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Happy Sign Language Week 2018

This week, 12th – 18th March, is Sign Language Week in the UK (The international one will be in September), as the week that BSL was formally recognised as a language of the United Kingdom, on 18th March 2003.

15 years later and it’s arguable that not much progress has been made. BSL still does not enjoy the same legal status that other indigenous language of the UK do (Welsh for example) and recently, on 6th March, the proposal for a BSL GCSE was completely stonewalled despite clear support from various MPs in a parliamentary debate broadcast live on – the first live parliament debate to be broadcast with simultaneous BSL interpretation – after a petition started by Wayne Barrow gained thousands of signatures.

That said, other recent events have given me hope for the future. On 4th March, The Silent Child, a short film about a 4 year old deaf girl who lives in the proverbial world of silence until a social worker teaches her sign language, won an Oscar for best Live Action Short Film. An Oscar! And to make it even better, the writer and actress Rachel Shenton signed her acceptance speech because she’d promised the film’s star, the amazing Maisie Sly, that’s what she’d do if they won. Sign Language in an acceptance speech hasn’t happened since Marlee Matlin won her Oscar in 1987. The speech hit the headlines and the cheers of the deaf community went up around the world. Also, this video of Maisie’s father telling her how proud he is of her is the most adorable thing I’ve seen in a long time.

On the same evening, Deafinitely Theatre won an Off-West End award for Best Production with their play Contractions, which had been performed in BSL and English at the New Diorama Theatre in November 2017. It was just their luck that the Offies clashed with the Oscars or they’d have been the big news of the day. As it is, congratulations are richly deserved by in that production as well.

And just last week, on Tuesday 13th March, I saw Hamlet, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company no less, interpreted in BSL. Not just interpreted, integrated – instead of being shuffled off to the side of the stage and respectfully ignored by the cast as usually happens, this interpreter was in amongst the action, shadowing Hamlet and the other characters, running with them, occasionally offering comfort and *gasp* emoting. She interpreted Shakespeare non-stop for three hours and thoroughly deserved the flowers she got from the cast at the end – who also signed “thank you for coming” in unison to the audience. I take my hat off to Becky Barry, and to the RSC for having the wherewithal to have BSL interpreted / integrated and captioned performances – here’s a link to their upcoming assisted performances, they definitely deserve a look.

Shakespeare in BSL is not a new idea; Taking Flight Theatre in Wales have put on a BSL-integrated Shakespeare play every summer for the last few years and I was lucky enough to see Love’s Labour’s Lost fully performed in BSL by Deafinitely Theatre in 2012.

BSL is a beautiful language, and I can’t wait for the day that it has full legal recognition and protection in British Law. And a GCSE…

In honour of Sign Language Week, I decided to have a go at filming a Shakespearean sonnet, hoping to emulate Shakespeare’s eloquence in English in BSL. I hope I do it justice – both the sonnet and BSL!

Also, I thought it’d be a laugh to perform “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day” on a snowy day in March 🙂

Playing with Poetry at EdFringe!

More about that show at Edinburgh Fringe, feeling lucky, feeling nervous, excited, terrified, all of the above! Here’s my BSL video with more info and transcript 🙂

Hello, my name is Donna Williams, I also use the name DeafFirefly… I just like the name 🙂

I’m a poet using both British Sign Language (BSL) and English. I love BSL and I also use English because I’ve become really interested in translation and how it works, how can perform poetry in two languages at the same time, if it works, will it work well?

I’m going to find out with a show at Edinburgh Fringe on 11th Aug at 1.30pm at Spotlites. I will have interpreters and I’ll be performing poetry in both BSL and English in varying levels, for example one poem may be more BSL, minimal voiceover, another may be BSL with just a visual script (no voiceover), another I’ll perform spoken with SSE, and so on.

I want to try different styles and combinations of language and get feedback from the audience on what works well. It’s called “Playing with Poetry” and that’s what it is! Hopefully it’ll answer lots of questions. Hope to see you there! 🙂

It’s alive!

Welcome back to DeafFirefly blog, it’s been ages without an update… sorry! It’s been a crazy two years but hopefully can move forward and get back into the swing of things.

I’m coming back with a show at Edinburgh Fringe on 11th Aug. It’s called Playing with Poetry and it’s what it says on the tin – it’s playing with poetry, with BSL, with English, with poetry, seeing what works well.

This blog will change a little, become more about my poetry, will still probably be few updates but the main thing is it’ll be back to life! So… thank you for waiting and welcome back!

‘We never meant any disrespect’ – Poem and background

The text of the article is available in BSL here; I was having some issues setting up to film and so got a friend to be my cameraman with a bribe of coffee. Further issues ensued with phone; apologies for the cutouts in the signed article, but thankfully I’d managed to fix the phone by the time I got to signing the poem. Whew!

This week is Deaf Awareness week, and coincidentally, I’ve just finished composing a poem inspired by THAT interpreter, the surrounding events and a recent oh-so-funny advert by the one and only LiveLens.

Some background to this poem; Thamsanqa Jantje is the ‘interpreter’ who royally messed up Mandela’s funeral service. Signing gibberish, he hallucinated or bluffed (depending on your point of view) his way through the entire event. On being exposed as a fake, he claimed that he’d been seeing angels and was receiving treatment for schizophrenia, before checking back into a psychiatric unit.

It got worse when it turned out that a man accused of murder – by necklacing; putting a tyre around someone’s neck and setting it on fire – as part of a mob, but escaped trial due to mental incompetence, had been allowed to stand in touching distance of various world leaders. The organisers had a lot of explaining to do.

And the world laughed. Oh, not everyone, to be sure. There was a heck of a fuss. But comedians couldn’t resist poking fun in ever so side-splittingly hilarious ways, and just type ‘fake sign language interpreter funny’ into youtube. I had to stop after three pages of results, it was too depressing.

LiveLens are the advertising start-up who have used Jantje to make an advert. And they snuck him out of said psychiatric unit to do it.

There are so many things wrong with all of this on so many levels, but LiveLens appear to be blithely – or cheerfully – unaware of the level of hurt and offence that they have caused.

As well as defending their actions on twitter, LiveLens issued a statement on their Facebook page:

“We never thought our video ad would gather so much interest from people.There is absolutely no disrespect meant at deaf people or anyone! The interpreter was “starring” before on SNL, Jay Leno and others. Its also ok to give people a 2nd chance. Thamsanqa is mentally ill and admitted several times he made a mistake that day. Should he be banned for life? Please share your thoughts”

Here is my deconstruction, and my response:

“We never thought our video ad would gather so much interest from people.”

Then why do it?

“There is absolutely no disrespect meant at deaf people or anyone!”

Again: then why do it?

LiveLens CMO Sefi Shaked said it himself: “[with] every campaign, some people think something is disrespectful… We are expecting an argument.” No disrespect intended, huh?

“The interpreter was “starring” before on SNL, Jay Leno and others.”

No, he wasn’t. He was being mercilessly sent up by actors in SNL, Jay Leno and others. The quality and sensitivity of the sketches involved were variable, but that’s a separate issue.

“Its (sic) also OK to give people a second chance.”

Yes it is, providing the people who get given the second chance are seen to use it well, showing understanding of the consequences of their actions and respectful gratitude. Otherwise, they just look like piss-takers. Case in point.

“Thamsanqa is mentally ill and admitted several times he made a mistake that day.”

About him being mentally ill. Didn’t LiveLens sneak him out of a psychiatric unit for a day to film the ad? A recovering schizophrenic with self-confessed hallucinations and violent tendencies? And offer him lots of money? Can anyone at LiveLens explain that thought process in a way that doesn’t make them seem like they were shamelessly exploiting a mentally ill man and the situation he found himself in?

And yes. He apologised for his performance and then went on to say his interpreting was the best in the world. He also cheerfully said he was the “great fake”. Then, in an interview with Betabeat regarding the ad, he said he wasn’t sorry or ashamed at all as he’d raised awareness for an important cause. Yep. He seems sorry.

If the cause was highlighting the importance of checking your interpreters’ qualifications BEFORE you put them on the world stage, job done.

If the cause was raising awareness of sign language in a positive light; fail. You want to raise awareness of sign language and the deaf community? Get a qualified interpreter and let the world see the beauty and flow of real sign language, honouring a world leader.

“Should he be banished for life?”

Honestly? Perhaps not, in a free world and all that, but by the same token a little respect wouldn’t go amiss and not parading around the farce he caused for amusement and – worst of all – profit. He’s profiting from being the interpreter who bluffed his way through a globally-televised funeral. LiveLens is helping him. That’s pretty far from banishment, and having seen that video, banishment would almost be too kind now.

“Please share your thoughts.”

I shall.

But for this, simply venting on my blog doesn’t seem enough.

So, I composed a poem. This was composed in English, so in signing it, I’ll follow the English structure, effectively SSE. One day I may attempt a full BSL translation, happy to collaborate with anyone up for the challenge! For now, here it is.

Oh, and – if you want to see interpreting done properly, check out

PS: Further inspiration came from Terp Life, two words; balloon animal.

Without further ado, here’s the poem, with a signed translation.

We never meant any disrespect

We never meant any disrespect.
OK, so the interpreter was a fake,
But you have to admit it’s pretty funny,

The funeral of an elder statesman
a polar figure
reformed terrorist
or wrongly imprisoned freedom fighter?
A man who, merely by taking a walk
changed the world.
Then changed it some more.
Loved by many.

And his funeral
a worthy occasion
world leaders paying tribute,
a massive stage,
a mourning throng,
spotlit by glittering lenses
beaming to satellites,
a fittingly global connection.
What a chance
for signs to shine
to be part of the Rainbow
honouring the man
who showed that where there is rain
there can be light.

And his funeral
All inclusive; black, white, hearing, deaf, everyone
honouring a man who fought exclusion
turned to farce
by a modern day Judas
who with spurious translations
sealed off
shut out an entire community.
This snake in plain sight
took a shit
a stupendous steaming turd
that landed on the stage with an almighty splat
that only those with receptive eyes could see.
It hit the screens
it smeared down
and was left there til the end.
And then it hit the fan.
And the world laughed.
In surprise, in shock, in horror.
But it laughed.

We never meant any disrespect.
OK, so the interpreter was a fake,
But you have to admit it’s pretty funny,

Sure. Funny in the same way
that if the whole thing had been conducted in Afrikaans
and was translated thus:

Walla walla walla
Rocking horse goes up and down
knife and fork
touch my face, pat my tummy
here is a balloon animal
kill the boer, kill them all
a breakdancing pineapple
hand me the scissors
I have no shame
a donkey farts in a tower
touch my face, pat my tummy
the bagpipes go wheedle wheedle wheedle
a rocking horse fucking a breakdancing pineapple
a menage a trois with the balloon animal
knife and fork
touch my face, pat my tummy

For hours.
Wouldn’t that have been hysterical?

Imagine the uproar
when English users finally broke through
and the shambles exposed.
Can you imagine?
And if then the world laughed
and took to the internet
spoofing English
spouting gibberish in a mockery
dancing around blabbering
for the craic
even professional comedians join in the fun
with lazy kicks at the wounded.
Then corporate opportunists
colluding with avaricious delusionists
for advertising gimmicks

And then said

We never meant any disrespect.
OK, the interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral was a joke,
but you’ve got to admit it’s pretty funny,

A poem for National Poetry Day

Today is National Poetry Day and this years’ theme is Water. Since it’s chucking it down outside, that seems very apropos.

Lately, as well as composing BSL poems, I’ve been looking at translation; English to BSL and vice versa. I first became really interested in this when I went to the Signing Hands Across the Water poetry festival in America last year; it really hit me that all the ASL poets had voiceovers, but none of the BSL poets did.

That and a hilarious misinterpretation of one of my poems by a non-signing member of the audience and various discussion panels between the poets made me think about how poems might be translated across languages. I’ve had poems that I’ve written in English published, but struggle to translate them into BSL, and when trying to put English words to my BSL poems, all I can come up with are basic scribbles that do no justice to my meaning (in my mind anyway…)

Thanks to the Deaf Explorer project I had the opportunity to travel to America to meet The Flying Words Project, a poetry duo comprising Peter Cook, a Deaf ASL poet and Kenny Lerner, his hearing interpreter. They work together to create poems using ASL, English, mime and movement, effectively creating a whole new performance art.

They’ve been performing for decades, and they are amazing to watch. Seriously, check out their first poem in the video; they’re so well-rehearsed that Kenny can literally do it blindfolded. Respect. And Peter’s signs… wowee. And the poem about the dog (called Charlie) gets me every time. The show starts at 5.25, but if you watch the speech at the beginning with automatic captions, please do not be alarmed; it is indeed the Flying Words Project being introduced, and not the ‘violence project’. I think YouTube needs to work on their software…

In America, I was able to chat with them about their creative process, a fabulous experience, which only fuelled my interest in bilingual poetry. So can written poetry be translated into sign language and vice versa? Of course they can, but it’s not easy! So many grey areas, literal translation versus meaningful translation; translating whole lines versus just a few words here and there; everyone has a different way of looking at a poem, how to give as many possible versions or just one depending on the poet’s vision? Etc. Etc, etc.

So I thought, in honour of National Poetry Day, I’d have a go at translating a water-related English poem into BSL, and after some thought, the poem I chose was ‘The Rainy Day’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of my favourite poets.

The text of the poem will follow the video; this way people can choose to read it before or after watching the BSL translation; hopefully it will all make sense and I’ve done the poem justice!

Feedback welcome 🙂

And yes, I know this was posted over an hour after National Poetry Day officially ended. Technical issues. Bloody iMovie. Ahem.

Seriously, feedback welcome!

The Rainy Day

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still sad heart! And cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Farewell, Vitalis.

Today, the funeral of Vitalis Katakinas is being held in London. I can’t make it, but Vitalis and his loved ones are definitely in my thoughts.

He was an actor, a poet, a playwright, a biker, a sportsman, a father, a lover, a charity fundraiser, a friend, a positive spirit and influence for many. He was a beautiful man, with a beautiful fluency and affinity with sign language to match, and had talent pouring out of his deaf ears. The world is poorer without him.

I remember him at Deafinitely Theatre, attending workshops with him, watching him perform in the showcase, and watching him in Love’s Labours Lost. From royal intrigue to Shakespeare, he took it all in his stride. I remember chatting with him, and being impressed by his smile, his can-do attitude and his confidence; when he moved from Ireland to London, one of the first things he did was go straight to Deafinitely Theatre with his acting CV. He certainly didn’t hang about and wait for life to come to him – he went out there and took it by the scruff. He was a good foot taller than me, and he may have looked ‘tough’ with his hair and his leathers, but was always sweet and kind, the proverbial (to little me) gentle giant.

I remember he came to the Bristol BSL poetry festival a few years ago, and we worked together in one of the poetry workshops; his ideas were gold. I’ve been looking at some of his poems, which are still available on the Metaphor in Creative Sign Language project website. I especially like ‘Graduation‘, where he takes on the perspective of one of the University of Bristol’s oldest buildings. His command of BSL was – at the risk of repeating myself – beautiful.

I remember seeing him, alive and well at BSL day in London just hours before he was injured. He looked good. He still had that hair and that smile. His injury and his death a week later, having never woken from the coma, was unbelievable and tragic. How could such a strong guy, with such a zest for life, be comatose, be dead? It didn’t make sense then, it didn’t make sense when I was tying some flowers to his memorial tree and it doesn’t make sense now.

I don’t think it ever will. All I can do now is to repeat and reinforce the message that was on his memorial tree: one punch can kill.

I have no doubt that his funeral will be extremely well-attended, as will the gathering afterwards. He had a positive impact on so many lives, and I know I’ll always remember him. He had the soul of a poet. I’m sending lots of vibes and prayers for Vitalis and his loved ones; I hope all goes as well as it can today, and he gets the kind of send-off he deserves.

This poem by Ramas Rentelis perfectly sums up Vitalis and how much he’ll be missed.

Farewell, Vitalis.

Donations can be made at

Donna Williams: Becoming even more deaf – and accepting it (even if I miss those ‘tsh’ sounds)

My latest article for the Limping Chicken, a great deaf news site. Check it out! I love the image art, created by Twitter user Ciaran Moloney (@cmoloney13), inspired by a quote from the article 🙂

The Limping Chicken

I see myself as being quite secure in my deaf identity. I’m part of a diverse community and a rich culture, and I have a generally positive view of my deafness; I firmly believe that any disability I have as a result of my deafness is that caused by communication barriers and not my medical status.

Medically though, I was already profoundly deaf, with an average hearing loss of about 90 dB. I wear hearing aids, and whilst they’re far from perfect I get a lot of sounds – although they’re jumbled and don’t make much sense.

I like music, but in order to appreciate a song, I need to learn the lyrics by heart and then learn the song and where they fit in; only then can I listen to it. Radio? Don’t make me laugh. Speech is audible but totally unintelligible without visual cues.

But lately, it seemed…

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