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Poetry's dizzy heights to painting that picture in BSL

Interpreting between British Sign Language and spoken English, using standard language, is challenging enough on good days. But the gear change is quite harsh when you are into the realms of poetry and its super sharp manipulation of the spoken word and wanting to produce something that captures its writers intention, their subtlety and the time in which it is framed... There is a lot to unpack. And the show is only on for an hour. You have four poets all coming with their own identities, their emotions, their points of view, with something inferred throughout. That's a hell of a story arc to paint in British Sign Language in an hour.

I guess the question is how do you start? When, is probably more important. Normally for a show of about an hour in length, I would suggest that you ask the booker/producer of the show to be sending you the pieces 28 days before the event... Bookings like this should not be entered into lightly, by this I mean as an interpreter deciding to do the event, you must be firm about what you need to make this show accessible, if it's an online event or face to face, written texts should be encouraged to be made available too.


Realistically this isn't something you can prep for the night before and wing-it on the night. Apart from it being unethical. Not in the NRCPD sense of 'do no harm or, the least amount of harm', but it's more a case of not really making an effort to do good, nor as a BSL interpreter are you being that honest about its accessibility standards either'. That said having 28 days is really just the tip of the iceberg, if you can also ask the producer for voice -notes from the poets, this helps to get the pace right. I tend to download them all on to a file and gently listen for the first week on occasion, in the shops or pottering around, to just get a feel for it. If you can't get voice notes, record yourself, this works just as well.


Next like any seasoned performance interpreter worth their salt, looking up words and playing around with signs or switching or repeating classifiers is built into the main body of your prep work. In sign language, just like with poetry some language rules can be broken. And lastly you MUST take time to talk to the poets. How else would you know, 'the sun dragged itself defeatedly the day we stopped pitying the dead' isn't a political reference to the Sun newspaper but is a literal viewpoint about the morning after a tragic night. Or the 'avalanche stopping just short of the village' which seems like a new timeline for the children lost in the Aberfan accident, is actually the poet's reflections how the evening could have landed if honest words were spoken to his child self, all those years ago. Lastly a long prep time lead in, is useful because not everything is translatable, that can happen. And as a trusted language professional you still have time to go back and politely ask if a certain piece can be changed for something else. For this last assignment I did just that and if you are working with people who are honest about access, like you and enjoy working collaboratively together and care about their whole audience, the artists involved will be happy to do this.


Lastly, interpreters are needed in this field, it is hard work and interpreting poetry is a mind bending craft, that linguistically will really stretch you. But please do come and join us.


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