Tag Archives: BSL

‘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 http://www.realinterpreter.com.

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,
right?

Hilarious.
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.
Madiba.
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
betrayed
turned to farce
by a modern day Judas
who with spurious translations
segregated
sealed off
shut out an entire community.
This snake in plain sight
essentially
took a shit
a stupendous steaming turd
that landed on the stage with an almighty splat
that only those with receptive eyes could see.
SPLAT.
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,
right?

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,
right?

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Letter to Ofsted

Dear Ofsted,

Where do I start? I am a deaf BSL user, and until two days ago, I appreciated that Ofsted has a difficult job to do, but I hoped they were doing it competently. Then I saw Ofsted’s online consultation documents for ‘Inspection of adoption support agencies’ and today, I saw the consultation documents for ‘Inspection of local authority voluntary adoption agencies’. Specifically, I refer to the ‘BSL-based symbols’ ‘translation’ of the documents.

http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/inspection-of-local-authority-and-voluntary-adoption-agencies

http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/inspection-of-adoption-support-agencies

I wish to complain – strongly – about these ‘BSL-based’ documents, on several grounds.

British Sign Language is a language in its own right, with a clear grammatical structure, and was formally recognised as a language of the United Kingdom in March 2003. It continues to be the subject of linguistic research, and all of this research verifies that it is a complete language, with all the attendant features.

It is a living, breathing, beautiful language, that relies on movement, handshapes, context, facial expression, eyegaze, non-manual features, etc and has been used to create poetry and translate Shakespeare.

Reducing it to cartoons for the purposes of serious consultation documents – indeed for any purpose – is incredible. The fact that it is a government agency doing so, eight years after the formal recognition of BSL, is stunning. These cartoons are vague, and bear little relation to the signs they represent, and one or two are borderline offensive, for example the pictogram for ‘about’ on page 5 of the ‘BSL-based’ PDF of ‘Inspection of adoption support agencies’ looks like the sign for ‘camp’ or in the hands of less nice people, ‘poof’. The pictogram for ‘should’ on the same page looks like ‘damn’.

I would be very interested to know whose idea it was to reduce a full, complete language to a few drawings, when there are any number of interpreting / translation agencies and freelance BSL interpreters out there who could have translated this document for Ofsted into complete, proper BSL, and the video file of the translation put on the website.

Does Ofsted really have such a low opinion of the mental capacity of children and young people who use BSL as a first language? I refer here to the wide discrepancy between the level of language used in the word document explaining the consultation, which according to the data at the bottom of the first page, is aimed at 0-17 age group, and the ‘BSL-based’ translation, supposedly aimed at the same age group. I can only imagine that the word document was aimed at 0-17 year olds, whilst the ‘BSL-based’ document was aimed at 0-17 months. For the record, deafness is not a learning disability, it is if anything a sensory disability. Deafness has no effect on mental capacity, and I can name several deaf people who hold Ph.Ds, and I myself am currently studying an MA.

The closest analogy I can find for how ridiculous these ‘BSL-based’ documents are would be if I started writing this email completely phonetically.

Fff          Orr         Eks         arm        pul          duh        sss          me         rrr           eye         t              een        ev     err          eee        w            er           d             ll             eye         ke           th           ees         ay           d             u      too        arn         der         sss          tah         nn           dd?

Breaking down a complete sentence into separate little cartoonish blocks that will in and of themselves need explaining when it is possible to have a full and complete BSL translation rendered is self-defeating and unnecessary.

On Makaton.org’s own website, it states:

“Makaton is designed to help hearing people with learning or communication difficulties.  It uses signs and symbols, with speech, in spoken word order.

BSL is the language of the deaf community in the UK.  It is a naturally evolving language, with its own grammar, word order and has regional variations.”

BSL cannot be treated like Makaton, and in fact Sign Languages already have their own recognised system of notation, colloquially called ‘Stokoe Notation’ after the inventor; a phonemic system that records handshapes, orientation of the handshape and direction of movement of the hand/s. The results look rather like WingDings font, and would be completely incomprehensible to those who do not have the appropriate linguistic background. The idea of using these cartoons to express a complex language should have been laughed out of the room.

Furthermore, quite apart from the issues of breaking down a complete sentence into separate cartoons – and I notice that Ofsted has also used picture symbols that bear no relation to any sign whatsoever in their ‘BSL-based’ documents – and the issue of how simple Ofsted apparently believes those who use BSL need information to be, exactly how was a child or young person responding to this document supposed to do so? By simply circling a pictogram or asking an adult to help them write further responses? (page 10) Does this mean that there was no option for those who use BSL to respond in BSL i.e. by way of recording themselves replying in BSL? Or were they to rely on English when, as the document seemingly presumes, English is not their strongest language? Or were they to draw their own cartoons by way of a response? I would be fascinated to know if anyone did in fact use these ‘BSL-based’ documents, and what they thought of them.

In summary, I would like very much to know why Ofsted, a government agency, thought it would be appropriate to use cartoons to express complex concepts and call it ‘BSL-based’, when the results bear little to no relation to BSL at all, and why this approach was chosen over simply having the document translated into BSL.

Was any agency that represents the interests of deaf people such as the British Deaf Association or Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID) or any member of the deaf community consulted before these ‘BSL-based’ documents were produced? I would be very surprised, indeed astonished if they were, and if so, please can you let me know who it was?

Thank you for your time in reading this, I look forward  to a reply.

Regards,

Donna Williams

Laugh or Cry?

Sometimes all we can do is point and laugh.

If we didn’t, we’d weep for the ignorance of those whose job it is (supposedly) to know what they’re talking about.

Yesterday, this came to my attention.

Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, produced a consultation document aimed at children and young people to give them a say in how Ofsted inspects Adoption Support Agencies.

So far, so good.

Then they produced a BSL-based version. Jolly good. Was it a video produced by Remark!, scripted by Ofsted? Was it a video of Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman translating the document to the tune of humming guitars? Was it a video of the consultation document lovingly translated into sign language poetry by yours truly? No.

It was cartoons.

No word of a lie, they attempted to translate the consultation document into cartoons, and called it BSL-based. Look at it.

In case it’s not clear why this is so tragi-comic, let me explain. British Sign Language is a living, breathing language, relying as much on movement as it does on ‘gestures’. Pictures – or cartoons – of signs next to each other don’t really mean much without context – or movement. It’s like writing down a sentence phonetically in the belief that this will help someone to understand it.

Bee     Ess     Ell     Iz     Ay     Bee     Yoo     Tee     Foo     Lah     Nnn     Gwa     Jjj

Thee     sss     Iz     Ahh     Nnn     Eeen     sss     Arr     lll     T

Or you could just SAY it. Get someone to translate the document into proper BSL and tape it. Tape it!

Without movement and context, those cartoons could mean anything. If, as this document apparently presumes, the respondents’ English is not that good, what are the cartoons meant to express? They’re not exactly clear. On page 5, ‘should’ looks like ‘damn’, ‘what’ could be ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘sky’, ‘god’, ‘up’ ‘ travelling’ – all BSL signs that use an index pointed upwards, and the cartoon for ‘about’ looks nothing like ‘about’ and in fact comes perilously close to looking like the sign for ‘camp’ or, in the hands of not-so-nice people, ‘poof’.

Is that what Ofsted is aiming for? Cartoons that look like any sign that uses that handshape, littered with potentially offensive signs? Well, congratulations. Mission accomplished.

I mean, whose idea was this?

Look at the age group they’re aiming for. Bottom of the first page. 0-17. It’s like they’ve assumed that a 17-year-old BSL user will have the same level of understanding as an infant. On behalf of teenage BSL users everywhere, consider me fucking patronised.

Are they sure they don’t mean 0 – 17 months? Compare the level of language in the ‘BSL-based’ document with the word document accompanying it. You’ll see what I mean.

And again with the patronisation on page 10. “If there is anything more you wish to say, please ask an adult to help you.” What was the age group again? 0 – 17?

They’ve clearly allowed for those children and young people with communication and learning difficulties with the Makaton, picture communication symbols and Widgit alternatives, and brilliant. Good for them. Very inclusive. Where they went wrong was thinking they could treat BSL in the same way.

Deafness is not a learning disability. BSL is a beautiful language, highly expressive, a language of poetry and creativity; we just had a Shakespeare play translated into BSL and put on at The Globe for Globe to Globe, the multi-language Shakespeare festival to rave reviews for pity’s sake.

Cartoons?

If one is aware enough to put the cartoons in the correct BSL grammatical order, then one should have enough awareness to know that BSL is not just handshapes, it’s movement and eyegaze and facial expression and direction and context.

Whose idea was this?

What was wrong with just making a proper BSL version? Just get someone to sign it properly. That way, you could ensure that BSL users would have a good chance of understanding it, instead of patronising them with cartoons that are vague enough that an adult will probably have to explain the cartoons anyway, defeating the purpose of having the bloody cartoons in the first place. Just… do it properly!

Was it too much effort? Did it cost too much to pay someone to sign it, someone to film it, and put it in a file on their website? Was it just easier to draw some cartoons? Do they really have such a low opinion and expectation of BSL users? Why couldn’t they just have it signed PROPERLY?

I need to stop now. My head is about to explode.

 

P.S. Let’s all write letters like this one and let them know our views on their ‘consultation document’…

The Birds!

Well, well, well. It’s been a bit of a hiatus on the blog, but I do have some good excuses. For example, from 23rd April to 10th May I was in rehearsals for a play called The Birds. There, that’s a good excuse isn’t it? I mentioned it on here once or twice, but on 11th and 12th May we did it. We really did it. We put on an absolutely bonkers show with feathers, sequins and dance routines and got the audience on their feet every time!

I loved my costume. I can honestly say that, before this, the last time I wore a dress was 12 years ago. It was my mothers’… actually let’s not worry about which birthday it was, only know that it was a special birthday request from my mother. That’s what it usually takes to get me into a dress.

So imagine my trepidation when it was revealed I was not only going to be wearing a dress, it was going to be a flowing, ruffled tasteful ivory creation. Hmm. But, designed by Steve Denton and made by Bryony Tofton, it was fantastic! Because what went over it was a brilliant waistcoat made of sequins and feathers. And a crown.

Because I’m Eryr Euraid, baby, Queen of the Birds! For those who don’t speak Welsh, Eryr Euraid means ‘Golden Eagle’ and you’d better damn well do as I say, or it’s the mountain goat treatment for you. Look at those poor lickle goats.

And yes, I did watch this to help me get in character, as I was supposed to be the permanently angry / annoyed / regal Eryr Euraid and I was having trouble channelling this. Apparently I’m ‘too nice’ and ‘looked like you’re enjoying yourself too much’. For the record, that was meant to be an evil smile. These aren’t bad things to have said about one, I suppose, but not when you’re threatening to rip two of the other characters into tiny, little pieces.

This was my first real play, and I loved it. I loved being part of it and the camaraderie of the cast. It was also bloody hard work. I’m not just talking about the long days / weeks doing things over and over again in slightly different ways, or the fact that I can recall “peter piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, where’s the peck of pickled peppers peter piper picked?”, “there’s a chip shop in space that sells space ship shaped chips” and “I’m not a pheasant plucker…”

The rest of the cast were hearing. Imagine it, three long weeks spending every waking moment with hearing people. I had interpreters for the rehearsals but I was staying in a hotel with the other non-local cast. No terps for the communal evening meals in various restaurants. The only thing that saved my sanity was the fact that all of them can fingerspell and sign a little bit, and the ones who for various reasons can’t, were willing to repeat things almost to infinity. Thank goodness for that.

But even so, after three weeks solid of near-constant lip-reading, I was starting to crack up. I was starting to remember why I’d rejected the hearing world when I realised there was an alternative. It’s because the hearing world is noisy. Noisy, noisy, noisy. And they rely so much on the noise. Chatter, chatter, chatter. Every damn day.

Towards the end, as I was starting to lose my grip on reality, I couldn’t help reflecting that I really was in the company of birds. Imagine it. You’re sat at a table in a forest, alone. All around you, in the branches, every bird in the forest is singing or chattering at the top of their voice, and waitresses are banging and scraping things. It’s a cacophony of endless, meaningless noise, drowning your hearing-aids. And occasionally, one of those birds will fly up to you, tell what they’re all chattering about, a couple more might fly up and for a while you’re included in the conversation. But in order to understand these birds, you have to focus on their beaks with 100% concentration. If you lose concentration, which is entirely possible after a long day, or the conversation wanders away from you, the birds fly away again. And you end up reading the news on your phone. Which I did a lot, because frankly I didn’t have the energy to lip-read constantly after a week of rehearsals, never mind three. I even started writing a poem on this theme – the being surrounded by birds, I mean, not the news on my phone.

Let me make clear that I love the cast. They’re a bunch of amazing, cool, talented people, and they can and do fingerspell and make the effort to sign and / or patiently repeat things. Some even learned new signs from me, and tried their very best to remember them. The only thing I could have wished for is perhaps more awareness of how little I actually understand of what’s being said around me, which if there’s no terp and I’m tired, is very little indeed. The rule of thumb is – if you’re not looking directly at me within a distance of about 6 feet, I haven’t understood what you’ve said. So all that chattering to each other, amongst each other; my lip-reading skills are decent, but they’re not THAT good.

Sanity issues aside, I did have a great time. It was a brilliant ride, and I’d love to do it again. It did no harm to my ego that in my first scene of the play, every Bird character had to bow and scrape to me. Who am I kidding? I loved that! Everyone should have a chance to be Queen for a day – and I did it for three weeks! Bow to me, peasants!

Overall, we adapted to each other very well, and we also came up with visual cues for me throughout the play. Case in point, my first scene, I had to come on while another Bird was singing beautifully. The two human characters were supposed to clap, thus attracting the attention of the chorus, at which point we’d chase them around before beating them up. Problem – we anticipated that the audience might clap too, and they did, every time. Kudos to you, Nightingale! Solution: Nightingale (who also answers to Andria) would smile and nod politely through the audience applause, then when the humans clapped, she would bow towards them. At which point I would notice them, and give the signal to attack. That’s because I’m the Queen, baby, did I mention? Don’t cross the Euraid!

And the director, Cheryl Martin, had the really cool idea to have the Birds as my chorus. This meant that as I signed my lines, the Birds had to say them, in harmony, hence my ‘chorus’. We even made a tape of the chorus doing their creepiest, meanest voices for the lines so that when it was played during the play, it would seem as if the voices of the chorus were coming from everywhere. I thought it was a great way to integrate my signs into the play, and illustrate Eryr’s authority, and I loved the idea of being followed around by a group of loyal servants whose only jobs were to bow to my every whim and voice everything I signed in creepy, birdy voices. I wonder if I could get my interpreters to do that…

Furthermore, every performance was BSL terped by Erika James, and had captions on screens all around the stage. I’m not sure what else we could have done to make this play accessible. And yet, how many deaf people came? Very few indeed. I won’t lie, I was disappointed. It’s at this point I’d like to thank Rosie and Ellie for coming all the way from London and Birmingham respectively to see the play – thank you! And thanks for the drinks, which really I should have been buying for you after you’d made that effort, and I’m glad you enjoyed the play! As for the one who said “oh, but if I’d known you were going to be wearing a dress…” what does that have to do with anything? I’M IN A PLAY YOU PEASANT! I digress.

We had amazing people working on the play, too, for example Ange Thompson who, as stage manager, was called upon to track down such things as a big fluffy penguin toy, a scroll, and some hearing-aid batteries (mea culpa). She was also in charge of my cues – and this was another brilliant thing – there were little boxes with two lights at eye level at each of the stage entrances, the green light meant get ready and red meant go. This was how I knew when it was time for me to regally enter the stage, and Ange, as well as looking after the captions, operating the chorus voices and various cues, was also in charge of cuing me. And she did it very well, bringing a new meaning to multi-tasking!

There are so many people who were involved in this, I’m afraid to start naming them all in case I leave any out! But I think you all did a great job, and this was a great opportunity and experience, and I’m really glad I was able to be a part of it. I love you guys.

Long Live The Birds!

Signing Hands Across The Water!

Well it’s about damn time.

It’s been a little while since I updated this blog, and a very surreal few weeks. I know we’d been building up to it for months now, but there’s a big difference between planning and fretting and worrying… and actually going to Heathrow and boarding a plane.

There are various excuses I can offer for not updating for a week after I arrived back on British shores, from jet-lag to attending a Dr Who Convention on the Sunday (having landed on the Friday and still adjusting to British time – madness but isn’t madness fun?) to a post-trip sleepy blues downer for a couple of days, to attending Uni on the Weds, and running various catching-up with real-life errands for the last couple of days before finally finding a nice quiet weekend morning in which to draft my thoughts on the festival. Actually that does sound quite reasonable doesn’t it?

And not at all like not wanting to commit my thoughts on the festival to permanent record, thus drawing a line under it and moving on to the next thing. I don’t want to do that. I want to steal the Doctor’s TARDIS from the convention props display (damn, a missed opportunity there, if only I hadn’t been half-asleep) and go back and do it again. And again. And again. Hell, you’ll have to call the Doctor to help me get out of the time loop I’ll have accidentally trapped myself in.

Signing Hands Across the Water was AMAZING. I still can’t believe how lucky I was to share a roof with five other sign language poets, plan a workshop with them, do said workshop, and perform alongside them. How did that happen? Pinch me!

Thanks must surely go to everyone who organised it, I know it wasn’t all done with me in mind, but I had an absolutely incredible time and I hope everyone who was involved with, or came to watch, the festival did too. See the Signing Hands Across the Water website for a more objective view of events and a more complete list of people who deserve thanks!

And don’t forget the facebook page for some cool pics, watch out for that crazed grin 🙂

Swarthmore College was like no college I’ve ever seen. The college grounds seemed to be sharing civil-war era buildings and houses with Scott Arboretum and an amazing number of plants and trees, including cherry blossom trees that had already started to flower in the unseasonable warmth of Pennsylvania. Did I mention the lovely weather? And the beautiful buildings and grounds?

The guesthouse, ooh. So posh. So posh. And it tickled me that I, as the slightest poet in terms of height and build, had been given the biggest room with the queen-size bed. Oh yes, please, thank you very much. And the food, mmm. And the company! We had a welcoming ‘feast’ for most of the people involved, the crew if you like, and what a great bunch of people. Poets, terps, a few organisers, some volunteers. Lovely, all!

We soon got down to work though, and Friday was the panel discussion, where all the poets discussed various aspects of sign language poetry, from the current situation in USA, UK and beyond, similarities and differences between different types of poetry, and issues of translation of sign language poems, which was something that came up a few times throughout the festival. It was a free exchange of ideas and thoughts, held in front of an audience, it was an interesting experience and very thought-provoking. Even if I did spend most of the time squinting off-stage at the ASL – BSL relay interpreters…

And let me take this moment to thank the interpreters who were terping between various languages, some ASL – BSL, some English to ASL etc., but they made sure everyone kept up, including myself. Anyone who thinks that ASL is similar to BSL or that it’s possible to understand foreign sign languages from the get-go just because one uses a sign language, I challenge them to give it a go and try to follow a fast-moving discussion of the finer points of poetry in full flow in a sign language other than their own. Especially when they’ve only just mastered “Hi… my name is F, no, D, D-O-N-N-A…” in said language.

But I don’t think I did too badly, and by the end of the weekend I was able to communicate in basic ASL and hold conversations in a sort of mix of BSL / ASL. For all that ASL and BSL are different, shared experience of signed languages does, I think, help a lot, and with patience and understanding people can communicate across different sign languages far more easily than they can spoken languages. And for the heavy discussions, read; the heavy lifting, we had a crack team of terps. Cheers guys!

Saturday was the workshop, we had about 30 participants, and it went really well – the morning was spent looking at various aspects of sign language poetry, each poet bringing an element of their own style to the mix, in my case a look at (split) identity that I had spent two months fretting about that was over in twenty minutes. But I like to think I made an impression nevertheless! The afternoon was spent helping the participants craft their own poems, some even agreed to have their poems recorded, and they can be seen on the website, great stuff! I hope all the participants took something away from the workshop, I know I did.

Saturday evening was the big show! It was amazing, from the group hug, to Richard Carter’s singer’s dramatic suicide, to Debbie Rennie’s powerful tale of murder, narrated by interpreter Debbie Taylor, to John Wilson’s visually funny cycle of life of a Christmas tree, to Flying Words Projects’ (Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner) incredible timing in a double act that must have taken ages to perfect. It was a visual feast of different styles of poetry, some visual, some heavy BSL or ASL, some with voiceover and some without. It really was something to see, and I’m glad – and privileged – to have been part of it!

I did three poems in the end, after changing my mind once or twice; I had originally intended to do three of my more ‘visual’ and therefore hopefully more ‘accessible’ poems, but after some thought-provoking discussions with the other poets about language and identity, I decided to perform ‘Who Am I?’. This was my first poem, originally created at a time when I was going through something of an identity crisis, and I wanted to perform this poem to show that identity is not always clear-cut or simple, and not all, indeed few deaf people are born with confident ‘deaf identities’ ready-formed. It all seemed to go down really well; I can honestly say I don’t think my ego has ever been stroked quite so much! The audience and atmosphere were brilliant, so positive and up, and I met some really great people. It was all over too soon!

The last event of the festival was a panel on the Sunday morning, where all the poets discussed their work, and a big Q & A session with the audience that expanded on translation issues, perceptions, how we got into poetry and how we create our poems. I really enjoyed this session, and again it was all over too soon!

For me, at the big performance, it was interesting to note that the ASL poets had some kind of voiceover, whilst all of us BSL poets had none. This and the discussions in the panels the previous and following day really opened my mind to the various issues surrounding the translation of sign language poems. Should they have a voiceover? If so, should it be a full rendering of the poem, line for line, word for sign, or just a spoken word here and there to back up a specific sign? Should the person speaking the lines be on the stage with the sign language poet, or sitting out of sight with the mic? If there is a voiceover, is it pure sign language poetry? Can a voiceover ever do justice to a poem? Can sign language poetry ever be written in English (or other written language) form and still have the same effect? I have all these questions whirling around, and I’m feeling inspired!

One thing that really brought the translation issue home to me though, was a friend telling me about a hearing friend of theirs, a member of staff at the college, who had attended the performance. This hearing person had never seen sign language before, ever, and gave a review of ‘My Cat’ that was completely unexpected. Now, ‘My Cat’ / ‘My New Cat’, is one of my more ‘visual’ poems, I had thought it was fairly accessible, but apparently not.

It seems that this hearing friend had liked my “poem about the cat” but had been confused because “it turned into a devil with horns and it had feathers, and then it died, but she seemed happy about it dying?” By the time my friend had finished recounting this hearing person’s interpretation of my poem, I was crying with laughter, and verging on hysterics.

As I said when I recovered, I like to be flexible about how people interpret my poems but that was more random than I’d ever imagined. Loved it! In fact, I may create a new poem based on the ‘devil cat’, watch out for a Halloween special!

For the record, the ‘devil cat’ was licking its own arse, the ‘horns’ being its legs akimbo, the ‘feathers’ was long fur, and the twitching was the cat dreaming, not its final, anguished death throes.

But when I’d calmed down and had a think about it, I wasn’t sure which I would prefer, a voiceover / translation that would give non-signing members of the audience a clue of what the poem was about, or risk them taking away interpretations of it that were so far left-field of what I’d intended that they were in the next county. This hearing friend had apparently enjoyed the performance despite not understanding much, so did it matter? Does it matter? Lots to think about!

Thanks to The Cooper Foundation and their deep pockets, Dr Rachel Sutton-Spence (visiting Cornell Professor at Swarthmore), Dr Donna West, Dr Michiko Kaneko, Martin Haswell (great website and videos), poets Peter Cook & Kenny Lerner (Flying Words), Debbie Rennie, Richard Carter, John Wilson and one other, the terps Doreen Kelley, Mike Canfield, Kyra Pollitt, Christopher Stone, Debbie Taylor (voicing Debbie Rennie’s poems) and Christopher Tester; Nick Furrow for good food, the participants, the volunteers, the audience, and many more besides that I probably don’t even know about, thanks to everyone who had a hand in this – I’m going to use this word again – AMAZING festival.

Thank you!

Now can someone steal me a TARDIS…?

Signing Hands Across The Water!

Later this month, I’ll have the privilege of joining three other BSL poets – Richard Carter, Paul Scott and John Wilson – in flying over to Philadelphia, to take part in Signing Hands Across the Water, an international sign language poetry festival. We’ll be joined by three American Sign Language poets, the double act of Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner of the Flying Words Project and Debbie Rennie, and from March 16th – 18th we’re going to be putting on an amazing festival!

For the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to be part of the Metaphor in Creative Sign Language project, brainchild of none other than Dr Rachel Sutton-Spence, and Dr Michiko Kaneko (who organised the first BSL poetry event in Bristol, the BSL Haiku Festival way back in 2006) ably aided and abetted by researcher Dr Donna West. As part of this project I’ve taken part in research and performed at Bristol Sign Poetry Festivals at Bristol Deaf Centre. Thanks to this opportunity, I’ve had the chance to develop my skills and confidence in creating Sign Language poetry and am really honoured to be part of Hands Across the Water – and I hope that this festival will encourage and inspire others!

Dr Sutton-Spence is currently Cornell Visiting Professor (Professor! I must remember to bow when I see her :)) at Swarthmore College, and the festival is being organised as part of her work there. She shoots, she scores! Of course, there are lots of other people involved in organising this incredible event and I’d just like to take this moment to thank them all – thank you!

Naturally, I’m nervous, this festival has been a comfortably long way off for ages, then all of a sudden… all of a sudden it’s March. It’s March! When did that happen? Two weeks from now I’m going to be on stage at an international Sign Language Poetry festival! Quick, someone pass me a paper bag… *breathes*

There’ll be workshops, public conversations and a big evening performance by all the featured poets. It’s shaping up to be an amazing celebration of Sign Language poetry, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a while, and I really hope that this is part of a resurgence of interest and development of this beautiful art-form!

Plus, look at this cool banner! Martin Haswell is a genius. How can a festival with a banner that cool not be amazing?

Come on down!

I’m feeling so inspired, I’ve come up with a poem in honour of the event;

Professor Rachel Sutton-Spence,
A researcher most rare,
Sign language poetry champion
And linguist extraordinaire

Swarthmore College, Philadelphia
Seven poets will gather there
For workshops and performances
Beautiful poetry they will share

Signing Hands Across the Water
For all who want to see
What are you all waiting for?
Everything is free

Just register your interest
Come along, pull up a chair
And watch Sign Language Poetry
Flying through the air!

Whether or not this is an example of the quality of poetry – English or Signed – that people can expect from me at the festival: no comment. 🙂

British Special Language?

British… Special… Language.

This is what Language Empire apparently thought BSL stood for. The average layman in the street might not know that BSL means British Sign Language, and this is a very sad thing. But Language Empire is a professional organisation that provides interpreters for a whole host of languages, including BSL.

British Special Language. They’ve replaced that with British Sign Language on the page now, so someone must have brought it to their attention, but they seem to have forgotten about the URL.

http://www.language-empire.com/services-british-special-language.php

It gets better – according to the logos that they proudly display on their front page, Language Empire has contracts with the JobCentre, ATOS, DWP, Community Legal Service, NHS, Tribunals Service, BUPA, Metropolitan Police, etc. You’d think with such a multitude of lucrative contracts, they could make the effort to learn what a simple acronym stands for.

It gets even better. Look again at that page. What the hell are those hands doing? That’s not the BSL alphabet. That’s taking the piss.

Also:
“BSL and other special disability communication professionals”
Beg pardon? What are you talking about?

“Language-Empire provides British Sign Language & Special Disability Interpreters”
Uh… I hope you mean fully trained, NRCPD accredited BSL interpreters. 

“Language Empire will only hire BSL and special disability interpreters approved by the `National Register of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People.”
Oh, you do. Well, thank goodness for that. For a moment there I thought you were a bunch of amateurs who decided to include BSL in your language interpreting portfolio because you heard you could make money.

But I wish they’d stop calling interpreters, note-takers, lipspeakers, STTRs and deafblind interpreters “special disability interpreters”, it’s making me twitch. I mean, what does that even mean? I’ve never seen ‘special disability interpreters’ advertised anywhere else, ever. How did they get so many contracts to provide BSL interpreters?

The same question could be asked of ALS, which on their page for British Sign Language Interpreting Services, (kudos to them btw for getting that right, and how sad it is that I’m applauding such a simple thing) though it appears a little more well-informed than Language Empire’s page, makes a reference to ‘St Vincent’s variety’ of BSL. What? Some discussion amongst deafies on twitter seems to suggest that St Vincent’s is a deaf school, which if true, then you might as well name every variation of BSL that comes out of any deaf school, i.e. ‘Mary Hare variety’. But I wouldn’t recommend doing that, not unless you want to start something.

Anyway. Lip-speakers are not a variety of sign language interpreting, nor are written translation services. That said, despite a couple of slips here and there, the ALS page comes off a lot better, and certainly not as howling as ‘British Special Language’.

But I will say this – “For meetings and events longer than 2 hours at least two interpreters are necessary.”
Er, if you make a BSL interpreter interpret on their own for two hours solid, they’ll have a brain meltdown. Believe me, I know. I saw it happen once when one half of a pair didn’t turn up, and after two hours the poor thing was a mess. The cut-off point that I’ve been told is an hour, max. Anything more is cruel. Don’t make me report you to the RSPC… I mean ASLI.

No, the problem with ALS seems to be a distinct lack of popularity. With… well, everyone. Despite reported issues going back to last year:
Row erupts over police interpreters – Feb 2011
Police rip up contract with interpreter agency – Mar 2011
Ministry of Justice in line of fire over interpreters contract – Jul 2011

ALS somehow landed a contract in August 2011 to supply interpreters for the criminal justice system in England and Wales, starting a few weeks ago. The entire system. For dozens of languages. The idea apparently being “if we give all our money to one organisation, it won’t cost as much”. Right.

Here’s how things are going so far:
Courts given green light to hire own interpreters as ALS struggles to cope
Court chaos follows interpreter change
Lawyers slam government’s court interpreting system
Ministry of Justice admits ‘teething problems’ with interpreting system

And of course, for every screw-up, that’s more money that it costs to fix it, and trials aren’t cheap. That’s why you pay for a service in the first place; to try and get it right first time. Pay less, get less. Spend more fixing it. And what happens to the defendants in the meantime? I hope they can clean up this mess, somehow, and soon.

How have we come to this? Big super-massive spoken language agencies whoring, I mean hiring out BSL interpreters? Three words; one stop shopping. Here’s what the Anonymous Interpreter thinks of that: Words that strike fear into the heart of the Sign Language Interpreter.

Furthermore, the LinguistLounge, which appears to be part of ALS, or Applied Language Solutions, proudly has a video that explains the provision of BSL interpreting services for the Ministry of Justice contract.

It doesn’t have subtitles. Or BSL interpretation. *Buzzzzz*

They do helpfully provide a script, and it’s full of vim and vigour and go get ‘em attitude, which I’m having a hard time equating with the slating they’re getting.

All I know is, if I need a BSL interpreter in a new area, my first stop is the ASLI directory. At least they know what BSL stands for.