up to be ridiculed for the lousy job they have just done. Marnie is right, interpreters need to be honest with themselves, put the client first and seek training/mentoring before getting into this level of work. I might add that this approach should apply to all levels of interpreting work not just the arts. Perhaps a discussion around ‘What attracts people to want to be interpreters in the first place?’