Sign Language Interpreting on Chinese television: Some progress and much to expect

by Xiao Zhao

Xiao post

From November 15th, 2014, Qixia television station in Nanjing, Jiangsu province started to provide sign language interpreting in the weekly news programme Xiao Rui Shuo Xin Wen (Xiao Rui (name of the hearing news presenter) Presents the News). The programme received immediate applause from the deaf community all over the country and the academia. There are a few reasons for this.

To start with, the interpreter, Ms Dai Manli (name in Chinese order), is Deaf. Although in the past, there were deaf interpreters on television occasionally, this is the first time that the interpreter was encouraged officially to use natural Chinese Sign Language with clear facial expressions as opposed to the past where interpreters were required to wear a smile all the time and use signed Chinese, which is an imposed sign system based on written Chinese syntax with a lot of signs created on the basis of Chinese characters, very unpopular amongst the deaf Chinese community.

Moreover, this particular programme, unlike many other programmes with SLI, takes into consideration the feedback from the local deaf community. For example, when first broadcast, the size of the interpreter screen was as small as it was in the past, which was not easy to watch for deaf audience. After taking into consideration the feedback, the TV station enlarged the interpreter frame to its current size in the second week. Indeed, the current size is far from ideal if compared with that of the SLI frame in BBC news, but it is still regarded as a positive sign by the audience.

Last but not the least, in order to reach a wider audience in China, Qixia TV station edits a special version of the programme and publishes it on its Wechat account (similar to Facebook) and on mainstream video websites. As a result, deaf people in other cities in China can easily access it on the web.

Almost at the same time, Suzhou TV station, also in Jiangsu province, invited two deaf people to work as interpreters to try out their SL interpreted news programme. These two programmes are especially valuable in the context of nationwide downplay of natural CSL in special education schools and TV stations. We hope that more TV stations and, more importantly, more government leaders will follow the lead and provide quality service to deaf Chinese citizens soon.

Ethnology Crossroads

Reporting back from Ethnology Crossroads Conference

by Prof. Máiread Nic Craith, Anna Koryczan and Cristina Clopot

Ethnology Crossroads was a two-day conference organized by the European Ethnological Research Centre in collaboration with the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, held on December 5-6th in Edinburgh. The aim was to assess the current state of ethnology in Scotland but also discuss its possible future. This discussion was rounded over the publication of the 14th and last book from the Scottish Life and Society – A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology series and was dedicated to the memory of Alexander Fenton. The list of speakers of the day included two LINCS professors, Máiréad Nic Craith and Ullrich Kockel, and a couple of LINCS students in the audience.

Ethnology as seen and practiced by young academics

The second panel of the conference featured young ethnologists, who are either working on a PhD thesis or are aiming to start one in the future. Fascinating projects were presented by three speakers in connection to the umbrella theme of the panel ‘Ethnologists in the Community’.

The first speaker, Ella Leith, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, reasoned for recognition of Deafness as a cultural rather than a medical issue. In this context, she tried to raise awareness of Deaf disempowerment in higher education as well as to make a clear distinction with regard to ways the society engages with deaf communities, that is, through either taking a stance of ‘deaf wage’ or ‘deaf heart’. Concluding her talk, Ella urged ethnologists to take social responsibility towards minorities they study.

The second speaker, Alistair Mackie, an MSc student at the University of Iceland, spoke of his undergraduate project on the question of European identity in the context of multi-cultural Balfolk events. Alistair’s findings revealed that participants’ perceptions and attitudes towards such cultural encounters vary significantly, thus mirroring the diverse standpoints on European identity.

The third speaker, Carley Williams, a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen, gave an overview of her research project, which deals with the practice of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage (ICH) in Scotland, in the context of UNESCO 2003 Convention. In her research, Carley aims to develop recommendations that will help to empower and support practitioner communities, ensuring at the same time viability and sustainability of their ICH as a living tradition.

Ethnology of the 21st century – an engaged science reaching high

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The young scholar session was followed by a discussion between Dr. Gary West and LINCS Prof. Máiréad Nic Craith, designed as a freeform talk. Moving the discussion from ethnology in Scotland towards the broader European setting, the conversation assessed the current state of ethnology. Building up on the conclusions of the previous panel, the two academics discussed about the type of ethnology a researcher might strive for today, when the discipline is at a ‘crossroads’ moment. Far from being parochial, this ethnology is a lively area that includes both rural and urban areas, labelled as ‘engaged ethnology’. It is also led by daring objectives, as marked by the leitmotif of the day, ‘why not’, urging researchers to go further than the journal article to support change.

Other subjects were brought in as well, related to the topics of ethnological research. The ‘power of culture’ to divide but also to bring people together was among these topics, as well as heritage. Taking an example from material culture of a built environment, a suggestion was made to consider narratives of people, the stories and emotions they invest in these structures. Prof. Nic Craith argued for an inclusive consideration of the tangible and intangible aspects of heritage in a research projects, and together with Dr. Gary West highlighted the fact that U.K. has managed to build on its intangible heritage (ICH) better than other countries and that it might benefit from exposing this experience in the larger setting of international discussions around ICH. Ethnology’s role, in this case, is to help safeguard traditions.

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The final session looked at the issue of ethnology tomorrow and was chaired by Professor Edward Cowan. The panel included Prof. Andrew Blaikie, Prof. Ullrich Kockel, Dr. Mairi McFadyen and Prof. Stana Nenadic. The two ethnologists (Kockel and McFadyen) were passionate about the potential of ethnology to address issues in the 21st century and set the subject in the context of Patrick Geddes‘ approach to ecological, social and cultural development. While not ethnologists themselves, the other two speakers highlighted the relevance of ethnology for historians and drew many parallels between history and ethnology.

Pushing ethnology further

In line with one of the aims to reach further, the lively discussions of the day were not accessible only in the closed setting of the conference, but were opened to a larger audience through live tweeting. All resulting tweets are now available in this Storify feed.

With so many avenues opened and encouraged by the state of enthusiasm felt by participants, it was suggested that these ideas might actually be starting points for a longer discussion to be carried further in a series of meetings/potential events.

Sign language brokering experiences in the Deaf community

Many people will have seen the video of the cute young girl Claire Koch singing Christmas carols and simultaneously signing the songs in American Sign Language for her deaf parents that went viral in December 2013. The general response was the feel good factor – how amazing, considerate and talented this little girl is.

Children like Claire are often referred to as ‘Children of Deaf Adults’ – Codas. This term is typically used as an overarching term for people of any age whose parents are (or were) deaf; sometimes, however, the term Koda (i.e., Kids of Deaf Adults) is used to distinguish between adults and young people.

Apart from her obviously impressive bilingual skills, the video also highlights one aspect of society that is often hidden from public view – the fact that young bilingual children often function as ‘language brokers’ for their parents or family members. What this little girl was doing was ‘brokering’ to help her parents understand a message that they would not otherwise have been able to access.

Language brokering

The term ‘brokering’ (rather than ‘interpreting’) is used specifically in relation to the experience of children assisting their parents with communication as it “focuses attention on the whole cultural meaning of such an event, in which any interpretation is simply a part” (Hall, 2004, p.285). There is a range of research studies that have explored ‘child language brokering’ experiences with immigrant children in different countries, that reveal how children will often broker for their parents in a range of contexts, and may feel empowered and at other times burdened (Orellana, Dorner & Pulido, 2003) by the experience.

Professional sign language interpreters have, until relatively recently, traditionally been Codas (Napier, McKee & Goswell, 2010), and some will have brokered from a young age. Since the introduction of professional sign language interpreting services, people often assume that children no longer need to interpret for their deaf parents. However, based on anecdotal observation, and Jemina Napier’s preliminary research (in press) with deaf and hearing people that have deaf parents, this is not the case. Napier’s international survey of 240 deaf and hearing Codas revealed that their experience mirrors those of spoken language child brokers: many of them had brokered from as early as 4 or 5 years old, and they felt their brokering experiences contributed to their positive self-esteem.

Claire’s father was quick to clarify in a Vlog post that they do not expect their 5-year old daughter to interpret for them, and that there was in fact a professional interpreter present at the Christmas concert, but their daughter wanted her parents to watch her directly.

For many years, deaf people have asserted their right to a professional interpreter and assured themselves and others that they do not ask their children to interpret for them. Perhaps not, but the video of Claire supports Napier’s research in revealing that Codas still broker for their parents, and they may not have been asked – they volunteer.

Desire to help

The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello and his colleagues have produced various articles (e.g., 20112013) that indicate that toddlers and young children have a natural instinct to want to help others, and they go to great lengths to cooperate with adults. This may explain why Codas still offer to broker for their deaf parents, even when it is not required of them: the children know that their parents cannot hear what is being said, so it is a natural instinct for them to want to help their parents to understand by signing for them.

Professional signed language interpreters have traditionally ‘evolved’ from the Deaf community (Cokely, 2005), but since the introduction of formal interpreter training programs anyone can choose to be a sign language interpreter (Stone, 2008) and be ‘schooled’ into the profession. Fewer Codas seem to be choosing to work as professional interpreters, or we are experiencing attrition from interpreter education programs as Codas do not complete the course of study, meaning that fewer interpreters come from the Deaf community (Cokely, 2005). So what happens to the earlier ‘desire to help’ that can be seen in young Kodas?

There are still huge supply and demand imbalances in the signed language interpreting sector worldwide, so more people need to be attracted to the profession, regardless of whether they are Codas or not. Many Codas still continue to broker for their parents when they are adults, even if other professional interpreters are available, because it is the only legitimate option due to the family member being the only professional interpreter that can understand the deaf person, for example, due to onset of dementia (Major, 2013).

Plus Codas who work as professional interpreters still feel undervalued in terms of what they bring to the profession, and want to have it recognized that although they may have grown up doing language brokering, they have still worked hard to develop their professional interpreting skills (Williamson, 2012), and can “bring value” to the profession (Colonomos, 2013), but should not be automatically valorised.

Thus it is vital to explore the nature of language brokering that is performed by Codas for several reasons:

(i)  to gain a clearer picture of the interpreting needs of the Deaf community, to account for interpreting demand that may currently be ‘masked’ by the fact that supply is met by children rather than professional interpreters;

(ii) to ascertain how the Coda brokering experience can be harnessed into positive linguistic and social competence, and mentor Codas into becoming professional interpreters and translators (such as Angelelli 2010 suggests for young spoken language bilinguals); and

(iii)  to draw parallels with the experience of immigrant children to inform community interpreting policy and practice more generally for all languages in the UK, Europe and internationally.

Although Napier’s initial survey study was useful for “sketching the broad contours of the [brokering] practice” (Orellana, 2010, p.51), more research is needed to further contribute to the body of child language brokering research and explore “how adults narrate their experiences as child language brokers, and how their perspectives on their language brokering experience change as they grow from children into adults” (Bauer, 2010, p.127). Furthermore, it is also necessary to explore the language brokering experiences from the young Codas themselves, and deaf parents’ and other stakeholders perceptions of their language brokering experiences (as Cirillo & Torresi, 2010 did in Italy regarding institutional expectations with spoken language brokers). Thus further replication of spoken CLB research is needed.

The next step will be to replicate the work of Valdes et al (2003) with Latino children, and conduct a qualitative, ethnographic study involving interviews, focus groups, non-participant observations and simulated interpreting tasks to observe ‘language brokering in action’ (Orellana, 2009, 2010). This approach will enable us to examine sign language brokering experiences of Codas in more depth, and from different perspectives, and build upon the findings of Napier’s survey study.

2014 and beyond

Therefore as of 2014, Jemina Napier and her research team in the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University will begin the next phase of research to explore sign language brokering experiences in the Deaf community. The research will build on the initial survey study, and involve focus groups with deaf parents, Codas/ Kodas, sign language interpreters and hearing service providers.

The research team includes people that represent each of the key stakeholder groups: (1) Professor Jemina Napier, who is a Coda and interpreter; (2) Clare Canton is a deaf parent of three hearing Codas and a qualified deaf interpreter, who is a PhD student on the project; and (3) Yvonne Waddell, who is a hearing (non-Coda) qualified interpreter and is also a PhD student on the project. See: https://lifeinlincs.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/whos-who-in-bsl-at-heriot-watt-university/ for a profile of each member of the research team, and also the BSL teaching and research team at Heriot-Watt University.

It is envisaged that the project will be carried out in collaboration with key organisations who represent the Deaf, sign language interpreting and Coda communities. It is vital to carry out this project in collaboration with the Deaf community, deaf parents and sign language interpreters in order to ensure that the communities can directly benefit from the research findings.

To see a summary of this article in International Sign click here

For more information, or to participate in the project, please contact Jemina Napier:

Email – j.napier@hw.ac.uk

Facebook – Jemina Napier

Twitter – @JeminaNapier