Hand signal in sign language interpreting

Key features and differences between interpreting and sign language interpreting


Interpreters and sign language interpreters share some common core competences, such as excellent language skills and the ability to transfer information between different languages. However, there are also important differences between the professions, especially in relation to the physical part of communication.

The following sections present the main features of these two interpreting techniques to ensure effective and accessible communication.

Language skills

-> Interpreters translate spoken or written language from a source language into a target language and vice versa. They need excellent knowledge of the languages concerned and the ability to transfer information accurately.

-> Sign language interpreters translate between spoken language and sign language. They need knowledge not only of the different languages but also of the culture of sign language.

Form of communication

-> Interpreters mainly work with spoken or, more rarely, written language. They usually have to process the information in real time and reproduce it in another language, whereby a distinction is made between simultaneous, whispered, liaison and consecutive interpreting.

-> Sign language interpreters use visual and gestural means of communication in addition to spoken language to mediate between spoken language and sign language. As a rule, simultaneous interpreting is used, but consecutive interpreting is also possible. In this case, the interpreter takes notes of parts of the conversation and translates them in phases.

There is also written interpreting, in which the interpreter writes down the contributions of the speaking person for the hearing-impaired person, so that he or she can follow the conversation by reading.

Cultural understanding

-> Interpreters must have a deep understanding of cultural nuances and contexts to ensure that both the message and the linguistic peculiarities such as idioms are conveyed correctly.

-> Sign language interpreters must not only be proficient in the respective language, but also understand the culture of the deaf and hearing impaired in order to be able to reproduce the content correctly.

Visual communication

-> Interpreters concentrate on oral (auditory) and written communication. They transfer the spoken word into written texts in written interpreting or into another spoken language in classical interpreting.

-> Sign language interpreters specialise in visual communication in addition to auditory and written communication. They transmit information visually and gesturally through signs, facial expressions, body language and writing.

Technical skills

-> Interpreters may need technical knowledge to use technologies such as conference systems for booth interpreting or translation software.

-> Sign language interpreters can also make use of technical aids. Video cameras, monitors and other communication aids are helpful.

Significance of sign language interpreting in Switzerland

Sign language interpreting is of great importance in Switzerland, as in many other countries, to facilitate communication between deaf and hearing-impaired people and the hearing population. There is an active deaf community in Switzerland, and deaf and hearing-impaired people use sign language as their primary means of communication.

Sign language interpreters therefore play an important role in enabling these groups to participate without barriers in various areas of life. The right to participation includes the right to a sign language interpreter and is part of the Invalidity Insurance Act. Eligible persons can have the costs of interpreting services covered if they are registered with disability insurance.

Areas of application of sign language interpreting

Sign language interpreters are employed in various fields:

  • Education: In schools, universities and educational institutions, sign language interpreters ensure that deaf pupils and students can follow lessons.
  • Health care: In hospitals, doctors’ surgeries and health care facilities, sign language interpreters support deaf or hearing-impaired patients in communicating with medical staff.
  • Community services: Sign language interpreters are needed in government offices, agencies and public institutions to enable deaf people to access government services.
  • Events and conferences: At events, conferences and public meetings, sign language interpreters ensure that deaf participants can understand the information.
  • Media and entertainment: TV programmes, films and online videos sometimes use sign language interpreters to provide subtitles or translations into sign language.
  • Workplace: Sign language interpreters can be used in companies or organisations to facilitate communication between deaf employees and their colleagues. Upon request, the IV can cover the costs of sign language interpreters in the workplace up to a certain amount as part of a workplace decision.
  • Private life: A sign language interpreter can also be used in private life, e.g. at celebrations such as birthdays or in family exchanges between hearing-impaired people and hearing family members. Especially when older people who have not yet learned sign language are affected by hearing loss, written interpreting can be helpful.

Most important sign languages

 The following are the sign languages most in demand in Switzerland:

  • the Deutschschweizerische Gebärdensprache (DSGS) (Swiss German Sign Language),
  • the Langue des Signes Française (LSF), and
  • the Lingua Italiana dei Segni (LIS),

in the foreground.

DSGS is the most commonly used sign language in Switzerland. Here the interpreters must also take into account the cantonal dialect variants. In addition, High German is usually articulated silently when signing, so this knowledge must also be available. In addition, there may also be a demand for sign language interpreters for international sign languages such as American Sign Language (ASL) or other national sign languages, especially for international communication or events.

It is important to note that the demand for specific sign languages depends on the respective needs of the deaf community, service providers and events or institutions. Sign languages are not yet state-recognised in Switzerland and the supply of professional sign language interpreters is still relatively small.


Are you planning a guided tour of a museum or exhibition, a doctor’s appointment or a private event and want to make it accessible to people with a hearing impairment?

We offer professional sign language interpreting services tailored to your specific needs and event. Contact us, we are only an email or phone call away.