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Being A British Sign Language Interpreter, Who Is Asian, Has Only Ever Been An Advantage

16/06/2017 11:04

I don't like to be pigeon holed. Labels feed into my fear of feeling restricted, limited and confined to one thing. I wasn't raised to be one thing, I was taught to be many. My Singaporean mother and North Indian father moved to London in the seventies to get married. The thirty or so years that followed saw them run successful corner shops whilst raising two daughters. We were taught to earn respect and value our reputations. 'Work hard', we were told. Those thirty years, being the child of shopkeepers, made me who I am today and set the foundation for the position I am in now.

I never really knew what I wanted to be, it always changed. Journalist (did some work experience in a national broadsheet and woman's magazine, wasn't my thing. But received my first byline!). Lawyer (that one month work experience didn't tickle my fancy and I don't like to be stuck in an office all day). Personal Assistant (I have a problem with authority, but I am super organised). I can say I did my research, before dismissing any of the above. I was always taught that 'if you don't ask, you don't get'. Speak to people, build your networks, learn from people and then decide.

I did okay in school, achieved a Postgraduate Masters. Along the way I thought working for an NGO or within the Foreign Office would be interesting and with those qualifications that would be achievable (little did I know nearly 10 years later I'd be standing at the UN offices in Geneva interpreting).

I started to learn British Sign Language (BSL) in 2005, during my second year of my undergraduate degree, purely out of interest and as an extra skill to learn. Another gem from my mother, 'never stop learning'. I fell back into it in 2008 whilst volunteering at a charity for a month. My mother reminded me that I enjoyed the time I spent learning BSL, and as recession hit, graduate schemes weren't easy to come by. In January 2009, I was given the opportunity to join an agency and work with deaf individuals within a limited capacity, I did so for ten months.

Long story short, I realised I needed to learn and understand more, a whole lot more. I went freelance at the end of that year, undertook all the qualifications that I needed, built the networks that helped me to eventually qualify as a Registered Sign Language Interpreter (RSLI) in August 2014.

Qualifying was the most challenging thing I went through at that point in time. Interpreting isn't like revising for a test and then passing, it's not an algorithm that can be learnt. Every day is different. My personality, my characteristics, 'Sharan', was challenged, is challenged. The gatekeepers to the interpreting community challenged me, the deaf community challenged me. Was I good enough to have access? Was I good enough to represent them fairly? I failed along the way, like I said, it wasn't easy. The evidence I would bring to the assessments was too 'Sharan' (why did you raise your eyebrow at the hearing person's comment? That's not impartial). I learnt to refine which moments in time needed 'Sharan' and which didn't. I won't lie, I still struggle. I have a strong personality. I'm cheeky, I believe that if you want something, go and get it. I don't like being told that I can't do something. Why limit yourself, when there are opportunities and people who you can learn from, personally and professionally? Interpreters have those networks. We build them and we don't realise how powerful they are.

I have been fortunate enough to interpret in a variety of settings, and for some high-profile individuals. A particular event marked a moment in my career, interpreting for Barack Obama in 2016. Not because I was interpreting for the President of the United States, but for all the moments, experiences and hard work that got me to that point.

There aren't many BSL interpreters that are Asian. My race has never been a hindrance to what I do. If anything, it adds an extra dimension and allows me to have an insight and understanding of social/cultural references, different spoken languages and behaviours, which some interpreters may not. This in turn allows greater access for a specific demographic within the deaf community (interpreting for Narendra Modi in 2015 and the upcoming LIFF for Ashutosh Gowariker at the British Film Institute, Southbank, London). If anything, being Asian is unique within an already niche profession.

I'm not naïve enough to believe that race isn't a huge issue within any workplace, it is. However, being a British Sign Language Interpreter, who is Asian, has only ever been an advantage.

See Sharan in action, at the British Film Institute on Friday 23rd June, at 6.30pm. More at: The London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) runs from 22nd June to 29th June across 11 venues in London, and a selection of these films, will screen at the Birmingham Indian Film Festival (BIFF) runs from 23rd June to 2nd July, in Birmingham, across 3 venues. For more information, visit: http://londonindianfilmfestival.co.uk & http://birminghamindianfilmfestival.co.uk

The booking for LIFF was passed on by 'Performance Interpreting Ltd'- run by a fabulous interpreter, Marie Pascall. Her company also provided interpretation for the Karachi Literature Festival last month at Southbank Centre, WOW Festival this year and many more music/cultural events as well. She has just celebrated her 2 year anniversary and has opened doors for many deaf people to access, what were 'non-accessible', events.

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