g up to interpret

5 Nov 2018

By Wong Wing Lum

From left: Jessie Ye, 23; Clara Chee, 21; Azzam Akbar, 24, are three students who are training to become community interpreters. Here, they are signing work, act and why respectively.

To sign love, clench both hands into fists and cross your arms over your heart, like you are hugging someone. This was just one of the many signs third-year School of Social Sciences student Clara Chee was enacting with rapid-fire pace as she interpreted an animated video about Gary Chapman’s view on how we express love through five “love languages”.

The 21-year-old has been learning how to interpret more words in Singapore Sign Language (SgSL) since the start of October, under a course organised by the Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf).

Chee is among a group of students who have completed NTU’s Level 1 SgSL module and are now taking their signing skills to the next level by training to become community interpreters for the deaf.

Interpreting for a cause

Launched in December 2015, SADeaf’s community interpreter course is a year-long programme that trains people to interpret for their deaf clients, who engage their services on an ad-hoc basis during events such as workshops or school functions. So far, eight people have successfully completed the programme.

Chee first found out about the course during a meeting with SADeaf last semester, while she was in the NTU Welfare Services Club (WSC). Then, she was the vice-president of the Regular Service Programme for the Deaf Community (RSPDC), a division under the WSC that organises activities for the deaf community. This was a position she took on to enhance her experience working with different social groups in Singapore.

She signed up for the course as she thought that its skills would benefit the club’s deaf outreach efforts, and roped in three other students.

She also chose to learn interpretation as she believes that everyone should have access to information, regardless of their method of communication.

In addition, being an interpreter allows her to dispel notions about the deaf community that other people might have, she added.

“As interpreters, we can contribute by educating hearing people we work with on their misconceptions about the deaf community.”

A common mistake people make is directing their questions to the interpreter instead of addressing the deaf person, she said.

“They’re supposed to communicate with the deaf person directly, and interpreters are just there to interpret the question, not ask the question on behalf of the hearing person,” she said.

She hopes that through interpreting, she will be able to gradually dispel these misconceptions.

“I do it because I see purpose in the job.”

Reel life to real life

Third-year SSS student Azzam Akbar, 24, was intrigued by the silent dialogue in The Tribe when he watched the film three years ago. In the Ukrainian drama, set in a school for deaf teenage students, characters communicated solely through Ukrainian sign language.

Despite having no knowledge about sign language back then, he was amazed that he could understand the movie by connecting the actors’ facial expressions to their signing.

Azzam decided to enrol in SADeaf’s Signing Exact English Course, where he learnt sign language. He also completed the SgSL Level 1 and 2 courses offered at NTU.

A former member of the RSPDC, he heard about the community interpreter course through Chee and decided that it would be the next step in his signing journey.

“I want to work with the deaf and having this (interpretation) certification opens up opportunities to work with them,” he said.

Azzam was initially set on becoming a speech therapist because he thought it was a way to help the deaf community.

Deaf people may require speech assistance as they might not be able to hear themselves when they talk, and speech therapists can teach them communication skills like lip reading, he said.

But after interacting with the deaf community through the RSPDC and understanding their way of life, he had a change in perspective.

“I began to view them as a minority community that uses another means of communication, and realised that they do not need help integrating into the hearing world,” he said.

While Azzam acknowledges that speech therapists can help to facilitate communication between the hearing and the deaf, he feels that interpreters cater to the deaf instead of asking them to conform to the language of the majority.

“Trying to integrate the deaf into the hearing world is like saying we should integrate left-handers into the right-handed world, simply because that is what the majority does.”

More to learn

The first sign Jessie Ye learnt was thank you. In 2012, Ye, who is now a second-year SSS student, became interested in sign language after watching American television drama Switched at Birth, which featured a deaf protagonist.

“It was eye-opening because I had not seen any shows that included sign language before,” the 23-year-old said.

She joined the sign language club in her polytechnic as she wanted to find out more about it. She has not looked back since then. In NTU, she joined WSC’s Camp OutReach (COR), a division that organises annual projects that benefit the deaf.

In June, Ye volunteered at a school for the deaf in Nepal as a part of COR. During her stint there, she faced language barriers as the Singaporean team and the Nepali children had learnt different forms of sign language, she said.

However, these barriers soon disappeared as the Nepalese children enthusiastically taught Ye and her friends how to communicate in Nepali Sign Language.

The experience made her realise that she still had room to improve in terms of her interactions and communication with the deaf. She therefore decided to sign up for the community interpreter course when she heard about it.

Ye finds interpretation challenging as it requires more knowledge compared to learning sign language, she said.

“It is not just about knowing the signs, but also about processing the source language and organising our thoughts to produce the accurate translation,” she said.

Despite this, she is eager to learn how to interpret sign language better during the year-long programme.

“I hope to find out what it takes to be an interpreter to see if I am suitable.”