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Through the Eyes of a BSL Interpreter: The Evolution of Modern Interpreting 


With Deaf Awareness Week putting British Sign Language (BSL) in the spotlight this week, we talked to registered sign language interpreter (RSLI) Rob Troy, who has been part of THG Fluently’s linguist community for the past seven years. Rob works with BSL and American Sign Language (ASL) in a range of sectors, including healthcare, mental health, courts, social services and conferences. 


Hi, Rob! Can you tell us a bit about yourself? 


I’m a British Sign Language interpreter based in London. I have been interpreting for about 15 years. When I’m not interpreting, I’m either at the gym or playing tennis. I’m currently working part-time as an interpreter because I’m halfway through my studies: I’m on the executive MBA programme at a business school here in London. If I'm not doing either of those things — not playing sports, not studying and not interpreting — then I’m most probably asleep. 


What made you want to be a BSL interpreter? 


I never set out to be a BSL interpreter. I think it happened by accident. I was so fascinated by sign language and the culture and the community when I was first exposed to it as a teenager. I did my initial qualifications not because I saw the future and thought that that was something that I wanted to do professionally, but more as a way of saying to the community ‘I’m taking this seriously’. I wanted in some ways to give back to the investment that they were putting in me and the privilege of being part of their community. 


How long did it take you to train to this level? 


I did my early qualifications as a teenager. Then I went up to university, and even though I wasn’t studying sign language, I was still around and involved with the Deaf community. Once I’d finished my undergraduate degree, I went on to do my postgraduate in BSL-English interpreting at UCLan (University of Central Lancashire) and that’s how I became a qualified interpreter. The postgraduate part of things took two years, but altogether they tend to say it takes between six and eight years to become an interpreter, depending on your exposure to the language as well as your academic competencies. 


What are the hardest aspects of the job? 


I think now the hardest part of my job is dealing with people. When you first become an interpreter, it’s all about the language, the signing and the voiceover; but when you have that nailed down, you suddenly have a lot more capacity to start seeing what is really in front of you. Now, because translation theory has moved on a number of times since the machine model of interpreting — where you render language A into language B, and you act like a robot, you don't hide anything, you don't take anything away —, we understand that we bring our humanity to the interaction. So, if we are going to do that, there comes an element of judgement within that. You have to come knowing who you are, being able to control what you bring, having an awareness — a hermeneutic competence — of what other people are bringing to the interaction, and somehow managing all of that to produce a really good assignment or dynamic that enables the best translation and interpretation to take place. 


And the most rewarding? 


I think simply the look of relief on a client’s face when you walk into a room. It just tells me that somewhere along the line I did something right and that there’s an element of trust between us. When Deaf patients or clients go into spaces, particularly when they are using public services, it can be psychologically quite unsafe [for them]. They can be really unsure about whether they are going to be included, about whether they are going to be able to access information, and, more importantly, whether they are going to be able to contribute and if their voice is going to be heard and listened to.  


Enabling all of that, enabling that psychological certainty, is part of our job. And so, when you walk into a room, and somebody has that look of relief, it says to me that there's already a trust between us and we can then move on to doing a good job.  


What kind of jobs are your favourite?  


At the moment, NHS work. Healthcare is so important, particularly with what’s going on with Covid and the pandemic. It’s a really prominent issue in all our lives, so I enjoy the challenge of working with the NHS, of really trying to embed good practice and really trying to raise Deaf awareness so that the Deaf community can have confidence and know that they can depend on the NHS and the services in their community all the time. Because if they can't depend [on it], they are going to be really usure about whether or not they are in safe hands. Working at the NHS and going to these appointments is one way of providing that certainty and that dependency that I think is so important. 


What was your single proudest moment as a BSL interpreter? 


I don't think I do have one. It's not an event or anything like that... There’s a profound responsibility that comes with working with and being alongside patients who are in palliative care. Many of these patients are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and their families may well not sign — we know 90% of Deaf people come from hearing families — and the doctors and nurses and the people who are looking after them in those final hours in those final days also don't sign. 


So, even if you're not the last person that they see or the last person to be with them, you may very often be the very last person that spoke to them in their own language. And, for me, there’s a real sense of privilege, particularly because of the very long lives that these people have lived — just respect for their experiences. Some of them have been in wars, some of them have overcome incredible battles, and there’s been such success stories in the lives that they have led... And to be suddenly a part of that, right at the end, to be the very last person at the end of all things for them, it’s wonderful, a real blessing. And it's something that means a lot to me. 


How do you prepare for jobs like the one you just described? 


How do we prepare not just for situations like I’ve described, in palliative care, but also for other situations, such as when somebody is detained under the mental health act or [is] in police [custody] or in the court system? There are many [types of situations like these], and it doesn't even need to be as grand as those. When we go into the job centre and help someone with their benefits, it can be an incredibly emotional time, and there can be an awful lot of emotional transference in jobs you would deem to be quite simple.  


So, taking the time out afterwards to reflect on that transference is really important. And having a mentor, a professional mentor, somebody that you can speak things through with, is also something that I would highly recommend and I feel should be mandatory, particularly for new interpreters who are coming into the industry in order to protect themselves. Because otherwise, if you're unaware of the emotional transference that is happening, you may find yourself burning out a little bit too quickly because you're unable to recognise the damage that is happening to you. 


How have things changed between now and when you started in the industry? 


I think it has become a lot more professionalised. The NRCPD [The National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People], the regulatory body, has done an awful lot to engage with the Deaf community, with interpreters and with clients. Clients who are unsure about the profession are able to get advice from them. There is a working complaints procedure that Deaf people can use if they are unhappy about anything that goes on with interpreters, which is great to see because, even though it might sometimes feel a bit scary for us, it’s the only way that we can continue to improve our service for this community. They are the reason why we are here, and our job is to empower them and to enable them to have a voice. 


To be able to have a regulatory body that can work so closely with this community is just brilliant, because it also maintains the interpreting standard of the profession. Many of us have worked for many, many years to become interpreters, so to have that kind of functionality, that professionalism — and to keep it — is so important. So, I think that we have seen that prominence of the NRCPD within the profession since I’ve started.  


What else has changed... an obvious one: the way services are tendered and procured has changed. We see a lot of larger global companies bidding for contracts, and this has changed the dynamics of the relationship between interpreters and clients, and interpreters and agencies. These new relationships are in their infancy, and what we are having to continually do is engage and have a dialogue with each other, so that we are able to draw out the best of each party and work together to produce a decent service.  


And then Covid. I can’t really answer this question without talking about Covid. It has transformed very quickly the way we do interpreting. We are going to have to learn very quickly how we deliver services, and we are going to have to ensure that our response post-Covid is something that works for everybody. I think that’s going to be a challenge, but I think we are certainly capable of it. 


If you could give advice to people starting out, what would it be?  


My advice to new BSL interpreters: firstly, get a mentor. It’s really important that you practice in a safe way and that you have opportunities to offload and have regular contact with somebody who's able to advice and to help you through those difficult assignments.  


And secondly, read widely and try to understand how the world works, particularly if you're working in the public sector. I find that when I’m coworking with new interpreters, they understand the words, and language is not an issue, but sometimes they don't really understand how life actually does work. The language doesn’t necessarily translate into their own experience. I would encourage them to really try to read topics that have got nothing to do with interpreting but inform and give them a greater understanding of the way that the world works and the way that things are done. 


If you could give advice to the professionals you work with, what would it be? 


I think we all know that change isn't easy, but change is happening all the time. As I said in my answer before, the industry has changed so much in the last 10 or 15 years, and we are going to see, I believe, an even greater level of change within our profession. This means that we have to continually review and be open to new ideas and let go sometimes of the way we thought things should be done because they were suitable for a different time.  


I do see that Covid has accelerated the landscape when it comes to video and face to face interpreting. The impact of cochlear implants and the future generations who are coming up with more access to speech will change what is needed from an interpreter. The Deaf community has changed massively because of the impact of technology. In the last 10-15 years that I have worked as an interpreter, we have seen Deaf people for the first time in history be able to communicate with each other and not be in the same room; and that is because of advances in technology. What we do as a job is up for grabs, totally up for negotiation, and that’s going to change how we define ourselves and what the role of an interpreter actually is and should be, and what it was.  


So, I would encourage my colleagues to be open to that change and to be invested and contribute to the discussion, because we do need the Deaf community, we need interpreters, we need agencies, we need clients, we need everybody to be involved in that discussion in order for the profession to have meaning and to provide an ongoing excellent, decent service. 

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