#BlackLivesMatter, also in the signed language interpreting profession.

Aurélia Nana Gassa Gonga

The second guest blog (English)/ vlog (French Sign Language – LSF) on this platform is by Aurélia Nana Gassa Gonga (France/ The Netherlands).
As a French Sign Language (LSF)/French interpreter since 2012, she wants to share her experience of being a black woman in a profession predominantly composed of white female players. This contribution is a response to a previous post on this website about #BlackLivesMatter.

Aurélia is a qualified French/LSF interpreter since 2012. She is is an active member of the French association of Sign Language interpreters (AFILS) and works for a better recognition of the profession in France and abroad.
As a junior researcher, she was part of the French team “Signed Languages and Gesture” at the University Paris 8 and CNRS and undertook research about deaf translation. In 2018, she became a PhD candidate at Radboud University (Nijmegen, The Netherlands) on a project about international sign used by deaf and hearing interpreters. Her research is part of a larger project called “Deaf communication without a shared language”.
Aurélia disseminates her research through scientific publications and science popularisation on her Youtube channel “La Tête Froide”. She is on Twitter as @latetefroide.

Aurélia NGG – Langue des Signes Française #BlackLivesMatter also in the SLI profession.

Who am I?

I was born in France, I have studied LSF interpretation in France and I have worked as a LSF/French interpreter in France. Both of my parents were born in Cameroon and have moved to France in their mid-twenties. I am black, I am French and I feel French. This does not exclude the fact that I still feel connected to my country of origin as members of my family still live there.
The path to become a professional LSF/French interpreter has not been an easy one, nor a hard one. As long as I remember, it has been work, simply. I come from a middle-class family and I had to work in parallel during my 5-year-college journey. So did many of my white peers. Plus, I got a student benefit from the French government to support me financially during my studies. So did many of my white peers. I am thankful for this benefit and for my former employers.

Racism and the SL interpreting profession?

The first time I was confronted with myself as a black signed language interpreter was in 2017 at the Gallaudet University Symposium on SL interpreting. This was the perfect occasion to meet many American signed language interpreters and better understand the situation of the deaf communities in the US, after having read a lot about it during my studies.
I was shocked to discover that there are two SL interpreting associations in the US: the Register of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and the National Alliance of Black Interpreters. There is also the association Mano a Mano, an organization of trilingual (Spanish-English-ASL) interpreters and, as its name indicates, brings together interpreters based on their working languages and not on the colour of their skin or origin. 
To be more precise, the RID is the official association for American SL interpreters and in order to be recognized as an ASL interpreter, you need to register with the RID. However,  due to division, unequal services and access for black interpreters, the National Alliance of Black Interpreters was founded in 1999. 
In France, we have only one national SL interpreters’ association (AFILS) whose members are mainly white and female. However, as a black woman, I do not feel excluded. Moreover, I am the secretary within the board.

What justifies a black SL interpreting association in the US?

So there I was, in the US, not being a SL interpreter, nor a French SL interpreter but a black SL interpreter. Whoa, now I feel excluded. I entered the discussion on why the separation came about in the US with my black ASL colleagues and learned that there were three main reasons for this separation. There might be more, but these are the ones that struck me the most.

First, the US country is shaped around ethnic communities. As a consequence, black deaf people may use different signs than white deaf people and the Black deaf culture is perceived as different in ASL communities (one reason being that black deaf children may have attended different schools than deaf white kids because of the segregation policies following the Civil War). White people who are not part of the black community do not have naturally access to this community. In France, to my knowledge, we haven’t been through a segregationist system so LSF is mainly similar among people regardless of their colour.

Secondly, black deaf people usually express the need to identify with their black interpreter. In France, I have had the experience of being  personally asked to interpret a situation because I am a female interpreter but never because I am a black interpreter. However, I remember assignments with deaf black people who would react happy and surprised to see a black interpreter coming in.
These two reasons make sense to me as applying them, serves the community we work with and aims to improve the quality of the interpretation and the communicative interaction. However, I wish this sociolinguistic need could have been addressed by a dedicated working group within one single SL interpreters’ association instead of having two separate American SL interpreters’ organizations. However, writing this blog post, I took time to discuss this topic with one black ASL interpreter and asked for an update on the situation. She informed me that membership sections have been created within RID to focus on underrepresented populations, including interpreters/translators of colour.

Anyway, the third and last reason that was provided to me in 2017, saddened me. I got this explanation through a testimony from a black colleague. This black ASL interpreter shares an office with white colleagues and each time the white colleagues wanted to talk about a black deaf person, they would sign “black” instead of saying “black”. This feels really weird and uncomfortable for the black interpreter present in the room. Why don’t the white colleagues simply say the word “black”? Is this a bad word? Is it less harsh signing “black” than saying “black” during a conversation where you were talking all the while? So, the third reason for having separate associations is not sociolinguistically rooted like the two other reasons but is rather… Well, I don’t know what word to use. Racist-based? One thing is sure, it is not linked to trying to improve the quality of the interpretation. Here’s my point, black SL interpreters may feel uncomfortable and excluded by their white colleagues.

This last reason resonates with me. In France, some people tend to use “black” instead of “noir” – this might imply that French people are more comfortable using English than French to talk about this – as if “noir” is a bad word. I don’t really feel offended by this depending on the way this is communicated. When for instance the white person is saying something, then pauses as if something special/hard/weird/difficult/I-don’t-know? is happening, and says after that pause “black”, I do feel offended. I don’t understand this pause before the word “black” and the use of “black” instead of “noir”. Depending on the situation, I let it go or I confront the person.
However, and fortunately, I do not associate this particular situations with the SL interpreting profession, but with society in general. Moreover, within the SL interpreting profession in France and abroad (efsli, WASLI for instance), I always felt comfortable and welcome. As an academic, I cannot say the same. But this is another story.

So, what’s next?

Back to France. Do black LSF-French interpreters feel discriminated against? I don’t. We should ask more of us and I am really looking forward to learning from testimonies that are similar to mine and that differ from mine.
Do black people have less chance to get access to university studies? I don’t know.  To the best of my knowledge, I have never read such studies on this topic.
Do black people have more risk of being discriminated against getting accommodation or a job? I think so. I have read many studies providing evidence of this discrimination. However, regarding the fact of being discriminated as a black interpreter in France against getting an interpreting assignment… I have never experienced nor noticed such a thing. 

So, my point is: of course we should strive for diversity. All kinds of diversity. But let’s take the time to focus on black people.

My question is: is the problem situated within the SL interpreting profession or at another level? Personally, I have never felt the need to fight for more equality for black SL interpreters in France, but for black people. Of course, black SL interpreters community is part of the society and not hermetic to his default. Let’s stand together regardless our ethnic background, let’s be ready to listen to all kind of testimonies from the people concerned, and let’s work this out together.

This is my testimony, this is my contribution. What’s yours? 

Is the signed language interpreting profession strategic by nature?

Karolien Gebruers

The first guest blog (English)/ vlog (Flemish Sign Language) on this platform is by Karolien Gebruers (Belgium). 
Karolien Gebruers has been working as an interpreter Flemish Sign Language/Dutch since 2012. She trains interpreters in the postgraduate interpreting training programme at KU Leuven in Antwerp and is the president of Tenuto, a Flemish non-profit organisation offering continuous professional development training to interpreters. Karolien has a background in Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences (BAs from Lessius University College) and Interpreting (MSc from Humak University of Applied Sciences). She’s on Twitter as @KaroGebruers.

Karolien Gebruers – VGT vlog “Is het beroep tolk gebarentaal strategisch in haar ontwikkeling?”

This guest blog post is related to the thesis I wrote completing the European Master in Sign Language Interpreting (EUMASLI) programme. EUMASLI is a 2.5-year international study programme initiated by Humak University of Applied Sciences (Finland), Heriot-Watt University (Scotland) and Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences (Germany). My thesis explored Flemish Sign Language/Dutch Interpreters’ professional self in times of professionalisation. I did this by studying their self-perception as individuals as well as them being part of a larger professional network. 

There are several developments in Flanders suggesting that the signed language interpreting profession is currently going through a professionalisation process. Two of those are quite significant. First of all, in the last decade a university training programme for interpreters has been established and secondly, the number of interpreters who made interpreting their main and full-time profession has slowly increased.
If we want to understand how the professionalisation process might shape a profession in the future, it is important to study the current state of the profession and its practitioners. By applying the sociology of interpreting framework (Brunson, 2015), I looked at the daily experiences of individuals at a micro level, while taking into account that those individuals are part of a greater network of social relations (cf. Roy, Brunson & Stone, 2018). 

This study did not focus on (linguistic) interpreting strategies as such. However, following the definition of a ‘strategy’ as“a plan, method, or series of manoeuvres or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result” (see earlier blog post), the findings showed that interpreters make decisions and apply strategies when it comes to the profession as a whole as well. I will briefly explain the way in which I collected the data for this research and will subsequently discuss the findings in terms of strategies. 

Collecting and analysing the data 

My study took on a qualitative approach and engaged six female interpreters (aged between twenty-four and forty-three) with different training backgrounds and levels of work experience. All of them were full-time interpreters and had at least one year of experience at the moment of the interview. The semi-structured interviews I conducted were inspired by two visual methods: autophotography and egocentric sociograms. Autophotography was used to study the self-perception as individuals. The participants were asked to take photographs guided by the question ‘Who are you as an interpreter?’, which they would explain during the interview.
Egocentric sociograms , on the other hand, were used to study the self-perception as a part of a larger network. The participants were asked to list the names of people and organisations belonging to their professional network on post-its. Then, they positioned these post-its on the sociogram template, which consists of concentric circles with the interpreter in the centre (figure 1). Participants explained whom they positioned where on the template and why they chose those positions. For those interested in the methodological approach of autophotography and egocentric sociograms, you can read more about the what and how in this blog post.

Figure 1: An egocentric sociogram
Figure 1: An egocentric sociogram

Both the visual data and the interview transcriptions were uploaded to the software tool Nvivo 12. I mainly focused on thematically analysing the interview data, but also made some observations related to the visual data. 

Strategies related to the signed language interpreting profession

Based on the results of the analysis, it appears that strategic choices related to the interpreting profession occur before, during and after interpreting assignments.

Before assignments

Two of the participants in this study, not coincidentally the more seasoned interpreters, expressed that their years of experience enables them to better assess if they are the right interpreter for certain assignments. One of them illustrated this idea with a picture of the ocean (figure 2) saying that although she thinks interpreting can be compared to ‘diving into the deep end’, she sometimes decides not to ‘jump’. 

Figure 2: A jump into the deep
Figure 2: A jump into the deep

Similarly, another participant took a picture of a tree with ‘broken branches’ (figure 3) and explained how some branches were cut off: 

“Those are the branches that grow in all directions, and from time to time you think ‘No, not this branch’.”

Figure 3: Cut off branches tree
Figure 3: Cut off branches tree 

Considering whether one is suitable for and capable of carrying out an interpreting assignment successfully is a principle that is included in the ethical code for Flemish Sign Language/Dutch interpreters. Hence, strategically examining if your professional self is the right match for a specific interpreting assignment is something all interpreters should consider. 

In terms of representing and promoting the signed language interpreting profession, one participant, working in educational settings, emphasised the importance of making a good first impression. She illustrated this with a knock-on-the-door picture (figure 4) and explained that she is conscious of paving the way for interpreter colleagues when she is in a situation where teachers and students have no prior experience of working with an interpreter. 

Figure 4: Knock on the door
Figure 4: Knock on the door

Again, applying this strategy is adhering to the code of ethics, which states that the interpreter should conduct herself in such a way that respect is shown for herself, the client and the profession. As the work of interpreters is by nature embedded in social relationships (cf. Brunson, 2017) it is expected that strategic decision making is not limited to the individual professional level. The example above indicates that, at a collective level, interpreters take into account their professional network as well as the profession as a whole. 

During assignments

As all participants expressed, not one day is the same in the life of an interpreter, which is seen as enjoyable and challenging at the same time. Being flexible is key. The “expect the unexpected” part of the job is illustrated with a roadwork’s sign (figure 5) by one of the participants, stating: 

“You have to do something other than you have planned before, sometimes you think ‘Yes, it will be something like that’, and then you arrive and it’s something completely different.”

Figure 5: Roadwork sign
Figure 5: Roadwork sign

Similarly, another participant took a picture of a fridge (figure 6) and compared interpreting to cooking, as every interpreting job can be seen as making a dish, requiring specific ingredients and recipes. She explained that getting the recipe right is a challenge for each assignment: 

“[…] sometimes you feel like ‘Wow this was perfect’, and other times it’s like ‘No, I shouldn’t have added this [ingredient]’.” 

Figure 6: The fridge

I would argue that constantly taking decisions and making strategic choices of all kinds during an assignment could be seen as one strategy at a macro level in order to successfully complete this assignment according to its goal. 

After assignments

All participants referred to the heavy workload because of the shortage of interpreters in Flanders. One of them expressed it is difficult to manage work-life balance by stating:  

“Sometimes you need to take a break, I think we are literally being overloaded with demands, at the moment the demand for interpreters is too high, but sometimes you have to say to yourself I am taking a break, I am going to take care of myself now, after which the quality of my work will improve […].” 

This interpreter consciously takes the decision to practice self-care, which will enhance her work in the long-term. 
In the realm of self-care, the importance of having colleagues was expressed extensively. All participants added colleagues to their sociograms and positioned them close to themselves, as exemplified in figure 7.

Figure 7: Example of a completed sociogram
Figure 7: Example of a completed sociogram

The participants emphasised their need to feel they belong to a group of colleagues. While continuous professional development trainings are seen as moments in which interpreters can share experiences and talk about challenges, the participants also want to have informal encounters with colleagues to debrief and relax. The decision to take a break with a colleague and enjoy coffee and cake in between assignments was illustrated by the following picture:

Figure 8: Coffee and cake
Figure 8: Coffee and cake

So, is the signed language interpreting profession strategic by nature? 

The cases explained above are just a few examples of strategic decisions Flemish Sign Language/Dutch interpreters make. Although I did not explicitly look for strategies in my study, the participants provided me with eligible examples illustrating that they do apply strategies in order to carry out their work as an interpreter in a professional way benefitting themselves, colleagues, interlocutors, and the profession in general. The use of strategies appears to be an intrinsic part of the signed language interpreting profession. Therefor, I am encouraging interpreters to reflect on their strategies and to believe in ‘the butterfly effect’, as small actions can have a great impact. If we, as interpreters, want to elevate our profession it starts with every individual that is a member of it. Every interpreter can make a difference. I am ending this blog post with an image – what else – that aptly illustrates the butterfly effect: 

Figure 9: Butterfly effect https://charliehankin.com
Figure 9: Butterfly effect by Charlie Hankin

Brunson, J. L. (2015). A Sociology of Interpreting. In: B. Nicodemus & K. Cagle (Eds.), Signed Language Interpretation and Translation Research: Selected Papers from the First International Symposium (pp. 130-149). Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press. 
Brunson, J. L. (2017). Consumers, colleagues, and certification: Exploring the politics of interpreting. In: C. Stone, & L. Leeson (Eds.), Interpreting and the Politics of Recognition (pp. 99 – 115). London & New York: Routledge. 
Roy, C., Brunson, J.L., & Stone, C. (2018). The Academic Foundations of Interpreting Studies. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press. 

Any questions or remarks, feel free to leave them here or get in touch with the author: karoliengebruers@gmail.com.

Article “Is there an I in Impact? Considering the two-way process of public engagement.”

New publication in Exchanges: The Interdisciplinary Research Journal.

Download (Diamond Open Access) at https://exchanges.warwick.ac.uk/article/view/520

Vlaamse Gebarentaal vlog: Impact van en op onderzoek.

This article is a critical reflection on public engagement and the concept of impact in UK research institutions, based on a recent experience. The UK impact agenda, driven by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), requires researchers to engage with the public in order to potentially have an impact on society.  This, I argue, constitutes the implicit directionality of impact as a one-way process.
Recently, I provided a workshop for Flemish Sign Language (VGT) interpreters entitled ‘I interpret, therefore I am’ at the Faculty of Arts of the KU Leuven (Antwerp, Belgium). The aim of the workshop, in line with the impact agenda, was to increase participants’ awareness about the interpreting process and change their perception of how an interpreter’s personal beliefs potentially influence his/her linguistic choices. However, interacting with the participants also had an impact on my current research design and me as a researcher.
This particular experience led me to reconsider the implicit idea of impact as a one-way process. In what follows I argue that, impact can and – in my opinion – should be a two-way process, encouraging interaction with the public in order to have a valuable impact on society, research and the researcher.

Unfolding Scenarios: resources for critical reflection.

The Boston Northeastern University has launched a series of videos to practice critical thinking and ethical reasoning in signed language interpreting. The “Unfolding Scenarios” project is aimed at deaf and hearing signed language interpreters, interpreter students, and educators. It offers twelve situations (scenarios) in which interpreters are expected to make certain decisions (decision points). The materials help interpreters to assess the situation and to reflect about the way(s) they would handle it. For some of the decision points sample response are offered from a deaf and a hearing interpreter’s perspective. 

The series consists of two modules. 

On the one hand the twelve scenarios of interpreting situations (five from the perspective of a deaf interpreter and seven from a hearing interpreter’s point of view). Each video describes an interpreting situation within a specific setting, such as for instance medical setting, (mental) health care, education, etc. Within these fictional scenarios various decision points are introduced and the interpreter is encouraged to think about what he/she would do. 
Interpreters and students can use these twelve scenarios to critically reflect about how they would proceed within the given situation. Additionally, they can help to analyse the decision-making process and their choice architecture.
All videos are in American Sign Language and transcripts in English are available. 

On the other hand the series also includes sample reflections and responses from a deaf and a hearing interpreter. These are available for four scenarios. Each interpreter responds to the decision point individually and afterwards they discuss their decision-making process together. These sample reflections are offered in American Sign Language and unfortunately there are no English transcripts available. There is however a Learners Handbook in written English to assist the independent learner.

These (free) materials are amazing resources for signed language interpreters, students, signed language interpreter users, and educators (there is even a Curriculum Guide). Whereas the practical use of the videos allow interpreters – and all involved in interpreted mediated settings – to literally “stop and think” about certain decision points, the more fundamental rationale underlying the Unfolding Scenarios project helps to understand what interpreting is and what it is interpreters do: they make decisions. 

Whereas my research focuses on the linguistic choices signed language interpreters make, this project demonstrates – amongst other things – that decision-making is an inherent part of the interpreting process. Indeed, the nature of interpreting is strategic on many levels. 

Hopefully these materials will be an inspiration for other regions to produce similar videos in their own signed language and culture. 

What is a strategy?

Vlaamse Gebarentaal vlog: wat is een strategie?

The focus of this blog and of my research is on interpreting strategies. More specifically, on linguistic interpreting strategies used by signed language interpreters. Before exploring what those exactly are and why they are of interest, I would like to consider what is meant by a strategy

When turning to the general definition provided on dictionary.com, the following explanations are offered:

  1. the science or art of combining and employing the means of war in planning and directing large military movements and operations.
  2. the use or an instance of using this science or art.
  3. skilful use of a stratagem.
  4. a plan, method, or series of manoeuvres or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result. 

The concept of strategies is also used in various domains. As is clear from the above definition, the military is one of them. Strategies are devised and applied in order to defeat the enemy, to conquer lands or to survive on the battlefield. The idea is also frequently used in business and marketing models, where strategies are aimed at bringing about desired business goals. Over the years it also has become increasingly important for managers to display strategic leadership. The idea of strategic marketing has also entered the political arena with parties and leaders talking about their campaign strategy. Similarly, organisations, such as for instance universities and ngo’s are also known to put forward strategic plans based on their vision and mission statement. 

The most obvious commonality across the different domains when it comes to the use and purpose of a strategy or strategies is that there is an aim you wish to achieve and in other to do so an approach is envisioned. There is a pathway you wish to follow to arrive at your goal and you apply or reject certain strategies in order to stay on that path. 

It should be clear that the path is in most cases not a straight road. It can be quite bendy, including U-turns and diversions. Even if an overall goal is set and a general plan as how to reach that goal has been designed, the strategies used to get there are not carved in stone. They can be altered, depending on how the path towards the envisioned goal develops. This is a crucial aspect of strategies, namely that they are part of a process, which in itself is dynamic and not linear.

This also holds true for interpreting strategies. When we regard interpreting as a goal-oriented (Kalina, 1998) or a goal-directed (Pöchhacker, 2004) process, the role and importance of interpreting strategies is apparent. If interpreting is a process with a certain aim, interpreters (can) use strategies in order to achieve that goal. One question that is not easily answered, is what an interpreting strategy is. Various labels are used in Interpreting Studies such as for instance coping tactics (Gile, 1995), strategic processes or strategic action (Kohn & Kalina, 1996), interpreting techniques (Jones, 1998), miscues (Cokely, 1985; 1992) and, linguistic coping strategies (Napier, 2002) for similar phenomena. Additionally, not all studies reporting on interpreting strategies clearly define what is meant by the term. 

Based on the literature on strategies in both Translation and Interpreting Studies, it seems that most scholars take into account the following four distinguishing characteristics when considering strategies in translating or interpreting:

  • process-oriented vs product-oriented 
    (Kohn & Kalina, 1996; Korhonen, 1998; Pöchhacker, 2004; Chesterman, 2005; Gambier, 2009)
  •  problem-solving vs routine 
    (Lörscher, 1991; Kalina, 1998; Scott-Tenet et al., 2000; Zabalbeascoa, 2000; Napier, 2002; Jääskeläinen, 2009; Gambier, 2010; Wang, 2012)
  •  global vs local
    (Chesterman, 2005; Gambier, 2010)
  •  obligatory vs optional 
    (Toury, 1995)

Some studies also make a distinction between an error and a strategy. In general, these studies do not perceive an action that does not lead to a successful result as a strategy or strategic. However, other researchers, based on the above-mentioned distinctions, claim that even if an interpreter’s decision results in an unsuccessful interpretation, the decision was still strategic. And what the interpreter did is a strategy. The argument in this case is that the interpreter envisioned a certain goal and made a choice to do something during the interpreting process with the intention of achieving that goal. Consequently, we can only talk about errors when comparing the source text (input) and the target text (output) of an interpretation. Not when we are describing the process as such. 

What these interpreting strategies are when talking about signed language interpreting will be a topic of a next post. 

Some suggestions for further reading on the topic: 
on the general notion of strategy:

on strategies in translation and interpreting:

And don’t forget to leave any (respectful) comments, suggestions, and contributions. 


It is new and still under construction but you have already found it! So, welcome to my blog (English) and vlog (Flemish Sign Language). Soon you will find information about research on interpreting strategies in (signed language) interpreting, my research projects and upcoming events.

I encourage contributions to this blog/vlog. Let me know if you have publications, opinions, exciting work or events related to interpreting strategies you want to share: isabelle.heyerick@warwick.ac.uk.

See you soon!