Thursday, 04 July 2019 20:41

Kameliya Angelova: Being Sing Language Interpreter Is a Vocation

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Today’s guest of We Hear You is an interpreter translating from and into sign language. She plays a multitude of roles in her life. Mother of two boys, she’s also a specialized security officer and a sign language interpreter. She’s a qualified stenographer typist and document administrator, but she also has a degree in Pantomime as she’d graduated from the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts (NATFA) program in Physical theatre. She holds a brown belt in Shotokan Karate Do. She’s an experienced sign language interpreter who’ll tell us about sign language, the job of a sign language interpreter and the challenges in this area. Let me introduce you to Kameliya Angelova!


Mrs Angelova, we’re glad to have you at We Hear You. Please, tell us about the job of a sign language interpreter from your point of view.

Hello! Thank you for the invitation! Being sign language interpreter is a huge responsibility as well as an immense challenge. There’s no such thing as a ‘know-it-all attitude’ in this job. You’ll always learn something new. Facial expressions are constantly changing and developing and new signs are being invented all the way through. A sign language interpreter needs to be aware of the changes in the field. In my view, doing the job speaking to deaf people is crucial since it gives you the personal experience you need to keep your interpreting skills current.

I did mention responsibility and I`ll try to tell you why. When you’re in Court or at the Police Station, you need to be as accurate as possible in your interpretation, so that a deaf person who needs your service will get the point of the situation as clearly as possible. The outcome of the whole process depends on your skills. Make a mistake and you could send an innocent person to prison for years, or you could be the reason a clear perpetrator is pronounced innocent during a process. The same point is valid when you’re interpreting at the notary office, in the bank, or in hospital and pretty much any establishment.

A sign language interpreter needs to be prepared to act in extreme circumstances and be ready to attend to a deaf person’s needs of interpretation in any case and during an indefinite period of time. They might not always get paid for the service. Being sign language interpreter is a vocation, I’d rather say. To me, it’s more of a hobby than a job. It’s a pleasure for me to do interpreting and I don’t feel any pressure doing that. Quite to the contrary, it fills me up with positive emotions. I’ve volunteered to interpret for many people in a wide range of cases. Seeing the deaf person satisfied by my job is enough to keep me motivated. A simple ‘Thank you!’ means a lot to me.

What was the reason you started learning sign language?

Up until year 10, I was a student at the 93rd Comprehensive School ‘Alexander Teodorov – Balan.’ Back in the years, you were allowed to choose a specialty at this point. This is how I  got transferred to 118th Comprehensive School ‘Acad. Lyudmil Stoyanov’ and enrolled a class specializing in stenotyping. That must have been the time I met a deaf girl who lived in Varna. Her name was Veselka and she was exceptionally beautiful.

At first, we would communicate with each other exchanging notes on pieces of paper, as I didn’t have a clue of sign language. Staying with her gave me the chance to meet up with other deaf people. I remember being fascinated by their conversations. I particularly liked how facial expressions could tell you a lot and I gradually started mirroring and memorizing the signs these people used. My deaf friends were glad to show me more and more signs over time. I was so engrossed in the activity that I wanted to keep learning signs all the time. Initially, most deaf people didn’t trust me much, but then they eventually made me a part of their community.

Was it 1991 or 1992 when I found out they organized entrance exams for the NATFA Physical theatre program. The latter was meant for students with hearing impairments. True, I was not a qualified interpreter back then, but they asked me to do sign language interpreting for the newly admitted students with impaired hearing. I gladly accepted the request and that’s how I started out my career as a sign language interpreter and my development in the field began. I would take any chance to communicate with deaf people and interpret from and into sign language.

That’s when I also got invited to a sign language course that took place in Primorsko, at the ‘Tishina’ recreation facility of the Union of the Deaf in Bulgaria. We were divided in two groups with two lecturers assigned (Spaska Dzhangozova and Maria Mihailova.) I was a part of the group Dzhangozova lead and it was a real honour for me to be her student. I used to have a rough set of facial expressions, but when I graduated from the course, the signs I made were clear since my knowledge base had increased. Soon after the course had finished, we had exams and the ones who passed them got vocational certificates allowing them to work as sign language interpreters.

So how did you come to be a student at the NATFA when you were just an interpreter for the students with hearing impairments at the Academy?

The following year (1993), I realized I was so close to the deaf students at the NATFA that I decided to become a student at the same program and study along with them. I got through the auditions successfully but had to pass extra exams, so that I could be a student in the same year as my friends. I managed to deal with the situation and continued my studies. I was both a student and an interpreter then.

I graduated from the NATFA in 1995 and got a degree in Physical theatre letting me become a pantomime actress. I studied along with Krasimir Alyov and the now deceased Alexander Alexandrov and Tsvetan Kunchev. Alexander Mikov, Nikolai Kolev and Vladimir Totev (all of whom having hearing impairments) were also a part of our class. This was the first group of deaf students to graduate from the NAFTA!

You often do the interpreting for sports events. Why did you choose sports?

The very same year (1993), Bulgaria was hosting the Summer Deaflympics. This was the first time I was interpreting for the Sports Federation. I particularly liked communicating with people from various countries and of different nations. Much to my surprise, I could understand them and they would get me right. Then, the Bulgarian Deaf Sports Federation invited me to do the interpreting at numerous competitions.

Once again, I’ll tell you I`m into facial expressions. Don’t know if I was motivated more by my curiousity or my love for the job, but I managed to learn the proper expressions over time. At times, I even unintentionally speak to hearing people using signs to make my point clear. This usually happens after lasting events such as the sports games. They would sometimes look at me in bewilderment but when I tell them about my job, they would express their admiration.

Why I chose sports? It’s not just the field of sports I practice my job in, but naturally I’m into sports. I also learn new things about international signs and expressions. In my view, the more words and expressions a sign language interpreter is familiar with, the clearer their interpreting is for the deaf. I do interpreting whenever somebody needs me to do it. I’ve never turned down any interpreting request. Of course, I would be unable to attend to it in case I’m occupied with my other jobs.

Which was the organization related to the deaf society that first gave you the job of an interpreter?

In 1992, I was called up to meet Lazar Markov, then vice chairman of the Union of the Deaf   in Bulgaria, at his office. He offered me the job of a captionist at the news program to aid the deaf audience. At this point, the Union of the Deaf had signed a contract with the Centre of Telematic Services, so that the evening edition of the News aired at 8PM on Channel 1 could be captioned.

Thus, deaf people who owned a Teletext decoder provided by the Union, could watch the evening edition of the News with live captions. I started working on a schedule there. When I was on duty, I would read the whole range of newspapers for the day, so that I would be aware of the news. I arrived an hour early at work, so that we could set up the system together with the technicians. I would put the headphones on my ears at 8PM exactly and start doing the live captioning.

I actually had to do three jobs at a time – be an interpreter, live captionist at the TV and a student. My interpreting duties were taking more and more time. They would call me as an expert to do the job at the Court, the Regional Police Departments, various events hosted by the Union and the Bulgarian Deaf Sports Federation.

Let’s talk about your job as a sign language interpreter. Do you and your colleagues in Bulgaria manage to provide service to all the people who currently demand interpreting? What are the challenges you face in your job?

This is a long story. To cut it short, I don’t think we’re able to provide service to all the people who demand interpreting. Any deaf person practically needs interpreting at some point in their lives but the number of sign language interpreters in Bulgaria is far too small. True, there’s an extensive list of qualified professionals, but few of us actually practise the job. Moreover, sign language is not yet legislated in Bulgaria, so it’s not widely used in the institutions. That’s why most interpreters do jobs that have hardly anything to do sign language to provide income for their families.

Honestly, there’s just ONE sign language interpreter working at the Regional Department of the Union of the Deaf in Sofia. I can’t comment on the number of employed colleagues at the Regional Departments in other cities, since I’m not familiar with it. Unfortunately, life is full of challenges here in Bulgaria.

I can think of one more issue we face – most deaf people would rather bring their relatives, friends or acquaintances around when they need interpreting. They wouldn’t ask for the help of a qualified interpreter. I think you should ask them about the reason why they do this. I reckon one of the possible reasons is we are hard to find.

Although I must admit I get messages directly from deaf people now that we all use the Internet. I suppose my colleagues would tell you the same. I hope we are seeing better times in the near future. I hope Bulgarian Sign Language will be legislated and the institutions will need to hire sign language interpreters. I also hope the number of official professional engagements we take up will increase.

Do you think there’s a point in the reproaching statement that a sign language interpreter increases the level of intelligence of a deaf person while providing service to the latter?

I don’t see anything wrong with the increasing of the level of intelligence anybody has. I do think a sign language interpreter needs to take into consideration the prior experience of the audience while providing interpreting for them. They need to make sure they’re understood correctly! This is a crucial condition in our job.

Using grammatically correct sign language to match the grammar of spoken Bulgarian language is often ignored as it seems to make sign language harder to grasp. Is obeying the rules of grammar significant when doing interpreting into sign language?

The use of grammatically correct sign language is especially up to the lecturer and it varies depending on the nature of the interpreting and the audience.

For example, hard-of-hearing people have distinct preferences that stand out compared to the ones profoundly deaf people have. Many people with hearing impairments have graduated from regular schools and they are familiar with the grammatically correct word order. People who’ve graduated from specialized schools for the deaf have a different idea of it. This is something a sign language interpreter needs to consider while doing the interpreting.

But things can get complicated when people from both of the abovementioned groups are present. You need to come up with phrases and sentences that are suitable for both groups. I firmly believe an interpreter needs to work by the rule: The Client is Always Right. In case you need to use grammatically correct sign language, that’s what you do. If you need to simplify the expressions and use natural gestures, you go with that. Why not do that? There’s nothing wrong with ignoring grammar occasionally as long as the message is clear and accessible to the deaf person. Of course, there are occasions when using the proper grammar is absolutely necessary.

Are Bulgarian sign language interpreters likely to work with users of the genuine sign language to increase their knowledge base?

Personally, I’ve always been proud of the fact that I’ve started learning the sign language by asking deaf people. That goes to say I’ve been in contact with users of the genuine sign language ever since. I’ve been in situations when I had to explain to deaf people that I’m actually a hearing person because it’s something they wouldn’t know by the way I speak to them. They were skeptical of the idea I’m not naturally a deaf person. They told me I could ‘speak like a deaf person.’ I always emphasize on the fact that the nature of the process is up to the person you’re speaking to and their level of intelligence. After all, you need to get your point across to people! 

What are the areas in life where sign language interpretation is in especial demand here in Bulgaria?

My experience shows no specific areas in life get people to reach out to us. There are situations when interpreting is necessary for a piece of information to become accessible. I’ve done interpreting in all sorts of areas ranging from online delivery requests to processes in Court. I’ve been in service at the diagnostic ward in a hospital as well as the local shop. I’ve helped out with Bank operations and sending parcels at the Post Office. All sorts of activities, you see.

Deaf specialists have long been a part of the list of sign language interpreters worldwide. What’s the situation in Bulgaria? In your view, what are the cases when deaf people need to do interpreting from and into sign language?

That’s a sensitive topic. Institutions don’t seem to take it seriously when a person with impaired hearing is interpreting for their peer. Their point is you can’t be sure how much information a deaf person has managed to read by the lips of a hearing person. Some hearing people have a formidable pronunciation.

There are cases when interpreting is difficult for us, hearing people, too. Some lecturers would speak faster than we manage to translate, using specific terms that are hard to explain or replace. That’s not a suitable manner of public speaking at all. My view is there’s always a place for deaf people to do interpreting. That’s especially useful in the case of reverse translation. My experience shows that a deaf person will always get the point of another deaf person quickly and clearly. Hence, their interpreting will be more accurate than the one done by a hearing interpreter.

According to me, sign language interpreting is a job for both deaf and hearing people. We get the best results when both deaf and hearing interpreters work together. I can tell you about a recent situation that happened to illustrate my point. I was soon present at a few European Deaf Table Tennis tournaments in Albena. They needed interpreting (hearing to deaf and deaf to hearing) during the technical conference.

I worked alongside Hristo Stanoychev. His help was immense. I hope I managed to help him, too. We were a wonderful team! When he couldn’t grasp one particular word from the hearing speaker, I would help him. When I needed reverse translation, he would help me. Everybody was pleased with our work since we did a good job!

What did you take from the workshop hosted by the European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters (EFSLI) that recently took place in Bulgaria?

I must say there were specific regulations during the event. A sign language interpreter who’d paid an entrance fee could not do any interpreting. Only colleagues who had not signed up for the workshop (including myself) were allowed to do interpreting. In other words, you could either be a participant or an interpreter.

The topics discussed during the workshop dealt with the opportunities to apply for projects in the area of sign language, the impending changes in laws concerning the process of application and the expected radical changes in the procedure. It was both a positive contribution to my image and a pleasure for me to do interpreting at the event! 

Do you think we need an enacted Law on Bulgarian Sign Language? Is it going to have any effect on the sign language interpreting service offered by qualified professionals?

I firmly support the effort people from all walks of the deaf society put into the legislation of Bulgarian Sign Language (BgSL)! When BgSL is legislated, the standards of qualification will be raised, so that one would not automatically become a certified sign language interpreter. I hope students will get extra terms to practise interpreting in a wider range of situations.

The World Federation of the Deaf has recently published a statement against the unification of gestures and signs. Its main argument is the loss of variety in gestural communication that occurs during the process. What’s your opinion on the issue as a sign language interpreter? Do you think unification could solve the problem with the presence of a large number of signs carrying the same meaning of a single word? 

No doubt, unification is a tricky issue when applied to sign language and I`ll tell you why. Indeed, having a specific sign carrying a specific meaning is supposed to make sign language easier to grasp. On the other hand, we’re currently facing a situation when one word has a different sign used in almost every region of the country. Facial expressions are developing over time. New words are constantly being invented, hence new signs corresponding to the terms are being made up. I don’t think the deaf society could be put into a single framework of signs and stop this natural development.

No way is that going to happen! Thinking a bit deeper of the issue, you could deduce sign language unification will lead to some extent of shrinking of one’s vocabulary. In my view, any sign is worthy of knowing. The more signs you’re familiar with, the wider your vocabulary becomes.

This is not a process specific of the Bulgarian society only. When you’re able to use a few signs carrying the same meaning, you’re more likely to be understood by a deaf person from another country, too. But there’s always the other side of the coin! There are a number of gestures that have nothing to do with the word itself. They’ve been created as a result of an association one makes with something that looks familiar to them but is not otherwise related to the word.

You mean situations when one sign is used by deaf people to denote a few things when meanings are not even related in sense?

 Yes, you got me right. I’ll give you an example. A few years ago, I was curious to know how a deaf woman will translate the brand name ‘Picadilly’ into sign language, so I asked her about it. She showed me the ‘have a pee’ sign (sorry for the language.) I then asked her ‘What does a grocery store have to do with physiological needs?’ You could guess she was unable to explain her point to me.

Anyway, I acquired the gesture and started using it so that I could get my point across to other deaf people regardless of the fact that I wouldn’t agree with the way it was translated. This is when sign language interpreters play a crucial role – they need to explain the meaning of a word.

The job of a deaf person is to create a proper set of expression and sign corresponding to the word. That doesn’t readily happen but it’s a part of the challenges we face in our job. So to say, I’ve always been eager to know the origins of particular signs and get to the bottom of why it’s been chosen to denote a particular meaning. This is one of the things I become engrossed in as a sign language interpreter.

Thank you for being our guest and giving us an insider’s look into the job of a sign language interpreter!

The topics you’ve asked me about during the interview are particularly interesting. I can talk to you about them for hours since they’re not something you can put into a few words and fit into a single interview. I was delighted to answer any single question of yours! It’s both an honour and a pleasure for me to be your guest! Thank you for the attention!

Interview by Christina Tchoparova

Photo credits: We Hear You & personal archive of the SLI Angelova

EN Translation by: Maria Mihailova

Alliance NCAC “We Hear You” is the holder of publishing rights on this article

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