I Want Your Job: Sign language interpreter

'You need a lot of empathy'

Carly Renaud, 26, is a qualified sign language interpreter based in Exeter, Devon.

What do you actually do?

I work with the local deaf community, helping them have access to whatever everybody needs to have a normal life. That includes interpreting at job interviews, doctor's appointments, staff meetings, conferences or the theatre. Last year, I interpreted Julius Caesar for the Royal Shakespeare Company, sitting on the side of the stage and signing the actors' dialogue.

What's a typical day at work like?

Like most sign language interpreters, I'm self-employed, so I spend some time doing my paperwork. I get bookings directly from deaf people, or from organisations like the police or hospitals.

The amount of advance preparation I need to do varies. I spent nine months preparing to interpret Julius Caesar, reading the script and going to rehearsals, but for a doctor's appointment, I'd just arrive early to have a general chat and find out what's wrong. And sometimes I get called at three in the morning by A & E, and have to rush straight to the hospital.

What do you love most about interpreting?

I don't want to "help" deaf people. I just feel passionately that everyone should have equal access to information and services. I helped one elderly lady to understand her doctor's instructions about taking asthma medication correctly - now she can get about by herself. I've interpreted at job interviews where a deaf person has done a fantastic presentation, and because I translated it clearly, they got the job. And I've even interpreted someone's 14-hour labour, which was amazing - after the birth, I was the second person to hold her baby.

What's tough about it?

I feel incredibly guilty when I have to turn down a booking. In Devon and Cornwall, there are only six interpreters to cover about 800 members of the deaf community, and nationwide, there's a desperate shortage of sign language interpreters. As well as the amazing jobs, like interpreting at comedy festivals, there are awful jobs - when you're telling someone social services is taking their kids away, or you're going to a cancer ward with terminally ill children, where I have to psyche myself up emotionally. I have a mentor whom I can contact for support if something's affected me.

What skills do you need to be a fantastic interpreter?

You need to be a real people person, and a good communicator. And you need to have a lot of empathy. I'm always thinking how I'd hate to have a third person there during a private doctor's appointment, or at work if my boss was telling me off. So you have to respect people's privacy and dignity during those moments - to be personable, but not overstep the mark. You've also got to be well-organised, practical, and comfortable speaking in front of a lot of people. And you have to learn to modify your behaviour and language depending on the job.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to be a translator?

I'd say learn as much as you can about the deaf community, get to know deaf people, and contact the Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI) to ask if they can introduce you to an interpreter who you can watch at work. You need to be fluent in English and sign language, and able to train your brain to listen to the second sentence someone says, while signing their first sentence. It's like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time - you can only do it for about 20 minutes straight, because after that, your brain can't cope.

What's the salary and career path like?

You could specialise in legal work and court interpreting, medical work, or conferences, or you could train to become a mentor, like I've done. You could also train other interpreters. I started as a trainee in 2000 on £16,000. Now, you might start on £18,000 to 22,000. It takes six years to be fully qualified. Then you might earn £25,000 to 35,000 working for an agency.

For more information on training to be a sign language interpreter, or to find one, go to the Association of Sign Language Interpreters website, www.asli.org.uk.

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