I remember being hugely excited when I started off my PhD, and something I really wanted was: if I was ever to present my historical research, that it would be done through ISL – that I would sign my presentations. For me, that was number one. Regardless of whether my audience was Deaf, hearing, or both, this is the way I wanted to do things.
I felt this way for many reasons: firstly, what I was researching was the culture and history of the Deaf community, going back generations. The language of this community in the present day is ISL.
So what I didn’t want to happen is that I’d end up speaking about this community - where signed language was central. That felt wrong to me. I can’t stand situations where information about Deaf people is being presented in a way that becomes hearing people talking amongst each other about ‘them’. Forget that – I wanted to sign.
It also would mean that Deaf people coming to any presentation of mine would have full access to what I was presenting on. And also, ISL, Irish Sign Language, is a language. A full language, not something half baked or inferior. And I wanted to make this point to hearing academics out there. I wanted to show historians out there with no experience of Deaf people that ISL was a language that you could discuss and present issues in a complete, academic style, a language to discuss any content whatsoever in intellectual discourse. And of course Deaf people know this – but hearing academics don’t tend to, and this is something I wanted to get across to them.
There’s also a point that Mike Gulliver makes in a blog entry of his, when he talks about deciding whether to use sign or speech when your audience is Deaf. What if your level of sign language isn’t exactly fluent enough? Should you go on whatever level of sign language you have? Or should you stick to your first language, speech – and use an interpreter? It’s interesting to consider; I would never call my ISL perfect by any means, but I’d think it was at a level that I’d be able to deliver a lecture… at least I think I can… And then of course there’s the fact that presenting in sign language is FUN! For me, it’s enjoyable and pleasurable to use this language when presenting. It's just a really great language to use.
But what happens if you have a hearing audience - or a mixed Deaf / hearing audience - and you decide to sign? Well, you're going to need an interpreter. And that can be a problem. Who is the interpreter going to be? Are they going to have a knowledge and comfort with the area I study - 19th century Ireland? Or are they going to be clueless about that? And of course, when I'm signing, they're voicing. And I can hear that voicing. That can be distracting. If what's in my head, and coming out my hands, doesn't match what I am hearing them say - it can be very distracting and off-putting. I have presented in ISL before and been voiced over, and wasn't distracted; as far as I was concerned, I let them do their job. But occasionally this was distracting.
There's another online article, by Darren Byrne, who says that hearing people who present in ISL possess privilege - they are able to catch when they are being misinterpreted. And they can then step in and correct mistakes. Deaf people aren't in a position to do this. Deaf people cannot hear and so cannot tell when there are mistakes in the voiceover. So they have to place trust in the interpreter. And it's a big issue - if the interpreter gets it wrong, the Deaf person has no idea. So I'm lucky, or maybe lucky' is the wrong word - I am privileged.
And... I'm an interpreter myself. I'm not trying to criticise interpreters or saying they always make mistakes. I like to support other interpreters, to be positive and encouraging. But at the same time, I might give them preparation materials to read through, let them ask questions. Give them whatever they need, but once I'm up on that stage, does what I hear bother me? Maybe the voiceover has the same overall meaning that my ISL does, but the words they choose might not be exactly the ones I had in mind. Do I correct them? Leave it be? Or... what?
So I have given this a great deal of thought. And what I realised is that what is important to me is ... CONTROL. If I'm presenting in sign language and dismiss any thought of the voiceover being important, It means control is taken from me - well, not taken fully from me, but I'm surrendering control of half my presentation to someone else. Do I trust the interpreter with that? It might be the best interpreter in the country but how do I feel about giving them control of half of what I am presenting? I prefer to be fully in control.
Of course, even if it is the world's greatest interpreter, regardless whether the presenter is Deaf or hearing, they give 100% of their own message. But an interpreter voicing this over into English can very rarely get across 100% of this message. I read an article before that says if an interpreter is really good, they can get across something like 80%. Some information is going to be lost. Not deliberately lost - it's just a result of the processing in the interpreter's brain, part of the translation and interpreting process. It happens. The message is lessened when it's interpreted. Some words and vocabulary might go. Sometimes, some of the emotional affect. That's an important point to hold for the moment.
So I did wonder what to do about all these issues. I wanted to sign for presentations, but would I use an interpreter? I wanted audiences both Deaf and hearing to get the most out of what I was presenting, to enjoy it fully. And I wanted both to understand completely what I wanted to say. If I was to use an interpreter, Deaf audiences would understand and have full access to my content; but would hearing audiences enjoy and appreciate it as much - or a little bit less?
At one stage I attended a conference, and I saw something that looked like it was the answer.
The presenter - Andy Long, a Scottish researcher, was hearing, and an interpreter himself, and the way he presented was really interesting. He presented in sign language - but also played audio clips of his own voice on his laptop computer. He had recorded himself speaking clips of his presentation, and would click to play them as he went. As he played each clip, he would sign the next piece. I thought this was fantastic! I'd never thought of this! So I asked him if he wouldn't mind if I used that method sometime. Work away! he said. It's not my method, it's not something I own!
And so recently I finally got a chance to use this method of presenting. I prerecorded clips of my voice, and signed what I heard. After the presentation, I reflected a little... I thought a lot about how I had done the presentation. I wasn't completely happy about it. That was for a few reasons.
Firstly, time was a factor. I started off by writing an English 'script' for the presentation. Then for each section of the script, I recorded a separate audio clip where I read out that section. All these clips were recorded onto the computer. It was a long process. Plus, I sometimes made little vocal slip ups and had to go back. So it was complicated, and ended up adding two hours worth of work to the presentation!
Secondly. The presentation happened just last week. I played the sound clips, signed them, and so on. I was lucky with the room, as I could plug my laptop into speakers with good sound quality, and my voice could be heard well by everyone. Had it been somewhere else, I may not have been so lucky. One issue was that sometimes as I was going through the clips, the audio would cut out towards the end. I hadn't finished signing the whole thing, so it was off-putting. There happened to be two interpreters there anyway, and I had to ask them to voice the missing bits.
And then there was something else. I happened to be able to record the session on video that evening.
So I watched it afterwards, perfectionist that I am, seeing how I could improve for next time - I'm never happy. When I was recording the clips I thought my pace was set nicely. But when I actually presented, the pace was realy fast - I was straining to keep up! I had to rush like crazy to keep up with myself, and my signing was a little confused and all over the place. This happened each time I went onto a new clip. And when I re-watched my presentation, I didn't feel my ISL was as smoth and clear as it should have been. I was racing to catch up. Time was a factor.
So in the aftermath I did a lot of thinking. Of course I had limited time anyway. Signing against time like that, it might always have looked rushed. I had 30 minutes - speaking or signing, you're tight on time, and you'll look OR sound rushed. But reflecting on the whole thing, I let the English lead. English was in control. The English script, transferred to an audio form, was in front, taking the lead. And ISL was behind it, chasing afterward - almost left behind, scurrying to catch up in the rush. I think this has some links to notions of power. The English language had power in this situation. Obey the script! All hail the script! The script must be followed! The English script strides on in front. And ISL struggles behind it.
In several previous presentations I've given, there wasn't this problem. I stood up and presented in ISL comfortably without sticking to any script. Audiences either understood my signing, or there were interpreters there to voice me - I didn't worry about the English side of things being perfect. My focus was on the ISL. That meant that previously, for me, ISL had been in the lead - and it was English that had to hurry along to keep up with its leader! But last Thursday, at my presentation, this was reversed. English became a bossy and arrogant front runner, barking at its pet dog to keep up...
This doesn't mean I think an English script is a bad idea, though. I'm not blaming the script. Scripts do help me. Before the presentation, a script helps me gather and structure my ideas and points that can often be jumbled, and puts a clear shape on them. And English is of course my first language, the language I have grown up with. But having this fixed, rigid script that cannot be deviated from, means it is in control. English takes the lead. And ISL is caught in its slipstream.
Perhaps it's better for me to focus on the ISL part. Let English step aside and allow the flow of ISL to take over. Let the wave of my thoughts go straight to my hands and body. To not force everything to be mediated through English, but to ask English to step to the side. English can take a back seat while sign language takes the lead for a change. How interpreters deal with 'my words' is something I might have to just not deal with. Give them my script in advance and let that guide them. And let that be it. Not to concern myself with the interpreter at all, but to absorb myself in my ISL presentation.
Now this doesn't mean I've jettisoned the idea totally of a prerecorded script; I might do it again for a large conference with only hearing people present. I'd do the pre-recording again and sign each segment. But I'd give a lot more consideration to time; I wouldn't allow the ISL to suffer. I'd practice beforehand each segment and how it would play out in ISL, so that each language is given equal merit, and there is no leader and follower, but instead, teamwork and parity between languages.
So overall I think there is a lot to think about there. Language, translation, power, and relative ranking. And just to let you know about this vlog: I'm not listening to a prerecorded script while signing all this to you! These are just thoughts that I'm signing directly... Mind you I did sit down and make a list of all these points before recording the vlog; the list is on another computer to remind me as I am recording and signing it! So ISL isn't meekly struggling to bring up the rear right now! ISL and English are more or less.. working together.