What is ‘interpreting’? It’s when someone is translating between two languages in the moment, ‘live’. Interpreting using sign language has been a big part of the deaf community for generations, as far back as the early 19th century. It has affected how the deaf community has communicated and connected with the hearing world, and vice versa. According to Jackson in his book, ‘Deaf Crime Casebook’, one of the earliest recorded applications of interpreting was made by Robert Kinniburgh, the headmaster of the Edinburgh Institution for the Deaf & Dumb in 1817. He had been appointed by the courts to assist in the questioning of Jean Campbell, a deaf prisoner.

Jackson (1990) states: ‘Deaf people accept that they are part of the dominant hearing world, and only ask for the right to participate in it because they do not live together in distinct or separate communities, they constantly need to communicate with English speakers and constantly require access to verbal or written information – at school, in jobs, training, at work, on television, in the health sector, legal service, at conferences, and social events. This would be not possible without interpreters.’ (p.354)

Historically, deaf people would usually have a family member or friend to interpret for them, but once deaf schools were established back in early 19th century, teachers were asked to interpret at functions and services.

Later, deaf societies were established, where hearing missioners took on the role of interpreters as part of their work. The 20th century saw the introduction of welfare officers and then later in the 1970s social workers, with communication support and interpreting a part of their job.

Participants at a Creative Licht event, exploring approaches to BSL interpretation in theatre.

For many generations, interpretation was not clear cut. There was misinterpretation and/or communication breakdown, which meant that deaf people missed out on significant information, and the expression of their ideas, opinions and feelings was not clearly interpreted. Working with interpreters is always a matter of trust.

Access to information was very restricted back then as there was no training system to provide interpreting qualifications, until in the 1970s SASLI (Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters) was established. This created interpreting and translation guidelines, leading to sign language courses and interpreting training.

In the 1980s, several deaf people went onto teachers’ training at Durham University and became qualified tutors. This trend continued in the 1990s as increasingly deaf people became qualified interpreters and translators. In early 2000s the Scottish Government funded a ToT (Teach the Trainer) course to train more deaf tutors in Scotland. There were also some private BSL courses set up – for example, BSL Scotland and Deaf Perspectives (though both have recently ceased trading).

At present, Heriot Watt University and Queen Margaret University provide interpreting qualifications and research.

Some questions to consider:

What is the future of sign language interpretation? With deaf young people now more unlikely to be BSL fluent due to mainstream education and living in the ‘hearing’ world?

Is the quality of interpreting nowadays up to the standard that deaf people need?

There is a shortage of teachers of deaf children, also a shortage of BSL tutors in Scotland -therefore what will happen in the future?

Has the introduction of the BSL (Scotland) Act in 2015 made a difference?