Four superhuman jobs performed by sign language interpreters in Trinidad and Tobago


The University of the West Indies, St Augustine  is currently accepting applications to its Undergraduate Diploma in Caribbean Sign Language Interpreting. The programme will train people who already have some signing ability to become (better) interpreters. If you can’t sign yet, don’t worry: start now and maybe you can apply for the programme next time around. Sign language interpreting is an exciting, rewarding, unpredictable and important job, there’s a desperate shortage of skilled interpreters, and I would encourage anyone who’s interested to get in touch.

Just in case anyone thinks it’s easy, though, here are four (nearly) superhuman tasks that sign language interpreters in Trinidad and Tobago perform on a regular basis:

1  Negotiating between four languages at the same time

Interpreters in Trinidad  have to be able to deal with at least four languages, two signed and two spoken. Hearing people in Trinidad switch effortlessly between English and Trinidadian English Creole. Deaf people switch between TTSL and ASL. And then there are the variations in speech and sign between Trinidad and Tobago, North and South, town and bush, young and old. Interpreters have to be able to negotiate all these language varieties and to understand the communicative significance of switching between them.

Interpret this: “She try to mamaguy he, this jagabat, well not a foreigner at all can’t interpret that, which means she try to take him for a coo-nu-moo-nu, meaning she want him mind she and she sweet man too”

2  Being in two places at the same time

There is no special secondary school for deaf children in Trinidad and Tobago, so deaf pupils go to mainstream schools and most rely on an interpreter to follow their classes. Interpreters often work with several pupils, at different ages and in different forms and are therefore sometimes supposed to be in two different classrooms interpreting for two different children at the same time. Admittedly this one is sometimes beyond even a Trini interpreter.

Interpret this: “Next class I’ll be upstairs in Form 4 Chemistry and downstairs in Form 5 History”

3  Being an expert in Maths, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Geography, History, English, Linguistics, Engineering, Law, Medicine, Politics…

Interpreters working at secondary schools have to cover all the subjects the children are taking. A Deaf Trini recently finished a Masters in Education, and others are currently studying for degrees. Interpreters supporting these students have to be sufficiently familiar with the material being taught to be able to provide accurate interpretation in lectures and tutorials.

Interpreters also  work in specialist areas such as medicine and law where even a seemingly small mistake may have very serious consequences. Budget speeches, political debates, all require specialist knowledge, like the public consultations in constitutional reform held recently, at which interpreters had to try to untangle the intricacies of constitutional law.

Interpret this:The creation of a culture of scrutiny can only come through a fundamental systemic alteration that will not undermine the ability to govern, but will curb the excesses of the zero sum game that emerges after victory in a general election.”

4  Wine, wine, wine, wine, wine, wine, wine…

Many Deaf Trinbagonians enjoy music, and going to concerts and fetes as much as anyone else. Sign language interpreters can provide an extra dimension of enjoyment for Deaf audiences. This may mean dealing with soca, calypso, chutney, dancehall, parang or rapso, interpreting everything from conscious music to double-entendre and slackness, memorising lyrics or working extempo. An ability to wine can come in useful.

Interpret this: “Woah oh oh oh oh, yea eh eh eh eh

Photo credit: Matthew Williams

The Diploma won’t give you all these skills (if you can’t wine already, don’t ask me to teach you), and it takes much more than a short programme to prepare anyone for professional interpreting. Being a good interpreter necessarily means developing a strong relationship with the Deaf community, and this requires involvement over a long period of time. And despite all the knowledge and skills required of interpreters, I wouldn’t suggest getting into this for the money or the fame. While you might find yourself interpreting for Obama or Machel, you probably won’t get rich, and you may well find that superhuman efforts aren’t matched by superhuman pay cheques.  Then again, there are not many professions where you could wine on a soca star, interpret the budget, provide young people with access to education, and bridge linguistic and cultural divides all in a day’s work.

DCSLI flyer

For information on how to apply, go to UWI’s website. For more information on the courses involved go here, and for any other questions you have about the programme, email me at:

For interpreters in Trinidad and Tobago, contact Caribbean Sign Language Centre, and check out the website of the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI) for more on interpreting around the World.

6 thoughts on “Four superhuman jobs performed by sign language interpreters in Trinidad and Tobago

  1. Excellent piece Dr. Ben,somewhat thought-provoking but bespeaks the reality,seems more than a challenge in the education environment but with existing resources and resilience one has to manage until he or she prevails.

  2. This is amazing Dr Ben. This is the first time I’m actually reading this and you are correct. Sign Language Interpreters in Trinidad are somewhat super humans. I admire the job interpreters do.

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