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Organizing the translators’ work in the museum: first-hand recommendations

Irina Ginzberg—psychologist, Russian

Vlad Kolesnikov—sign language teacher, speech therapist, Russian Sign Language interpreter

Employees of Garage Museum of Contemporary Art’s inclusive programs department, working in constant dialogue with sign language interpreters, regularly update programs for deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors. Below are some tips that will help you make tours as comfortable as possible for both deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors as well as for mixed audiences. Special attention is paid to creating optimal conditions for an interpreter’s work at events.

How to organize the workspace for a sign language interpreter at lectures, conferences, and other events

If you are planning an event (for example, a lecture or a conference—a one-off event) during which sign language interpretation will be conducted, then:

  • reserve seats for deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors in the first two rows of seating or, if using an auditorium or amphitheater, seats on the ends of rows opposite the interpreter, with a good view of the stage; 
  • when choosing the interpreter’s location, keep in mind that they should be situated close to the speaker, within view of all the visitors who need sign language interpretation. The interpreter’s face and hands should be well-lit;
  • make sure that the interpreter’s location does not overlap with the speaker or the screen (in case slides or video materials will be shown);
  • visually mark the sign interpreter’s location so that participants, late arrivals, or videographers filming the event do not block the audience’s view of the interpreter;
  • account for the architectural features of the room: if there are structural elements (such as columns) that obstruct the audience’s view and/or a large potential number of deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors, prepare two locations for sign language interpreters on both sides of the speaker to guarantee that all visitors have access to information;

  • if possible, place the interpreter on a raised platform to put them in the field of view for all visitors who can understand information in sign language;

  • if you are planning a speech by a deaf speaker in their national sign language or using international gestures, find a competent interpreter, both for direct translation to your local sign language and for reverse translation from the local sign language to the speaker’s, as well as providing a local sign language interpreter to work with the audience; 
  • provide the translator with the speakers’ reports or lecture abstracts with abbreviations, frequently used terms, and the names of individuals who will be mentioned;
  • if the speaker will be speaking a foreign language that will be simultaneously translated into your language, check the condition and channel settings of the interpreter’s radio equipment in advance;
  • ensure that there are no outside noises (street noises, sounds from neighboring rooms): the interpreter will experience additional stress and difficulties, such as with a quiet speaker or unclear pronunciation; 
  • be attentive to the translator’s working conditions: for events lasting more than 1.5 hours, sign language interpreters must work in pairs, switching off every 20 minutes;
  • don’t forget to provide water for the interpreter.

If you are planning to record video of simultaneous Russian or other sign language interpretation of an event: 

  • to ensure the most accurate translation, place the monitor, laptop, or tablet next to the camera (the translator will be able to use their peripheral vision and will not obviously look away from the lens). While working on camera, the interpreter will be able to see the slides or videos used by the lecturer, which will help them quickly select gestures that convey the meaning and image of what is being said as accurately as possible.

If you need to translate a lecture that was recorded previously: 

  • provide the translator with a recording of the lecture and materials (photos, videos, presentations, etc.) that were shown in advance, as well as a transcript of the lecture to clarify the people, abbreviations, and unfamiliar terms that were mentioned.

If you are organizing and/or conducting a tour with a sign language interpreter:

  • allow the interpreter to get acquainted with the materials, the exhibition, and the route of the tour in advance;
  • assemble a group of no more than 10-15 people: this is the group size for which viewing, movement, and information perception is as comfortable as possible for everyone;
  • limit the length of the tour: it should not last more than 1–1.5 hours;
  • try not to overload the tour with lots of information—you don’t need to try and talk about every item in the exhibition;
  • inform visitors about the plan for the tour and discuss when questions can be asked: during the tour or at the end;
  • try not to speak or give additional comments when moving between exhibit items;
  • before you start talking about a particular exhibit item, wait until all the participants of the tour come to you;
  • pay attention to the participants: if curious visitors join the group during the tour, making it difficult for deaf and hard-of-hearing tourists to view both the exhibition and the interpreter, ask the hearing visitors not to stand in the first row. Explain that this tour is intended for an audience that perceives information visually, so it is important not to block people’s sight-lines of the translator and the exhibition.
  • stand next to the interpreter so as not to block the view of the exhibit item;
  • remember visitors are asking questions of the guide through an interpreter and that the guide is answering them directly to the visitor who asked the question; the guide, in turn, must transmit all of this information without adding in any of their own comments.
  • after announcing the title of the work and after mentioning specific details, you should give visitors time to look at the exhibit. Wait until the visitors’ attention returns to you, then continue the tour. If you see that the visual examination of an exhibit item is dragging on, please remind visitors that they will have time to familiarize themselves with the exhibits after the tour;
  • remember that neither you nor the interpreter should ever stand with your backs to a light source: this makes you more difficult to watch, as your face and hands will be in shadow.

What you need to know if you are organizing a tour by a deaf guide (for a mixed group and for a group of deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors):

  • remember that the number of participants depends on the size of the room: usually, there should be 10-12 people in a group;
  • discuss when questions can be asked: during or after the tour. Establish the order in which questions will be asked, and answers received, so that both hearing and deaf visitors are involved in the communication process;
  • when translating a deaf guide’s tour to a mixed group of visitors, the interpreter must position themselves opposite the guide, behind the visitors’ backs, so that they can translate the audience’s remarks and questions in accordance with the rules set by the guide.

What to account for if your speech is being translated into sign language:

  • take your time, always finish your sentences and speak clearly, with good intonation: all of this allows the interpreter to work faster and more accurately; 
  • if possible, provide the interpreter with the rough text of the speech in advance (at least the main ideas);
  • if you are delivering an impromptu speech, try to express your thoughts in simple phrases, as the interpreter has only a fraction of a second to think;
  • if you use terms and/or phrases from a foreign language, please provide the interpreter with their translation (simultaneous translation does not allow much time for understanding and selecting the correct grammatical structure). Otherwise, the word or phrase will have to be transcribed and delivered verbatim and spelled out manually, significantly reducing the speed and clarity of translation for the audience. 
  • inform visitors about the rules of your lecture and explain when questions can be asked: during or after the speech; 
  • when answering a question from a deaf or hard-of-hearing visitor asked through an interpreter, speak to the questioner, not the interpreter.

What to account for when your speech is being reverse interpreted (from sign language to spoken language):

  • if possible, provide the interpreter with the rough text of the speech in advance (at least the main ideas);
  • do not rush: sign language can transmit information in a weighty and imaginative way. A thought conveyed with just a few gestures, or a simple sentence might be translated into spoken language in two or three detailed sentences. A mismatch between the pace of the sign language speaker and the interpreter performing the reverse interpretation can lead to a decrease in the quality of translation: the translator will start lagging behind the speaker and skipping phrases;
  • try to communicate with the interpreter in advance (ask the organizers for their contact information): discuss your speech and the nuances of translation;
  • make sure to leave enough time to meet with the interpreter shortly before your speech. Even 15–20 minutes is enough time to discuss possible changes to the structure of your speech;
  • if you have not prepared your presentation in advance, please take your time. Clearly spell out little-known geographical names and places, people’s given and family names, and concepts and terms that do not have gestural equivalents; 
  • if you are using little-known place names, given and family names, and the official names of entities like companies or teams, communicate these words first dactylically and only then refer to them by their sign or name. Listeners and interpreters may not always know the sign for a rare place name.

 What you should pay attention to when hiring a sign language interpreter:

  • the translator must be a qualified and competent specialist in the field of communication with the deaf and hard-of-hearing; have a high level of knowledge and proficiency in sign language; be proficient in direct and reverse interpretation; and know the necessary terminology in the fields of world culture, fine arts, and museum work;
  • if you are not sure of the translator’s level of competence, invite a native sign language speaker to the interview as an expert to assess the interpreter’s level of knowledge and proficiency in sign language (this expert may be one of the visitors to your programs for the deaf and hard of hearing);
  • in order to search for and invite an interpreter, use recommendations from members of your museum’s deaf and hard-of-hearing community;
  • the amount of the interpreter’s fee is determined by agreement between both parties, depends on the complexity and scope of work, the interpreter’s experience and qualifications, and is negotiated on an individual basis.

How can you organize the interpretation process correctly and with the highest level of quality possible?

Here are some recommendations for interpreters who work at events: 

  • a speaker or guide must be translated in the first person;
  • information should be communicated without improvements or additions;
  • information should be communicated without judgment;
  • there is no need to introduce new gestures to replace existing ones which may look rude and/or unsightly from the interpreter’s point of view;
  • during the interpretation process, you do not need to comment, share personal impressions or show or impose your attitude on the translated information;
  • during a discussion, you need to translate remarks and questions from the audience, as well as any noises related to what is happening;
  • it is necessary to translate not only direct questions but also discussions between participants related to the tour for the guide. Personal conversations that are not related to the tour itself do not need to be translated.
  • follow the professional dress code: you should wear dark clothing, preferably black, that is plain and without prints. Your manicure should not be bright, and your hair should not cover your face; 
  • it is necessary to observe professional ethical standards. You must know and respect the culture, history, rules of conduct, and communication ethics of the deaf community;
  • you need to assess your qualifications honestly and turn down projects if your skillset is lacking;
  • during the tour, you must stand so that all visitors can see the exhibit, the guide, and you at all times;
  • when reverse interpreting a tour, you must stand across from the guide, behind the visitors’ backs;
  • when conducting events with deaf speakers and visitors from foreign countries, the interpreter for international gestures or the foreign sign language and the interpreter for the local sign language stand on different sides of the speaker;
  • translators working in pairs at events should be positioned opposite each other so that they can back each other up if they run into difficulty with a particular gesture; 
  • for reverse interpretation, the translators should sit next to each other in the first row, alternating after 20 minutes and backing each other up as they work.

What else?

Garage Museum of Contemporary Art recommends that sign language interpreters study the Slovar terminov sovremennogo iskusstva na russkom zhestovom yazyke (Russian Sign Language Dictionary of Contemporary Art Terms), developed by Garage’s inclusive programs department, to increase their level of qualification, improve their knowledge level and vocabulary in the fields of contemporary art, world culture, and museum work.

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