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Lisa Li: My Journey into Sign Language Interpreting


Whilst studying for a BA (Hons) at Stirling University between 2004-2008, I joined a BSL interest group. To keep the group open and to pay our Deaf tutor, I would take a bus into town after my lectures, buy everything I needed to make toasties, pre-prepare some of the food in the student flat I was renting and take the food to the university chaplaincy where we had use of the kitchen. That was how I ended up volunteering in a late night kitchen, selling toasties to the famished students returning from their night of clubbing. I remember my hand cramping from grating an entire block of cheese and soon learned to delegate some tasks shortly after that.

I have worked in different jobs, from Marketing Assistant for a wealth management company to Student Facilitator at a college local to my childhood town. I have also volunteered with a charity that supports disabled children and teenagers and always found something to enjoy, no matter what job I was in. Despite this, the enjoyment I had was always tinged with a feeling of, ‘Is this it?’ – I never felt truly satisfied, yet I did not know what job would be the “right” one for me.

During this time, I was taking BSL evening classes in a neighbouring town and was half-way through a level 2 course when it was cut. Fortunately, Heriot-Watt University was due to pilot their MA (Hons) Interpreting, Translation and Applied Language Studies course in 2012. I did not make the initial selection however, I got through via Clearing and graduated in 2016 as part of their first cohort.

At an arts event where I volunteered as a student interpreter, a tutor mentioned that I may be the first BSL/English interpreter of Chinese heritage in Scotland, I did not realise the importance of their comment until many years later.

The advantage of entering the interpreting profession in my 30s, meant that I was able to use my life experiences to inform how I interpreted and managed certain situations since I had lived through similar scenarios myself.


The Value of my Cultural Heritage

I was born in Fife, Scotland and I am the eldest daughter of my Chinese family. Growing up and going to school, I was an avid reader, and became responsible for “translating” English documents my parents did not understand. I share this experience with many immigrant families and hearing children from Deaf families.

Having grown up in a dual-cultured environment, I noticed I was more readily able to empathise with some Deaf people and CODAS without the need for much explanation in comparison to some of my peers. My Chinese heritage will always be a part of me, no matter where life leads. Whenever I feel lost, I remind myself of the Chinese idiom;


"船到橋頭自然直".

When transliterated says:

“The ship, upon reaching the bridge, will straighten”.

Meaning: Everything will work out in the end.

Different writers and poets appeal to me at different stages of my life. I love reading text where I feel profoundly understood or where the writer beautifully conveys an idea in a concise way. I am equally in awe of artists who are able to express themselves with vibrant energy as well as those who do so in subtle tones. It is the connection that delights me the most, the ability to evoke feelings and awaken memories.

What IOCN means to me

East and South East Asian hate crime spiked during the pandemic. On top of the mental health dips people had been experiencing through the multiple lockdowns, as a British born Chinese person, I was also a target of hate crime. That experience was very nuanced and had an impact on my mental wellbeing. At that time, I was not able to find any support for myself and realised in that moment, Deaf people of East Asian and South East Asian heritage would have no support. I was thinking of how we might be able to support and hold space for each other and in March 2021, I filmed a video in BSL in a personal capacity with an English transcript as a call to action and published it on Facebook. By doing this, I hoped that it would find a way to other British East & South East Asian (BESEA) interpreters who may be able to interpret with me and provide access for Deaf communities where we share the same space or heritage.

An IOCN steering group member put me in contact with another British Chinese interpreter from England.

We previously had no knowledge of each other’s existence. Since then, every BESEA interpreter I was able to find, I made contact with and invited them to join me. Of those who had capacity to join, I introduced them to Stop Asian Hate (UK), a grassroots anti-racism movement and we now have a small team with a mixture of cultural backgrounds.

Being around other interpreters of colour has made me feel a lot less alone even when we are geographically separated. I am so glad and grateful that we have found each other.


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