Signposting Professional Practice: Intercultural Communication and Interpretation

Everyone was there.

LINCS staff from all sections, students, colleagues from universities all over the UK, Heads of Schools, Vice-Principals, technicians, photographers, interpreters, representatives from Deaf organisations, Deaf friends. A little girl with long blonde hair was laughing and signing happily with her grandparents, who were all dressed to the nines for the occasion.

It was the inaugural lecture of Prof Jemina Napier, Head of Department of LINCS, entitled “Signposting Professional Practice: Intercultural Communication and Interpretation”.

Jemina started her lecture in British Sign Language, stating, through the voice of her interpreter, Yvonne Waddell, that she would like to speak in her mother tongue. She not only has Deaf parents and Deaf in-laws (the proud grandparents of the young girl mentioned earlier), but she also comes from a family of 4 generations of Deaf people. She explained how she grew up in a bilingual, bicultural environment (English <> BSL), which led her, among other things, to feature in the Sign and Say books as a child, demonstrating everyday terms such as “doctor”, “teach”, “Australia”, all prophetic with regard to her later career development. This also led to her first BSL interpreting assignment at age 17 (!). She showed footage of her various interpreting jobs, including interpreting during Princess Diana’s funeral and for the Australian Prime Minister in 2011.

But when she was still starting out around 20 years ago, there was no formal training for BSL interpreters. Back then, unfortunately, being bilingual was enough. Later on, as a practising interpreter, she had the opportunity to study for an MA in BSL/ English Interpreting at Durham University. This sparked her interest in research and so she went to Australia to pursue her PhD in Sign Language Interpreting at Macquarie University. Along the way, she also managed to learn Australian Sign Language (AUSLAN), American Sign Language (ASL) and International Sign, which is no mean feat, as Signed Languages are by no means similar, even though some of them belong to language families like spoken languages. For example, American Sign Language and French Sign Language belong to the same language family, which is quite distinct from BSL and AUSLAN, which belong to a different language family.

At this point, Jemina switched from BSL to English. She explained that she learned to tell stories in BSL, her mother tongue, but she learned to talk about research in English. For the hearing members of the audience, it seemed that Jemina learned to tell stories with a thick Scottish accent (Yvonne Waddell!) and to talk about her research with a slight Australian twang (Jemina’s own accent, developed while living in Australia for 15 years). Yvonne was Jemina’s voice for the first half of the lecture and Brenda MacKay was Jemina’s hands for the second half.

So the story moves to research. With a PhD under her belt, Jemina started developing her research profile in intercultural communication. She established the Postgraduate Diploma in Auslan/ English Interpreting in the Department of Linguistics at Macquarie University in Sydney in 2002, and became Head of Translation & Interpreting and Director of the Centre for Translation & Interpreting Research at Macquarie University from 2007 until 2012.

She identified policy, practice, pedagogy and provision of interpreting services as her four main areas of interest. All this research focuses on removing the barriers to allow access for and participation in citizenship for the Deaf community. Her sign language interpreting research focuses on medical, legal, education and workplace interpreting settings. Part of her research into legal settings has included running a two-day mock trial with 11 hearing jurors and one Deaf juror.

Jemina finished off by emphasising that being bilingual is not enough to become an interpreter and that interpreter education is vital for professional practice. She ended on a positive note on the potential for research collaborations between signed and spoken languages. BSL is now recognised in Scotland on a par with other minority languages, such as Gaelic, which is a huge achievement both for BSL users and for Scottish society as a whole. Jemina was asked how Heriot-Watt can capitalise on the recent BSL (Scotland) Bill. She replied that “we now have the chance to become the BSL hub for Scotland”.

The best is yet to come.

For a Storify version of the lecture, click here.

For a video of the full lecture, click here.

New PhD research: The commemoration of Ashura in Iraq and its impact on Shia-Sunni dynamics

by Jafar Ahmad 

October 14 is the first day of Muharram (محرم), the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar, where most of Iraq is swathed in black as the Shia, members of one of the two main Islamic sects, mark the beginning of the commemoration of Ashura. Ashura itself is the name of the 10th  day of the month of Muharram (derived from the Arabic term a‘shara, meaning 10). On this day, in the seventh century, Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, his family and companions were killed by a Sunni caliph (leader) in Karbala, in modern day Iraq. From a Shia perspective, Husayn acted as an opposition leader and defender of the true tenants of Islam.  Sunnis dismiss this claim.

Millions of Shias from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Syria are expected to take part in the commemoration of Ashura in Iraq. Iraq will essentially come to a halt and massive security measures will be put in place to protect Shia mourners from attacks, particularly from Islamic State (ISIS). Streets in Baghdad, and other areas in Iraq that are predominately Shia, will be adorned with black flags and there will be processions of pilgrims marching on foot from different cities to the holy city of Karbala where Husayn is buried (located about 100 km southwest of Baghdad). Women will be dressed in black and mourners of both sexes will engage in self-flagellation and will congregate in gender-segregated areas for sorrowful, poetic recitations performed in memory of the death of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.  Ashura is also used as an occasion to curse the Sunni perpetrators of Husayn’s death.  While the mourning period spans two months, these rituals are the most intense during the first 10 days of Muharram.

The various traditions commemorating Ashura developed over 12 centuries and have religious, economic, social, and political dimensions. Moreover, these rituals are culturally-bound as they differ in terms of the nature and the intensity from one community to another depending on various socio-political aspects.  For example, whilst banned under Saddam Hussein (1968-2003), who was a Sunni secular leader in Iraq, Ashura commemoration has been thriving in Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Since the fall of Hussein in 2003, the commemoration has intensified in Iraq becoming its biggest cultural, social, religious, and political event. It is fascinating to observe, for both Muslims and non-Muslims, how Shia from different backgrounds and different strata of society engage in these rituals. The commemoration raises questions about the nature of these rituals, in particular why they are appealing to so many, including educated, secular Shia who reside not only in Iraq but also in most large western cities such as London, Sydney, and Toronto. Moreover, there remains an overarching question why people still weep and mourn and, in some cases, participate in bloody rituals to commemorate a battle that took place almost 1400 years ago.

All of these are important questions, particularly for those who are trying to understand the nature of Iraqi society and in light of the current threat posed by ISIS, who consider Shia Muslims to be infidels. In this context, the impact of these rituals on Sunni Iraqis warrants exploration in under to understand the Shia-Sunni dynamic in Iraq. This dynamic, consciously or otherwise, was ignored by the US when it invaded Iraq in 2003. That said, the invasion unleased a renaissance of Ashura and introduced a new complexity to Iraqi society. In light of this, it is my aim to explore the commemoration of Ashura in Iraq, and how has Ashura affected, shaped and informed Shia-Sunni relations.

Jafar Ahmad is a 1st-year PhD student in LINCS

Final-year BSL students at the Scottish Parliament

Reflections from a teacher

by Stacey Webb, Assistant Professor in Sign Language Studies

It is not every day you get to bring your classroom to the real world.  So often we try to bring the real world to the classroom and it just never replicates real life!  Recently we listened and practised interpreting a graduation speech given by Steve Jobs to a group of university graduates. Although it was an inspiring speech, can you imagine the energy at the ceremony on the day?  Imagine the excited students, the proud parents and teachers.  Imagine how that energy can influence the overall interpretation. Imagine seeing the actual graduate in the audience.  I believe that the simple fact of knowing the interpretation is real, that it matters to someone, makes an incredible difference in an interpreter’s performance. However, we only have so much time to prepare our students to become interpreters, ultimately leaving much of our work to occur artificially in the classroom.  So when opportunities present themselves to have our students safely work in real settings, we as educators must do what we can to grab those opportunities and provide them to our students.

I know that for our students, week 1 of year 4 may seem a bit too soon to have the complete real life interpreting experience! Yet could it have been more perfect timing that the final stage of the BSL (Scotland) Bill was being debated in the Scottish Parliament on the same day of our first Advanced Interpreting class?  I call that a unique opportunity. With many thanks to Ruth Connelly at Scottish Parliament and our own Fanny Chouc  in LINCS, our students were given the opportunity to be part of one of the most historical days for Scotland’s Deaf Community. We hosted our class in the real world (we hosted our class at the Scottish Parliament!)

Heriot-Watt students were dressed for success when they signed in with security as ‘real’ interpreters, received official Parliament contractor badges, made their way up to the interpreting booths (where so many professional interpreters have worked before) and practised interpreting a session in Parliament (and again.. not just any session but the BSL Bill (Scotland) session). So if you were at Parliament on 17 September 2015 and happened to lookup at the booths to see several bodies signing and began to wonder, “Who are they?” “What are they doing up there?”- I am here to tell you they were Heriot-Watt students busy at work observing the professional interpreters, practising their own interpretations, reflecting on the formal register of the environment and realizing just how difficult interpreting is. One phrase that seemed to be said over and over again after Parliament was, “Wow, the bar has really been set high”.

Sure, I could have played Mark Griffins speech in support of the bill in our classroom, but the energy wouldn’t have been the same, it wouldn’t have been real. We wouldn’t have dressed a bit sharper, we wouldn’t have signed in with security, and we definitely wouldn’t have felt the energy and excitement from the Deaf community. So although our students were still only practising it was so much more real than it ever could have been in a classroom.  And on that note, my heart felt thanks goes out to the Deaf community, working interpreters, and Scottish Parliament staff, who have played a real role in preparing the next generation of Sign Language interpreters.

Reflections from a student

by Marie Elliot, 4th Year LINCS Student (BSL)

If you were anywhere near the bottom of the Royal Mile on September 17th, you may have felt a tremor emanating from the Scottish Parliament Buildings.

And if you have read the previous post from Professor Graham Turner, then you’ll already know the reason why!

On that afternoon, the final Stage 3 reading of the British Sign language (Scotland) Bill took place. The Bill was passed unanimously and the long-awaited decision to give BSL legal recognition was made. This is a historic event in Deaf history, and the result of years of hard work and campaigning by many individuals and organisations. I would like to comment on the personal impact of being present and witnessing that amazing afternoon.

We 4th-years from the Heriot-Watt BSL/English Interpreting course were not only provided with tickets to join the audience, but were given the unique opportunity to view the proceedings from the interpreter booths. As interpreting students, it was valuable experience to see the processes at work, the high standard of interpreting required, and real-life applications of what we had learnt in theory.

There was a real air of excitement and expectation while everyone waited for other business to be concluded in the chamber, before the BSL (Scotland) Bill was reached in the agenda. So many interested parties were represented in the audience: organisation staff; Deaf and Deaf/blind individuals; People with Hearing dogs; interpreters and others with connections to the Deaf community. There were numerous interpreters, using BSL, Manual interpreting, relay interpreting, and all interpreting in their own style, giving us so many opportunities to observe how different interpreters work, the choices they make, and how they work together with other interpreters. As students in our final year, hoping to join the interpreting profession, it was an invaluable experience. There was so much going on that we could learn from, that we had to focus intensely, as we tried to take it all in.

When it came to the moment of announcing the result of the vote, we were not alone in holding our breath. It seemed that everyone in the audience was doing the same, and I’m sure there were countless others watching online who were also leaning forward with bated breath. The actual announcement produced an incredible moment, with cheers, smiles and waves of delight from the audience, and not a few tears of relief and joy. It was a privilege to join the audience in the foyer, where strangers were hugging each other in delight. After such a long history of oppression and exclusion, everyone was talking hopefully after future change, and increased opportunities for future generations of Deaf children.

Scotland has led the way, and Terry Riley of the British Deaf Association (BDA) expressed it perfectly, when he told me he hoped this event would have the effect of ripples growing into a tsunami, spreading their impact on national and international Deaf communities.

This really was an unforgettable event, and we are all very grateful to the staff at the Scottish Parliament and Heriot-Watt staff, who co-operated in allowing us to be so involved in this historic decision. Parliament staff made us very welcome, and we were impressed to see so many staff using some level of signing. This would have been appreciated by BSL-using visitors, as being respectful to them, and also to the importance attached by the Deaf community to this event.

The day was finished in the most marvellous way, celebrating in a nearby pub. Every single person in the room was able to use some level of signing. It was incredible to look around and see a room packed with people all using the language the Deaf community has fought so hard for, and knowing that language had just been shown respect by the Scottish Parliament. We are grateful to have been allowed to join in this unique moment, so thanks are due to the Scottish Council on Deafness (SCoD) who arranged the after-party, for allowing us to slip in and be a part of it, even though we were technically gate-crashing!

Hopefully there will be many more reasons in the future to celebrate with the Deaf community, after this ground-breaking Scottish Parliament decision.

Progression 2015:  A two-day celebration of Deaf Arts

by Michael Richardson

Only ten days into my Ph.D. research programme, exploring the engagement of the Deaf community and the use of British Sign Language (BSL) in theatre, I was fortunate to be able to attend a two day conference in Glasgow celebrating Deaf Arts and the progress made in that arena over the last decade.

The conference was hosted by Solar Bear, a Glasgow-based organisation which among other things runs Deaf Youth Theatre, a group working in BSL with young people from across the Central Belt; and Deaf Theatre Club, which encourages Deaf people to attend theatre performances across Scotland with BSL interpreters provided.  Recently Solar Bear has also been a key contributor to the development of the new B.A. Performance in BSL and English which was launched at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland earlier this month.

Also represented at the conference and giving presentations were Graeae Theatre Company and the Deaf and Hearing Theatre Ensemble from England; Tyst Theater, the National Deaf Theatre of Sweden; ANO Nedoslov, a Russian company using sign language as the basis of its performance practice; and composer Dr. Oliver Searle, who has recently written a piece of music specially for Deaf and hard of hearing children.

The two days of the conference were filled with practical presentations, giving delegates the opportunity to learn by engaging in different processes of theatre making, as well as the presentation of work, both theatre and film, with subsequent question and answer sessions designed to shed further light on different methods of creating accessible work.

The range of material explored at the conference was both exciting and stimulating.  Jenny Sealey, whose company Graeae creates work by and for Deaf, visually impaired and disabled people, advocates a fully accessible approach to theatre making that uses spoken English and BSL as well as sound effects and music.  Their practice aims to bring physical expression and audio description to bear as part of the communication from the stage:  this is accessibility in action, in the context of making great theatre.

In contrast, the Deaf and Hearing Ensemble have developed an approach which could conversely be described as theatre making in action, in the context of providing effective accessibility.  The ensemble is a group of theatre-makers with a range of skills who work in a fully collaborative way to produce theatre which is ripe with symbolism and emotional expression.  They use every possible mode of communication available to them including spoken English, BSL, movement, mime, projections (of text and images) and music and soundscapes to ensure that the meaning they want to put across is conveyed accessibly to Deaf and hearing audiences alike.

Using BSL as a communication tool within the production was central to all the work I saw during the conference, but there was an interesting variety in the ways in which BSL was used as a language within the different performance styles.  The two companies thus far described sat in the middle of the spectrum of techniques employed, as did the performance project created by Tyst Theater during the course of the second day.  But two other presentations sat at opposite extremes of the sign language as performance spectrum.

At one extreme was Deaf Youth Theatre, who had made a film, A Love Divided, with Deaf actors. The result was accessible to Deaf and hearing audiences, as a result of using body language, music and effective moving image story telling techniques to communicate to the audience.  However, almost no signed or spoken language was used, and the former was only intelligible through lip-reading:  no dialogue was heard.

At the other extreme was the Russian company ANO Nedoslov, for whom the use of sign language was a full theatrical statement  in itself.  Using techniques similar to those explored by Pollitt in Signart:  (British) sign language poetry as Gesamtkunstwerk (2014), the energetic physical actors and dancers of this company used the different linguistic components of signing to create a language of performance that was communicative, creative and beautiful.  During their presentation one of the actors signified the sport of skiing using a mix of facial expression, body language, hand shapes,  iconic signs and role shift to stunningly demonstrate to his audience a clear picture of the skis, the act of skiing, the snow, the landscape, the terrain, and finally the sheer emotional joy of completing the run successfully.  It was a perfect introduction to their techniques that set up high expectations for their later performance which were not disappointed.

In summary, the two days were a fantastic introduction to my field of research.  Having already some experience in creating theatre with Deaf people and using different techniques to include BSL in performance, it introduced me to approaches being used in other parts of the UK and further afield; and to the people involved in developing them.  I returned to my desk today energised and eager to explore the topic further over the coming years.

 Michael Richardson is a PhD student in the BSL section in LINCS