Friday, May 6, 2011

Zubeyda, Deaf Culture and Advocacy

This is a continuation of the preceding post.
A Term note has been added to the first version of the present post.

A constant theme in Zubeyda Melikyan's description of her life and work is the cultural aspect. Indeed, she starts off with a classic Sapir-Whorf or 'linguistic relativity' declaration (see References):
"My mother’s first words to me were in sign language. I have perceived the world through this language."
She goes on:
"Don’t pity me, I am a representative of a different social-cultural minority."
All her life, Zubeyda was trying to understand who she was and says she got the answers to her questions at the age of 40, in 2000, when she started participating in seminars organized by the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) held in Finland.
"I understood that I am a small cell of a 70 million society. We have our language, our culture, and our history.... My unique feature is that I am a kind of a bridge between two cultures – those who can hear and those who cannot."
She explains that deaf people are divided into several groups within their society:
"The first group is represented by deaf parents with deaf children. Here the culture and language of deaf people is preserved.

The second group is deaf children with hearing parents. These are people with low awareness level – children are treated as if they were ill. There is a huge parent-child gap and lack of understanding. [Of course, she's talking about Armenia.]

The third group is made up of deaf parents and their hearing children. I represent that third group. But we – the children of deaf parents – are always ready for an assault; we are used to being constantly misunderstood by society. We, all translators who have deaf parents, are doing our best to protect the deaf."
Thus deaf people feel that they not only have a different language, they belong to a different culture from hearing people. Of course they share much in common with the culture of the hearing society around them, because they live in the same environment. However, it's splitting hairs to argue over whether theirs is a culture or a sub-culture. The point is that they perceive themselves as having a different culture. And this perception is not confined to Armenia.

In the 1980s, I was president of an association of professional translators and interpreters in Canada, and like the other similar associations in the country, we belonged to a national umbrella organisation, the Canadian Translators and Interpreters Council (as it was called then). At that time, however, the visual language interpreters had recently (in 1979) formed their own national organisation, the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada (AVLIC). So I approached some of its members with the idea that AVLIC might integrate into the national council. I was rebuffed with the comment that it would never happen, because AVLIC served the deaf and the deaf belonged to a different culture. And it never has happened.

Therefore Expert Visual Language Interpreters need a knowledge of and empathy with the local deaf culture. Most of them are drawn from the deaf community itself; but there's a small minority who've learnt Sign Language as a second language through courses, and they have to mix with and become accepted by their deaf clients.

To be concluded.

The culture difference shows even in the usage of the term interpreter. For hearing people, it normally means a translator who speaks the translation. Consequently, if the interpreter doesn't do that we have to add a qualifier, such as in sign-language interpreter or visual language interpreter. But for the hard of hearing, the tables are turned. For them, an interpreter is a visual language interpreter, and then it's for us speaking interpreters that a qualifier is needed. My Canadian colleagues used to refer to us as the voice interpreters.

Gayane Mkrtchyan. Zubeyda: Helping others 'hear with eyes'. ArmeniaNow, 24 April 2011. The quotations above are from this article. The emphasis is mine.

Linguistic relativity. Wikipedia.

Deaf culture. Wikipedia.

Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada. AVLIC.

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