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.

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