"A visual world: Research on sign language" - Event report

Professor Jemina Napier is Chair of Intercultural Communication and Head of Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies in the School of Management and Languages at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. She is an interpreter researcher, educator and practitioner and has practised as a sign language interpreter since 1988.

In 2012 Heriot-Watt was the first Scottish University to offer a 4-year undergraduate programme which is approved by the Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters (SASLI) and the National Register of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD) as a route to professional qualification and registration to practise as a sign language interpreter.

‘A visual world – research on sign language’.  Professor Jemina Napier began by setting the scene at Heriot-Watt University and introduced three of her colleagues on the British Sign Language (BSL) team; Andy Carmichael, Anna Spence and Gary Quinn.  Prof. Napier grew up within a deaf family so BSL is a home language to her; she now trains others to use the language and she leads many research projects, some of which are outlined below.

Her presentation was signed throughout, in turns of ten minutes, by Andy and Anna.

There are 138 sign languages, each a language in its own right, and throughout the world there are 70 million people using them. Thirty-three countries officially recognise a sign language and Scotland has taken a major step with the BSL Scotland Act 2015 requiring public authorities such as the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman and other regulatory bodies to advise Ministers regularly on their promotion and adoption of BSL within their functions. There is yet no equivalent in England and Wales.

Some of Prof. Napier’s research projects are as follows:

Deaf Jurors – This would have a massive impact in Britain. At present, a deaf person cannot serve on a jury. Under current UK legislation, you cannot have a non-juror interpreter because it would breach the maximum number of 12 allowed in the jury room – even if an interpreter has been allowed in the court room for, say, a deaf witness! This contrasts with the USA, for example, where it is a civil right to be provided with a sign language interpreter and Australia, where new legislation has been passed to allow deaf jurors. Heriot-Watt University research is trying to address concerns about legal terminology. Recently at a mock 2- day trial using sign language interpreters, when the verdict was analysed it was clear that the deaf juror had participated without problem and in fact had been ranked 4th of those ‘speaking’ in the jury room and the other hearing jurors had no concerns.  The Scottish Executive is currently considering the research data.

Language Brokering – looking at how children are often used as ‘interpreters’ simply because they are part of the family.

Translating the Deaf Self –  Is there any way of overcoming the problem of hearing people talking to the interpreter instead of addressing the deaf person? The ‘does he take sugar’ syndrome so often experienced by people with visible disabilities.

Designs – defining the barriers to employment and progression. This is a collaborative project with Germany and Ireland which considers how the deaf person copes if the interpreter is late or does not arrive at all.

Insign – in collaboration with the European Commission, this research explores how deaf people can contact their MEP. A pilot study looked at 6 different sign languages and trialled by video whether a multi-sign language service could be developed.

Justisigns –Sign Language Interpreting in Police Settings. The team was given authentic data from Police Scotland and training materials have now been developed with posters advising police officers what steps should be taken when dealing with deaf people. This project also looks at Video Remote Sign Language Interpreting in conjunction with Police Scotland.

Classroom interpreting – Are deaf children better in a mainstream school with an interpreter, or in a specialised school? After a number of hours filmed in a classroom setting, the researchers considered the misconception that the teacher is only talking to hearing children or that deaf children do not react to a teacher’s questions as quickly as hearing children and are therefore less intelligent or interested. In fact, the short delay in the sign language interpreter talking to the child often means that hearing children will always be quicker to put their hands up to answer the teacher. This can be upsetting and frustrating for deaf students and it is possible that they are not getting the same level of teaching. The analysis of this research is still being finalised.

Understanding interpreting – exploring how people interact.

Lost in BSL Translation – psychology students are learning how to interact with deaf people.

Job demands and resources – aimed at interpreter educators.

The linguistics of sign languages – developing a linguistic description of BSL based on large data sets such as the BSL Corpus (qv).

The audience was then treated to an interactive session with Gary Quinn which was thoroughly enjoyable – and we did actually come away with some new skills!


And finally, a view from the floor …

I’m Heather Davies, a recent graduate in Interpreting and Translation (DE/ES -EN) from Heriot-Watt University and I have recently become involved with CIOL Scottish Society as a volunteer by greeting attendees and photographing the speakers at events like the May talk on BSL in Edinburgh.

The talk by renowned BSL interpreting researcher and practitioner Professor Jemina Napier from Heriot-Watt University provided lots of food for thought and covered many issues about BSL which I hadn’t previously considered. There was even an interactive BSL workshop to scratch up on those BSL skills I learnt during my 1st year elective! It was a real pleasure to see fellow interpreting graduate Anna Spence (BSL/DE-EN) interpreting the talk into BSL alongside professional interpreter Andy Carmichael; she’s a very talented interpreter and I know she will do well in her future career.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my involvement so far with CIOL Scottish Society.  Being a part of a professional network like CIOL and meeting professionals in the field of translation and interpreting definitely opens doors and gives a wider perspective on the field than what you can learn from within university education. For example, I would like to go into Public Service Interpreting and after speaking to accredited and practicing interpreters at events like those organised by CIOL, I have learnt a lot about different options for training and gathering experience as well as the importance of having a professional PSI qualification. On top of that, being involved in a professional body is simply a handy way to connect with practising professionals who can answer any questions you might have about the career path you’re looking to follow!

I’m really looking forward to attending and helping with future events, such as the September talk on translation in occupied Germany and the ways in which we linguists can maximise our use of social media, which sounds like an extremely interesting and useful event!  I hope to see some familiar faces there and I’ll definitely be rounding up my university friends to join me too.

If anyone would like to contact me, my name is Heather Davies, I’m pursuing a career in Public Service Interpreting (DE/ES<>EN) and translation (DE/ES>EN), and you can find me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/heather-davies-linguist/ or follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/H_Daavies.