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06 January 2022
As part of our celebrations for the 40-year anniversary since CACDP"s first register of sign language interpreters, we spoke to Melinda Napier and RSLI Jemina Napier. They are mother and daughter coming from a multigenerational Deaf family spanning four generations. Melinda, a native Deaf BSL user, is the former Head of Communications and Training at City Lit. Jemina, a hearing heritage signer, is Professor and Chair of Intercultural Communication at Heriot-Watt University, as well as being a registered sign language interpreter with NRCPD.
Melinda, who is now retired, was involved in the Register's early days and was part of the team assessing Stage 2 and Stage 3 candidates: "When I started teaching BSL in 1980 at City Lit in London, Ruth Roberts was my line manager and she left to work for CACDP, she started planning the Stage 3 qualification and asked me to be involved."
"Before 1982, there were no interpreting qualifications, and anyone could step up to interpret. Those working with the Deaf as Missioners/Social Workers interpreted as part of their social work. Soon it was realised that an Interpreting qualification was needed, so Ruth Roberts set up a Stage 3 course for those who were already social workers and "interpreting". She taught on the course, as well as being an examiner for the Stage 3 exam. Melinda further adds that: "One part sticks in my mind - Participant A had to watch a video of a deaf person signing and do a voice over. Participant B sat with their back to Participant A doing the voice over and sign the voice over to the deaf person standing in front of them. If this sounds complicated, it was!"
Through teaching on the course, Melinda also worked with Alan Haythornthwaite, Liz Scott-Gibson, Martin Colville and Peter Jones.
"In those days, those passing Stage 3 automatically became qualified interpreters even if they were deaf! I know some deaf social workers who received their interpreting qualification such as Antony Troy and Anthony Winstanley. I can't recall clearly what I did as an examiner. It was the only way to get an interpreting qualification then. Later in the late 1980's, a new interpreting qualification was introduced so those who wanted to become interpreters had to pass Stage 3 BSL and then attend an Interpreter's training course before they could take the Interpreting exam. No more automatically becoming qualified interpreters on passing Stage 3 BSL. Jemina took the very first Stage 3 BSL exams in Birmingham. If she had taken the exam a year earlier, she would have qualified as an interpreter!'
Aged 16, Jemina was the youngest ever person to get their Stage 3 BSL qualification in 1988 and the youngest to be added to the register as a Trainee Interpreter as all those who had passed the Stage 3 BSL qualification were automatically added.
Growing up bilingual in BSL and English, Jemina recalls: "I wanted to do my Stage 1, 2 and 3 as I thought it would be good for my CV to show I had another language. I had no thought of becoming an interpreter at that time. I didn't even realise that was a thing, or a career option for me! My mum (Melinda) encouraged me to do my BSL qualifications. I took the exam for Stage 1 when I was 14, Stage 2 when I was 15 (and delightfully missed school for a week to attend a 1-week intensive course at the City Lit), then took my exam for Stage 3 when I was 16. At that time (1988) when you got your Stage 3 you were automatically added to the register as a Trainee Interpreter. In 1992, CACDP introduced a new requirement to undergo training to work towards qualification within 2 years, but I wrote to explain that I wouldn't be able to do that as I was studying at university at the time. So, they let me continue as a Trainee Interpreter for 2 more years until I could join a course."
As Jemina didn't know she was going to be added to the register as a Trainee Interpreter, she adds: "it was a surprise when I suddenly started receiving phone-calls offering me work! My first paid interpreting job was in 1988 and I accompanied a friend of my parents who was a football referee to a tribunal. On completion of the very short interaction as the referee gave his statement, the chair of the tribunal then rifled in his petty cash tin and gave me £2! But my first proper paid interpreting job when I accepted a booking was at the City Lit. My mum worked there and there was a staff meeting and one of their regular interpreters couldn't make it, so my mum asked me if I'd be willing to do it. It was at that meeting I realised that interpreting was challenging, and I loved it and I was hooked!"
Reflecting on her experiences interpreting aged 16-17, she says: "Although I had grown up brokering for my parents and family members occasionally, that's not the same as professional interpreting. I also had very little life experience, so probably didn't have the right level of maturity for the job. I could take whatever work I wanted, there was no CPD requirement, and looking back I did work that would be considered inappropriate now. I remember interpreting a court case as a Trainee Interpreter when I was 19 years old with a deaf man who had been accused of exposing himself to children in a park. That is wrong on so many levels!"
On being added to the Register of Interpreters aged 16, Jemina goes on to say that: 'I remember at first feeling shocked, then kind of proud. I was definitely proud to be the youngest who had got their Stage 3 at that time, but it didn't occur to me that I could do Interpreting. In hindsight, I was too young, inexperienced, and totally relied on my bilingual and interpersonal skills. I am a much better interpreter now than I was then! But the thing that gave me confidence to properly pursue interpreting as a career was an experience with the (now veteran) interpreter Roger Beeson, who was one of the first to qualify as an Interpreter and was long involved in assessing interpreters. I had agreed to interpret for an amateur play for the Deaf Players Theatre in London that my mum was in along with other deaf friends that I had known most of my life. I was 17, and I was co-working with Roger, interpreting the play from BSL into spoken English. To me, it didn't seem like a big deal as it was just my mum and her friends, but after we finished Roger praised the work I had done and the quality of my spoken English interpretation and said that I should seriously think about interpreting as a career. At the time there was no interpreting degree available, so I enrolled in a Sociology degree, but began to take interpreting work in the holidays to build up my experience. Not long after I finished my degree in 1994 and had started working full time as an interpreter, City Lit offered a course for people like me who were already Trainee Interpreters and out there working. It was a one-year course where we went every Friday. I actually got together with my husband Andy Carmichael on that course, as he came from the same background as me! He had Deaf parents, had got his Stage 3 and then became a Trainee Interpreter automatically. After finishing the City Lit course we were eligible to take the Interpreting exam. It was a one-day exam with 5 different components, and Roger was one of my examiners for the viva component where they asked about ethics, etc! Andy and I both sat the exam and passed in 1995 so we qualified at the same time."
The interpreting sector has made leaps and bounds since the 1980's and nowadays interpreters have formal training, two different pathways, a structured approach to entering the profession, as well as requirements for maintaining their registration. Jemina says: "This has allowed for less reliance on people who have deaf parents, are social workers or teachers of the deaf, so more hearing 'new signers' have the opportunity to enter the profession. Plus, there is a lot more research, so we have evidence-informed practice. All this is good as it has contributed to the professionalisation of interpreting, better working conditions, better understanding of the role of interpreters and the quality of interpreting."
Jemina further adds that: "But one thing that has been lost on the way has been the involvement of deaf people in nurturing new interpreters. Back then deaf people would encourage hearing signers who had potential, ask them to interpret and would support them. But now anyone can sign up to a course never having met a deaf person, which might not always be a good thing. We are starting to see more deaf people involved in interpreter training (not just BSL teaching) and working as deaf interpreters/translators, so this should ensure that the deaf community are more involved in training interpreters again. We have come a long way, but now there are new issues to tackle - training and work opportunities for deaf interpreters/ translators, diversity in the profession, succession planning for interpreter educators, so there is more work to be done!"