The Interpreting Career that Started on the Dance Floor

Ash caught up with Oscar Tena, a Freelance BSL Interpreter, to gossip over brunch in a Clapham pub about his journey, from Interpreting for Deaf clubbers to keeping up with future technology.

Could you start by telling me about how you came to be a BSL interpreter?

I’m from Northern Spain, Basque Country but I moved to London at 21. I’ve been working within the Deaf community for 18 years. I used to love clubbing in London. One night, when out in Farringdon in the 90’s, I met some Deaf people. We became friends and I always felt inclined to ask “How do you say this?” and “How do you say that?”

Moving here from Spain, I kind of felt it was my responsibility to learn English to communicate. When I started chatting with my Deaf friends, they could lip read so they could understand what I was saying but I couldn’t understand what they were saying.

I thought “Who’s got the problem?” Well, me, because I didn’t understand. So, it felt natural to learn their language. I enjoyed it. Maybe learning English opened up my mind to learning other things.

From there I started building on my signing, until one night they said…

“We love you, but we’re here to have fun, not to teach. So please go ahead and enroll on a course.”

So, with that advice I went “Well, thanks for that.” and started my Level One training.

After doing my Level Two my Deaf friends suggested I try becoming an interpreter, as I was always facilitating communication between them and hearing clubbers. It took off slowly from there, initially learning the ropes while working as a CSW (Communication Support Worker) supporting Deaf students in college.

What do you like about interpreting?

The whole human factor of the job is the most enjoyable part of it. In essence (without wanting to sound big headed) you’re helping people. When you go to a booking, you’re enabling people to access something that is helping them to improve their quality of life and you’re helping them to achieve that. So, you’re happy for them. It keeps you going.

What do you wish more people knew about interpreting?

To be open minded about engaging with us. We’re facilitating communication between two parties but we’re still human beings, we are approachable and we’re not pretending to know more than anybody else. Luckily, it tends to be mostly positive experiences.

Fortunately, there are multiple government schemes aimed at supporting disabled people, either by Access To Work or through the Disability Act or a million other things to support accessibility for Deaf people. Demand for BSL interpreters is at an all-time high. As a result, unfortunately, many bookings are going unfilled

In the news recently there’s been concern about budget changes, are you worried this could affect the interpreters place?

I only worry about things that I have control over. It’s gonna happen if it has to happen.

Regarding the cuts – it’s been on the cards for six or seven years. But after doing market research, they had to acknowledge that the fees we’re charging are justified. And luckily the Access to Work cap has been raised to accommodate for Deaf professionals to work at senior/executive levels.

Do you think the role of an interpreter could change with the new technology that’s being developed?

Currently it is changing, the technology is already there and the use of VRI (Video Remote Interpreting) is quickly growing. It’s already proven to be more practical than traditional on-site interpreting for certain situations.

Saying that, further research shows there are circumstances where being face to face with someone enables you to access much more information. Signing is clearer, body language is visible and the interpreter is aware of the full environment. You don’t want to bring a video camera to a mental health assessment or to a hospital to deliver bad news.

Technology is fantastic and I love it. But we all know that the moment you really, really need it, Wi-Fi will cut out or the camera will freeze and suddenly it looks like you’re break-dancing on video-chat. Who knows, maybe in 20 years and we’ll all be holograms!

As I said, the human factor in this job is very important. When you’re next to someone, you can feel what they’re feeling so that adds meaning to what they’re saying. Maybe I’m getting too hippy here but I think it’s important.

What are your plans for the future?

Well if as you say, in 20 year’s time we’ll be holograms, I’ll be in the Caribbean somewhere, on a permanent holiday, sending my 27-year-old-looking interpreter hologram out in the world. I’m looking forward to it!

Thanks Oscar.

The demand for BSL interpreters is high and Clarion UK are often looking for more freelancers to join the team. If you would like to speak to someone about what role you would be suitable for, please contact If you would like to share your story over coffee or email, please get in touch with Chloe at

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