Justisigns: Promoting access to legal settings for deaf sign language users

Written by Robert Skinner

Click here to see a BSL version of this blog

How accessible is your local police force? Is your local police force prepared for a situation that involves a deaf person? What about the interpreting provisions? What specific training is needed to improve interpreting standards that go on to protect deaf individual’s rights when it comes to accessing the justice system?

Legislation is in place that recognises the human rights of deaf people to ensure equal access to the legal system. On 20 October 2010 the European Parliament adopted the Directive on the Rights to Interpretation and Translation in Criminal Proceedings. This means everyone charged with a criminal offence has the following minimum rights:

  • to be informed promptly, in a language which he understands and in detail, of the nature and cause of the accusation against him;
  • to have the free assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand or speak the language used in court

The principle that every European citizen is entitled to equal access to justice is well established and is enshrined in EU legislation and case law. EU Member State’s Public service providers are under an obligation to ensure equality of provision of their services across language and culture.

What does this mean for the average deaf European citizen? This means that your local Police Force is under an obligation to make reasonable adjustments to facilitate the provision of their service to deaf people. Before this can be acted upon police forces first need to know what equal access means, what steps need to be taken and how this can be delivered.

Justisigns is a 30-month project funded through the European Commission Leonardo Da Vinci Lifelong Learning Programme, and the aim of the project is to promote access to justice for deaf sign language users, with a particular focus on police settings. Jemina Napier, Graham Turner and Robert Skinner from the Languages & Intercultural Studies department at Heriot-Watt University are conducting the project in collaboration with consortium partners: Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, University of Applied Sciences of Special Needs Education in Switzerland, KU Leuven in Belgium, efsli (European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters) and EULITA (European Legal Interpreters & Translators Association).

The project is scheduled to end in May 2016. The first phase of the project involved conducting a survey of the nature of legal interpreting provision for deaf people across Europe (Napier & Haug, in preparation). In sum, it was found that although there are some established provisions for legal sign language interpreting across Europe, it is inconsistent. Furthermore, there does not seem to be a uniform approach across Europe to the training/ certification of legal interpreters, and the (lack of) availability of interpreters for legal settings is a Europe-wide issue. It is, however, difficult to identify legal sign language interpreting needs when it is not possible to identify the number of deaf sign language users in the legal system

The consortium has decided to focus on deaf people’s access to interpreters in police interviews for the next stage of the project until May 2016, as this is an under researched area. The goal of the project is to collect data through focus groups and interviews with deaf people, interpreters and police officers about their experiences. The information we gather will then be used to develop training materials and to offer workshops/ courses to these key stakeholder groups. By applying research in this way we can ensure deaf people and interpreters influence how equal access to the legal system is established.

In the 1990s, a ground-breaking study ‘Equality before the Law’ from the Deaf Studies Research Unit at Durham University was published (Brennan & Brown, 1997). In this research a range of issues were identified such as:

  • Lack of understanding and appreciation from the legal profession around what it means to be deaf and be part of a linguistic/cultural minority group.
  • Negative attitudes towards interpreters.
  • The awareness and need to use a registered/qualified interpreter who has been trained to work in court/police settings. In many cases CSW or family/friends were used to act as interpreters.
  • Lack of training opportunities to prepare trained interpreters to effectively work in Court/Police settings.
  • Treatment of deaf people as mentally disabled or “dumb”.
  • Failure from legal professionals to make adjustments that enable the interpreter to do his/her job.
  • Failure from legal representatives to video tape interviews with deaf suspects/witness/victims.
  • The need to develop internal policies that promote the use of good practice, such as booking a qualified interpreter; filming an interview
  • Few deaf people understood their own legal rights.
  • Deaf people do not always understand the reasons for their convictions – thus questioning the outcome of their “rehabilitation”.
  • Challenges with providing a faithful and accurate interpretation between English into BSL and BSL into English

While this list represents a scary reality, where deaf people are at risk of being wrongly convicted, our preliminary research has found some level of progress in the UK over the last 18 years. For example:

  • There is legislation in place that insists on equality before the law.
  • It is recommended that only qualified interpreters are used in the legal system.
  • Some interpreters have received legal training.
  • Some police forces have in place policies to guide officers when it comes to interviewing deaf suspects/witnesses/victims.
  • A few police forces in the UK have begun to develop online videos, recognising the specific linguistic and cultural needs of the deaf community.
  • Deaf professionals are now working within the legal system.

What our research so far reveals is that some forms of good practice exists. Unfortunately, we are not seeing a consistent approach to ensuring that the rights of deaf people are protected. Often good practice is achieved because individuals recognise the linguistic and cultural differences of deaf people. This tell us that what is needed is quite basic, a shared recognition and appreciation that deaf people belong to a distinct linguistic and cultural community. Once this definition has accepted the values of the legal system can begin to meet the needs of this community. The linguistic challenges interpreters experience in legal settings still persist, many of these challenges appear because of how the language is used and the vocabulary differences between English and BSL.

The Justisigns work is not complete. We are still running further focus groups and interviews. To support our research we are looking for volunteers in Scotland and England to participate. If you would like to contact us about your experience please email r.skinner@hw.ac.uk.

The evidence we collect will be used to inform the development of training materials and recommended guidelines for police forces.

A research symposium will also be held as part of the project on Saturday 7th November 2015, to discuss various methodological approaches to conducting interpreting research in legal settings. See http://ctiss.hw.ac.uk/seminars/justisigns.html or http://artisinitiative.org/events/artisheriot-watt2015/

More information about the project can be seen here: http://www.justisigns.com/JUSTISIGNS_Project/About.html with a version in BSL at http://www.justisigns.com/justisigns_sls/BSL.html

All information collected through the research will remain confidential. The project has received ethics approval from the Heriot-Watt University School of Management & Languages Ethics office.

IRC Seminars 2014/15 Semester 2

The Intercultural Research Centre seminar series for semester 2 has now be finalised!

17 February 2015 – 4.30 pm [MBG20]
Dr Neringa Liubinienė
Center of Social Anthropology, Vytautas Magnus University Kaunass, Lithuania
Being a Transmigrant in the Contemporary World: Lithuanian Migrants’ Quests for Identity

18 February 2015 – 3.30 pm [EM336]
Dr Kathryn Burnett
School of Media, Culture and Society, University of the West of Scotland
Enterprise and Entrepreneurship on Scottish Islands: An Intercultural Perspective

11 March 2015 – 3.30 pm [MBG20]
Prof. Ian Baxter
Suffolk Business School, University Campus Suffolk
Global versus local – Understanding the Role of Management in Heritage Tourism

18 March 2015 – 3.30 pm [MBG20]
Dr Thomas Hoerber
ESSCA, École de Management, Angers, France
[title tba]

22 April 2015 – 3.30 pm [BEC – Esmee Fairbairn building]
Dr Angeliki Monnier
Département Métiers du Multimédia et de l’Internet, Université de Haute Alsace, France
Understanding National Identity: Between Culture and Institutions

6 May – 2.00 pm [BEC – Esmee Fairbairn building]
Prof. Tim Ingold
Department of Anthropology, University of Aberdeen
[title tba]

[date/time/topic tba]
Dr Philip McDermott
School of Sociology and Applied Social Studies, University of Ulster
Language Rights, Migrants and the Council of Europe: A Failed Response to a Multilingual Continent?

For further details, please contact Prof. Ullrich Kockel

Call for Papers! 7th International Conference of Hispanic Linguistics @ Heriot-Watt

by Nicola Bermingham

This year, Heriot-Watt will be holding the 7th International Conference of Hispanic Linguistics (27th – 29th March 2015). The title for this year’s conference is Spanish in Contact – new times, new spaces and new speakers.

The conference will bring together scholars from around the world who are working with Spanish and languages in contact with Spanish such as Catalan, Galician and Basque as well as other language situations such as Latinos in the US where Spanish comes into contact with English and as such is in a subordinate position, migrant communities in other parts of the world where Spanish comes into contact with the host language, hybridized forms that emerge from such contact, issues around Spanish as a global language, and other indigenous languages in contact with Spanish such as Quechua.

Over the three days of the conference we will be exploring how cultural and linguistic changes brought about by globalisation and a changing political and economic landscape have impacted the ways in which we conceptualise the relationship between language and society in the twenty-first century. A new communicative order has emerged in which we find new types of speakers, new forms of language and new modes of communication. The conference theme addresses the challenges and opportunities that this new communicative order presents to researchers working with Spanish and situations of Spanish in contact in the twenty-first century.

Our three esteemed keynote speakers are Professor David Block (ICREA/Universitat de Lleida), Dr Jaine Beswick (University of Southampton) and Dr Joan Pujolar (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya). Professor Block has published extensively on a variety of topics including globalization, migration, multiculturalism, multilingualism, identity, narrative research and second language teaching and learning. Dr Beswick specialises in Spanish, Galician and Portuguese phonetic and phonological variation and change and migration studies. Dr Pujolar’s research focuses on how language use is mobilized in the construction of identities and its implications for access to symbolic and economic resources.

We welcome abstracts of no more than 300 words in length by no later that February 15th 2015. Abstracts should be sent to sis2015edinburgh@gmail.com as a word attachment containing the title of the paper and description of the proposed talk, including: the aims, methodology and main findings of the study upon which it is based, as well as a list of bibliographical references (Harvard system). Contact details (name, affiliation and postal / electronic address) should be included only in the body of the email, together with the title of the paper.  Notification of acceptance will by 1st March 2015.

We look forward to receiving your abstracts!

How do you teach note-taking for consecutive interpreting?

It’s one of those ‘how long is a piece of string’ questions. Consecutive interpreting involves listening to a speech delivered in one language in front of an international audience, taking notes and then giving the same speech in another language, making sure it is as close to the original as possible in terms of content, delivery and style. The activity is taught and practised through memory exercises, listening comprehension, summarising, abstracting and note-taking.

There is some very useful literature on note-taking for consecutive interpreting aimed both at trainee interpreters and at interpreter trainers. The most frequently cited works are Rozan, J.F. (1956) Note-taking in Consecutive Interpreting; Jones, R. (2002): Conference interpreting explained; Gillies, A. (2005): Note-taking for consecutive interpreting. A review of these key works by Michelle Hof can be found here.

Even though note-taking constitutes an integral part of the interpreting process, it may detract interpreters from active listening. This means that the note-taking task involves filtering and ruthless selection, as well as translation, so that the speech can be then delivered in another language. Because of the bilingual nature of the task, shorthand would not be effective in helping to reproduce the original speech verbatim and thus eschew the process of filtering, as shorthand is based on standardised symbols of sounds, not meaning (Valencia, 2013: 11-12).

More importantly, the role of interpreters’ notes should be to “relieve memory” (Jones, 2002: 42) and to outsource tasks that cannot be performed by memory alone. In other words, notes should be an aide-memoir, not a schematic representation of the entirety of the speech. Because of the mutual dependence of memory and notes and the highly contingent nature of memory, notes are highly personalised to the extent that “no two interpreters will ever produce an identical set of notes” (Gillies, 2005: 10) for the same speech. At the same time, the majority of speeches tend to be formulaic to the extent that they “present the interpreter with a limited range of the same problems, for which effective solutions have already been worked out and are applied by many, many interpreters” (ibid.). This means that despite the contingent and subjective nature of notes, there exist basic principles of note-taking in consecutive interpreting that can be taught (Valencia, 2013: 14).

Despite this, there is no one-size-fits-all note-taking system, which poses a particular challenge for learning and teaching. The basic principles mentioned abover are supposed to become “internalised” (Gillies, 2005: 10) and ultimately individualised to follow a personal style as well as the requirements of any given speech, speaker or setting. This is easier said than done.

The current learning experience involves teaching students some basic note-taking symbols and abbreviations of terms that occur in most speeches, as well as strategies in noting down numbers, links, tense and how to separate ideas. Learners practise interpreting speeches based on no notes, minimal notes, only symbols, only numbers etc. They are also encouraged to share their notes to see examples of different note-taking styles and even to try to reproduce the original speech based on other people’s notes. However, they do not get an insight into how different styles of notes are produced – how quickly the interpreter takes notes, how much of a time lag there is in producing these notes, how selection of information takes place, which language is chosen for note-taking etc. Class time is too limited for carrying out these activities and for helping learners develop the creativity required to assimilate the techniques taught and make them their own.

Maybe uploading pre-recorded videos of real-time note-taking on a virtual learning environment such as Blackboard would be useful for learner practice. The videos would not be prescriptive, but they are meant to trigger reflection and generate ideas. It would save class time and create the space necessary for students to be creative, experiment and develop a personal note-taking style. It would also offer an insight into the professional world by demonstrating different types of real-time note-taking. The opportunity for reflection is important, as students can go back and deconstruct the process while exploring and developing their own efficient system. In this way, they are encouraged to be “active makers and shapers of their own learning” (JISC, 2009: 51).

It takes months, even years of experience and practice for interpreters to develop their own efficient, tried and tested system of note-taking for consecutive interpreting. Pre-recorded note-taking videos may enhance the learning experience through experiential and authentic learning that helps to demonstrate how memory and note-taking work together in producing a semantically accurate and fluent speech in the target language. It would be useful as a follow-up for learners to upload videos of their own note-taking and share with their colleagues their own reflective process, justify their selection choices, symbols, techniques etc. A wiki for sharing ideas and practice material could then be developed.   Class time and setting are simply too limited for such a task.

Can museums make a difference on public attitudes to identity, citizenship and belonging?

by Katerina Strani

I come from an ancient country, where museums are spaces filled with age-old artefacts that assert national (or regional) identity. They are there to inform, to teach, to educate in the broad sense. This is the role of museums, right?

Katherine Lloyd urges us to think beyond that monolithic perception. In her recent talk hosted by the IRC in LINCS, she explored the potential impact of museums on public attitudes to issues of identity, citizenship and belonging in an age of migrations. Katherine’s work, which focuses on Scottish museums, contributes to an emerging body of international research that interrogates the normative assumptions within heritage studies regarding the ability of museums to facilitate attitudinal changes to cultural difference.

The potential for museums to foster inclusive identities and facilitate intercultural understanding has become a pertinent issue for European policy makers in recent years, as evidenced in the aims of the EU-funded research programme MeLa*: European Museums in an Age of Migrations. The case of Scotland—where questions of national identity dominate the public sphere in the context of debates on constitutional change—provides a useful prism through which to consider these issues. Research undertaken with visitors at the National Museum of Scotland as part of the MeLa* research programme, in collaboration with ICCHS colleagues Chris Whitehead, Rhiannon Mason and Susannah Eckersley, has shown that while stories that highlight the historical heterogeneity of place can be found throughout the displays, these are often ignored, forgotten or overlooked by visitors.  A deeper understanding of not only how individuals respond to heterogeneous conceptualisations of place but the reasons why visitors may ignore or indeed ‘resist’ institutional representations of place as constructed and shifting is therefore needed if museums are to contribute to public debates about migration and identity.

Katherine’s talk sought to addresses this through bridging the gap between research on heritage, place and identity at the level of the individual with studies that focus on the institutional construction of identity within the museum. She analysed how young people in schools across Scotland utilised concepts of ‘place’ negotiated issues of migration, diversity, heritage and national identity and draws upon these findings in order to critically reflect upon the responses of visitors to displays at the National Museum of Scotland. The insights gained through this approach were then utilised to identify some of the potential challenges and risks that museums in Europe, and indeed further afield, may face when addressing such issues.

This research raised significant questions on the role of museum texts and museums in general in creating a dialectical space of exploring identity, belonging and cultural citizenship. The potential is vast.

What’s in a name?

Click here to see British Sign Language version of this post

You may have seen earlier blog posts from me where I discuss the research that I am currently leading on language brokering experiences in the Deaf community. In that research I am replicating the work that has been done on child language brokering with spoken language brokering to explore how, when, where and why it happens in the Deaf community, and the experiences language brokers in mediating information for their family members.

The term brokering “focuses attention on the whole cultural meaning of such an event, in which any interpretation is simply a part” (Hall, 2004, p.285), and language brokering is typically conducted by children and young people that are more adept at a particular language than their parents, for example in migrant families where children may learn to speak the language of their new country more quickly than their parents. Child language brokering literature has identified that the typical age for children to begin brokering is 7 or 8 years old, once they have sufficiently acquired proficiency in the new language to mediate for their parents; and that children broker in a range of contexts, including medical, educational, retail and legal situations (Tse, 1996; Wiesskirch & Alva, 2002).

In the Deaf community, brokering is performed by children with deaf parents. As they are exposed to both spoken and signed languages from birth, however, it seems that these children begin to broker as early as age 4 or 5 (Napier, in press).

Children who are hearing that have deaf parents are typically referred to as Codas (Children of Deaf Adults), and there are organisations to support these people as kids and as adults to share their experiences (e.g., CODA UK &Ireland, CODA Australia, CODA International). Research has been conducted with Codas to explore their identity and describe their struggles with how they felt being ‘hearing in a deaf world’ (Preston, 1994; Adams, 2008).

But it’s not a struggle for everybody. I am a ‘Coda’, but I have never felt comfortable with the term, as I have written elsewhere (Napier, 2008). Firstly, I am not a child, and my parents are not just ‘adults’, they are my parents. I don’t mind being identified as someone who grew up in the Deaf community, in fact I am proud of my language and cultural heritage, but the term ‘Coda’ conjures up too many pejorative connotations about kids taking on responsibilities to ‘take care’ of their parents from a young age through brokering. I also resist labelling of this kind as I believe that we all have multiple identities. Not only am I a daughter, but I am also a wife, a mother, an interpreter, a researcher, a teacher. My ‘Coda’ inheritance is only one part of my identity.

Another reason that I am not comfortable with the ‘Coda’ label is the assumption that it is only hearing people that grow up with deaf parents that take on a brokering role. My research has shown that deaf people with deaf parents also broker – often because their language skills are better, or they can speak better than their parents, or are just more confident (Napier, in press, 2014).

There is a term to refer to these people – as ‘Dodas’ (Deaf of Deaf Adults), and there is a closed group on Facebook, but it’s not a particularly popular term. And these people are typically excluded from Coda events and organisations. But they may well have similar experiences to share.

I think it is important that both hearing and deaf people who have grown up with deaf parents should have their language and cultural heritage acknowledged, especially in relation to what they bring to the sign language interpreting profession, given that there is increasing recognition of the work of deaf interpreters (Adam, Stone, Collins & Metzger, 2014).

I believe that, to quote a participant at the recent Association of Sign Language Interpreters UK (ASLI) conference where I presented, the term ‘Coda’ is “outdated and outmoded” (Jennifer Smith, Twitter [@jennifersmithuk], 28 September 2014). We also need to think more broadly about people who have grown up with sign language – not only with parents, but also siblings and extended family.

So I suggest a new, more all encompassing, convention – to refer to “People from Deaf Families” (PDFs), which includes deaf or hearing people that have grown up using sign language regularly with one or more deaf members of their family.

This term includes both deaf and hearing people, and also does not distinguish between children or adults, and does not focus only on people that have deaf parents.

In the same way that it’s difficult to make changes to a pdf document, we can’t change who we are. Being a PDF should not be taboo. The professionalisation of sign language interpreting has meant more focus for training on recruiting L2 sign language learners in to the profession, which has been invaluable to the Deaf community. But we shouldn’t forget the deaf and hearing people that grow up in the community have a wealth of experience to bring (Williamson, 2012). Various authors (e.g., Stone, 2008) have discussed how the Deaf community are less engaged with selecting people to become interpreters, and many interpreter education programmes are trying to re-engage with the community through service learning (see Shaw, 2012). The swing to professionalism has led to a situation where it seems that PDFs are almost apologising for having sign language heritage. It could be seen that this is a form of intangible cultural heritage.

I don’t want to be divisive. We all have the same goal in mind – let’s work together to provide the highest quality interpreting and translation services for the Deaf community. So let’s embrace deaf and hearing PDFs, recognise and value their heritage; in the same way we should recognise and value the life experiences of others who have chosen to learn our language and be a part of our community – they chose us.

After holding a discussion group at the ASLI conference in September 2014 with sign language interpreters about the topic of language brokering, the majority of whom did not have sign language heritage, I first suggested this PDF term. Comments from the group were very positive and people responded well to this more all-encompassing term.

What are your thoughts…?

IRC Guest Lecture: Culture and Power among Palestinians in Tel Aviv

The IRC Guest Lecture series kicked off last week, with journalist and anthropologist Andreas Hackl’s talk on “Culture and Power among Palestinians in Tel Aviv: An Intercultural Perspective”.

With his natural flair for storytelling, Andreas took us on a journey to modern-day Israel, where the Palestinian citizens of Israel have taken part in an ongoing struggle to preserve identity, culture and a national identity while at the same time living in the midst of Israeli society.

Making up some 1.3 million or 17 percent of Israel’s population today, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are the descendants of those Palestinian Arabs who did not become refugees in 1948 – when Israel was created – but were incorporated within the boundaries of this state that continues to define itself as Jewish (and democratic). What is important is that the Palestinian or Arab citizens of Israel are not a minority that immigrated into a majority-society, but rather an indigenous former majority to which a foreign colonial project and a state had forcibly immigrated. Palestinians in Israel are then dealing with the condition of ‘exile at home’ in their everyday lives. This includes the complex and difficult balancing of power and culture by individual members of this ‘marginalized minority’.

The everyday political and cultural dilemmas are specifically severe among Palestinians in Tel Aviv, a city often imagined to be an exclusively Jewish-Israeli place. Here, Palestinians’ historic luggage and their national and cultural identities often stand in sharp contrast to the social and cultural environment in the city and Tel Aviv’s own discursive identity. The result of Palestinians’ opportunity-oriented inclusion into Tel Aviv – whether in search for work, education, or an urban lifestyle – is often the uneasy coexistence of everyday struggles with power and culture on the one hand, and the often innovative and empowering tactics of individual Palestinians on the other.

For Palestinians in the city of Tel Aviv, conflict and peace, or resistance and cooperation, coexist.

Andreas’s talk raised some serious questions on the issues of plurality but at the same time partiality of identity. The ‘exile at home’ takes the traditional anthropological view of liminality to new levels. Important questions were also raised on multilingualism in modern-day Israel. As a journalist and a researcher he relied on interviews and ethnographic engagement to capture and convey the ‘voice’ of the community he was studying. As the Palestinian citizens of Israel often switch between languages depending on context, he too had to be sensitive to the special requirements of each situation – Arabic, Hebrew and English intermixed in many ways. You could write a whole paper about the dynamics of these interviews based on the language used for communication, before you move on to the more crucial power dynamics examined in his work.

Andreas is also a member of the International Doctoral Programme Transformations in European Societies, a collaboration between the universities of Munich, Murcia, Tel Aviv, Graz, Basel, Copenhagen and Heriot-Watt and is one of the editors of the Transformations blog. He is a PhD student in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and DOC-fellow of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Introducing our new PhD students

Our vibrant PhD cohort is growing!

Yanmei Wu has joined LINCS as a PhD student in Heritage and Performance. Her study will look into Chinese Kunqu Opera as intangible heritage, as well as its recent revival in 21st century China. Her supervisors are Dr Chris Tinker and Dr Kerstin Pfeiffer.

Yanmei studied ethnomusicology at SOAS, visual anthropology at Goldsmith’s and teaching Chinese as a foreign language at Sheffield. She taught Chinese at Manchester Metropolitan University for three years before deciding to pursue her PhD studies in Heriot-Watt.

In addition to her teaching career and study, Yanmei has worked extensively as a performing artist. Originally from Jiangsu province in China, she was trained in traditional Chinese dance and music from an early age. She performs different styles of trasitinoal Chinese dance as well as zheng, the Chinese zither.

Heather Mole has also joined us this year to embark on her PhD research on sign language interpreting. Her supervisors are Prof Jemina Napier and Dr Katerina Strani.

Heather’s background includes BSL/English interpreting (a degree in Deaf Studies from Bristol University) and a Masters in Disability Studies from Leeds University.

She has worked as an adviser to disabled students in a university setting for 8 years. In that time, Heather reflected on the power dynamics of service provision and interpreting. She has also been fascinated by the concept of “white privilege” and the transposition of this onto “hearing privilege”. Heather hopes to research these two dimensions to see what impact they may or may not have on the interpreter.

For more information on our PhD programmes in LINCS, you can visit this page for research on Translation and Interpreting and this page for intercultural research.

Back to School ?

by Katerina Strani

The new Academic Year has started and LINCS is full of students again. It’s good to see enthusiastic freshers, new MSc and PhD students as well as old familiar faces.

But even though undergraduate students get a break from uni during the summer, staff and postgraduate students are busier than ever. So what did we do over the summer?

  • Held the annual Edinburgh Interpreting Research Summer School (30 June – 4 July): Intensive research training for existing and future scholars in any field of interpreting. 5 days of seminars on research design and methods, lectures on current trends in conference, public service and sign-language interpreting, workshops on writing a literature review to maximising research impact, presentations by participants. Oh, and guest lectures by Barbara Moser-Mercer and Franz Pöchhacker.
  • Held the annual Applied English and Interpreting Summer Course (4-22 August): Intensive interpreting training (CPD) for professional interpreters. One week of British Culture and Society, British and Scots Law and public speaking, two weeks of intensive consecutive and simultaneous interpreting into English, including multilingual mini-conferences.
  • Ran Academic English Programmes to enable students to reach the required entry levels for English language and to prepare to study in a UK context. 450 students attended 12, 6 and 3-week courses with an overall pass rate of 98% ! These courses use Access EAP: Frameworks, co-authored by Olwyn Alexander, Academic Director of the English section and nominated for an ELTon award in 2014. The pre-sessional courses are accredited by BALEAP and were inspected for re-accreditation in August. Innovations this year include a strand of subject-specific seminars to enable Business Management students to prepare to engage with postgraduate study. There were also a series of Open Days within Academic Schools to welcome new students to the university.

We’ve also been busy with Public Engagement activities, such as:

  • BSL summer school for school kids, voted as the No.1 school experience day for kids this year! For more information, contact Gary Quinn.

Finally, we secured funding for three collaborative research projects:

1. Dr Raquel de Pedro Ricoy secured AHRC Research Innovation Grant funding under the Translating Cultures theme. The project, entitled “Translating cultures and the legislated mediation of indigenous rights in Peru”, to be conducted over 20 months (October 2014 – June 2016), has been awarded over £200,000. The aim of this project is to examine translation and interpreting processes between Spanish and indigenous languages in contexts of consultation between agents of the state, outside bodies and members of the indigenous communities against the background of escalating industrial exploitation of the natural resources lying below indigenous lands. The research team includes Professor Rosaleen Howard (Chair of Hispanic Studies, Newcastle University) and Dr Luis Andrade (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Lima), and will work with Peru’s Ministry of Culture and the NGO Servicios Educativos Rurales as Project Partners.

2. Professor Jemina Napier also secured AHRC Research Innovation Grant funding under the Translating Cultures theme for a project entitled “Translating the Deaf Self”. The project will be conducted over 18 months (January 2015- June 2016) and has been awarded over £198,000. Its aims are to investigate translation as constitutive of culture and as pertinent to the well being of Deaf people who sign and rely on mediated communication to be understood and participate in the majority. The deaf-hearing sign bilingual research team, co-led by Professor Napier and Professor Alys Young (Professor of Social Work Education & Research at the University of Manchester) will include deaf researcher Rosemary Oram and another deaf research assistant, and will work with Action Deafness in Leicester as Project Partner.

3. Dr Katerina Strani secured funding by the European Commission Directorate General for Justice for a project entitled “RADAR: Regulating Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Racism”. The project involves 9 partners, it will be conducted over 24 months (November 2014 – October 2016) and Heriot-Watt has been awarded over £33,000. The  aim is to provide law enforcement officials and legal professionals with the necessary tools to facilitate the identification of “racially motivated” hate communication. For this purpose, a communication-based training model will be developed for professionals at the national level and for trainers at the international level, as well as online learning resources. Finally, the project aims at producing a multilingual publication with concrete tools, recommendations and best practice examples to facilitate anti-discrimination and anti-racist actions and regulations.

So after a busy summer, it looks like we have an even busier year ahead.

Bring it on!

Understanding understanding *

“I want people to understand each other” –

That was the best I could come up with when asked to sum up my research in fewer than 10 words during last year’s Heriot-Watt Crucible. But it did prompt people to ask me questions such as how are you planning to achieve this, why do you want people to understand each other, what is the scope of your research, can you give us a bit more context etc. But nobody asked me what I meant by “understanding”.

Understanding is a hugely complex cognitive process that involves great uncertainty, yet it is fundamental in communication. It is also taken for granted or tends to be assumed too quickly.

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas believes that what is crucial in achieving understanding is intersubjectivity. This places emphasis on a distinct common social world shared by people when they speak. It requires us to overcome our biased, subjective views so that, instead of communicating our own subjectivities, we are communicating intersubjectively. And understanding is reached when people relate to something in “the one objective world” (which I don’t agree with, but that’s another story), something in the common social world that they have created through communication and something in each one’s subjective world.

This model is certainly not without its flaws, but it highlights the fact that understanding is a shared process. Even in the absence of others, when we read a book alone, for example, we try to understand by relating what we read to past shared communications. And that involves great uncertainty. In many cases, people assume they have understood each other even though they have created different images in their head that do not coincide. Understanding in this case is reduced to a “fictional coupling of expectations”, as my former PhD supervisor neatly put it.

And we haven’t talked about different languages yet.

In a recent conference in Cork organised by the University Association of Contemporary European Studies, I presented a paper on “The impact of multilingualism in public sphere communication” (abstract here). I tried to show that multilingualism is an integral part of post-national citizenship but it is frequently ignored in political communication. Because of multiculturalism and multilingualism, we have seen the profusion of new publics – subnational, diasporic publics, for example. And let’s not forget the EU public sphere, where 24 different languages are used! How do people argue when they speak a language different from their language of habitual use? How is debate transformed when interpreters are used? (Nicole Doerr from Mount Holyoke College has written extensively on this, looking at interpreted debate during the European Social Forum). How do we negotiate and establish meaning, understanding and ultimately consensus?

One of the questions I was asked was if language was actually important in communication and understanding. The argument was that, even when we speak different languages, we reach understanding one way or another (through paralinguistic communication, educated guesses (!) or through interpreters). So if understanding is achieved, it doesn’t matter what language you speak. The focus should be on the message and not on the language used to convey it.

IF understanding is achieved. That’s a big IF. Even in monolingual, unicultural environments we get “fictional coupling of expectations” instead of complete understanding. Multilingual environments add another level of complexity because when we speak a different language, we become different people (or do we?). If language is linked to culture, then when we speak a different language do we acquire different cultural traits? I joked once that I would probably be more efficient if I spoke better German.

But bold claims aside, we do change when we speak a different language. We do start to think differently. And if understanding is a shared process, this ultimately influences how we communicate our thoughts, our perceptions of meaning and ultimately the way we argue.

Multilingualism does not impede on our communication, but it adds another dimension to our understanding of meanings and perceptions that we must take into account.  Recognition and awareness is a good start.

Katerina Strani

* The title is borrowed by Heinz von Foerster’s book Understanding understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition, Springer, 2002.