“Let’s have a Fika – Culture in a cup”

Interpreting in between and about cultures: Impressions from the efsli 2019 conference

Oliver Pouliot and Helsa B. Borinstein fingerspell "AIIC"
Photo credits: AIIC Sign Language Network

The European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters (efsli) conference was hosted this year by the Swedish Association of Sign Language Interpreters (STTF), on the year of their 50th anniversary celebrations. A total of 281 participants from 32 countries came to Malmö, in Sweden, on 7-8 September, to explore the theme, “Let’s have a Fika - Culture in a cup”: Interpreting in, between and about cultures

The STTF organizing committee gave a warm welcome to the participants with good humour and lovely Swedish treats: a first-hand experience of what fika means – a social interlude around coffee and cake, and a cornerstone of Swedish hospitality and culture.

Maya de Wit, Oliver Pouliot, and Helsa B. Borinstein represented AIIC’s Sign Language Network (SLN) at the efsli conference, and Eliana Maggio Graw participated on behalf of AIIC CACL. They met with attendees to talk about AIIC’s work and objectives, and the importance of strengthening cooperation between spoken and sign language conference interpreters. 

Maya de Wit with sign language interpreters from Malta  

The perspective of Deaf consumers

The perspectives brought to us by Deaf consumers of our sign language interpreting services continues to play an important role at our annual meetings, a conversation continuing from the 2018 conference. This suggests that we need to work on our own  attitudes as practitioners as we begin to understand how our own life experiences and biases impact our work and, in consequence, the lives of those who depend on our service. 

The communication barriers that deaf people face can lead them to feel as though they are being treated as second class citizens in their own countries. This explains why so many of the topics presented at efsli and other sign language interpreting conferences focus on oppression and the exploration of our personal biases, as well as looking for ways in which to mitigate their impact. In this article we share a selection of such presentations from the efsli 2019 conference.


A fast-changing environment

Simone Scholl from the University of Hamburg opened the conference. Her keynote presentation focused on the current state of play, opening our eyes to how far we’ve come as a profession, and challenging us to consider how practices that are now taken for granted might be reframed in the future.  

The services that sign language interpreters provide are rarely carried out in a booth environment, however  Simone Scholl suggested that in some very particular contexts we could – even should – use this model. She suggested some advantages of having sign language interpretation ‘off stage’ during a conference, and some of the ways that this could benefit the Deaf participant. 

With the interpreter outside the immediate environment, the participant would then have the option to not be identified by others, free to move about without being recognised as the Deaf person in the room. Counterintuitively, it also gives the interpreter anonymity, refocusing other participants’ attention and conversation away from the interpreter (who is, after all, there not as a participant, but whose obvious visibility attracts interest) and towards the Deaf individual.

Having said that, much of the interpreting work sign language interpreters provide is not conference based, which means the distance, anonymity and protection that the booth offers would not be available to them. 

Scholl also wondered what place Deaf interpreters have in the interpreting community and how we can improve our working relationship. She stressed that ‘being hearing or Deaf is not a qualification, our profession is what unites us and not the hearing status that separates us’. 

Keynote by Simone Scholl   


Talk, listen and learn

Naomi Sheneman and Octavian Robinson jointly presented and emphasized that we should make sure we have disability cultural humility, intentionally creating welcoming space for disability and never denying the opportunity to listen to stories of oppression. 

This means making time for Deaf people and actually sitting down with them: “Have more fika with Deaf people!” 

Sheneman and Robinson summed up their point:  “Deaf people have a lot to teach interpreters that is not the same as what is taught at University. Deaf perspectives need to be varied, we should not just look at Deaf academics.”


Bridging the rift

Anna-Lena Nilsson also noticed also a rift between the Deaf community and interpreters and wondered if this was because of how interpreters are trained. Currently students entering a sign language interpreting programme do not need to know a sign language, but can learn the sign language as part of the interpreting programme. 

She spoke plainly about whether it is acceptable for interpreters to benefit financially from a community they aren’t a part of. She challenged the audience to a show of hands of how many people were members of their National Deaf Association. The count was less than overwhelming, and an example of the increasing tension between consumers and service providers. 

Nilsson stated that there are different expectations when working with a marginalised community, especially those who are becoming more autonomous and self-representative in society. Deaf people want interpreters to make a personal investment in the community for multiple reasons. One important reason is that it would help improve the language usage by the mostly non-native signers. In addition, it would strengthen the trust between interpreters and Deaf persons – esssential for a successful outcome of an interpreted experience. 

Finally, Nilsson provided the audience with some key suggestions on how to move away from the polarisation and to find common ground, such as adding self-reflection and transparency to the list of interpreter must-haves.

Group discussion

Next stop… Romania 

We are looking forward to the next efsli conference, which will be taking place for the first time in Romania,  in Cluj on 5 – 6 September 2020. 

  • Do you want to learn more about what was discussed at the efsli 2019 conference? See the AIIC Sign Language Network tweets and explore the hashtags #efsli2019 #letshaveafika


Recommended citation format:
Maya DE WIT,Oliver POULIOT,Helsa Borinstein. "“Let’s have a Fika – Culture in a cup”". aiic.at January 19, 2020. Accessed July 6, 2020. <http://aiic.at/p/8922>.