Tag Archives: translation

This Saturday, I’m going to be a ‘book’ and I can’t wait!

The Human Library is a project, now a global movement, that seeks to challenge stereotypes and encourage dialogue. The idea is simple; a ‘reader’ can go into the Human Library, browse a catalogue and borrow a ‘book’, the twist is that the ‘book’ is a living, breathing individual with a story to tell.

All the ‘books’ are volunteers, drawn from as wide a background as possible, reflecting various cultural, religious and ethnic identities as well as differing viewpoints, in short, people who can be misrepresented and misunderstood.

I think it’s a brilliant idea; a safe environment in which people can ask their books things they may have wanted to know but never had the opportunity. What could be a safer and more calming environment than a library? The metaphor is extended as far as it will go, and I love it, from the rules for the ‘reader’: “the book has the right to be returned in the same condition in which it was lent” to creating a ‘catalogue reference’.

The project was created for the Roskilde Festival in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2000 by a group called Stop the Violence, and seeing its success and realising its potential, they set about promoting it around the world. Skip forward thirteen years and the Human Library has been put on in over 30 countries; the list is truly dizzying.

And on 16th and 17th November, the Human Library is coming to Bristol! It’s being run by Wunderbar, it’ll be held at the Parlour Showrooms opposite College Green, and yours truly is going to be a ‘book’! I got lucky; a BSL interpreter friend let me know about the project and offered to interpret should I be chosen. I applied, explaining that as a deaf person (with a punk hairdo, no less) I often felt that there are a lot of misperceptions and a lot of barriers for deaf people out there that hearing people are just not aware of. I wanted to bring it out into the open, try and raise awareness in my own way. It must have been a good enough pitch as I got in!

The preparation workshop was an eye-opener, I suspect as much for them as it was for me. I loved the enthusiasm, the organisers created a very easy-going atmosphere, and it’s possibly the widest variety of people I’ve ever shared a room with. This Human Library should be good, and I’m not just saying that!

That friend came good and so Kyra Pollitt will be my interpreter for my ‘book in translation’, a phrase she came up with and I’ve shamelessly borrowed, as you’ll see in my catalogue reference. It feels good to be part of a global project to challenge prejudices and it’s great to be flying the flag for the deaf community!

However, remember when I said it may have been an eye-opener for them as much as it was for me? It seems that the organisers fell into the trap that many have fallen into before; simply not considering what they would do if a deaf person came to the project. Another example of deafness as the ‘invisible disability’… To give them credit, once the oversight was realised, the organisers were more than happy to do all they could to fix it, and I think this is something they’ll take forward into any future Human Libraries – making sure that deaf people, so often an excluded minority – are catered for. For the time being, they’ve done something creative with their funds and are prepared to negotiate for a couple of hours of general terping for the event.

So I’m putting a shout out – if there are any terps out there who have an hour or two free this weekend who’d like to be part of this project, please contact Ilana at Wunderbar at ilana@wunderbar.org.uk. Please. Pretty please. If it helps, think of it as a birthday present to me! (Genuinely, it was my birthday yesterday.) Please, please, please.

Ahem. At time of writing, there’s no access for my fellow deaf human to take part in a project I’m involved in and yes I do find it a little incongruous, I think it’s the first time it’s happened. However, as I’ve said, the organisers are learning fast and I think they’ll be taking this forward into future events; certainly I want to go to any future Human Libraries as a ‘reader’. It’s such a cool project and deserves wider recognition!

In the meantime, if you’re up for an interesting conversation that will almost certainly challenge one of your worldviews, rock on down to the Parlour Showrooms this weekend!

In a way, I’d like to think I’ve already fulfilled my purpose as a ‘book’ in that by my presence I’ve spread a little awareness and made people think, and the Human Library has gained a new dimension. If I can do that this weekend, just make people aware and make them think about deaf people and our place in society, I’ll consider this entire project worthwhile.

For the curious, here’s my catalogue reference:

Title: I’m not deaf, just ignoring you… oh wait, I am deaf.

Date and place of publication: 1983, Surrey

Dedications: Kyra Pollitt, the translator for this ‘book in translation’

Synopsis: People often think I’m ignoring them, but I feel I am the one who is ignored. There are an estimated 9 million (one in seven) hard of hearing or deaf people in the UK, yet access and awareness are a constant uphill battle, for even the simplest things. I’m a poet, writer, traveller, performer; I just want the same freedom as hearing people to enjoy and live my life, however random it may be.

Notes: This is a 3D book in translation, featuring British Sign Language. Please do not be alarmed if it makes sudden movements.

Please handle the book binding carefully: it features a textured blue mohican.

There it is, wonder how many ‘readers’ I can tempt? 🙂

Wunderbar’s creative director Ilana Mitchell kindly agreed to answer a few questions, to give an extra insight into the project and the motivations behind it.

How did you / Wunderbar get involved in the Human Library?

I saw a Human Library in Canada when I was visiting in 2010, and was really inspired by the project. At that event I met a “Book” who was Québécois who had taught himself about 10 languages and worked as a translator during many wars and conflicts.

When I came home I researched the project and found out more about how it started, and its aims to create a space for challenging stereotypes, a space for asking difficult questions. This and its playfulness all fitted really well with Wunderbar’s aims.

What elements attracted you to the project most?

I love how simple the concept is and at the same time its pretty powerful. Every time we’ve done it the workshops have been very inspiring. The Books all get to make friends and support each other – somehow the safety in the space to be open about yourself and whatever stereotype you might fit with allows for some great camaraderie. And I think it boosts the confidence of the Books both to be part of the project and beyond.

The other bit I like is the catalogue and the readers’ reviews – you’ll get to see these on Saturday. Each time a Book is read is a personal experience, shared between Book and Reader. Through the writing in the catalogues and the reviews these get shared more widely, and they are so often really warm and friendly, it’s like the conversations continue on paper.

Am I the first deaf person to be involved in the Human Library in the UK and has my involvement changed how Wunderbar will approach future installations of the Human Library?

I don’t know in the UK, but first for us. Though in our last festival in 2011 we did a very challenging project which attempted to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We learnt a lot about how hard it is to be truly accessible. I had lots of assumptions I had never considered as such – like English being a second language to people for whom BSL is a first, or how strong regional dialects are.

Sadly, the artist we worked with on the UDHR project died earlier this year, though not before the UN accepted and now host on their website an official BSL translation. I’m really keen to build on both that project and now since meeting with you, working out how best to go forward to make all our projects as accessible as possible.

I’m looking forward to having further conversations with you, and hopefully others. I’d like to think that in coming from both the deaf and the hearing side we can make good arguments for how to best work together to bridge the gaps, that we can help each other understand the difficulties and challenges we face and come up with some positive suggestions which we can share more widely.

I mentioned the challenge of funding when we met – this is a dull subject but one it’s important to tackle. Human Library is full of volunteer books, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have costs. As very enthusiastic arts practitioners, we’ll always squeeze far more out of a budget than is actually really practically covered in costs. It’s both admirable and naive: that make do / make happen attitude is in many ways a privilege of those who can function most “normally” in society. To make access equitable needs money not to be an object – which is easier said than done.

I very much hope you agree and are up for this quest! I think that’s important for all our projects, not just Human Library, and everyone else’s too!

Big thanks to Ilana for her insightful and great answers – I didn’t realise Wunderbar had been involved in the translation of Universal Declaration of Human Rights into BSL, fabulous stuff! Brilliant to be involved with them and definitely will be keeping in touch – that’s a quest well worth going on!

Now… who’s coming to the Human Library? Spread the word! 🙂

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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…?