Updated: May 16
Thuli Zikalala discusses embracing professional interpreters on digital platforms.
Sign Language interpreting is important for any society to ensure that all citizens have access to information at an equal level. As South Africans, we all remember the collective sigh we experienced as a nation when it was revealed that the sign language South African Sign Language (SASL) interpreter at the funeral of Nelson Mandela was fake. It was a moment of extreme disservice to people who are Deaf, not to mention an embarrassment for our nation in the watchful eyes of the world. Now, as SASL is poised to become the 12th official language of South Africa, it is perhaps the time to envision what the future of SASL interpreting might look like in a new world. For this post, we interview Thuli Zikalala , a South African Translation Institute (SATI) accredited Interpreter who is on a mission to transform the use of SASL interpreting in South Africa.
Tell us about yourself
I am an interpreter by profession; I have an Honours degree in Interpreting and I am one of only twelve (12) South African Translation Institute (SATI) accredited South African Sign Language (SASL) interpreters in the country. I recently decided to leave my full-time job to pursue my dreams of becoming an independent interpreter; and increase access to information on digital platforms through interpreting.
What drives you?
It is important for me to see myself beyond my profession of interpreting; I am a visionary, creative person who is passionate about doing things that have previously been considered impossible. Collaborating with like-minded industry-leaders always challenges me to dream bigger and think differently by using my personality and skills to solve problems; while ultimately pushing humanity forward.
What does the interpreting landscape currently look like in South Africa?
There are many people who consider themselves to be SASL interpreters; yet they have very little formal training or mentorship from more experienced professional interpreters. A common misconception is that once someone knows the basics of South African Sign Language, then they automatically become a good interpreter and can make money from it.
Being an interpreter is cognitively demanding, and this is seldom understood. Besides being fluent in the languages of choice, one also needs to practice and master the skill of transferring information faithfully and accurately at a very fast pace. It is equally important to be actively involved in the communities we serve, to increase cultural awareness. Currently, there are very few companies, organisations and platforms that understand the value of using professional interpreters; which results in people having limited participation in their respective communities.
Another important fact is that there are not enough accredited interpreters in South Africa (only 12 in fact!). Getting accredited with a body like SATI is important as it helps to maintain a high standard of skills set and it ensures credibility within the different communities that we serve, and so I encourage all interpreters to take the exam)
What is your vision for the future?
The world is changing at a very fast pace and people need to adapt quickly. Digital platforms have made it possible for us to have information right at our fingertips; particularly now during the global COVID19 pandemic that restricts physical interaction. Technology offers the solution for people to keep abreast with what’s happening around them, while maintaining safety and social distancing.
I envision a time when having a professional interpreter on every TV program, digital platform, and other form of communication will be the standard. I aim to partner with influential organisations, digital platforms, and brands to challenge how they deliver content in more creative and inclusive ways for everyone. People need to view interpreters simply as conduits of information; they are fully present in the moment, yet impartial to the content delivered. They are also bound by a strict code of ethics that ensures a high standard of behaviour across all settings.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working with CliffCentral.com to introduce interpreting to podcasts for the first time in South Africa. We have created a pilot interpreted episode of Blind History that is sponsored by Taylor Blinds & Shutters. We have also included subtitles to broaden information access; this is a great way to introduce new vocabulary to our audiences.
Cliff Central.com is the leading digital platform for podcasts, news and information in South Africa; and I am fortunate to have partnered with an open-minded, forward-thinking platform such as theirs that shares a common vision of making information access more inclusive. Podcasts offer a wealth of knowledge that is just not accessible to the Deaf community because they are audio-based; resulting in an entire community and audience being excluded - simply because they can’t hear. I’m changing that!
Why has it taken so long for podcasts in South Africa to introduce SASL interpreters?
Podcasts are the new buzz in South Africa; however, it may take time for audiences to embrace what they really are - and even longer to envision the possibility of an interpreter being present on each episode! It’s a slow paradigm shift that requires adapting to change quickly and understanding that creating access should be the standard, not an option. In fact, I believe that not having an interpreter available for any form of communication is a violation of people’s right to information access!
There is also a lack of awareness about professional interpreters and their role of channelling information; interpreters have the massive responsibility of bridging communication between different audiences, while being culturally-sensitive to who those audiences are. The only way to prove that podcasts with interpreters work is by trial and error - this will also give us valuable feedback from target audiences on how to improve delivery and overall experience
What can people do to support this?
People can start by watching and supporting the Cliff Central.com pilot episode of Blind History sponsored by Taylor Blinds and Shutters that I interpret (Youtube link below). It’s a first of its kind and we aim to remove barriers to information access across all platforms; and introduce a wider audience, including the Deaf community to the wonderful world of podcasts. Please subscribe to the channel, share the video and give us some feedback! We would love to hear from you so that we can interpret more content!
How can people connect with you?
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