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

LINCS post-graduate researchers hold first symposium

 

Wednesday 25th April was the occasion of the first LINCS PGR Symposium.  Over the course of the day, nine post-graduates presented papers to an audience of their peers, lecturers and professors from within the department.  Reactions were universally positive, succinctly summarised by this tweet by @HW_LifeinLINCS:

Incredibly insightful and thought-provoking presentations.

Contributors ranged from those who had only recently started their PhD journey, to two who are busy writing up their theses with a view to submitting the finished works at the end of the summer.  Research interests were grouped in four panels:  translation, language and identity, sign language interpreting, and spoken language interpreting.  Sites of research ranged from the Heriot-Watt University classroom to Faroese fish-processing factories, by way of theatres and mental health clinics, court-rooms and police custody suites, Google translate and the Galician community in London.

The papers delivered on the day were as follows:

Paola Ruffo: Literary Translators’ perceptions of their role and attitudes towards technology in contemporary society

Nga-Ki Mavis Ho: Academic translation from English into Chinese: Increasing awareness and handling of academic rhetoric by the introduction of the Graduation system

Elisabeth Holm: New Speakers of Faroese and the Sociolinguistics of Labour Market Access and Participation

Michael Richardson: Deaf and hearing theatre – creating an intercultural third space

Alex Dayan- Fernandez: Reinventing transnational networks: Contemporary language activism, linguistic ideologies, and cultural identity (re)constructions of the Galician diaspora in London

Emmy Kauling: “He’s a professional *something*” – Co-constructing professional identities through interpreted professional discourse.

Christopher Tester: Perceptions of the Role and Function of Deaf Interpreters Working in the Court of Law

Rob Skinner: Ap-proximately there:  Video-mediated interpreting services at Police Scotland

Natalia Rodríguez Vincente: Rapport management in interpreter-mediated mental healthcare encounters: a shared responsibility?

Inevitably you can find more information about all these papers on Twitter – post-graduates can be active tweeters!  Look for #HWPGRsymp18.

The value of the day lay not only in the opportunity for students to present their papers, but also in the responses those papers stimulated.  Each presentation was followed by lively questioning and debate and the day was notable for the supportive and collaborative atmosphere created by all the participants.  Post-graduates were inspired to think about new aspects of their work, and everybody developed greater insight into the breadth of interesting research that is being carried out across the department.  Importantly, we were able to make links between individual research projects that will lead to further discussion where interests or methods overlap.

In summary, the PGR Symposium was an important and successful experience for all involved.  There have already been calls for it to become a regular feature of the LINCS calendar, perhaps twice a year, to ensure all PGRs have a chance to present their work in the safe environment that the symposium offers.  Personally, I hope not to be here for the next one (I’m one of those working towards submission of my thesis in a few months), but I very much look forward to seeing my own Twitter feed filled by photographs and summaries of the research undertaken by future cohorts of LINCS PGRs.

Michael Richardson

LINCS PGR Representative

Award for human rights scholarship for deaf juror research

 

I am excited to provide an update on a research project that I have been involved with for the last ten years.

The project has focussed on deaf jurors, and whether deaf people can serve as jury members.

I initiated the project with law academic, David Spencer, and we examined whether deaf people could comprehend the jury instructions from a judge in a courtroom through a sign language interpreter. We were interested in whether deaf people could comprehend the message indirectly through an interpreter, as compared to hearing people who listened directly in English. We found that in comparison, both groups could comprehend equally, and misunderstood the same (small) level of information, which proved that deaf people are not disadvantaged by accessing the information through an interpreter.

In addition, we have also interviewed lawyers and judges who had experience of working with deaf jurors, members of the deaf community, and sign language interpreters, to elicit their opinions as to whether deaf people could carry out jury duties. The majority of the respondents confirmed that they advocate for deaf people to serve as jurors, and in fact it is their human right, as recognised in the United States where deaf people have been serving as jurors in various states since 1979.

Along with researcher Debra Russell, I visited the city of Rochester in the US, to observe the a jury selection (empanelment), and the process of a deaf person participating in that process through an interpreter.

In addition, with a team of researchers funded by the Australian Research Council, including David Spencer, Sandra Hale and Mehera San Roque, we further investigated this topic and conducted a mock trial where we invited actors to re-enact an actual trial that had previously taken place. We observed how a deaf juror participated in the trial with two interpreters in the courtroom and then how all the jurors conferred in private their deliberations on the case before delivering their verdict. We analysed the video recordings we had made of the whole trial. The main obstacle that many countries have presented as a dilemma was the fact that only twelve jury members are permitted in the jury room (or fifteen members according to the country’s law). Bringing in interpreters would exceed that limit and that was not deemed acceptable as it may impeach a trial and compromise the confidentiality of the jury deliberations. Our research showed otherwise – that the presence of the interpreters did not have any impact on the deliberations and there were no negative effects on the trial. Members of the jury who we interviewed confirmed that it was fine having the deaf jury member with his interpreters, and that there was no negative influence. They affirmed that deaf people can participate in jury service.

We have published several articles about our findings, one of which was published in the Australian Human Rights Journal, where we stated that if deaf people are not offered the opportunity to serve as jury members, it would breach of their human rights with respect to their right to participate and contribute to society as an equal, especially in justice.

To our delight, that publication has been selected for the Australian Human Rights Journal inaugural Andrea Durbach Award for Human Rights Scholarship. The publication has been recognised as an important one which advocates for the human rights of deaf people. We are very proud to receive the award.

We have worked together with the British Deaf Association, Deaf Australia and the World Federation of the Deaf to promote the impact of this research. The award includes prize money of $1000 Australia dollars. We have decided to donate the prize money to Deaf Australia’s fundraising website Jury Rights for All, which seeks to raise money to fund the campaign to allow deaf and disabled people to participate as jury members. We hope that the donation will support their work.

Initial translation from International Sign into English by EUMASLI students Tessa Heldens (Netherlands) and Ramon Woolfe (UK)

Call for abstracts: Multilingualism in Politics

by Katerina Strani

We are seeking abstracts of chapters to be included in an edited volume on Multilingualism in Politics. This edited volume aims to make a significant contribution to the area of multilingualism in politics. Starting from the premise that language influences the way we think and ultimately the way we argue (Whorf, 1956; Ervin, 1964; Koven, 1998 etc.), the book will address the nexus between multilingualism and politics in broad terms.

Multilingualism has always existed in society and politics at all levels; from the Ancient world, the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires, to 19th century France, to today’s Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, South Africa and other (officially) multilingual countries. In contemporary societies, multilingualism constitutes a key element of the social construction of public spheres. The link between multiple, and sometimes competing, languages in political argumentation and the ensuing questions of access, language status, language choice, translation and interpreting in political deliberation and decision-making are of paramount importance in contemporary politics. Linguists and political researchers have pointed out the tension between the multilingual reality and a monolingualist ideology in the way contemporary democracies function (Doerr, 2012; Granič, 2012; Pym 2013, Piller, 2016 and others). The proposed book seeks to address this in the context of contemporary socio-political developments, through multiple lenses: a sociolinguistics lens; a politics and cultural studies lens; a translation and interpreting studies lens; and finally, a language policy lens.

Against this backdrop, we seek chapter proposals that fulfil one or more of the following criteria:

  • the focus on multilingualism as a key element of the social construction of contemporary public spheres
  • the interdisciplinarity between languages and politics and, more specifically, the combination of sociolinguistics, cultural studies, language policy and translation & interpreting studies.
  • a wide scope, including not only empirical explorations on EU politics, but also local contexts of migrant and diasporic public spheres.
  • the combination of theoretical and empirical insights.

Specific topics may include (but not be limited to) the following:

* Discourse studies / CDA approaches to multilingual argumentation 

* Translating / interpreting ideology in political debate

* Minority languages in politics

* Deaf publics

* Relevant case studies from Europe 

* Relevant case studies from the rest of the world 

* Relevant case studies from migrant and diasporic public spheres 

* Relevant case studies of interpreted multilingual debates

The book proposal will be submitted to Palgrave, who have already expressed interest in it. The tentative publication date will be around the end of 2018 / early 2019.

Submission information:
Please send an abstract of 500-600 words (including 4-5 references, along with authors’ names, institutional affiliations, e-mails and a few words on each contributor) to the editor, Katerina Strani :  A.Strani@hw.ac.uk  

Deadline for submission: 16 October 2017. Authors will be notified within 4-6 weeks.

Complete chapters (8,000 – 9,000 words including references) of selected abstracts should be sent around July 2018.

Please feel free to disseminate the call to your networks of colleagues who may be interested in contributing to this volume.

We look to receiving your chapter proposals!