Vow of Silence: Day 4

Having committed to a week of silence to demonstrate solidarity with the UK’s Deaf sign language users, Professor Graham Turner has made it to Thursday without a squeak. Will everyone else’s luck run out before the weekend?

Imagine you’re completely blind. Can you do that? It’s not too difficult: you start by closing your eyes…

Now imagine you’re stone deaf. Not just a wee bit fuzzy round the edges, like your granddad or when you come out of a loud gig. Deaf as a post.

You can’t, can you? We don’t have ear-lids. You can’t switch your hearing off, no matter how hard you try.

This is at the root of the hearing world’s inability to comprehend what Deaf people are on about. Three key things follow from being Deaf.

One, everything the hearing world takes for granted about receive incoming information from the world through hearing, doesn’t apply. I’m on a train. The tannoy says the café closes in five minutes. If I’m Deaf, it could be a long, stomach-rumbling journey to Edinburgh.

Two, fortunately, the eye is a fantastic device. Persuasive evidence shows that Deaf people’s eyes are sharper and wired more responsively to their brains than hearing people’s. The way Deaf people do ‘being alive’ is re-jigged from top to bottom to exploit their different biological make-up.

Notice: not ‘deficient’ – just DIFFERENT.

Three, the kind of language that perfectly suits the bodies of Deaf people is signed language. British Sign Language has evolved naturally over centuries to match Deaf capabilities. Just as spoken languages work for the hearing, signing is perfectly designed to exploit the visual nature of Deaf people.

My ‘vow of silence’ hasn’t turned me into a Deaf person. If I had a heart attack right now, I can confidently predict that I wouldn’t wait for an interpreter to show up before communicating with the paramedics. I’d speak. (And I can’t NOT know that the café has now closed. Fear not: I brought my own biscuits.)

But as I can sign, and I’ve taken the time to learn from Deaf people what their experiences are like, I can get that much closer than most to seeing the world from a Deaf perspective. Our languages powerfully influence the way we think. Language both shapes and reflects our identities. I’m not Deaf, but – bearing in mind that it’s taken me over 25 years to develop my understanding – I do begin to ‘get’ what it means to be Deaf.

What about that heart attack scenario I just envisaged, though? The hearing world has often treated Deaf people as being in need of medical treatment. The urge to ‘fix’ those different ears runs deep… Deaf people say – SHOUT – “Leave us alone! We’re perfectly OK! We don’t need to be cured!”

But when a Deaf person suffers a heart attack, the real nightmares begin. The British Deaf Association’s discussion paper, launched yesterday, reports again  on the life-threatening barriers BSL users face when they actually do need healthcare.

However, it being the 21st century, new ways are being found to bridge this communication gap with Deaf people. In Scotland, NHS24 has piloted the use of video technology to bring ‘remote interpreters’ into the frame. It can work, but of course it depends upon a supply of competent interpreters.

They’ve thought of that, too.

In a UK ‘first’, NHS24 is seconding a group of its staff to Heriot-Watt University’s BSL interpreting degree. That’s a commendable commitment on the part of the service. Investing in four years’ full-time training per student underscores a really serious response to the problem.

And it shows that they know it’s THEIR responsibility to make healthcare properly accessible to BSL users.

That perfectly illustrates what we need to see across the board. Public services – health, education, social services, the legal system – facing their lawful obligation to ENSURE their own accessibility.

Not just by hoping for the best, but by nurturing skilled professional interpreters. And, when it makes sense to use limited resources in this way, to provide frontline practitioners who can sign, fluently and directly, with Deaf citizens.

It’s not a pipedream. It’s a perfectly achievable goal, as other countries have already shown. It just means paying attention to informed advice, especially from the BDA, which represents BSL users nationwide. And then, when you say you will treat Deaf people fairly, it means putting your money where your mouth is.

Now that’s what I call using your imagination.

Author: Graham Turner

Vow of Silence: Day 3

In solidarity with British Sign Language users in the UK, Professor Graham Turner is subject to a self-imposed vow of silence. Can he remain speechless and last for an entire week in BSL? What will he learn from the experience?

Living in Edinburgh, I can barely step out of my front door before someone’s playing the bagpipes at me.

As a matter of fact, I love it. What other country is associated with such a distinctive, pervasive symbol of identity? Ever been to Edinburgh’s Military Tattoo? Once in your life, you should. I may not be a Scot, but up on the battlements, silhouetted against the stars, the piper sends those skirling notes up to the heavens…

Not much use if you’re Deaf, of course.

So is a cultural heritage something you only get if you’re hearing, then?

Do me a favour. Not a bit of it.

The pipes may be great – but YOU HAVEN’T LIVED until you’ve experienced signed art. Had your heart squeezed by signed stories. Washed your eyeballs in tears of laughter at signed comedy. Seen the past re-kindled and the future set ablaze in signed drama.

Oh sorry, I keep forgetting. You ignored sign language until just lately because you thought it wasn’t really as good as speech, didn’t you? Trust me – and I say this as one who’s forgotten more than he cares to remember of the French, Greek, Latin and Swedish he studied in days of yore – you have been mightily misled.

British Sign Language was named – in Edinburgh: where else? – back in the mid-70s by the late, great and much-missed sign linguist, Dr Mary Brennan. The British Deaf Association backed the BSL Training Agency a decade later as it encouraged Deaf people to become professional BSL teachers and pass on their expert knowledge to others – and thousand upon thousand hearing people have opened their minds to BSL since. And it was the BDA again that published its doorstoppingly substantial and globally groundbreaking bilingual BSL-English dictionary in 1992.

So there’s no doubt whatsoever of the linguistic status of BSL. Not only is it a language: it’s a language that can blow your mind.

Unlike users of any spoken language ever discovered, signers can produce more than one word at a time – what did you think you had two hands for? And BSL isn’t just about what the hands do. It’s a full-body experience. Facial expression and bodily action are also exploited as integral features of the grammar. Signed languages are spectacularly creative, constantly playing with words and drenching every expression in a cascade of meaning and nuance.

The signed universe is an astonishing, achingly poetic place to live.

As it happens, Edinburgh is one of the most happening places in the BSL firmament right now. Part of that energy is coming from Heriot-Watt University, where a dozen sign language specialists, from as far afield as the USA and China, passionate and fizzing with ideas, are assembling research evidence  and educating the next generation of UK and global interpreters.

But Edinburgh is also a place to enjoy the cultural depth of the Deaf community, and to experience the rich heritage embodied in BSL. Just last weekend, you could have been at the Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile at the latest Visual Virus show. Three Deaf exponents of the most vivid BSL, and not a sound to be heard all evening except for the cultural heartbeat of the Deaf nation – and that noise people make when they laugh their socks off.

In fact, Scotland stands on the verge of transforming the BSL landscape. With all-party support, Mark Griffin MSP  intends to put a BSL bill before the Scottish Parliament later this year. It will focus minds and energies on securing the future of this language community, and on safeguarding its linguistic human rights.

As yesterday’s BDA BSL Symposium in London clearly showed, the rest of the UK is paying close attention to progress at Holyrood. Deaf people, just like others, are entitled to enjoy our uniquely visual cultural heritage. Our children – including those born to hearing parents – are entitled to share that extraordinary linguistic inheritance.

And, if you only have eyes to see, you’re more than welcome to come in. Just enter through the doorway marked ‘BSL’ and find out for yourself. The future signs.

Author: Graham Turner

BSL Highlights

As the year draws to a close, here are 10 highlights from the work of the British Sign Language team at Heriot-Watt University.

We have grown significantly during 2013. New additions to the family include Professor Jemina Napier, plus Clare Canton, Yvonne Waddell and Stacey Webb. This means we now have six PhD students working on sign language topics, too. To put faces to names, see http://lifeinlincs.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/whos-who-in-bsl-at-heriot-watt-university/! And there’ll be more in the new year: we’ve just confirmed the appointment of BBC news interpreter and the ‘Hot Fingers’ fingerspelling challenge competition organiser, Rob Skinner, as a Research Associate from January 2014, and we expect more new faces to follow.

Our fabulous first ever group of full-time BSL students completed year one of their programme! “The course has blown my expectations out of the water!… We have bonded very closely over the first year and it is an amazingly supportive and tight group”, said Jude Caldwell in the print version of this article.

Gary Quinn’s work on Science Signs has been recognised and praised over and over again. It featured in the New York Times last December, and the Times Higher Education magazine this year. Gary is in such demand that he’s even had to turn down the chance to work with Professor Brian Cox!

Dr Svenja Wurm has co-ordinated the recruitment of a new group of 24 students to our unique international MSc programme for advanced sign language interpreters, EUMASLI. Following the successful graduation of 100% of EUMASLI#1 students, the EUMASLI#2 group is 50% larger than previously, includes 6 Deaf students, and features participants from three continents (Europe, North America, Africa).

In August, we made our first appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, as part of the first ever ‘Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas’! The deliberately provocative topic – ‘Send the Deaf to Orkney’ – featured a guest appearance from SignVideo’s Jeff McWhinney, generated the largest audience of the whole Festival for the Cabaret organisers, and is summarised here by Graham Turner.

We continued to offer our Open Lecture series, EdSigns, venturing successfully into live video streaming for the first time with the inaugural EdSign appearance of Jemina Napier. The 2013 highlight was the full house welcome for Colin Allen, President of the World Federation of the Deaf http://wfdeaf.org/, exhorting one and all to promote sign languages through international implementation of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities http://www.un.org/disabilities/convention/conventionfull.shtml. The EdSign programme for Spring 2014 is the strongest ever – feel free to come and join us: all are welcome!

We submitted successful proposals for new projects, two of which commence early in 2014. The Directorate General for Justice of the European Commission approved a pilot project called INSIGN to a consortium including ourselves, led by the European Union of the Deaf, to investigate improving communication between Deaf people and the EU institutions. And JUSTISIGNS  has also received funding from the Directorate General for Education & Culture to improve Deaf access to justice across Europe.

As always, we continued to disseminate our work through publications (including Jemina Napier’s ‘Research Methods in Interpreting’  and many others) and presentations around the world, such as Gary Quinn’s well-received paper at the first Sign Language Teachers conference in Prague.

We dedicated a significant amount of our time to taking the message about BSL and interpreting into the world of policy and politics. For example, in September, our input helped the Liberal Democrats to pass a motion calling for enhanced recognition of BSL.  We met with members of the Scottish, UK and European parliaments, and worked closely with bodies such as the British Deaf Association, Scottish Council on Deafness and the Scottish Government’s Equality Unit throughout the year.

Finally, we played our part in driving forward perhaps the biggest BSL development in Scotland: the adoption of a BSL Bill at the Scottish Parliament in 2014. In particular, we’re proud to say that many of our first-year students made well-received responses to the formal public consultation on the Bill, with Lisa Li in particular being prominently quoted in the summary report.

What have we done this year to make us feel proud? All of the above.

Author: Graham Turner

Orkney Can Wait

The first time I met a Deaf person was in 2006 as a PhD student. I was asked to help out with BSL exams in Heriot-Watt, to make sure examiners were there
and to look after the candidates. The Deaf examiner made me think how inspiring
it was for someone to overcome a disability and communicate confidently with
hearing people like me, who cannot fingerspell to save my

I was, of course, wrong.

 Not about the examiner, who was indeed wonderful, but about deafness being a disability. It is not. That’s the first thing I learned from attending “Send
the Deaf to Orkney!
”, a debate starring our very own Director of Research, Graham Turner, organised by Beltane during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

 Arriving at the venue, I saw colleagues Gary Quinn, Robyn Dean and many others waiting outside to see the show. They were signing all at the same time, laughing and looking very excited. I wanted to join in, but then again I didn’t want to spoil their fun by being the only person who couldn’t sign. Robyn could have interpreted, but I would still feel like I was intruding. I guess that’s how Deaf people must feel in hearing environments.

 We were given miniature Orkney flags to wave in lieu of clapping or cheering and, shortly after, comedienne Susan Morrison came on stage to introduce the debate. Susan’s introduction was interpreted into BSL by Jemina Napier. Now, you know Jemina is brilliant, not because she is a Professor who has published over 50 papers, written 6 books and holds a Chair in Intercultural Communication at Heriot-Watt, but because she can interpret Glaswegian jokes into BSL with no sweat, having just moved here from Sydney 12 months ago.

 To add to the wow factor, Jeff McWhinney came on stage. Hurricane Jeff – more like! A Deaf entrepreneur and leader in the UK Deaf community, Jeff started signing his way through his argument for sending Deaf people to Orkney in such a vivid and engaging way, I almost didn’t need to listen to the interpreter! Ok, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to figure out the sign for ‘tokenistic’. Deafness with a capital ‘D’ is a culture, a way of life with its own values and language. Deaf people are immensely proud of their language and heritage and it is precisely the protection of this language and heritage that was central to the idea of having a separate, defined space for the Deaf to live in. Their own homeland – a Deafland, away from the tyranny of the hearing world.

But why Orkney? Well, it is an island, and Heriot-Watt already has a campus there, so it would kind of suit us! A Deaf Orkney would at last offer a place where signing came first, and the life of the community could be organised in BSL. The future of the language – in its heritage, visual form, not mixed uncomfortably with English – would be assured.

Jeff was so convincing, I started waving my flag like a maniac.

Graham Turner came on stage and he started signing as well (I’m guessing to remove any communicative bias from the debate). In my naivety, I thought sign-language was all about using your hands, but I soon discovered that you have to use your whole body, the muscles of your face and your mouth. Graham and Jeff were ‘performing’ in the eyes of hearing people, so to speak, but for Deaf people this was just signing. Sign language is a performance in itself, requiring creativity and imagination, which makes it even more fascinating.

So Graham questioned Jeff’s approach by stating that BSL is now valued by hearing people, too. That’s why it’s been recorded as the second most popular adult evening class (after First Aid), and why a BSL GCSE qualification is under serious consideration. So why hide it away on Orkney? Keep Deaf people here, so that our culture is enriched by

Ok, well, that was easy enough. I want the Deaf here.
Let’s vote.

Not so fast. The argument is not so simple and linear. Graham and Jeff went back on stage and took turns to make the case for each side again, but reversing their roles. Graham recognised that on Orkney, Deaf families could freely decide not to opt for cochlear implants for their children, without pressure from doctors. Hurricane Jeff protested – attitudes have changed, haven’t you noticed? This is the 21st century! Implants or no implants, you can choose to sign if you want to. And can you imagine such a close-knit Deaf community? Divorce rates in Orkney would skyrocket, as there would be no privacy and everyone would be involved in everyone else’s business!

Hear hear! I say, let’s vote!

But there was more. The economic dimension of a Deaf homeland in Orkney is crucial. Think about education in BSL without the cost of interpreters, or mental health provision dramatically reduced because Deaf children would be brought up with no identity crisis. And think of the tourism: every Deaf person the world over will want to visit Orkney’s signing haven!

But wait, said Graham, raising his finger. Video interpreting is now possible and a BSL GCSE would ultimately mean more and cheaper BSL interpreters.

Still, the idea of Deaf people having a place to call their own seemed more attractive in the course of the debate. Maybe not Orkne
y (I’d pick a sunny island in the Mediterranean), but, as it was pointed out, the issues of control over one’s own life and the right to self-determination are equally important. An official Deaf constituency in the UK would mean Deaf parliamentarians contributing to
major decisions at the local level.

But do we need a designated Deafland for this to happen? The idea of a public sphere is in our heads anyway. It doesn’t really exist, it emerges with communication. And as long as Deaf people communicate to raise awareness about Deaf issues, their public sphere will be kept alive.

So I wouldn’t book a one-way ticket to Kirkwall just yet.

Author: Katerina Strani

Events: BAAL Conference 2013

This year, the 46th Annual conference of the British Association of Applied Linguistics (BAAL) will take place at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh from 5 – 7 September. The event is organised by the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies (LINCS) with Dr Bernadette O’Rourke as principal organiser. The local organising committee includes Ms. Rita McDade, Professor Máiréad Nic Craith, Professor Graham Turner, Professor Isabelle Perez, Ms. Elizabeth Thoday, Mr John Cleary, Ms Emma Guion Akdag, Dr Michelle Liao, Mr Ashvin Devasundaram, and Mr Anik Nandi.

BAAL dates back to 1965, and since then it has received encouragement from the leading linguistics scholars in Great Britain including: James Britton, Michael Halliday, Glyn Lewis, Donald Riddy, Frank Palmer, George Perren, David Stern, Peter Strevens, John Trim, and Jean Ure among others.

Over the last few decades, research in the area of applied linguistics has been transformed by an increasing focus on socio-cultural and linguistic change. This adjustment has accompanied increasing globalisation, mobility and human migration alongside new technologies and a shifting political and economic landscape. This year, the conference theme: ‘Opening New Lines of Communication in Applied Linguistics’ addresses the challenges and opportunities these developments present.

To understand the complexity of this new (socio)linguistic reality, the conference explores new lines of communication between sub disciplines within and beyond  applied linguistics. Apart from the central theme, the conference includes a diverse variety of papers spanning the spectrum of applied linguistics, ranging from Language teaching/learning to sociolinguistics. We are expecting more that 300 delegates during the three days of the conference. The plenary or keynote speakers include pioneers of modern day applied linguistics research:

Kathryn Woolard, University of California, San Diego
Jannis Androutsopoulos, Universität Hamburg
Svenja Adolphs, University of Nottingham

Bernie O’Rourke

Email – B.M.A.O’Rourke@hw.ac.uk

Academia – Bernadette O’Rourke

Twitter – @BernORourke

Putting a Smile on The Public Face of Languages

If you are a translator, interpreter, sociolinguist, anthropological linguist or any other kind of linguist, there is a lot to get annoyed about. Courses are closing, rates are (in places) dropping, respect is on the wane and hardly a day goes by without some newspaper publishing a story about some new gadget that will entirely automate some way we use language. If we didn’t know better, we would say we were all going to be out of our jobs by Christmas.

True, there is a lot to complain about. True, due to something fundamental about the nature of social media (or should that be “human nature”?) negative posts and comments will get more views than positive ones. But does that make it right?

I write this post as either a complete hypocrite or a reformed addict, depending on how you see it. I have written some negative and sarcastic posts in my time. Yet nowadays, I often wonder whether we might actually be shooting ourselves in the foot if we are too quick to react with negativity.

Back near the beginning of the blog, I wrote a post calling for us to start changing the public face of languages. Late last year, I reprised the same theme and appealed for linguists to start demonstrating the value in what we do by showing exactly what we add to society. Today, I want to bring back the same theme again but with what might be a more personal challenge. Are we portraying a positive or negative view of life as a professional linguist?

If you are a 16 or 18 year old choosing what career you will train for, I think you would be looking, at least partially, for a career where people seem positive about what they do. Surely, aside from purely economic calculations, people want to have a job they will enjoy, among people who are helpful and friendly.

Now, to be absolutely fair, I must say at this point that the vast majority of linguists I have worked with, at all stages of my career have been friendly, happy and passionate about their work. Part of what makes this industry so great to work in is that you will come across some truly amazing and inspiring people.

Sadly, that image of careers in the language sectors is not always the one portrayed in the press and even, I hate to say it, by linguists themselves. Often, in our justifiable and even justified need to fight for a cause, educate clients, improve practice, etc, we forget to sell the positives too. Yes, some clients don’t behave the way they should but surely the good ones deserve as much (if not more) publicity as the bad ones. Yes, there are unfair contracts and court interpreters are often mistreated but surely the examples of professional court interpreters giving a superb service are as worthy of collection as instances where interpreters have failed to show up and do a good job.

Perhaps even our most justified campaigns for better treatment, more funding, less course closures and the like would be even more powerful if gave as much space to positive examples as we did to negative ones.  To those who say that closing language courses is “what everyone is doing”, we can say, that, actually no, universities like Heriot-Watt are creating courses and hiring more staff. To those who say that interpreting is a wasteful expense, we can say, no, interpreters have always played a vital role in delivering fair, just trials, and economic growth.

Some of the most powerful cases we can put for the value of languages come from the places where languages have made a positive difference. Some of the greatest arguments for the value of our work come from stories of happy clients, treated patients, and bestselling books. Maybe we need to work even harder at putting a smile on our public face.

Author: Jonathan Downie

To PhD or not to PhD

For the majority of language professionals, the thought of giving three or more years of their life over to sitting in an office, reading papers, writing notes and preparing papers sounds like a punishment. Who in their right mind would leave behind (or at least reduce) their professional workload in favour of spending hours on theory and methods. We must be mad!

Believe it or not, research might actually be good for you. Besides helping improve the status of translators and interpreters, besides helping them understand what clients actually want, besides raising the profile of languages, research might actually help make you a better translator or interpreter.

How so? Well, if you have been a professional for any length of time, you will certainly have already used a bunch of the skills researchers use on an everyday basis. If you need to find the right term to use, you need to analyse and classify sources, sort and collate information, think critically, build an argument and follow it through to its logical conclusion. Now, admittedly, you might not write much of this process down but maybe you should.

How many times have you done research for one job and not been able to recall where you found all the information you needed when a similar job came along? Have you ever done a great job of doing the research for one translation only to struggle to follow the same process for the next?

All methodology really boils down to is the discussion of different ways of gathering and collating information. What do I lose or gain if I do my research this way? How do I know the information I am gathering is trustworthy? How do I define “trustworthy” anyway?

And theory? Well, as Prof Graham Turner says, there is no better theory than practical theory. Theory can mean two things in Translation and Interpreting Studies, both of which may well be handy for professionals. The first thing theory does is to divide up the world and place pretty labels on the bits. As soon as you start talking about the difference between translation, transcreation and adaptation, you are talking theory. Yet this difference might be really important, financially important above all!

The other kind of theory starts to predict stuff. If I translate this sentence like this, will it make the translation work better or worse? Do my agency clients want something different from my direct clients? What happens if I increase my lag when doing simultaneous interpreting? Will anything bad happen if I am 100% accurate here?

Research is not quite so alien after all. In fact, it might have some useful stuff to say to professionals and professionals might actually have something to say to research too. It might even be the case that professionals could do worse than to get involved in it.

Now, not everyone is going to go as far as to go get a PhD. But there are several good reasons why professionals might want to keep their finger on the pulse of Translation and Interpreting research. If nothing else, keeping an eye on practical research might give us some useful ideas to try out, ideas that should have already been tried and tested.

Author: Jonathan Downie

An Unheard of Adventure

As readers of this blog may be aware, LINCS has established interests not only in translation and interpreting, but also in intercultural studies. Of growing significance in this respect is research about cultural heritage. The heritage of speakers of English, French, Arabic and so on is well understood – though many questions inevitably remain to be addressed. But the cultural heritage of Deaf people – particularly, for us, that of users of British Sign Language (BSL) – is much less well known.

One man who is about to write himself firmly into the annals of the British Deaf community is Gerry Hughes. A Glaswegian, Gerry was born profoundly deaf and uses BSL as his first language. Gerry is well known to Heriot-Watt’s BSL staff: he was one of the earliest researchers into BSL – here in Edinburgh in the early 1980s – and in recent years worked with Gary Quinn on an innovative Science Signs project. Now, he is set to be the first Deaf yachtsman to do a solo circumnavigation of the world past the five great capes.

This undertaking, being a landmark in the achievements of this incredible adventurer will also serve as beacon to the Deaf community and any of the many individuals who look to Gerry as a role model.  Crowds gathered to witneoss the momentous and historic occasion of his departure: what will greet his return? You can follow Gerry’s progress on his website  via updates as and when they are received, and on Facebook.

Gerry’s solo circumnavigation emulates a journey made famous by likes of Sir Francis Chichester and the legendary Sir Robin Knox Johnston. As a Deaf man, Gerry has, of course, had no radio contact throughout the voyage. To put the rarity of this achievement in context, 1525 people have been to the top of Mount Everest; 560 people have been up into space; but only 300 people have sailed around the world past all five capes single handedly.

Gerry set sail from Troon Marina at 12.00pm on Saturday 1st September 2012 in a bid to become the first Deaf man to sail single handed non stop around the world. And he’s about to finish. History in the making! Go go go Gerry!

Author: Graham Turner

Crowdsourcing and the Shrinking Middle

So, with the creation of new tech firm VerbalizeIT, the world has another company that says they can reduce the cost of translation and interpreting. It’s not as if the idea itself is that new. Regular LifeinLINCS readers, will remember our posts on NTT Docomo (among others), who offered a similar service. The difference this time? Well, it’s people. Instead of trusting your important call to the whims of Machine Translation and Voice Recognition, now you are to trust it to other humans.

Sounds a lot better. But wait, there’s a catch. Anyone who has read the ads VerbalizeIT have posted on translation and interpreting job websites will notice something is missing. There is zero mention of experience or qualifications. In the words of their CEO “we want to tap into the one billion people who speak a second language.”

Okay, no prizes for guessing why they think they can hit lower “price points” than their competition. By going for people who “speak another language” as opposed to those with qualifications to prove the point, they are able to get lower rates than you would ever pay for an in-person, qualified and trained professional.

For this reason, much the same can be said about their services than has been said about every other service that has attempted to overturn the industry. It will no doubt do just fine for tourist needs and perhaps (in a pinch) for trips to the pharmacy to buy medicine but I wouldn’t trust it in a doctor’s surgery or hospital. It is very doubtful whether it will make much of a dent in the business or conference markets too.

There is and always will be a need for telephone interpreting and its newer, slicker cousin, skype interpreting. However, for this to be reliable, it needs to be offered by people who actually know what they are doing. Crowdsourcing is all well and good but in places where quality matters, you will want a professional, just as it might be fine to get your Uncle Mick in to change a fuse for you but you would call in a professional to rewire your house.

There will always be a need for professionals and there will always be a need to educate people about the difference between professional translation and interpreting and the kind you can get from “bilinguals”, most of all those who want to enter the profession themselves. For students and those who one day want to go pro, services like VerbalizeIT might provide an insight into what the job involves and some handy cash but they shouldn’t be confused with the high end, quality-driven services that only fully-fledged professionals can offer.

Still, what this new startup reminds us is that there should always be room for language professionals to re-examine their own pricing structure. This might not mean dropping rates but it might mean looking at whether real efficiency savings can be made in how interpreting and translation are provided. There may be occasions where skype is a perfectly acceptable interpreting medium and where post-edited Machine Translation might be all that is required.

Lastly, while the advent of this new startup is not at all a threat or a real disturbance to the industry as a whole, it may be a sign of things to come. It doesn’t take a Nostradamus to predict that the already fragmented language industry will fragment even further, with even larger gaps between the “professional product,” where quality is king and provider-client partnerships rule the seas and the “crowdsourced zone” where price-points and speed hold sway. The middle ground, it seems is growing ever smaller. The question is, are we ready to cope with its loss?

Court Interpreting: The Quest for Data

By now, no one even seems surprised at another case of poor court interpreting in England and Wales. After three government enquiries, numerous newspaper articles and judgment after judgment, it is actually becoming hard for the flaws in the new system to gain any headlines at all. After all, it is only so often that similar stories can be reprinted. Short of a massive miscarriage of justice or a judicial ruling, it seems that nothing will prevent the current contract running its course.

While many legal professionals have openly criticised the new agreement, it seems that the real decision-makers remain convinced that the new arrangement will, in time, deliver savings. It might be tempting to say that, with the evidence available, the only realistic view is that the new system has failed but there remains one problem with this argument. For the moment at least, the data on successful interpreter call-outs, quality and even cost, remains in the sole hands of the contract provider and, occasionally, in the hands of government departments or enquiries. From the point of view of objectivity, this is disappointing, to say the least.

Perhaps this is where a little amateur research could come in handy. While the meaning of “interpreting quality” could and probably should be a matter for debate, whether the interpreter booked for a case arrives at the court ready for work is not. It wouldn’t take too much effort for a UK city to be selected and for people to station themselves at various courts, watching the various cases that go on. Records could be kept to show whether the interpreters booked for a case showed up and notes could be taken on how they worked.

What use would this data have? Well, for one, it would move the debate from being a battle of individual stories, to one where independent figures could be brought to the fore. Such a study, on whatever scale, would give a clearer picture of how the new arrangement has actually affected the everyday running of the justice system.

Secondly, such data might help to move discussions away from highly charged debates about the rights (or otherwise) of those who do not speak sufficient English to play a full part in court proceedings. The benefits of this are clear: once people realise that supply bad interpreting (or none at all!) costs more than having a good system in place, they are more likely to give support to a fairer deal for the interpreting profession and the justice system. Simple maths would tell us that it is cheaper to have one hearing with a good interpreter than two with poor or absent ones.

The drawback of this data-driven approach is that it would take even greater coordination than has been seen before. People would need to voluntarily give up their time to decide on what method to use and learn how to apply it consistently, before giving up even more time watching court proceedings. Even after all that, more people would need to give up their time to collate the results and present them.

Perhaps this is why research in an academic context can be so expensive. Getting things right takes time and effort. Yet the cost of not doing research at all or doing it in a slapdash way can often be so much higher.