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

Spitting the Dummy at Government Inaction

Records of British Sign Language may date back to the 16th century, but it took until 18th March 2003 for formal governmental recognition to be secured for the language anywhere in the UK. Ten years later, many Deaf (and hearing) people – including Heriot-Watt’s staff and students with an interest in this community – are asking what this ‘recognition’ really meant.

Dissatisfied with a decade’s uncertain progress, pressure is mounting for renewed attention to the issue. An Early Day Motion (EDM) is currently being promoted at Westminster – thanks in particular to the efforts of the Rt Hon Sir Malcolm Bruce, Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon – seeking to secure greater attention to BSL at UK government level. Over 100 MPs have so far signed. As Malcolm Bruce, whose daughter Caroline was born deaf 30 years ago, acknowledges,

“Sign language is a vibrant language used by tens of thousands of deaf people yet British Sign Language does not enjoy the degree of support that is provided for Gaelic and Welsh or even the foreign languages of our immigrant communities. With the service of interpreters profoundly deaf people can engage much more fully in work and society. If we can give support to deaf parents and their children to learn and use BSL and provide access to video relay services (providing video links to interpreters anytime anywhere) and teach BSL as a foreign language we will not only keep this part of our culture alive but really enhance the quality of life for deaf people.”

LINCS, of course, offers the UK’s only undergraduate degree  from which successful graduates will emerge as fully qualified BSL interpreters.

Harnessing the power of social media to unite the geographically diffuse Deaf community, a UK-wide Facebook group has been established to help campaign for enhanced recognition of BSL: in a few short weeks, this group pulled together over 11,000 members (a startling figure, when you appreciate that there are fewer than 100,000 BSL users in the UK – it’s as if six million people suddenly joined the Queens English Society). The group has a startling name – ‘Spit the Dummy’ – a reference to the community’s sense that the recognition of BSL secured in 2003 was actually an empty, meaningless pacifier, which has led to minimal gains in subsequent years. The sense of frustration at those 10 lost years is what has ignited the current action.

Heriot-Watt staff are active along with others in promoting the EDM, and have received positive feedback from two local MPs who are keen to take a greater interest in what we do. An Early Day Motion will certainly not be enough to wrest a bolder response from the UK parliament, yet other linguistic communities near and far have achieved real political successes along these lines – so what do you think needs to happen next?#

Author: Graham Turner

Edupunk, Engagement and the Rise of Peer Training

Last week, the Thesis Whisperer visited Heriot-Watt. No, it wasn’t an expert in animal training nor was it a visiting speaker who hadn’t learned to project their voice but instead Dr Inger Mewburn, known online for her Thesis Whisperer blog. Although her talk was aimed at helping young academics use social media to help them up the career ladder, one of the most memorable moments was her presentation of the idea of “Edupunk.”

Edupunk is new, dating from just 2008. Basically, it promotes a “do-it-yourself” rule-free approach to teaching and learning. What Dr Mewburn added was that this could easily apply to academic careers too. At a time when blogs and twitter feeds say as much about an academic as their publication list and CV, why play by the existing rules? Why not use new technologies to get the word out about what you do rather than spending all your time filling in form after form after form?

It’s not far off an approach that was tried here at Heriot-Watt to get Deaf and signing people more engaged with research. Since these people are online and engaging with blogs anyway, why not aim a blog at them and let them engage with research online? You will need to either come to the upcoming BAAL conference or wait until the paper hits the journals to find out how that went.

Still, whether that was successful of not, the point remains that nowadays, online, interactive, innovative learning is hitting the mainstream. In the world of commercial translation and interpreting, providers like eCPD and experts like Marta Stelmaszak are making waves with courses like Business School for Translators and showing that translators and interpreters can and should learn from their fellow professionals. National associations have long shown that this path is worth treading. ITI is only one example of a professional association that has long made a  point of providing opportunities for its members to learn from each other.

It’s a cultural shift that is spreading far and wide. But this wouldn’t be a LifeinLINCS post if we just left it there. Just as crowdsourced and professional translation might not be implacable enemies, so it is with Edupunk and traditional training. There are, after all, good reasons for boring-sounding concepts like Learning Outcomes and Syllabus Design. While you could almost certainly string together micro-course after micro-course and spend the same number of hours on informal translation and interpreting training as you could on a degree course, it wouldn’t add up to the same thing.

Of course, some would say that this only favours online and peer learning. A masters degree does not a translator make. That may well be true but it is also true to say that the good degrees can be recognised by the fact that they mix both practical and theoretical training, alongside exposure to events that provide a starting point for the transition from graduate to freelancer.

There might therefore be space for partnership between the new and the old or even for them to learn from each other. The new online course providers could perhaps do with looking at how universities pull together courses into a single package and how they check that the courses they offer are working. They might also want to take a peek at the transferable skills that graduates are supposed to learn to see what they could add to their approach. Learning how to learn effectively is, after all, as necessary a skill for aspiring freelancers as learning to market their services.

For pre-Edupunk academics, the lessons are more striking. For one, if the edupunk approach is has merit then some of the structures normally put around learning might be completely unnecessary. At the very least, it might mean mixing up the methods used for teaching and making more materials available online to absolutely anyone. Edupunk, engagement and peer learning tell us that people want to be far more involved in their own training. Perhaps it’s time to give them that opportunity.

Author: Jonathan Downie

[Editor’s note: The first public version of this post erroneously suggested that national associations had “jumped on the bandwagon” in providing online, peer-learning courses. It has been correctly pointed out that this is not the case and in some cases the courses provided by national associations pre-date some of the examples given by several years. Jonathan apologises for any offence caused by this inaccuracy.]

Mixing Business with Pleasure

August, the month of the Edinburgh festival, the time of the year where our beautiful city becomes for a few weeks the centre of the cultural world. If you have ever dreamt about coming over to have a look for yourself but never found the right excuse. We have just found you one!

Heriot Watt University, and in particular the School of Management and languages, will be running an Interpreting Summer School at the same time of the festival. You could therefore work on your English and/or your interpreting skills during the day while enjoying all the fun of the festival in the evening. Talk about killing two birds with one stone!

But, what exactly will the Summer school involve? Well, we are offering a two week course, the first week being focused on English Language and Culture, and the second one on Interpreting skills. This makes it the perfect combination to improve your English as well as your Interpreting, ideal for anyone who wants to make English their B language.

If you are a professional and haven’t practiced English in a while, are studying interpreting and feel like you need a nudge in the right direction, this is the course for you.

If this has whetted your appetite, have a look at our website to know more  and don’t hesitate to contact us for further information.

To stay in the loop of what’s going on during this Summer School you can also like us on Facebook.
So, you see, we just found you the perfect destination for the summer holidays!


Author: Mathilde Postel

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?