Close this search box.

ISSN # 2150-5772 – This article is the intellectual property of the authors and CIT. If you wish to use this article in your teaching or in another format, please credit the authors and the CIT International Journal of Interpreter Education.

Debra Russell[1]

University of Alberta, Canada

Christopher Stone[2]

University College London


Download PDF (66 KB)

In this Open Forum,we broaden our discussion of interpreting research by holding a conversation

with Christopher Stone. Stone trained as a British Sign Language (BSL)/English
interpreter at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Deaf Studies from 1995 to
1997. He returned to Bristol to complete his doctoral dissertation, in which he
examined Deaf professionals working within the television news arena, whose job
was rendering English into BSL. Rachel Sutton-Spence was Stone’s PhD
supervisor. His dissertation, which was titled “Toward a Deaf Translation
Norm,” was published by Gallaudet University Press in 2009.

Stone works with
the Deafness Cognition and Language (DCAL) Research Centre at University
College London (UCL). Currently, he is undertaking a longitudinal study
examining predictors for sign language learning and sign language interpreter
aptitude. His study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council,[3] examines second-language acquisition in a new modality (manual gestural as
opposed to oral gestural) as well as cognitive predictors for learning and
functioning as a sign language interpreter. He has also collaborated with
Robert Adam and Breda Carty in exploring Deaf[4] people’s work as
translators and interpreters within the Deaf community and at the institutional
interface. In the second phase of DCAL, Stone will be looking at interpreters’
cognitive control and how interpreters work in teams. As with previous
interviews, we hope that this conversation introduces readers to the important
work that Stone is doing in the area of Deaf people working as interpreters and
translators, and we hope that this conversation may stimulate dialogue among
readers about these same issues.


Tell us about your entry into the Deaf community and interpreting.

Christopher: While attending Exeter University in
the South West of England studying chemistry, I wanted to give something back
to the community, so I went to the Student Community Action (SCA)
office—which is a type of student society. One of the options was to
volunteer for a playgroup with Deaf children. I started in the playgroup as a
volunteer, and I got along well with the children. Over the weeks, my
communication with the children improved, and that led to mixing with the
community, being invited to monthly social events, and so on. I then
finished my degree and knew that I didn’t want to do chemistry
anymore! During my third year, I had a study year abroad in France . . .
where I met someone who had Deaf parents who were American Sign Language (ASL)
users. All of a sudden, things started to gel—so when I returned to Exeter
University to do my fourth year, people told me to apply to Bristol
University’s Centre for Deaf Studies (CDS).

I applied, not wanting to be an interpreter but wanting to
be more fluent in the language (BSL), and the best way to do that was . . . via
the immersion experience of the interpreting stream. Luckily, my training
cohort had 24 hearing and 16 d/Deaf students. The expectation was to use
BSL all the time and to be sensitive to a culture that you didn’t have full
knowledge of at that point. It was a tall order—but fun and hard work. It
was an exceptional program.

I loved the interpreter training and interpreting, so that’s what I ended up
doing. Upon graduation, I landed my first job in Uganda working with a Deaf
person from the CDS, Gloria Pullen. I did a 1-year stint with her when she
worked as development project manager in Lira, Northern Uganda. She had
trained interpreters and had undertaken research across Europe, and so she
could offer me feedback, such as “ I don’t understand you the interpreter”
versus “I don’t understand you the speaker,” so I always feel like I
have 7 years’ training—4 fun years, 2 academic years, and 1 year’s
apprenticeship, which also involved my living in a house with Deaf
people. That first year, working with her [Gloria Pullen] in another
country was an intense experience that was like 3 years of experience anywhere
else! It was so good—the Deaf community has been very generous to me.


Deb: Tell us about your work role now at the (DCAL)
Research Centre in London.

Christopher: As I was completing my PhD, Professor Bencie
Woll invited me to apply for a post at DCAL, which would involve me managing
the interpreting for DCAL [and] doing some interpreting and some research—all
of which was of interest to me. So I began in 2006 with DCAL, working half
time, which allowed me to continue working as a freelance interpreter,
too. I asked to increase my hours to 3 days a week, and I have been able
to recruit two in-house interpreters that now do the bulk of the in-house
interpreting. I interpret a little within DCAL (the hard stuff!), conduct
my own research projects, and manage a team of interpreters. It is not a
typical career (whatever that is)—I have been lucky to be on the crest of a
wave! We finished the first 5 years of funding and were recently awarded
another 5 years from the ESRC.


Deb: Your PhD dissertation really
broke new ground. Can you describe your research?

Christopher: The roots of my research work stem from my experiences in
Bristol and Uganda, where I had always seen Deaf people work as interpreters.
This gave me a frame of reference for Deaf people as interpreters. On day one
of my career, I teamed with a Deaf interpreter and continued to do so
throughout that year in Uganda. All of these experiences were formative
(without me realizing) and shaped the PhD that I ended up doing.

I started my PhD, there was much discussion by Deaf people and hearing
interpreters around [the idea of] Deaf and hearing people interpreting on
television. I was curious about Deaf views on the differences between Deaf and
hearing interpreters. I undertook ethnographic interviews with Deaf people from
Deaf families who worked rendering the English news into BSL on television. I
was interested in how they conceptualized what they were doing, who they
thought they were doing it for, what interpreting models they may have had
exposure to, and how they thought this might differ from the experiences of
hearing interpreters. Those interviews framed my work and made it
“Deaf-led.” It led me to record and analyze interpreted broadcast news with
Deaf and hearing interpreters and looking at the prosody of the BSL product. It
also led me to analyze the pragmatic decisions the interpreters made from a
relevance theory (RT) perspective (an inferential approach to pragmatics; see
Sperber & Wilson, 1986/1995). This, in turn, gave rise to my third
study—getting Deaf and hearing interpreters to render the same text, examining
the process they undertook as well as the prosody and pragmatics. All of this
appeared to capture the essence of the descriptions that my interviews with
Deaf people gave me of what they did and how that may differ from the
descriptions of hearing people; all of these factors, I think, contribute to
what I call a Deaf
translation norm.

ethnographic interviews also revealed a history of Deaf people supporting other
Deaf people by “translating” and “interpreting.” In my experience of presenting
my work, Deaf people identify with—and recognize—what I describe. When talking
with Sharon Neumann Solow about my work . . . she said, “ My dad was like
that!” So, I think, ostensibly, I am just a messenger. It feels like a big
bluff and that I should not take the credit for merely sharing information
[that is already] known to Deaf community members. It is only due to the trust
that my interviewees gave me that I am able to talk about a Deaf translation
norm. As such, I feel a big responsibility when I talk about it, and I am
pleased when people recognize the description I give, as it feels like I have
done justice to my participants.

have been privileged enough to be trusted by Deaf colleagues with the
information and stories that they have told me. I do not hail from the
Deaf community, so I need to be careful with the information shared with
me —not let my informants down. I also try to present my research in sign
language as often as possible so that Deaf people can access the information

fascinates me that when I was trained, I was never told about a Deaf
translation norm, yet the global Deaf community recognizes these “hidden
histories” of Deaf people as language brokers, translators, and interpreters for
other Deaf people in Deaf schools, Deaf clubs, and Deaf organizations—these
people who are known in Australia as “ghostwriters.” They may translate a
letter, explain a loan application, take a letter dictation from a sign
language, inform people of the news, explain subtitles—all of these activities
inform Deaf people from their earliest years of translation and interpreting
and create a cultural expectation for a bilingual person within their
community. I was never told this—we just learned that “attitude” is really
important. Should we tell new students about this community experience? the
Deaf community translation norm of more literate Deaf people supporting less
literate Deaf people? Ghostwriters have been doing this since time
immemorial, but this norm should also inform interpreters about how Deaf people
understand English, what interpreters could do, and what interpretation could
look like.

interpreters, we could be looking to understand how language brokers are
situated in the Deaf community, how they behave, and what community ethics look
like—and, of course, what they do that forms the translation norm. When we examine the work
of Deaf interpreters, we should look at a number of features—for example,
“Where did Deaf people apply effort in the interpreting?” Using relevance
theory as a framework, where are Deaf interpreters enriching the target
language to include additional linguistic and cultural information to make it
possible to be understood with the least cognitive effort? And when are they
impoverishing or reducing the target language, making it pragmatically heavy
(for a non-native language user) but still ensuring the least cognitive effort
for the Deaf consumer? These “in and out” decisions of native language users
can inform our practice and can help us better design our target language
output for our audience.

the United Kingdom, Deaf interpreters (DIs) are starting to work in areas that
may have traditionally been seen as “hearing” work and also are undertaking
English support—that is, ghostwriting—only they are now being paid. In the
United Kingdom, we have verbatim speech-to-text reporters (STTR), which is also
known as computer assisted real-time captioning (CART), offered as part of the
access requirements for hard-of-hearing people. DIs are beginning to expand
their interpreting work to include using an STTR “feed”—that is, scrolling
English captions and translating from the captions into BSL, ASL, International
Sign (IS), and so forth. This approach extends the television work that Deaf
translators/interpreters do from an autocue. And who knows what will happen
when independent speech recognition is available?

when Deaf interpreters work, there are no complaints about their work from
their Deaf consumers. Ironically, hearing interpreters might complain about or
critique the Deaf interpreters. This was the case when the Association of Sign
Language Interpreters for England, Wales and Northern Ireland (ASLI) employed
Deaf interpreters to work from STTR to BSL for the annual general meeting and
conference for the first time. Hearing interpreters felt that they were in a
position to suggest how they would do things differently and how nuances were
being missed without wondering whether the nuances missed were merely things
that were either not judged to be relevant or just became implicit in the BSL
interpretation. At that conference, one of the Deaf interpreters also
seamlessly worked from ASL, Irish Sign Language, and IS—four languages for the
price of one—and, yet, many hearing colleagues missed that expertise.
Interestingly, when they needed to rely on the Deaf interpreter, there was no
critiquing or complaints! It would seem, then, [that] the hearing interpreters
experienced the same pleasure that many Deaf people express when watching
Deaf interpreting and that the DIs ensure optimal access.

am pleased that we now see courses emerging for Deaf translators and
interpreters. Several Deaf interpreters have graduated from university courses
in the United Kingdom. John Walker in the University of Sussex, United Kingdom,
is running a pilot course for DIs working between BSL and either German Sign
Language (DGS), Polish Sign Language, or Czech Sign Language. John has been
instrumental in working with me and other interested parties to move forward
the registration categories for DIs working between BSL and another sign
language or to BSL from English autocue. At Hamburg University, Germany
Professor Christian Rathmann has began running three different courses: one for
DIs working between DGS and German on autocue, a second for DIs working between
DGS and another sign language, and a third for DIs working between DGS and IS.
In Canada, at the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada (AVLIC)
conference, Robert Adam and I were able to use the services of a DI (Nigel
Howard); Robert and I presented in BSL, and Nigel interpreted into ASL. We met
two DIs enrolled in and undertaking full interpreting programs and supported
further recognition for DIs within AVLIC. This suggests that it won’t be long
before hearing interpreters and DIs are working alongside each other in ever
increasing contexts, so there could be an exciting future for teams of “mixed”

Deb: What would you like
interpreter educators and interpreters to understand about your findings?

Christopher: There
are several things we need to think about: One is the history of sign language
interpreting, and which prominent Deaf figures inform that history. For
example, Breda Carty, in a recent Sign
Language Studies
article titled “A Grave and Gracious Woman,” has
uncovered a remarkable story from the 17th century, the careful reading of
which identifies that fact that Deaf and hearing interpreters worked together
so that a Deaf person could be accepted by the Puritanical Church. Given that
this happened in an institutional context in the 17th century, why not now? We
would, however, need courses that differentiate teaching for different learners
with different knowledge and skill gaps (i.e., Deaf people, hearing people with
Deaf parents, and people who are hearing/Deaf community “naïve,” which may
include hard-of-hearing people).

the Deaf interpreters undertaking media interpreting sheds light on rendering a
better product. A second thing we need to think about is ways to strengthen
translations by understanding the processes that Deaf interpreters use in their
work. Further analysis of the practice of translation and interpretation when
performed by Deaf interpreters may also give us further resources for the
classroom. When interpreting, what strategies do Deaf interpreters use to
produce work that is much more like a translation? Can those techniques be
taught to us as non-Deaf interpreters, so that we can learn how to render a
better cultural and linguistic product?

for professionalism and professional behavior, there is much we can learn by
watching . . . Deaf professionals; how do they behave within and with their
community, how do they interact at the Deaf clubs, and how do they continue to
be active in the community while still being party to information gleaned
there? Learning from Deaf interpreters would broaden our understanding of
professionalism, role, and interaction. Their perspectives shine a brighter
light on the role and ethical practice of interpreters, and this may provide us
with a framework to attach to translation.


Deb: What one aspect would you
like interpreters and educators to apply to their interpreting work and the
teaching of interpreters?

Addressing which jobs are “Deaf interpreter” jobs—for example, the translation
of websites or the filming of DVDs: Should hearing interpreters accept that
work? or refer it to our Deaf interpreter colleagues and encourage them to do
that work? What about written translation—what questions should we be asking
ourselves before we do that work? These conversations invite professionals in
the field to shift their understandings of the traditional work for non-Deaf
interpreters that may be better done by Deaf interpreters.


Deb: What is next on your research

Robert Adam and I interviewed older people 50–80 years of age in Australia and
the United Kingdom. All of them were known to be ghostwriters, and their
stories tell us about the responsibility and roles of ghostwriters. We have an
article coming out in the journal Babel, looking at the ghostwriter role’s cultural capital in the Deaf
community. We want to extend the interviews to younger Deaf people, 16–30 years
and 31–45 years, as it seems that younger Deaf people still identify with this
experience of ghostwriting.

These days, Deaf people are not freaked out by English and use it with
technologies such as MSN, Skype, and Facebook; they are showing confidence in
using English in these forms of social media. But, still, people are saying,
“Yes, I do English support for my friends.” We now see informal networks
developing—and at sites other than Deaf school, Deaf clubs, or within the
family—sites such as within mainstream schools or at work. So, that invites more
questions about how the ghostwriting role is evolving, what expectations people
hold for us as interpreters, and how the community is changing, too.

I am currently conducting two studies. One is a longitudinal study of
interpreter aptitude and the cognitive skills that underpin interpreting. As I
continue to gather data, I hope to (eventually!) identify aspects that
support interpreter education. The second study is with you [Deb Russell]; we
are collaborating on an IS team pilot study, part of which we reported on at
the 2011 conference of the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters. We
are looking at team strategies, preparation and differences between Deaf and
non-Deaf interpreters among other things. We are also hoping to build on a Clément
study (1986) and his subsequent work that focuses on the cultural identity of
bilinguals, and we will be looking to extend that study to sign language

One of my colleagues at DCAL is just finishing her PhD, and another colleague
is hoping to start one, so we are hoping to combine a postdoctoral post and a
PhD studentship in a grant. We are applying for money to tease out how
preparation influences the performance of the interpreter in educational

Deb: Are there questions I should
have asked you but didn’t?

Christopher: Yes:
“Would I advise people to undertake a PhD? Would I do it all again?” And the
answer would be “Absolutely!” I feel that I have been so fortunate and, I would
say, lucky—although Lorna Allsop always tells me that there is no such thing as
luck. Even so, one needs to be in the right place at the right time—I was
“lucky” in that the opportunities were there, and I was smart enough to grasp
them. A PhD in Interpreting is a wonderful thing to engage in, even if you
don’t have a further academic career in mind. You can move back into being a
full-time interpreter and bring with you all the learning of the PhD
experience, supporting your colleagues and Deaf people with newly gained
knowledge. If people are asking themselves, “Should I undertake a PhD?” to them
I would say, “Why not? Go on . . . treat yourself!”

Deb: Thank you for taking the time
to share your experiences with us. Once more, I am adding someone to my
“researchers to watch” list, placing your name at the top of the list


Clément, R.
(1986). Second language proficiency and acculturation: An
investigation of the effects of language status and individual characteristics
. Journal of Social Issues, 5,

Sperber, D.,
& Wilson, D. (1986/1995). Relevance:
Communication and cognition
. Oxford, United Kingdom: Blackwell.

Stone, C.
(2009). Toward a Deaf
translation norm
. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

<![if !supportEmptyParas]>



[1] Correspondence to:

[2]Correspondence to:

Economic and Social Research Council of Great Britain (Grant RES-620-28-6001),
Deafness, Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL).

[4] Editorial note: Deaf
are those who use sign language and consider themselves part of the
Deaf community, as opposed to deaf or hard-of-hearing
who define themselves solely as having a hearing loss. The IJIE
editorial policy is to use the convention of lower case ‘d’ – deaf – so as not
to make any judgment about the cultural status of deaf people (See Editorial of
Volume 1). However, in the context of this article, the research undertaken by
Christopher Stone on ghostwriting and Deaf interpreters specifically focuses on
gaining insights from those who would traditionally be considered members of
the Deaf community with early exposure to sign language and the Deaf community.
As such, at his request, throughout this article the term Deaf is used as this
represents the identities of his informants.