Thursday, February 19, 2009

MANAD and Deaf Action (Scotland)’s Sign Language Interpreter Training (SLI)

This is my first exposure to a NGO working with Malawians here, not someone (both white and Malawian) driving around in vehicles with a NGO logo pasted or painted on its sides, or a signpost announcing an ongoing project (which is plentiful), sponsored by this and that in coordination with this and that, and the estimated duration. I do not work for Scotland and since Finland (Finnish Association of the Deaf that placed me with MANAD) will not be here in the duration of my internship, so I sat in the training for the sake of experience and exposure. Since I do work for MANAD, I provided some assistance as an extra hand (or body) for Betty and Erick, and feedback to the trainees along with the Scots.

The training is a second phase with returning trainees from the first phase last June. It lasted for six days with themes; religious, medical, and legal along with fingerspelling practice, voice to sign and sign to voice translation and self-care such as avoiding a common interpreter malady, repetitious injury. The facilitators who organized the SLI training, Betty, the top interpreter in all of Malawi and Erick, a deaf man, some couple years ago received training at Edinburgh in interpretation and sign language instruction and curriculum development. The Scots, a deaf man who freelances in sign language instruction, Bryan and an interpreter Nicola, sent by Deaf Action to observe Betty and Erick, to determine whether the funding for SLI to continue and provide input to both the facilitators and trainees.

Recognition of MANAD, and the need for the deaf and hard of hearing population’s right to access to information, and other human rights are nascent in Malawi only 15 years old. There are around 11 sign language interpreters in Malawi, but their skills and fluency varies and all is voluntary meaning very little opportunity to work. In some ways similar to Ireland back in 2001 once they emerged as a Celtic Tiger. When I lived there, there were only 13 interpreters but none for the city I resided in. I told this to Betty and the trainees so that seemed to help their anxiety some. The Woodford Foundation (UK) is currently working with MANAD to provide funding to pay the interpreters in the near future. Many of the trainees are not skilled signers especially in the eyes of the UK and the US (the best ones might be considered level 3 below the top), but there is an alarming need of interpreters hence the MANAD and Deaf Action’s decision to provide both signing and training for interpreters as a foundation. There is a talk about a separate training for Malawian Sign Language (MSL) instruction and learning. For trainees, there are promising individuals such as several teachers of the deaf, a young man whose parents worked for deaf schools and grew up playing football with deaf students, and a rehabilitation worker who occasionally has a deaf patient.

Probably the most interesting part of training was the first day which fell on Sunday beginning at a church (St Michael’s) a CCAP. One interpreter refused citing personal reasons but others including a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, several Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Catholics, and a nonbeliever (me) gamely went as part of the training to interpret in a religious setting. The trainees took 5 or 10 minutes rotations, interpreting the sermons from the reverend (a Scot I believe with a thick accent who attempted occasional phrases in the Chichewa language that sounded awful to Malawian ears), Malawian deacons (or elders?) and some choir singing. It was a real exposure to the trainees because the average Malawian often uses English (official language) and Chichewa (national language) in the same sentence or lectures, even in the newspaper. I learned that part of the Malawian culture is to mix in proverbs in Chichewa for wit, and to describe a particular situation. Talk about throwing the trainees in water with a weak life ring on the very first hour of the six day training. One part of the training, later in the week was translating Chichewa into MSL and vice versa. It proved a challenge for many, especially one woman a pastor from Zambia who spoke a different dialect of Chichewa.

There were many words in legal and medical terms that are not in MSL, in addition to regional sign language. MSL used in the towns or cities of Mzimba and Lilongwe can be vastly different from Blantyre and many trainees were frustrated on what is the right sign language. The facilitators and Scots, pitching in, offered some consolation (very little in the trainee’s eyes – that was obvious to see) that MSL as a national sign language is still relatively new and over the years MSL will continue to evolve and once MANAD becomes stronger the MSL will become more uniform. There was also encouragement (I also pitched in) that the trainees to form local support networking with deaf people to share MSL. MANAD has a registration of interpreters around the country for support and new names will be added and they will be provided upon request. That seemed to appease the trainees some. Betty was very intent on not using ASL or BSL (British Sign Language) but there were already some signs recognizable no doubt due to the missionary influence in the past. I would sometimes tease her that I would tell deaf Malawians that ASL is better and Betty would laugh-shriek and tease me that my true intent is to oppress the Deaf here. Zambia Sign Language has a heavy ASL influence with some tinge of BSL. MSL is probably more national than Zambian sign, though some signs are in ASL or BSL. But it is relatively common. For instance, the Irish Sign Language has some BSL influence because of deaf Irish working in London to send money back home (long before Ireland became the Celtic Tiger). ASL has roots in French Sign Language and Martha’s Vineyard Kentish sign language in addition to home signs from more than 200 years ago. ASL evolved as any other language on its own, despite regional signs but it is still understood in conversations.

Medical and Legal also proved to be interesting sessions as well due to numerous deaf people being seen at clinics or in emergency rooms and being arrested for simple misunderstanding with police officers. Best scenario is that an interpreter or a signer would show up, help clarify matters and the deaf prisoner released with apologies. But sometimes actual petty crimes do happen such as stealing and battery. Awareness about the Deaf and those without hearing is still slow but worse in the rural parts. The visiting lecturers, a doctor and a magistrate provided typical scenes what to expect in a legal (court room or prison) and medical (conversing with doctors and nurses), the common terms – such as body parts, diseases, medication dosages and court procedures. I provided some input with basic scenarios because I spent five years in NYC working with deaf people in both medical and legal settings, which the trainees and the Scots seemed to appreciate.

One sign to voice interpretation (both English and Chichewa) session involved Erick signing funny scenarios such an animal, a dog or monkey stealing food from a local who worked hard to get it, a man driving by staring at a shapely woman and crashing into a tree as a result, and so on. It was evident that the trainee’s receptive skills is better than expressive (in MSL) and there were many laughs when they took turns translating what Erick said. Many got it right, some got it wrong. The group or paired work, and role play exercises were more enjoyable for the trainees, taking turns to be deaf, interpreter, a doctor, a lawyer, judge, police, and magistrate and so on. Betty, Erick, and sometimes Charles, and two other deaf Malawian resource persons when available to attend went from group to group to provide feedback and criticism. Bryan and Nicola pitched in, too.

Deaf Action is pleased with the overall improvement in how MANAD coordinated the training and the future together is ensured. I know it’s corny but looking at two interpreters and two deaf people of different nationalities (and First World and Third World) working together as equals were really inspiring. There are some cultural differences and I could tell Deaf Action tried not to let their British culture interfere with how the Malawian trainees should learn but as long as the basic foundation in interpreting is covered, and MANAD has enough to go on. There is a very respectful relationship and partnership between MANAD and Deaf Action. Yay for cooperative development!


Blogger MCC Brazil! said...

yay for cooperaton and development! Thank you for your very thorough escription of the training, Kate. Yes - one of the problems for training interpreters is usually they are people who begin interpreting because they can (CODA or like the guy who grew up with deaf children you mentioned) and they get burnt out of interpreting for free (sometimes having to pay their own bus fare or pay other expenses). No one pays interpreters - gov't doesn't, deaf people don't have money to really deaf have to lobby local gov't for support, OR here we go again - a foreign NGO pays their salaries.

It sounds like the training went well. SO I wonder, one week of training - how much can they learn? how sustainable is the learning? Are there videos or something for the interpreters to continue learning from? Was the expense of sending the trainers "worth" the money? What was your opinion of the overall results of the training?

2/20/2009 9:33 AM  
Blogger Kate O. Breen said...

Hi -
We did debate that among ourselves. No DVDs or anything, but lecture hand outs and regular screenings might keep them on their toes for the time being. we can only hope. It is a gamble on everyone's part.

2/22/2009 10:08 AM  
Blogger Chip Reilly said...

In Vietnam, Audrey Cooper continues to develop practical interpreter training workshops and program. She just gave a workshop that builds on earlier training done at Woodward/Hoa program. Interesting to see how she lays out the various roles that a terp must play in such settings. (Audrey is Paul Dudis' wife, and doing a dissertation in VN now.)

You can contact her at

2/23/2009 5:58 PM  
Blogger Kate O. Breen said...

Dr Reilly! Good to hear from you. I've had the pleasure of meeting Audrey couple times and I should be contacting her soon. Thanks for the note. Hope you are well.

2/24/2009 7:35 AM  
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