Signing up a storm?

Not for the first time, the Eurovision Song Contest has managed to draw attention to language issues in a revealing way.

We all know the controversies over the years about countries choosing to sing in English. If you thought that wasn’t happening so much nowadays, the 2017 final featured 42 songs, of which 35 were sung entirely in English – at 83%, that’s the highest proportion ever.

You may be less aware, though, that Eurovision has also offered its own unique window on the place of sign language in society.

Back in 2005, the Latvian entry ‘The War Is Not Over’ featured a final chorus in which the performers, Valters & Kaža, left their stools and laid down their acoustic guitars to sign alongside their signing. It’s not clear why. The song received the famous douze points from IrelandLithuania and Moldova, and finished 5th overall.

Things nearly got more interesting in 2009 when a Deaf artist, Signmark, competed in Finland’s national Eurovision qualifications. Signmark (real name: Marko Vuoriheimo), who was born into a signing family, performed ‘Speakerbox’ with a hearing singer. But the song ended up in second place in the Finnish competition and so narrowly missed out on being chosen for the grand Eurovision final. Nevertheless, Signmark went on to great things and goes down in history as the first deaf person to sign a recording contract with an international record company (Warner Music).

In 2015, the focus shifted from signing performers to a signing interpreter. In Sweden, the national competition was presented with Tommy Krångh delivering Swedish Sign Language renditions alongside each song. His work was so popular that there were demands for him to appear for the grand final, too

And what’s the story in 2018?

This year, the UK has decided to experiment with signing. SuRie, our representative in Lisbon, has recorded a British Sign Language version of her track ‘Storm’. The BBC proudly reported that she learnt it “in just a few hours”. SuRie has, we’re told, “been wanting to learn BSL for a long time” and jumped at the chance to pursue this when a fan sent her a video of himself signing ‘Storm’. The BBC’s Newsround said: “She got in touch and asked if he would teach her how to sign the lyrics too”.

The initiative soon started to attract interest. A clip was released on Twitter, but not everyone was enthusiastic, with one person even saying “this makes me want to poke my eyes out”. The singer anxiously replied “I realise there’s tons more to BSL than I was able to portray here and that I have a helluva lot more to learn”. More discussion followed, spinning out – that’s social media, folks! – into strongly-worded antagonism and much taking of sides.

A 24-hour Twitter poll summarised three stances that were emerging. Respondents voted as follows to the proposition that SuRie’s BSL version should be seen as either:

  • Inspiring: a model of inclusivity and artistic creativity – 16%
  • Harmlessly well-intentioned but misguided – 60%
  • Cynical, crass, ignorant and disrespectful – 24%

So what’s going on here? And why is this a LifeinLINCS issue?

Well, as a department, LINCS teaches both spoken and signed languages. And we specialise in both translation and interpreting studies, and intercultural research. The SuRie ‘Storm’-in-a-teacup touches on every part of this.

British Sign Language (BSL) wasn’t even understood to be a language until the mid-1970s. Ten years later, it started to be taught in earnest. And within 20 years of that point, it had become one of the most popular adult education subjects in the UK. Almost all of that teaching was being led by Deaf BSL users.

Now, thanks in part to a Heriot-Watt initiative, plans are afoot to offer BSL as a full language subject in schools across Scotland. LINCS’ own Dr Ella Leith is currently on secondment to the Scottish Qualifications Authority, coordinating a project to develop BSL qualifications for high schools. Exciting times!

But this starts to show why SuRie’s BSL work has frustrated some. BSL simply can’t be learned meaningfully in two hours: “It’s a complex language, you know” noted one tweeter, “way beyond swear words and song lyrics and Trump’s sign name”. The professionalisation of BSL teaching has been pursued for over 30 years. Reversing the historic oppression of the language has been wrapped up with highlighting, as teachers, Deaf people for whom BSL is a preferred language.

Then there’s the question of the quality of the BSL translation. LINCS students work their socks off not for hours but for years (eg on our main undergraduate programme to develop the ability to produce effective BSL output from English source material. And they wouldn’t start with artistic matter like song lyrics, either!

Above all, perhaps, an opportunity has been missed to do some valuable intercultural work. A Eurovision entry that had been seriously planned with both sung and signed content, developed by artists with profound knowledge of the underlying issues of language and heritage, would have been much less likely to have been viewed as ‘cultural appropriation’ at work.

Can there be a happy ending to this story?

Eurovision reached over 180 million television viewers in 2017. Sending any kind of message to such an audience about effective engagement with sign language and with considered, high-quality translation would have to be welcome. The big prize, though, would be to show clearly that Deaf people aren’t so much “in need” of some crumbs of “access” from the hearing world’s table, but are contributors to society with extraordinary artistic, linguistic and cultural riches to share.

LINCS’ own work on the intangible heritage of the Deaf community reinforces that there are many creative artists using BSL. The Scottish Government’s National Plan for BSL envisages “promotion” of BSL as part of the shared cultural life of the nation. We’re working to get that message out through initiatives like the current two-year Royal Society of Edinburgh project to construct a Deaf Heritage network which can feed BSL inspiration into national cultural institutions.

SuRie appears to have quickly realised that there was more to all of this than meets the eye, saying: “Probs best if I leave it to the professionals, I really never intended to disappoint anyone in the community… but I realise I’m out of my depth and I do apologise”. Perhaps the very best thing she could do would be to turn this outcome on its head by coming out as a true champion for BSL in society and the arts. Now that really would send a clear signal.

Professor Graham H. Turner

Marco Polo project: Training Module in Penang

by Katerina Strani

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John Cleary and Katerina Strani from LINCS led the 2nd Training Module on International Cooperation Agreements and Networks, which is part of the Erasmus+ Marco Polo project (574027-EPP-1-2016-1-ES-EPPKA2-CBHE-JP), led by the University of Seville. The project includes 9 partners from Spain, the UK, Austria, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, and seeks to strengthen International Cooperation amongst Higher Education Institutions by establishing new mechanisms to exchange experiences and good practices, providing training to HEI staff, creating a framework for mobility of students and staff, and fostering research abilities by creating international research groups.

The 2nd Training Module on International Cooperation Agreements and Networks took place on 21st – 25th August at Universiti Sains Malaysia, in Penang, Malaysia. The first day was spent presenting the participating institutions: the hosts, Universiti Sains Malaysia, the University of Malaya, Prince of Songkla University, Naresuan University, Hanoi University, PTIT and Heriot-Watt University. On the second day, John and Katerina led discussions on internationalisation in the Higher Education sector and what this means for individual institutions. Differences in conceptualisations, priorities and strategies already started to emerge. The day continued with an interactive workshop on international cooperation agreements and networks and a subsequent talk by Dr Khairul Anuar Che Azmi from the USM legal office. The workshops continued on template agreements, analysing risk and developing institutional strategies for network building and internationalisation.

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The third day continued with more workshops on teamwork and building trust in cross-cultural teams, as well as building and sustaining virtual networks using social media.

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All delegates visited the impressive – to say the least – USM’s International Mobility and Collaboration Centre (IMCC).

Here’s how IMCC staff and ‘buddies’ welcomed the delegates:

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The fourth day focused on discussion and reflections on the week’s activities and drew parallels between institutional strategies. It also focused on future collaborations and included meetings with USM Heads of Schools and Departments. We were particularly honoured to have had the opportunity to have a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor of USM Professor Datuk Dr. Asma Ismail and discuss with her the university’s vision, priorities and opportunities for collaboration.

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The final day continued the networking activities at a more informal basis and included a tour of Georgetown, the capital city of Penang. Georgetown is unique in its diversity and richness in culture, heritage, architecture and food. The oldest portion of the city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A blend of Chinese shophouses (“clan jetties”), Chinese temples, Hindu temples and Mosques Georgetown has also retained some colonial-style buildings, English street names and an Anglican church, St George’s (unsurprisingly). The Street of Harmony is testimony to the matchless diversity of the city.

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A promising project module that establishes important international networks could not have taken place in a better setting than unique Penang, in an unparalleled environment of rich cultural  heritage, tremendous hospitality an and mouthwatering food.

Terima kasih !

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59°N – IRC PhD Student based in Orkney

by Cait McCullagh

Have you ever had the opportunity to peer at some of the many online depictions of Ptolemy’s 2nd Century AD Geography?  You’ll have had to turn your head to one side in order to take in the northern-most extent of Scotland, including the Northern Isles; bent over and squeezed to fit into the realm of what was then believed to be the ‘known world’?  The idea that anything might survive beyond the 59th parallel was, it seems, impossible to consider for Ptolemy and his Graeco-Roman counterparts and so they simply ensured that the Orcades and their farther flung partner archipelago, Ultima Thule (today’s Shetland), were snuck in below their true latitudes.

Perhaps you have also read recent press and social media reports of archaeological findings at the Ness of Brodgar, or even reviews of BBC Television’s Orkney: Britain’s Ancient Capital? Both proclaim aspects of the Islands’ heritage to be ‘weird’ and create the inference that there may be life in the far north, but ‘it’s not as we know it’. More making strange and a framing of the north as remote in culture as well as location.

In reality, experiencing life, and working, in the Northern Isles, does, indeed, require a re-framing of mindset.  For example: Edinburgh seems a terribly remote location from this centre, after all it takes me a car journey, a ferry, a train and another train and all in more than one day allows, to get to Edinburgh.  How does anyone down there cope with being so far from everything up here?  

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The view over the island of Hoy

 

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Kirkwall Harbour

Ah yes, the re-framing is welcome and it is enabling me to explore and research the ways in which being constrained as peripheral and, in some ways, ‘exotically traditional’ may actually inspire creative innovation.  I am already observing this in the ways that islanders are curating and developing their maritime heritage –  this being the topic that is significant for my PhD.  In an environment where the sea is always adjacent and imminent and where most people relate to the sea directly, each day, I’m also aware that this ‘heritage’ can be both past, present and future. It ullulates; an ongoing wave of cultural expressions; from the wrecked to being renewed boats, set adrift across the islands, to my own growing obsession with the Shipping Forecast as I plan field-tripping from one island to another.  The experience is rich and I hope this will be reflected in my research.  All this and next month: Shetland.  It’s a great privilege to be representing this northerly reach of the IRC, here at 59°N and counting!

Cait is  researching  Curating Heritage for Sustainable Communities in Highly Vulnerable Environments: The Case of Scotland’s Northern Isles, an Applied Research Collaborative Studentship supported PhD, supervised in partnership across Heriot-Watt University, The University of the Highlands and Islands Centre for Nordic Studies and Shetland Museum and Archives.  She is based at the university’s Orkney Campus, the International Centre for Island Technology.

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Interior of the boat shed at Lyness on Scapa Flow

 

Active learning at a World Heritage Site

by Cristina Clopot

At the end of November, LINCS students on the Global Heritage course, which is part of the MSc in Cultural Resource Management, went on a visit to the Edinburgh World Heritage Centre.

What better way to compliment academic learning than by a discussion with experienced professionals? Luckily enough we live and work in close proximity to several wonderful examples of World Heritage sites. The Old and New Town of Edinburgh have been part of the World Heritage list since 1995 and the main actor responsible with the management of the site is Edinburgh World Heritage Centre (EWHC).

The visit included a discussion at EWHC followed by an on-foot exploration of some of the UNESCO-protected area, led by EWHC Director, Adam Wilkinson.

In the first part of the visit, Mr. Wilkinson explained the approach to heritage embraced by EWHC in its ethos. Students explored different definitions and concepts of heritage, as well as their applicability. Building on our lecture discussions, we all debated values, meaning and memories, not just mere objects, and gained from the heritage professionals’ view.

The complexity of tasks a world heritage site management activity entails was  also presented through different projects. Several examples were provided to emphasise the numerous stakeholders that need to be consulted (and persuaded in some cases) to begin any conservation activities, from the various owners of flats in a heritage building, to the complex system of authorities and agents who need to agree to undertake restaurant façade change. Several projected activities were also presented and the key takeaway was the thoughtfulness for people’s interaction with the site, keeping the site alive but also potential improvements of life in a historic city. The rest of the visit was an on-foot exploration and discussion of projects developed in the Old Town. We are grateful to Edinburgh World Heritage Centre to have had the chance to present our students with this applied learning experience.

One of our students found food for thought in this visit to reflect on her own heritage:

https://thinkglobalheritage.wordpress.com/2016/11/30/edinburgh-world-heritage/

What about you ?