Honoring the Past, Treasuring the Present, Shaping the Future

The 2019 WASLI Conference in Paris: bringing together Sign Language Interpreters, and appointing an AIIC member as President

Photo credits: AIIC Sign Language Network

The World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI) unites interpreters from around the world who work with signed languages. It includes conference interpreters as well as those who work in the public sector, healthcare, education, and courtrooms. AIIC, through the Sign Language Network, is an active participant, and several members joined the WASLI Conference at the Université Paris-Descartes on 17–19 July 2019 as committee members, as interpreters, as presenters and as attendees.

A notable development, and cause for congratulation and celebration, was the appointment of AIIC member Dr Christopher Stone as the new WASLI president. Congratulations Christopher!  

While many of the topics at this conference don’t directly reflect the work of most AIIC members, there is certainly plenty of common ground between colleagues working in signed and spoken languages, and the conference presented a number of opportunities to learn new dynamic approaches to interpreting. 

AIIC SLN representativies: Maya, Santiago & Chloe

Promising continued collaboration

The WASLI AGM and the conference opening ceremony took place on Wednesday 17 July. We had a record 506 registered attendees, from 83 countries. Amid the business of the association, Board election results were announced, including the appointment of UK-based Dr Christopher Stone for a four-year term as WASLI president. This appointment augurs well for continued collaboration between sign language interpreters, via WASLI, and AIIC.

The WASLI Board

Honoring our past

The keynote presentation format neatly tied the conference theme by weaving the threads of the WASLI journey. “Honoring the past, treasuring the present, shaping the future” was presented via three keynotes.

The conference kicked off on Thursday with the first keynote by Liisa Kauppinen and Bill Moody who spoke to ‘honoring our past’ and reflecting on the work done by early deaf professionals and interpreters prior to WASLI’s inception. 

They were introduced by another titan in the field, Liz Scott Gibson, a past president of WASLI. Liz spoke of the impact of chance encounters – that she’d been nervous, years before, on meeting Liisa and Bill for the first time. To see an interpreter of Liz’s renown acknowledge that she’d been nervous was surprisingly humanizing – a reflection that recognizes we all started somewhere, with a rather more humble skill set. It’s a lovely reminder to us all that our work is a continuous journey, and that we never know what a chance encounter could lead to.

Back in the 1980’s, Liisa and Bill (and others) were working on access to UN bodies and recognition of sign language interpreters’ working conditions.  This was not done in conjunction with AIIC, but rather from the perspective of deaf professionals at the international level seeking appropriate entry into those spaces. 

Hearing their accounts provoked an idea: AIIC could collect its members’ stories of their own countries’ history of interpreting services. This collected history could be made available as a valuable resource for members, for researchers and academics, and to remind us how far we’ve come.

Down to work

A selection of workshops followed: 

Jemina Napier presented an update on a research grant on employment of deaf persons in the European context – and particularly what interpreters can do in that space to enhance service delivery.

Monica Mwangi and Leonida Kuala described issues  that interpreters face in the African context: a shortage of interpreters, lack of public understanding of their work, the need for training and credentialing, better support at the policy level, and the need to engage – and be present at – the decision-making opportunities for such policies.  Many of these issues reflect AIIC’s work, and are clear areas for collaboration between members of both Associations. 

Cynthia Roy, Jeremy Brunson and Christopher Stone were up next, offering lovely reminders of (a) handling technical glitches with grace, (b) the power of humor, and (c) the value of research. One particularly pertinent discussion considered the cognitive psychological benefits of professional preparation, which activates information that is then easier to retrieve while working, was particularly pertinent. Perhaps this notion could lay a foundation for including psychology and cognition as required coursework for professional interpreters.

Maya de Wit - AIIC SLN coordinator - greeting the WASLI GM

Treasuring the present

The second keynote address, by Selman Hoti and Enver Kurtalani, brought us back to the “present”, with a thought-provoking presentation regarding Kosovo and its current state. 

The care and deliberation of their campaign for official recognition of Kosovo Sign Language is a blueprint for other minority communities on their own quests.  It was also a reminder of the impact of war and conflict on communities, on language use and repression, and how through it all the thirst for communication connects us all and keeps us human.

Shaping the future

On Friday morning we turned to the future, to consider the situation in Brazil with a third keynote address. Marianna Rossi Stumpf and Ronice Muller de Quadros explained how Libras (Brazilian Sign Language) was recognized in law in the early noughties. A decree provided for bilingual school education of deaf children, for the provision of Libras interpreters, and for their training as well as teachers’ training at university level. 

Having launched and developed an impressive and very successful four-year training programme for interpreters and translators at the University of Santa Catarina, Mariana and Ronice researched what could be improved. Consultations with the Deaf community revealed a need for professionals to work with “humanity” and to be involved with deaf people – a need which is less pertinent for interpreters of spoken languages. Embedding Deaf culture in the training programme and increasing professionals’ level of knowledge to meet the needs of deaf people who reach professional positions are also seen as key improvements. 

Marianna and Ronice stressed that the translation of the National School Leavers’ Test into Libras (2017) was a huge contribution to the Deaf community and used this landmark to illustrate how important it is to continue working in the field of Translation Studies. 

Former WASLI President D. Russell concluded with a vibrant tribute to the work carried out by the speakers: “You don’t only change your country, you change the world!”

An assortment of presentations

A selection of workshops followed: 

Christopher Tester, a deaf colleague, gave a very interesting presentation on the “Perceptions of the role and function of Deaf Interpreters (DIs) working in the court of law”, drawing from the preliminary findings of  his PhD research. He described when and under what conditions DIs are brought into a court, and how they work.  He identified and categorized a number of strategies deaf interpreters apply, ranging from the use of contemporary expressions instead of technical jargon, to re-signing and the use of resources to augment interpretation. These approaches are equally fascinating for spoken language interpreters working for judicial institutions! His conclusions need to be expanded further through more research, in particular on what factors influence deaf interpreters in their strategic choices.

Dr. Christian Rathmann looked at translation into Sign language, suggesting it could be seen as a hybrid form of interpretation, with the translator being always “present” and “seen” and working not only on the “frozen written word” but also on the recording of a spoken voice. He went on to describe a process to ensure an effective and successful translation, allowing the translator to meet deaf people’s wish for “a film that visually engages them”. 

This presentation brought to light the unique features of translation into sign language – revealing to the layperson the many unsuspected difficulties with which our deaf interpreter and translator colleagues have to grapple. It also emphasised the positive impact of technology in the field and the need for more research in this area.

Dr. Sam Lutalo-Kiingi, a sign language interpreter, trainer and researcher who teaches at Kyambogo University in Uganda, gave a presentation on “Professional Ugandan Sign language interpreting services and training programs: views of UgSL interpreters and deaf service users.” He described the personal eye-opening experience which eventually led him in the 1990s to launch a national-level two-year training program – a first for Sub-Saharan Africa. With initial key support from Denmark, the programme has led to the qualification of over 200 UgSL interpreters.

More recent research has established that the programme now needs to be upgraded to provide further professionalization, in keeping with the progress made by growing numbers of deaf people developing their careers.  Sam also gave examples of demoralizing challenges that UgSl interpreters face, such as recognition of their status or receiving appropriate payment. Uganda’s numerous cultural and linguistic community settings present a further set of unique challenges.

Maya de Wit, Lori Whynot, Aurelia Gassa Gonga & Onno Crasborn gave a presentation on their research into international sign interpreting, conducted as part of a larger project on ‘Deaf communication without a shared language’ at the Radboud University in the Netherlands. Each presenter focused on one aspect of how international sign interpreters use specific preparation techniques, team process and lexical representation during their international sign interpretation.

Accreditation and closing 

Bill Moody, Christopher Stone and Christopher Tester gathered on stage for the last panel, on WASLI’s accreditation system. Christopher Stone briefly described the WFD/WASLI code of conduct and noted that there are currently thirty WASLI-accredited interpreters: fifteen deaf and 15 hearing International Sign (IS) interpreters. 

After sharing the remarkable story of how he became an interpreter – indeed, one of the first SL interpreters to work in France – Bill explained how the UN gradually started working with IS interpreters. A decisive moment was the review of the state of implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). 

Christopher Tester, who was first exposed to interpretation as a member of the US Deaf Olympics Team, shared his own experience working for the UN. A clear message was sent by the speakers: deaf IS interpreters are needed at the UN, and “they have the heart and the spirit that is needed.” This call prompted Rebecca Edgington, staff interpreter at UNOG to join the speakers and explain how the accreditation process has helped the UN “find the interpreters deaf people want” and how SLIs working for the UN are now recruited on the same contracts and with the same conditions as spoken languages interpreters. In 2017, there were 250 SL interpreting days at the UN, half with IS, half with national SLs.

Finally, WASLI President Christopher Stone and Conference Chair Michelle Ashley, facing a sea of hands waving in applause, closed the conference, paying tribute to the wonderful organizers and profusely thanking the volunteers and the amazing team of interpreters!  The day ended with a chance to unwind and socialize, accompanied by a jazz trio, mime artists and a plentiful buffet.

Panel discussion - intervention by Rebecca Edgington


All photos courtesy of the AIIC Sign Language Network

Recommended citation format:
Sign Language Network. "Honoring the Past, Treasuring the Present, Shaping the Future". aiic.ca September 27, 2019. Accessed July 16, 2020. <http://aiic.ca/p/8868>.