Whose faces appear on television screens the
most during Question Period? It is not Brian Mulroney, John Turner, Ed
Broadbent or even Speaker John Bosley. That distinction belongs to Christine
Wilson on the English channel and Micheline Martineau on the French network.
They are the ladies who appear in the upper right hand corner of the screen to
provide simultaneous sign language interpretation of Question Period for the
deaf. They discussed their unique occupation in an interview with the Canadian
Parliamentary Review in April 1986.
Tell us a bit about your background?
WILSON: I was born in Ottawa. Although not
deaf myself I learned sign language because both my parents were deaf. It was
the first language I learned and friends tell of the amusing sight of a toddler
gesturing madly with its hands. I eventually studied to be a registered nurse
and later worked in a centre for mentally retarded adults. I have also worked
for the Canadian Hearing Society and served on their board of directors. I
obtained my Comprehensive Skills Certificate from the Registry of Interpreters
for the Deaf and have passed the Secretary of State examination. I started a
sign language program at Algonquin College and taught there for seven years.
All together I have worked as an interpreter, part time, for 18 years.
MARTINEAU: I was born in Hull and lived in
Farm Point before going to Montreal to attend l'Institute des Sourd Muettes for
twelve years. When I started to work in 1973 there were virtually no French
sign language interpreters in Ottawa. I have been with for the CBC Parliamentary
Network since sign language interpreting began in 1979.
Have you always been interested in
MARTINEAU: Most people do not realize how
difficult it is for deaf people to follow the news. For one thing little
emphasis is given to teaching politics in schools. There is little opportunity
to watch translated or captioned television in Canada. Services for the hearing
handicapped are available to a much greater extent in the United States. Like
most deaf people I tend to watch more American programs than Canadian ones.
WILSON: I used to watch question period and
always found it fascinating. Since I have been interpreting I follow the news
very carefully to prepare myself for work. I have noticed that the press
reports do not always reflect what happens in the House and I find this
What exactly is sign language?
MARTINEAU: The deaf, like any cultural
group, have their own way of perceiving things and it is not the same as for
those who are able to hear. American Sign Language (or the French equivalent
Language des Signes Québécois) has a grammatical structure of its own and does
not necessarily follow the English sentence structure. Body language and facial
components are very important and are used to express emotion. Some questions
and answers are sad, funny or angry but most are not. Hearing people think that
the deaf learn American Sign Language or Language des Signes Québécois in
school but that is not the case, it is something that we teach each other.
Sign language is a series of hand
'signs" representing words, concepts and ideas. It includes
finger-spelling whereby proper names and places, are spelled, letter for
letter. Unlike spoken languages where there is a comparable word for each word
of another language, sign language is actually limited in the extent of
vocabulary, having fewer signs than a spoken language has words. But signs can
represent different concepts when used in different ways and the interpreter
must understand the concept and context of what is being said.
WILSON: A sign language interpreter must
really "interpret", not just translate. for example, when the Speaker
says "The Hon. Member for Sudbury", it is not signed because the
member is identified on the screen. When the questioner says "Through you,
Mr. Speaker, to the Minister of Transport", as most questions begin, we
sign "Question Minister Transport". This type of interpreting gives
us time to finish up the previous question and answer, as carefully as
possible, before beginning the next question. It does take some mental
gymnastics. I often finish five or six seconds after the person is speaking.
The hearing impaired audience do not get the audio clues that signal changes in
speakers so the interpreter must visually demonstrate these changes by
"resting" between speakers. Incidentally, the interpreter also
"signs" the laughter and uproars that we "hear" off-camera
and occasionally the catcalls too. A good understanding of the topic covered by
the speaker must exist before the interpreter chooses appropriate signs to
explain the idea being expressed.
Many are foreign names and often spoken less
than clearly. It is sometimes impossible to interpret fully when visitors are
recognized by the Speaker who may say, for example, "A delegation from Zimbabwe
on International Relations, headed by Mr. so and so". This might be
interpreted as "welcome to a group from Zimbabwe, here to discuss
international relations". The deaf are unfamiliar with terms such as
parliamentary privilege so I try to explain what they mean.
MARTINEAU: Often some completely new name
comes up like Chernobyl and I have to check newspapers the next day to see if I
spelled it correctly.
How do you deal with the use of French
and English in debate?
MARTINEAU: They are completely separate sign
languages. The meaning and structure are different just as different languages
have different grammar. There are also regional differences. For example some
sign interpreters would spell out names such as Mulroney. Others might adopt a
simplified sign by pointing to the chin.
WILSON: If a member is speaking French I
must wait for the English translation which takes a second or two. Micheline
who is in an adjoining studio, watches me on TV and then signs for the French
Network. A French speaking spectator may actually be getting the question and
answer fourth hand – from a French MP to an English interpreter to English
signs to French signs.
Why is sign interpretation limited to
WILSON: Sign language interpreting is very
tiring. It is possible to sign for one or two hours when the assignment has
breaks in it but the interpreter is quite exhausted if it is continuous.
Question Period is generally quick paced but there are some breaks. If all
parliamentary proceedings were to be interpreted, far more interpreters would
Do you interpret any other parliamentary
WILSON: We did the last federal budget but
it was very difficult. For one thing it is extremely hard to interpret so many
abstract concepts, facts and figures. It also made me wonder how many deaf
viewers could assimilate and understand this complex information particularly
since we interpreted the Minister's Budget Speech but not the comments of the
analysts who explained the budget to the hearing audience. If we had attended
the pre-budget lockup and briefing perhaps it would have been easier but that
was impractical since we would have had to leave at 2:00 for Question Period.
Do you think the interpretation service
is appreciated by the handicapped?
WILSON: That is something that should be
addressed to representatives of the handicapped. However, I do wonder sometimes
if we are making the best use of limited resources for their benefit. For
example, would there be more interest in spending the same amount of money in
providing explanations such as John Warren gives before Question Period? Or
perhaps it would be more interesting to provide more captioning for programs
like the CBC National News (which is currently captioned), the journal or other
public affairs programs. I would like to make a video glossary for signs
relating to Parliament and political matters. But I think we have to ask the
deaf what they want.
MARTINEAU: I agree, however, one tends to
forget that when someone is deaf they have never "heard" the National
News or many other programs so they have no way of knowing what they are
missing. In such circumstances it is very difficult to say what are the most
important programs to make available. Someone has made a decision that it
should be Question Period. It is. of course, a very interesting show and both
of us have become Question Period addicts.
Do you have any direct contact with
Members of Parliament. Have you testified before committees concerning problems
of the handicapped etc.
WILSON: During the year of the disabled I
acted as interpreter for a number of groups which appeared before the Special
Committee on the Handicapped. But I did not make any presentations to the
committee myself. I am now chairperson of an organization called Total
Communication Environment. We provide group homes for deaf multi-handicapped
individuals and I speak on behalf of our clients to various government bodies.
However, I keep my role as an interpreter separate from this advocacy role.
What do you see in the future for the
WILSON: CBC has a mandate for captioning
programs for the hearing impaired. If and when committees are televised perhaps
there will be captions.
MARTINEAU: Very few deaf people are working
in this area but I think the deaf are interested in informative and instructive
television programming which is quite rare. I hope the CBC will continue and
perhaps increase the services offered to this group of spectators.