Interview _ Elvire Roberts

Elvire Roberts was born in Yorkshire, spent her early childhood in Zambia and now lives in Nottingham.

She studied Chinese at the University of Cambridge, later pursuing her passion for language to train as a British Sign Language (BSL)/ English Interpreter. She has taught interpreting, and now works primarily in forensic, mental health, academic and arts settings at a senior level. She also assesses and audits interpreting services.

Elvire has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University. She writes poetry and short stories and her poetry has been shortlisted and placed in national competitions. Elvire is actively involved in the local poetry community in Nottingham (UNESCO City of Literature) and regularly performs her work.

In this interview, Elvire Roberts talks about British Sign Language, Journeys in Translation, and poetry.

How would you describe the work that you do?

As an interpreter, I see my work extending in two parallel planes: the creative act of replicating a person’s utterance with all its emotional and contextual meaning, alongside the socio-political act of empowering and facilitating communication.

The deaf people I meet, whether as tutors, colleagues, clients or friends, have a lifetime’s experience of being silenced, of their language being disrespected and their requests for access to communication being seen as ‘difficult’ and costly. From my own life experiences as a woman, I believe whole-heartedly in enabling others to speak their truth, whether I agree with what they say or not.

When you are interpreting, what would you say you are doing?

Interpreting is immediate and in the moment; it may not convey 100% of the content, but often holds more of the perlocutionary force and intonation of the original than a translation does.

I usually interpret simultaneously, so as the person speaks or signs, I am just a few seconds behind them. This enables me to channel more of the person’s character and attitude, as expressed in their intonation and body language.

A complete interpretation requires a degree of performance in order to fully ‘be’ that person in the other language.

And when you are translating a text?

When I translate, I can take time to get inside the text. Translating feels like a luxury, as when I am working as an interpreter I have to search for meaning instantaneously and reproduce natural-looking or sounding language on the spot.

Translating poetry is the ultimate challenge, particularly when working between two languages which occupy different modalities – BSL is a visual-spatial language with a completely different structure from English. Facial expression and body movement are essential parts of its grammar. Rhyming in BSL poetry is seen in repetition or mirroring of space, handshapes, eyegaze, or simply the way a hand is turned.

As a translator-poet, I can have two different approaches to translating a text – a faithful version that replicates as closely as possible the poet’s original intended meaning and rhythms, or a freer version that incorporates my personal response and understanding of the text.

I’ve been intrigued to see the variety of approaches in the Journeys in Translation texts, some of them much looser translations than others.

Elvire Roberts and Trevor Wright at the Quiet Riot disability Poetry event that was held on 21 April 2017 as part of the Nottingham Poetry Festival which was also the first outing of the British Sign Language translation of "Yalla".
How have your own experiences informed the approach you've taken with Journeys in Translation?

Many years ago, I translated Tang Dynasty poetry and had to guess at an 8th Century Chinese scholar’s vision of the world. So it was a delight to be able to talk to the Over Land, Over Sea poets Pam Thompson and Trevor Wright, check my understanding with them and ask about intended effects.

With Pam’s poem, I knew immediately how the handshapes would work, that repetition and rhythm were particularly important, as well as keeping the vocabulary true to the original. However, with Trevor I needed to hear from him about the pictures he saw in his mind’s eye so that I could re-create them in BSL’s inherent filmic mode.

An additional challenge with translating into BSL is that it has no written form. There are complex methods of linguistic coding to represent the language for research purposes, but these would not be accessible to non-linguists. Accordingly, I had to write notes of my translation, then memorise these before signing the final version to camera. A final translated text in BSL is always on film rather than on paper. You can see the translations for "Dislocation" and "Yalla" on YouTube.

In your opinion, what effect does your being a non-native BSL user have on your rendition of the Journeys in Translation poems? 

I’m not entirely satisfied with my translations due to the fact that BSL is my second language: the filmed BSL translation is rendered with the articulation of a non-native BSL user. In my experience, native BSL users have both more pronounced and varied facial expressions, with a more sophisticated use of eyegaze.

To see poetry created and performed by Deaf BSL poets, you can look on the YouTube channel signmetaphor: Paul Scott’s "Tree" is one of my favourites.

What effect do the various roles you play have on each other?

Interestingly, my role as an interpreter has been one of the obstacles in my transition to being a writer. As an interpreter, my aim is to be impartial, to talk only about issues of communication, and not to give my personal views on the matter in hand.

As a writer, I express my views, use autobiographical elements, allow my own self to form and originate the text. This is testing enough as a woman in any role, where we are still encouraged to be ‘angels’, to put the needs and voices of other people first.

I have, however, benefitted enormously from being multi-lingual and from having learned British Sign Language and Mandarin Chinese, languages which are so very different in form and culture from British English. They stretch my brain to alternative connections and ways of creating meaning, giving me a wider range of lenses on the world.

I wonder if perhaps the acts of attention and interrogation that I bring to translation are also those same acts which I bring to forming a poem.

I also believe that there is interaction between the visual-spatial nature of BSL, my interest in art, and my delight in how space is used in poetry. I remember having a eureka moment when I first picked up The Ground Aslant: an anthology of radical landscape poetry, edited by Harriet Tarlo, where white space is a much-flexed muscle of the poem’s environment. This is something that I am exploring in my own poetry and I have just been introduced to the work of Caroline Bergvall, whose playful and linguistically experimental poetry works across other art forms, addressing difficult issues such as migrancy and disappearance.

What would you say is the value of initiatives like Journeys in Translation?

I often meet people who are surprised that there isn’t just one signed language, that each country has its own and that within that national signed language there are regional dialects.

From my perspective as a poet, as an interpreter working with disenfranchised communities, and as a feminist, the Journeys in Translation project encapsulates the value of diversity, a value not expressed in economics but in the opening of our minds to the experiences and perspectives of others. At the same time, it speaks of compassion and of sameness, and of the importance of communicating that across barriers. The richness of being human is our obdurate creativity and individuality, and in that we are all the same.

Editor's Note:

Journeys in Translation aims to facilitate cross- and inter-cultural conversations around the themes of home, belonging and refuge.

The project encourages people who are bilingual or multilingual to have a go at translating 13 of the 101 poems from Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) from English into other languages and to share the translations, and reflections on the exercise on blogs, in letters and emails to family and friends, and on social media.

So far, the 13 poems that are being used as part of the project have been translated into languages that include Italian, German, Shona, Spanish, Bengali, British Sign Language, Farsi, Finnish, French, Turkish and Welsh. Currently, over 20 people from all over the world are working on the translations. More translations and more languages are on the way.

In Leicester, Journeys in Translation will culminate in an event that is going to be held on September 30 as part of Everybody's Reading 2017. During the event the original poems and translations will be read, discussed and displayed.

Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) was edited by Kathleen Bell, Emma Lee and Siobhan Logan and is being sold to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)Leicester City of Sanctuary and the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum.

Copies of the anthology are available from Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham).

More information on how Over Land, Over Sea came about is available here.


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