What is team interpreting and when is a team needed?

Some requests for an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter require a team of two or more interpreters. While there are many factors that influence whether a team would be required, the most common one is the length (or complexity) of the request.

What is team interpreting and when is a team needed?
tl:dr — some requests for an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter require a team of two or more interpreters. Using a team is a standard practice in the sign language interpreting profession. While there are many factors that influence whether a team would be required, the most common one is the length (or complexity) of the request.

What does it mean when my request needs a team?

Someone just told you that you were going to need a team for your request and you found yourself thinking:  "A team?  What's a team?  I thought I just needed to request an interpreter!"  And here you are.

While it may have caught you by surprise (like a 2-hour minimum), you should get used to it: interpreters working in teams for assignments is standard practice.

If this is your first rodeo and you feel like your getting tossed all around hold on tight for a minute—the dust will settle down a little after we cover some of the aspects that most people in the profession may take for granted and leave you a bit befuddled.

When is a team needed?

There are different factors that influence whether a team will be needed for your request and—while there is no hard and fast rule that we can turn to—there are some best practices given the circumstances of the request that you can come to expect. After we've explained what these factors may be, we can explore why a team is needed in the first place.

  1. Length of request—the most common consideration (by far) will be the total length of the encounter.  Generally speaking, requests that are over an hour in length will require a team and for those that are under will likely just need one.  You are most likely to see this factor kick in automatically when you make your request using Linguabee's platform and provide the start and end times for the request.

    For example: hosting a four-hour lecture on the restorative properties of common household molds is going to require a team.
  2. Complexity of the request—some request of an hour or less may still require two (or more!) interpreters based on the dynamics of the interactions and number of participants involved. Complexity, in this sense, not only refers to the actual topics being discussed, but also the interactive qualities of setting itself.

    For example: highly interactive meetings, or legal requests, with multiple Deaf participants (like an IEP meeting at a school with parents, students, teachers, and specialists) often require a second interpreter even though they are short in nature.
  3. Needs of the consumers—some consumers require additional services or supports that require another interpreter to be present.

    For example: a deaf interpreter may be needed to team with a hearing interpreter for a deaf patient who has traveled here from another country.

Now, these aren't hard and fast rules and caveats do apply.  For example, just because a request is for four hours, doesn't always mean a team is needed.  Perhaps you are making a request for a patient being seen at a hospital for a battery of tests; however, these tests involve mostly waiting and silent test administration during which there isn't much talking.  Likely, one interpreter would suffice for this request (just be sure to include that information when you are making the request).

Why is a team needed?

In all cases, the reason for having a team of interpreters working together is to appropriately serve the communication needs of the people in the interaction and maintain a high level quality of service throughout the request.

For shorter requests, having an additional interpreter present ensures that everyone is able to participate and access the interaction fully.  All the interpreters will be actively engaged in the process, supporting each other and the participants.

While the same reasoning does apply longer requests, two other factors come into play: the cognitive and physical fatigue of the interpreter.

Cognitive fatigue — interpreting is really hard.  There are fancier ways to try and describe it but that's what it boils down to.  An interpreter's brain is being bombarded with cognitive tasks, decisions, inputs, and outputs.  It's juggling everything all at once.  Try talking to a person in the same room with you while listening to someone else on the phone at the same time all the while making sense of both what you are saying.  It's tough!  And with hard work comes fatigue.  Studies have shown that interpreters suffer mental fatigue after about thirty minutes of continuous work—and this fatigue translates (literally) into a loss of accuracy.  No one wants that.

Physical fatigue — while the cognitive fatigue has a bigger impact on the participants immediately, the physical fatigue can catch up to an interpreter in the long run.  Sign language interpreters are at high risk for developing Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI).  Working in teams helps interpreters prevent this injury from happening.

So, taking a cognitive and physical "break" is important to ensure the interpretation remains valid and accurate and the interpreter can avoid repetitive stress injuries throughout their career.

Now we use the word "break" in quotes because this typically isn't time for the interpreter to be sitting around on their iPhone or reading a book!  They are still an integral part of the process and providing support for the communication needs of the interaction.  At the same time, they are getting their brain cells and muscles a chance to rejuvenate.

For more details about team interpreting and the cognitive and physical impacts, check out this fact sheet by the NCIEC on team interpreting.


No joke: interpreting is complicated.  There are many variables and considerations at play when getting the right people to your request and whether a team of interpreters is needed or not is one of them.  At Linguabee, we make it easier for requesters to make the right decisions that get the most qualified person to your request so you can worry about something else.  Like whether there is enough coffee to get you through the morning.