Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Seminar explores SA Sign Language interpreting in higher education
Author: Disability Unit
Published: 29/10/2020

Since September is International Deaf Awareness Month, it was apt for the Stellenbosch University (SU) Disability Unit and the SU Language Centre to collaborate to host the 2020 South African Sign Language Interpreters' Code of Ethics seminar from 7 to 9 September. The seminar theme, “Triangulation of the Code of Conduct for SA Sign Language interpreters in higher education," drew perspectives from Deaf students and lecturers, as well as South African Sign Language (SASL) interpreters, and highlighted the importance of a code of ethics for interpreters working in higher education. The articles are part of the 2020 Year of Disability series. 

Currently, there are no official or consistent guidelines for Sign Language interpreters working in the post-school education context in South Africa. A working document by the Higher and Further Education Disability Services (HEDSA), initiated by the Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA), contains a code of ethics for interpreters and guides the work and employment of SASL interpreters in South Africa. However, this document is not used consistently in the post-school education and training (PSET) sector, and the code of ethics does not focus specifically on educational interpreting in higher education.

In 2019, the University of Cape Town jumpstarted the discussion around a code of ethics for SASL interpreters working in the PSET sector in South Africa with the very first SASL Interpreters' Code of Ethics seminar. This year, the discussion moved to SU, and what better way to give prominence to the fact that SU declared 2020 as the institution's Year of Disability?

Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the seminar was hosted online over three consecutive days. The move online extended the seminar's reach, allowing discussions of the myriad of challenges faced by students who use SASL interpreting in university settings, educational interpreters, disability units and Deaf lecturers. One of the key seminar questions was: With only a generic code, how do we guide the process of interpreting and receiving interpreting in the specific post-school environment, and how do we protect SASL interpreters and users of SASL interpreting alike?

Natasha Parkins-Maliko, a PhD candidate and lecturer in SASL interpreting at Wits University, opened the floor by speaking about the importance of being reflective language practitioners. She felt strongly that SASL interpreters must be specialists in one or two spoken languages and be highly conversant in academic Sign Language to interpret effectively at this level of study, to do justice to the students they serve. However, can interpreters work effectively in the post-school context with no formal university training themselves? The conundrum is that very often SASL interpreters may have gained their expertise in interpreting outside the higher education context, and so it is counter-intuitive to make a university qualification in interpreting the benchmark for quality service in the current South African context. At the same time, it is important that interpreters understand the academic language used in higher education contexts, and this understanding can only come from studying at university. The answer could lie in developing a recognition of prior learning (RPL) programme for SASL interpreters that recognises prior experience for those enrolling for a qualification in interpreting, as is the case at Wits University.

Besides encouraging interpreters to develop their interpreting skills by enrolling for a higher qualification in interpreting, the seminar once again emphasised the need for SASL interpreters to do research to expand their terminology in academic disciplines in the field of higher education.

The question of the accountability of SASL interpreters employed in post-school and university environments drew much debate. Are SASL interpreters accountable to the students for whom they interpret, or does accountability lie with the interpreters' line manager or department, or with the institution, as SASL interpreters are also employees of this institution? As important was the positioning of SASL interpreters regarding their personhood, their students, the lecturers and the institution. This resulted in further lively debates.

Deaf university students Imran Bodalaji and Qobo Ningiza shared their experiences as Deaf students and users of SASL interpreters in classroom and meeting contexts. Their presentations and the ensuing discussions allowed participants to consider the role of SASL interpreters from the perspective of a student – the first stakeholder in the triangulation process. Like many other students, Imran and Qobo had to adjust to the academic language used in higher education. They both encountered terminology during their studies that they had never seen before: it was either new to them in SASL or had to be developed. This shows that SASL interpreters have a critical role to play in the classroom. In this triangulation between the student, the lecturer and the interpreter, what is the latter's role? Should the interpreter correct the information given by the lecturer when the lecturer is clearly wrong? How does the interpreter communicate that they are not sure of the sign for terminology used in the classroom? Imran and Qobo also shared some thoughts on the isolation that students who are Deaf feel in a hearing world.

SASL lecturer Susan Njeyiyana, who is Deaf and uses SASL as a primary mode of communication herself, shared her experiences on the third day. Hailing from the SU Department of Linguistics, she related how a Deaf lecturer experiences the hearing world of  classrooms and staff rooms. She did, for example, not have access to an interpreter for impromptu meetings with individual students or when she needed to communicate with colleagues. A common shortcoming she recognised in SASL interpreters is the quality of interpreting from SASL to voice, which has implications for how she, as a Deaf individual, is perceived. Her advice for interpreters is to try consecutive interpreting; the interpreter should first understand the meaning before they start voicing. Susan's presentation also led to discussions around cultural appropriation for personal gain, as well as terminology development and quality assurance.

SASL interpreter Marsanne Neethling shared her experiences during the final session of the seminar. Marsanne is an interpreter employed by the Interpreting Service at the SU Language Centre. She quoted Maartje de Meulder, saying that often Deaf academics play “interpreter roulette" – as a Deaf individual, you never know what the calibre of the interpreter you end up with will be. The same is true in the wider post-school context. How do we ensure accessible communication for Deaf students? Marsanne spoke about the need for interpreters to have a thorough understanding of the cultural and social background of both the source language and target language of the users in the classroom – something that is vital for mediating an understanding of the lectures. To achieve this, SASL interpreters sometimes may need to step outside the role traditionally assigned to interpreters. In her research, Odette Swift recorded a student saying in this regard, “Is it weird to say she's like a friend because she cares about whether or not we understand the work?" SASL interpreters do not make signs only – they make meaning.

The 2020 SA Sign Language Interpreters' Code of Ethics seminar provided a platform for Deaf students and lecturers and SASL interpreters who share a space in higher education environments to speak their minds, voice their needs and together build bridges that will ensure successful studies for students and growth for SASL interpreters – as collaborators. The seminar highlighted the need for an interpreting code of ethics in higher education that could guide stakeholders in the future.  

A working group has been established to develop a document that might serve as a guideline or code of ethics for interpreters working in higher education. The group consists of volunteers from all higher education institutions with experience in SASL interpreting, and includes members of the Deaf community.

The 2021 SA Sign Language Interpreters' Code of Ethics seminar will be held at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.​