Signing The Way

COVID press conferences have brought sign language interpreters into the public eye. In fact, New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) is one of our three official languages, and interpreters have been providing this essential service, across private and government agencies, for many years. Kathy Ombler spoke with two of them.

For Rachel Tate, even after 20 years of “signing”, it’s still a whole new challenge being thrown into the cauldron of live TV. She’s one of several interpreters working at the COVID press conferences now beamed from parliament.

It’s demanding, she says. “The pressure of working on live TV is a whole new level of challenge. It can be scary if I miss a question or if I’m not familiar with what’s being said. We do get briefed beforehand, but the reporters’ questions can be random,” she explains.

On most days (not all), the interpreters are handed the official script about 30 minutes before the press conference starts. “If there is a term (‘land border’ is a recent example) or name or something we don’t instinctively know how to sign, we can quickly confer,” says Rachel. “With COVID, we are part of a larger team. We have two Deaf consultants, whom we can video call and discuss language choices with, plus we have a small WhatsApp group of COVID colleagues we can consult.

“Despite this, the reporters’ questions can be challenging. Or there are times I might simply miss what’s been said, and my teamer might have missed it as well (the interpreters work in pairs). They don’t wait for us to catch up, you just have to move on.”

Or think on your feet. Rachel recalls the time Health Ministry boss Dr Bloomfield was talking about a grading system she wasn’t familiar with. “I was on live TV, so I just signed: ‘he’s talking scientific jargon and I don’t understand’. Sometimes I get off the stage and think, great, I nailed it. Other times, it’s agh!”

The great thing is that the Deaf community is so forgiving, she says. “It’s a beautiful community to be a part of. They have shared with us this amazing, expressive language, full of grammar and visual tone and structure. We are constantly mindful of our Deaf audience. They have welcomed us in, and it’s such an honour.”

Becoming an interpreter

Ever since she was a young girl, Rachel was intrigued when she watched people using sign language. “I was always enthralled, so after working as a PA for many years, I started to learn sign language, initially at night school in England and then back in New Zealand. AUT in Auckland is the only place offering an NZSL interpreting qualification, and as I studied, I worked part-time to get myself through. Training for NZSL interpreting now involves a three-year degree,” she adds.

Once qualified, Rachel soon found work, initially in the Bay of Plenty, then Wellington. “There was a different demographic in the Bay of Plenty. Communities were more isolated, and sometimes a Deaf person might be the only one in their community.”

For NZSL interpreters, there is plenty of work, especially in Wellington. “It is mostly part-time, perhaps 20 hours a week, although that’s not a bad thing because the work can be tiring, with pressure on both the body and mind.”

There are three key agencies in New Zealand that provide interpreters: ISign, which is aligned to Deaf Aotearoa; Connect Interpreting; and WordsWorth Interpreting.

Deaf people work through all government departments, at all levels, says Rachel. “We can be asked to interpret at seminars, special events, for WINZ appointments, job interviews, or staff meetings. Outside government, work might include interpreting for a doctor’s appointment, parent–teacher interviews, weddings, or funerals – anywhere that requires access to information and involves both hearing and Deaf people.”

Communicating both ways

Communication works both ways, and access to the language is needed for both the Deaf and the hearing person. For this, interpreters use “voice” as well as “sign”.

“If I am signing for a client who is visiting their doctor, I will sign what the doctor is saying and then voice what the Deaf person is saying so the doctor understands. Interpreters are not there to ‘help’ either party; we are purely there to ensure that communication is achieved. According to New Zealand law, access to information in a language you understand is a human right.”

Each interpreter has their own style, or “accent”, she says. “We try to build a rapport with our Deaf community clients and often they get used to the way we sign. If I’m really familiar with a client, I’ll do a better job. If I’m with someone new, it can take more time to fall into the groove.”

Ethical interpreting

Live TV aside, there are other challenges.

Confidentiality and impartiality are critical. We are bound by a Code of Ethics, explains Rachel. “We need to be trusted. For example, I will only put across what is being said by the speaker or signer – there is none of my personal opinion in my interpretation. We might be internally shocked by something, but we can’t show any personal emotional response or judgment. We also need to match the tone of the speaker.

“If the interpreter feels that they are unable to remain impartial for any given job, they will remove themselves from that assignment.”

Support for interpreters

Support and guidance for signers is provided by the Sign Language Interpreter Association New Zealand (SLIANZ), the professional membership association for interpreters.

SLIANZ co-president and fellow interpreter, Francesca Collins, says the association supports the development of NZSL interpreters and advocates for their rights.

“We advocate for the employment rights and safety of our members and provide them with ongoing professional development.”

Francesca, who became a British Sign Language interpreter in 2016, was grateful to SLIANZ for supporting her when she moved to New Zealand in 2019.

“It was recommended I spend some time getting to know NZSL, the interpreter community, and the Deaf community. I was then accepted to become a SLIANZ member, and I began interpreting here in New Zealand. I had so much support and was made to feel incredibly welcome.’

The Deaf community continues to support interpreters as language evolves, she says. “A key challenge for me is the emergence of new language. I find this a rewarding challenge for my colleagues, and we rely on the Deaf community to lead and support us in our development.”

Francesca now works as a full-time interpreter for a national organisation. “These salaried positions are rare. The majority of our profession are self-employed freelancers.”

International sign language

British and New Zealand Sign Language, along with “Auslan”, Australia’s sign language, are all similar. However, a huge part of interpreting is about understanding context, history, and community, says Francesca. “These are only things you can learn from the Deaf community.”

Sign Language in the United States is very different, adds Rachel. “We sometimes have to finger-spell terms or words. Obviously that’s more time-consuming – and not every interpreter knows how to finger-spell.”

For international meetings and events, there is International Sign (IS), a pidgin sign language, says Francesca. “This is used in a variety of contexts, for example, international meetings and events such as the World Federation of the Deaf Congress, and informally, while travelling and socialising.”

However, with international travel stymied in the current COVID environment, a lot of interpreting work has moved to online platforms.

“While this increases the availability of interpreters, who are now able to work from home, platforms such as Zoom or Skype are not always an ideal form of access,” says Francesca.

“Caution, knowledge, and Deaf voice (ensuring the Deaf person in the interaction has a say on how they are getting access) is important when organising the provision of an NZSL interpreter. Whether the service would be better provided in person or online also needs to be considered.”

Increasing awareness

On the plus side, general awareness of New Zealand Sign Language has definitely increased since the COVID press conferences began, says Rachel. “Awareness first began to pick up after the Christchurch earthquakes, and I think now people really do understand the importance of interpreters. What is so good is that it has become normal to consider the access needs of Deaf people.”

We have become a more visually represented profession, echoes Francesca. “The importance of providing access has become more widely known and accepted and available for the Deaf community. However, I would encourage people to understand it is not about us, the interpreters, it is about access and the Deaf community.”

For Francesca, the best aspects of interpreting are working every day with both colleagues and the Deaf community. “I feel privileged and extremely blessed to have such a wonderful community supporting all interpreters in Aotearoa. If people understand the importance of access for all, then they will understand how important our role is.”

The Deaf community is a wonderful community to be part of, says Rachel. “I’ve had many memorable moments, at funerals for example. However, when your services go live, such as the parliament press conferences and National ANZAC Day services, they are always highlights.

“My hope is that when people observe the interpreters working, they are reminded of the access rights of all New Zealanders.”