Cormac Leonard’s EFSLI Report, 2012 Conference

Gruss gott von Oesterreich!

It’s been a really lovely time here so far in Vienna, where I’m attending the European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters (efsli)’s 2012 Conference, “Power and Responsibility in the field of Sign Language Interpreters”.

I definitely cannot fault the choice of location and venue. It’s my first time in Austria and I cannot get over how breathtakingly beautiful the city is. Everywhere you look, works of art are proudly positioned at street corners, every building is an architectural wonder. Fans of history (check!) will lose themselves in the broad streets and fans of coffee (check!) will love the chance to while away an hour sipping a latte – even if they are a little pricey!

The AGM was held yesterday, but I wasn’t able to make it, so today was my first taste of the international and cosmopolitan scene that is an efsli event. I’m also meeting my friend Bec Schultz, an Aussie interpreter whom I met at WASLI in 2007, and her fiancé, and have already bumped into a number of other familiar faces!

The conference began with the announcement that Marinella Salami has been made the new efsli president. As well as this, a historic agreement has been signed between efsli and the European Deaf Blind Union. Exciting times. The conference will focus heavily on the relationship between interpreter organisations and Deaf organisations, something of interest to Irish interpreters as we look back on our first year of CISLI and our structural links with the IDS.

Patricia Shores-Hermann, currently based in Switzerland, began the presentations by looking at ‘Issues of Power and Responsibility in Sign Language Interpreting and Within Sign Language User Communities’. She analysed what ‘power’ was and reflected that individual signed languages’ signs for the concept may in fact be misleading; power was in fact an ability to control rather than to be controlled. Her presentation reflected many of the issues that have faced us here in Ireland in IASLI and following its demise, in the negotiation for a new organisation, as well of course as touching on many of the day to day concerns we have felt and articulated to each other.

Flora Savvalidou of Greece gave a fascinating talk on ‘Identity Issues in Sign Language Interpreting: The Power and Responsibility of Representing the Identities of Others’. As individuals, hearing people, Deaf people, interpreters – all of us have a selection of identities which we construct from elements of meaning, and are constantly comparing our self-image and notion of our own identity at the time, with the feedback we receive from others that bolsters, or challenges, this self view. So when we approach the interpreted interaction, which of our identities is pre-eminent in us? Can our interpreter-mediated contributions cause responses that are reactions to our identity, rather than the other interlocutor? Are we sometimes too attached to our interpreter identity and are convinced that a bad interpretation on our part will make us appear to be a bad person? This was a fascinating tool to analyse interactions and our own positioning in the interpreted event.

Mark Wheatley of the European Union of the Deaf discussed his efforts to lobby MEPs at Strasbourg during a recent successful subtitling access campaign, and how vital it was to have interpreters when lobbying the MEPs face to face. Of particular importance was sourcing interpreters fluent in multiple spoken / signed languages, as well as matching those interpreters with Deaf campaigners who would be knocking on office doors in the European Parliament. Power and status related discussions were key to a smooth and effective match between lobbyist and interpreter, and ultimately to the successful campaign. An entrancing look into the world of sign language interpreting at the highest echelons within the EU.

Isabelle Heyerich of Belgium (assisted via International Sign videoclips by Maartje de Meulder, her Deaf interpreter colleague) discussed the pilot use of interpreters on Flemish television – in particular a situation whereby a Deaf and a hearing interpreter were selected, and the issues around control, fluency, language ownership and perceived competition that arose. The Flemish national broadcaster piloted the use of Deaf interpreters for the news in 2011, and it certainly made me proud to think that Ireland has actually had at least 35 years of signed news, and for decades we have had Deaf interpreters carrying this out – though it is only recently that we have begun to think of these colleagues as ‘interpreters’. My conversations with other conference attendees makes me realise how very rare this is around the world.

Following lunch and a poster exhibition, there were three parallel sessions, and I attended Ingeborg Skaten (from Bergen University) discussing ‘The power of the profession, taken for granted?’ which took as its starting point the definition of ‘a profession’. (One very interesting point for me was a definition used that said ‘A profession cannot be said to exist without a national association’, as well as stating that most people who carry out the specific work in question need to be doing it on a fulltime basis.) Ingeborg looked at Norway’s interpreter provision system – a highly advanced one where a government funded agency deals the vast majority of interpreting, but where recent proposed changes involve a possible re-examination of the role of the interpreter – possibly without full discussion with the interpreting and Deaf communities. A lively workshop followed.

And that was all for the day. Now it’s time to get my dancing shoes on and prepare for tonight’s ‘Night of Costumes’ 20th efsli aniversary ball. I’m being extremely unimaginative and dressing as… well, pretty much as an interpreter! But as disguises go, I reckon it’s quite an easy one to slip into …!

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