Interpreting: To mouth or not to mouth?

Interpreter signs for preacher
Using Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, I ask,

To mouth the words or not to mouth? That is the question.

A sign language interpreter oftentimes portrays multiple roles depending on the situation, client’s educational background and the overall environment where interpreting takes place. He may be both an interpreter and a teacher. This is very true especially in a developing country like the Philippines. Sign language interpreters (SLI) are almost always special education (SPED) teachers. Professional SLIs are a rarity. He can also be a mime actor, a Bible guru, a doctor or a lawyer. I’m not implying that the interpreter diagnoses patients like a doctor or defends the client like a lawyer. I’m only emphasizing the fact that interpreters must be knowledgeable on these areas in order to fully convey those messages to the deaf and vice versa.

Which brings me to the topic at hand, should we mouth while signing the words of the speaker to the deaf or should we simply listen first to what he is saying, digest it and convert it to a series of signs that the deaf can understand? The former probably might be applicable to affluent countries like the USA where the deaf are encouraged to reinforce their signs with lipreading skills. But I believe it would impose a bigger burden for us interpreters if we sign while we talk instead of just focusing on the message at hand.

The Philippines has two official languages; Tagalog/Filipino which is the vernacular and English. Although not yet officially recognized, our Filipino Sign Language has a very strong influence from ASL. During my early years with the deaf, I often talk while I sign. But later on, I felt that my signing is being dragged down by every word I say. I’m having difficulty expressing myself and my sign order tends to follow the sentences I make. This also holds true with my interpreting method. If a speaker talks in English, it would be easy to mouth the words because we simply sign it. But when he talks in Tagalog, we must first convert it to English, process it and then sign it.

I might get varied opinions about this topic. Some deaf may feel that interpreters shortchange them by not completely signing the speaker’s message if they don’t mouth the words. They may even criticize the interpreter’s level of signing skill. However, a great many of them would be contented with fluid signing while maintaining eye contact with the interpreter without looking at the mouth.

To my deaf readers, which would you prefer; to mouth or not to mouth? 🙂

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