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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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International Perspectives on Sign Language Interpreter Education

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When she first arrived, Spencer observed that deaf people would use FJSL when chatting informally among themselves, but revert to ASE in formal situations. She noticed that the sign language interpreters at church were predominantly using ASE and that they looked self-conscious when standing up the front, used a small signing space, and showed no grammatical facial expression. They stood at the side of the room rather than next to the speaker, and in meetings, sat in the same space as the deaf people rather than at the front of the room.

As an outsider, Spencer needed to be cautious about initiating change. Over time she modeled different interpreter behaviors, which were actually in-line with strategies that Modupe Alade had introduced beforehand. Spencer started standing at the front of the room next to the speaker and incorporated more FJSL grammar into her signing, using nonmanual features, productive (depicting) signs, and constructed action and dialogue. Her English-to-FJSL interpreting style, although still influenced by NZSL, was consequently more “free” and natural than the “literal” English- based form Wale Alade had unwittingly instigated. In response, many deaf people and other interpreters thought that she was using mime rather than signing, but despite the NZSL interference, found her interpretations easier to understand than the local ASE-based practice. Spencer worked in Fiji until 2007.

Despite best intentions to the contrary, a few NZSL signs are now used by the Deaf community, as a legacy of Spencer’s work. It is inevitable that in a small developing Deaf community, kaivalagis (white foreigners) who come to live and work in Fiji will, inadvertedly or otherwise, influence FJSL with the signed languages and systems they have brought with them. Harland and the teachers of the deaf have imported ASE; Adedeji and Alade have introduced aspects of SEE/ASL-based NSI; and now there is a NZSL layer. Most of these influences have originated in Suva, which in turn influences the signing in other Fiji towns and islands.

Interpreter Training in Fiji

In Fiji there is no spoken language interpreting profession. There is no training, association, or register of interpreters for any language. However, “interpreters” are used in court, parliament, and for police matters. Those who interpret in court are as designated “court clerks” and paid very little. Paul Geraghty, linguist and associate professor at the University of the South Pacific, states that they are people with minimal education who were given the jobs by relatives who are magistrates, judges, or working in some capacity in the system (Geraghty, 2007). In this context, the provision of a training program for sign language interpreters in Fiji is particularly significant.

Prior to the commencement of the training course in 2006, sign language interpreters in Fiji have generally been unaware of, and unaccountable for, the quality of their interpreting output. Interpreters would often make up signs as they worked, and this practice has been acccepted by deaf people. The Deaf community has also never challenged the practice of interpreters answering questions on an individual’s behalf and making decisions for their clients. This is not unsual in a context where interpreting is preprofessional, still “helper” oriented, and where the sign language is still emerging with a lexicon that is not yet standardized or large enough to accommodate a broad range of concepts. A compounding factor is the Fiji cultural norm of not confronting or criticizing others directly.

FAD recognized the need to document FJSL and to improve the quality of interpreting generally. In 2004–05, FAD applied for an Australian Volunteer International placement and funds to create a dictionary and provide interpreter training. Kate Nelson, deaf and Fiji-born (although still regarded as a kaivalagi because of her Australian background), was recruited to take up the placement in 2005. When Nelson arrived, there was only one full-time Fijian interpreter, Rita Miller, working solo at the Gospel High School. Miller was interpreting for deaf students in their 1st year of high school, unsupervised, and remunerated from donations.

2006 was a landmark year in terms of the recognition and development of the Deaf community and the FJSL interpreting profession:

  • FAD received a grant to employ five full-time interpreters at two Suva high schools: Gospel High School and Marist Brothers High School.
  • Nelson and Spencer were enlisted to establish a monitoring and supervision system; the first time there had been any monitoring or supervision of interpreters in Fiji.
  • Production commenced on the FJSL dictionary.
  • FAD set up an interpreter committee to help monitor interpreting activities and work toward setting up an interpreting association.
  • Two FJSL interpreters, Inise Tawaketini and Claudette Wilson, were sponsored to attend the Sign Language Interpreters Association of New Zealand (SLIANZ) annual conference.
  • Nelson and Spencer recruited students and conducted the first interpreter training course.

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