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001: Jennifer MacLaughlin shares how Auslan and non-verbal speaking helps her have deeper conversations

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Jennifer MacLaughlin is an Auslan Interpreter for the deaf community. Auslan has a similar language structure to Asian languages. The word order is different and the picture and scene is created first. The language is created in a visual sense.

We explore a conversation where Jennifer was standing on stage translating an extraordinary piece of poetry to a group of people who were in the dark. I was moved by the energy that Jennifer brought to the conversation about what it means to listen deeply.

Today’s Topics:

  • How signing involves taking turns and respecting space and time
  • Having to wait for concrete meaning before signing
  • Jennifer shares her family life and how they moved to Australia for warmth
  • How Jennifer became interested in Auslan after being prompted by a friend
  • She has signed in many venues including corporate settings, universities, hospitals, and rallies
  • Challenges of interpreting poetry and how Jennifer did this for 1,200 people in Hyde Park
  • Staying focused with so many dimensions going on
  • Feeling the energy of the person speaking and staying connected
  • Unpacking the meaning of a word to make connotations very clear
  • Really thinking about what you are saying when speaking

 

Transcript

Episode 001 Jennifer MacLaughlin

Oscar Trimboli:

Deep listening… Impact beyond words.

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

I think waiting for meaning is something all … discerning whether that something actually has meaning in a conversation, has really helped me in non-deaf communities. Just realising, how much unnecessary small talk or beating around the bush we really do.

Oscar Trimboli:

In this episode of Deep Listening, I was delighted to spend time with Jennifer an Auslan interpreter for the deaf community. Exploring the conversation where Jennifer explain she was standing on stage in Hyde Park in autumn. And translating an extraordinary piece of poetry to a group of people who were in the dark, was quite moving. The energy that Jennifer brought to the conversation, really moved my perspective on what it means to listen deeply. I was humbled in the way that while she was speaking to me as a non-deaf person, she completely signed her way through the conversation. I’m sure that will come through in the interview.

Let’s listen to Jennifer.

Oscar Trimboli:

Welcome to Deep Listening. Impact beyond words. I’m so excited today to be interviewing Jennifer, an Auslan interpreter for the deaf community. She’s actually in the studio with me and she’s doing a beautiful job with her hand gestures during the dialogue and a part of me goes, the Italian in me wants to come out and sign along with her. I think it’s paradoxical though, because I think in the deaf community because they listen a body language so much more deeper than the non-deaf community. I think they can pick up on those ques without an interpreter sometimes.

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

That’s true.

Oscar Trimboli:

And I think, because deaf community are so in tuned to the non-verbal signals, I think they’re listening on a frequency that the non-deaf community have no idea. What would you say, is one of the strengths either in a social setting that deaf communities have practises or cultures? Do you think non-deaf communities could learn from?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

I think, a lot of it is turn-taking. If you’re standing in a circle of group of people that are signing to each other and people start signing at the same time, obviously you can’t look at more than one person at the same time. Although you can slightly listen to two things at the same time although obviously not in an optimal level. So, deaf people tend to be quite good as well as generally maybe being blunt, they can say “Okay, stop. You go first. And then I’ll go, and then Sarah can go.” So they are really good at doing that and respecting the space and time that people have. And I think that … that’s … something that a lot of non-deaf people maybe would benefit from.

Oscar Trimboli:

In your own practise, when you’re in non-deaf communities and you’re listening to dialogue. What practise do you bring from sign to make you a deeper listener?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

I think finding meaning with interpreting … as I said it, it’s not the words … interpreting for politicians especially is so much tough on top of everything they say … sometimes when I’m interpreting for a politician, they might start speaking and there’s so many roundabout ways you can start a speech. This is something like, we’ve all … we’ve noticed this, yes. This been quite a bit of things that’s happening in the space, there’s been a really big shift that’s been going. And you’re like “Okay”.

And sometimes I can stand there and wait. So I knew that they’re generally talking about change, but I don’t really have enough to go off. I can’t start something, that’s very clear. And often people, such as politicians or managers, I find managers of big companies or banks, tend to look over you like “Are you not meant to be signing right now?”. You just, kind of, have to stand there, because obviously you don’t want to insult anyone. But they don’t realise that they haven’t said anything yet.

Oscar Trimboli:

Yeah. What would be the sign for this managers’ faffing?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

There are ways of doing that. But I tend to try not to do that. I think, again, like you said deaf people can tell, they can see that perhaps the manager isn’t saying anything concrete yet. They’re good at picking up on that kind of thing and I think they trust interpreters. Which is really a large amount of trust, to know that we’re waiting so we can do clearest job we can. So I think waiting for meaning is something all discerning whether something actually has meaning in a conversation has really helped me in non-deaf communities. Just realising, how much unnecessary small talk or beating around bush we really do.

Oscar Trimboli:

For those listeners out there, who aren’t familiar with Auslan or sign language for the deaf community, just talk us through a bit of the structure, it’s a very contextual language. And as you mentioned earlier on, it’s three dimensional… There is much more palette to explore language through in sign than there is possibly in English or Latin derivative languages. So, for those in the audience, just give them a quick sketch if you would of Auslan and how it’s constructed and how it’s used.

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

I’ll try my best. I feel like a deaf person is… would definitely be the expert. But I’ll give it a go. Auslan I think, has apparently a very similar language structure to Asian languages. So, the word order is different in terms of the verb… the doing word is often at the end of the sentence. So, what you do is you create the scene first, so you create the picture with the man and the woman and they’re sitting at the desk and talking. Whereas in English you might say, “They were talking, sitting at the desk.”. So, in some ways Auslan can be a very simple language in terms of grammatical rules. But it’s also intensely complicated and rich in other ways. And thinking in such a visual sense which… as non-deaf people is a very different way to use language.

Oscar Trimboli:

So, the Jen’s story… Your family comes from a very different part of the world. Talk us through how they came to Australia? And how many in your family, what’s a typical dinner conversation kind of sound like for you?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

Well, I have my mom and my dad. And they were in search of heat basically. Which I always found such a bizarre concept when I was younger. Why would you move to the other side of the world purely for weather reasons? I have a brother. He’s four years older than me. And he’s a commercial airline pilot.

Oscar Trimboli:

Okay

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

And as soon as we got on the plane to come to Australia when he was six or seven, apparently, he asked what this was and who was controlling this? And that was it. That is all he ever wanted to be.

Oscar Trimboli:

Out of the four of you around the dinner table, who was the best listener in the family?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

I think, perhaps my dad. Because he says the least, which I think can often be a good guide to who’s listening. I think he… Everyone has their time I think to listen and I think a lot of it depends on the topic of conversation or what mood people are in. Because, obviously around your family you can be a lot more selfish than you have to be around other people. But, probably my dad, I think.

Oscar Trimboli:

Okay. So, your journey to signing… How did that start?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

Well, unlike my brother. I had very little direction of what I wanted to do. And would… apparently, when I was a little girl, they would ask what I wanted to do and I just said I wanted to skip everywhere. I just want to skip all through life. That was my life goal. But it wasn’t until after I finish high school. I had a gap year and bumped into a girl that had left our school in year ten. And she said that she was studying Auslan. And I’d always been very quiet interested into sign language. Because I think a lot of people tend to be… perhaps learning the alphabet in primary school… I think a lot of schools do that in our school we’ve done that and I was really fascinated about it. But I had no idea you could study it. And so, meeting this girl and having no other kind of plans I started doing an Auslan course. Doing the certificate 2… and was just hooked immediately. And my teachers who are all deaf said “You know, if you keep going, you can keep studying throughout the courses and you could be an interpreter and you could sign every day.”. And that was that.

Oscar Trimboli:

And what got you hooked?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

I just … It’s so expressive. It’s… I think it as I do like being creative. But I’m a terrible to drawer, terrible painter, I can’t sing or play any musical instruments but I love creativity. And I think Auslan is such a creative language. You use the 3D space around you. You create pictures out of concepts. Which is just so bizarre and so unlike English, which is such a linear, structured language. So I loved being able to use expressions, use pictures refer to the concepts in the space around you and set them up … I just find it so much fun. I really do find it a fun thing to do.

Oscar Trimboli:

What are the contexts you’ve signed in already… some people begin “Oratorian” right up the front in broadcast mode, some are in meetings, some are in job interviews, some could be in hospitals. What are the kinds of situations you find yourself signing in?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

So many different situations… Especially with the role of the NDIS now, deaf people have a lot more control of funding and more funding is available for them to be able to request interpreters. Generally, I think I do most of my work in the corporate sector. So, team meetings, interviews, training, that kind of thing… based a lot in the city area, paramedic are… So, lots of work for government organisations, TAFE’s, universities, hospitals, GP appointments, rallies, dinner parties, lunch meetings, all of these things.

Oscar Trimboli:

Which one of those contexts has been most memorable for you?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

I think, I really like things where… events with people passionate. So I tend to really like rallies. Especially if it’s for something that I personally believe in as well, I find that really empowering to be able to be a part of the rally more so than, just an attendee you get to give access to a bunch of people and let them feel included as well. So, I really like this. Because it is those situations where you feel like you’re making more of a change and making more of an impact.

Oscar Trimboli:

Yeah. And who is the most powerful speaker at a rally, and what topic have they spoken on that you’ve had to translate?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

I remember doing interpreting for Get Up, the candlelight vigil for Alon Curtey, who was the little boy who washed up on the beach that was quite famous around the world, and that was the biggest event that I did in Hyde Park. I think there was around 12,000 or 15,000 people there. They had a lot of speakers, the Get Up speakers that they normally have. I can’t remember the fellow’s name, but the man that works at the Gosford Anglican Parish, who is quite well known for their boards and signs out in the front. He did a really beautiful poem, and I find poetry and songs are very difficult to interpret because there are so many interpretations to how people might read a song or poetry or how they express themselves and what that means to each individual person. So, we like to have a lot of time beforehand to work through that, read through the poem, try and think about the different interpretations, what the writers’ intent is. So, being thrown that while you’re on stage in front of everyone was a bit of a shock, but he was such a beautiful speaker that it was quite easy to connect with him and understand what he was saying.

Oscar Trimboli:

One of the things that foreign language translators balance is the balance between being totally unbiased as an interpreter and yet bringing meaning. Some of them call themselves additive interpreters, and some of them call themselves subtractive interpreters, where they try to get to the absolute essence of the message. In sign, how do you stay focused during … so, let’s take you back. Hyde Park, it was at night time?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Oscar Trimboli:

It was what time of the year?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

I think it was coming into autumn.

Oscar Trimboli:

In autumn, so it’s probably quite chilly, and you’re standing up on stage?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Oscar Trimboli:

And how long are you on stage for?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

It was about 40 minutes.

Oscar Trimboli:

Okay. So, staying focused for 40 minutes, talk our audience through how you avoid distraction during that period of time, and stay totally focused, while listening completely, while signing, while getting and hearing the audience response to it, as well. There’s so many dimensions going on. How do you keep yourself on track, Jen?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

I think it’s the fear of losing it, because you know if you don’t listen, you’re going to completely lose the meaning. From past experiences, when you do get distracted… like, I’ve been distracted and missed things, and there’s nothing you can do apart from having to stop the conversation and say, “I’m sorry, I’ve missed that.” As an interpreter, you want to be as invisible as possible, you want it to be as seamless as possible. So, the fear of having to do that, especially in front of a huge crowd of people, is a big motivation to stay on top. I think generally what I try to do is, the person that’s speaking is normally standing next to me, because the deaf people… whether it’s in a doctor’s appointment or a meeting or on stage, they’d like to be able to see you and the speaker at the same time so their eyes can flip back and forth between you.

So, it’s difficult to have eye contact with the speaker, which normally helps you listen when you can look at them. I find that I tend to kind of look down towards the ground at something that’s non-stimulating, so I can be as empty and as clear as possible to really listen to what the person said. We normally have a time lag of maybe about three to seven seconds, between what the speaker said and us putting it out into sign language, or in English if it’s going the other way.

So, that gives us time to really listen for the meaning, which is the biggest thing in interpreting. It’s not a word for word translation, it’s figuring out the intent, so I tend to look down, have a minute to collect myself, try and really feel what that person is feeling. You know, when they walk on stage next to you, you feel the energy and you try and figure out what kind of a person they are, and that really gets me in the zone. When they start speaking, I give it a couple of seconds to try to get into the pace of them, and then go from there and just stay as connected as you can the whole time.

Oscar Trimboli:

So, coming back to meaning, thinking about an experience where you went, “Wow, that meaning’s really powerful.” Do you have an example of how meaning making is the most potent thing in an interpreter’s task?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

I think, for example, in larger corporations, or I think in any kind of company, no one likes to use the word fired. In English, we know that there’s going to be a lot of restructuring around here, it’s not a good sign. People know that’s what that means, but if I was to sign a very literal translation of “restructuring”, that is a very… based on a physical remodelling. So, that would not be an appropriate translation. So, in those kind of situations, you would, what we call, unpack. When there’s a word and the meaning in English is one word, and it has a lot of connotations to it, but in Auslan you unpack that meaning, so you make those connotations very clear. So, if someone says restructuring, the deaf person … not all deaf people would think that, but it would be very easy to think that means a physical restructuring of the office, so you’d be very clear and say that teams are changing or managers will be leaving or there will be some staff cuts, is what you would have to say to get an appropriate meaning across.

Oscar Trimboli:

Have you found yourself in situations where you’ve heard something for kind of the first time and you thought this was the meaning and then the dialogue has continued, the meaning’s changed nuance, and you’ve had to go back and explain that again?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

Yes, definitely. It’s those kind of situations where you have to let your pride go, as an interpreter, because you just want to be right, and you want to be as subtle as possible, but sometimes if you know that the meaning has changed or either that you’ve also misinterpreted it, I’ve read the meaning as one thing and later on then realised, that wasn’t it at all, I’ve completely missed it, then it is that moment of either … if it’s bad enough, having to pause the conversation and just say, “The interpreter has made a mistake, I just need to clarify something,” and going back and making that clear.

Oscar Trimboli:

Yeah, and we don’t do enough of that in the work place in the non-deaf communities, when we do make meaning and we go really hard and we hold it really tight, and the meaning is all our meaning, as opposed to the shared meaning there as well, so a lot of the time, when you’re interpreting, you’re looking at the world through the lens of the speaker.

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Oscar Trimboli:

And you want to be this kind of empty, unbiased vessel that’s communicating the most powerful meaning to serve the group. What I noticed was fascinating, the way you just described as the difference between having the attention on yourself and the pride, and having the attention looking out to those you’re serving and making sure you’re looking after them. Again, for those who aren’t watching and not in the room right now, the facial expression for Jen at that point, where she talked about pride, her whole face just cringed, as it did with her hands. I think this is the point we want to make is when we’re not listening, we’re probably pretty fixated on ourselves.

When we are listening fully, we’re not only listening to who is speaking, but we’re also keeping track of the dialogue, which is this abstract concept of the dialogue, which is not the speaker. To what extent are you conscious of the meaning in the dialogue, which is the interplay between two people, as opposed to what one person’s saying and the other?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

It’s hard, because cognitively, to be taking in something from the source language, interpreting it to first of all, understanding what they’re actually saying, and then putting that out in the source language is such a draining process, which is why interpreters normally, if the job is over an hour, there’s two interpreters, so we take in turns, because they’ve done lots of research, and the quality of interpreting really does start to decline after a while. So, we try to, around 15 or 20 minutes, try to cut it up before that, so we can be at peak mode for interpreting.

Oscar Trimboli:

So, what I’d love you to do is summarise one tip for the non-deaf community that you think they can learn from the deaf community when it comes to deep listening?

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

I think to just stop and check yourself. Think about what you’re actually saying, and I think that can save you from a whole host of sins happening.

Oscar Trimboli:

What an extraordinary way to finish our interview. Jenn, you have expanded everybody’s horizons who has been listening today. Thank you so much.

Jennifer MacLaughlin:

Thank you.

Oscar Trimboli:

Wow. I feel like a fog has been lifted as I sat down in front of Jennifer today. The three-dimensional nature of Auslan, and the way she was able to express to me. Deep listening. Impact beyond words, how expressive that was. We decided to make a video of it, so in the show notes, you’ll see a link to the video, and I’d love you to see the expression that Jennifer brought to the conversation when she spoke about deep listening and impact beyond words.

The energy that she brought to her dialogue today with me showcased the power of listening completely to body language, and that more than half of what you communicate can be interpreted through body language alone. Sometimes we over use our ears, so as you step out tomorrow and think about this, spend some extra time focusing on listening to body language. You’ll be surprised what you learn, and you’ll be even more excited about what you hear.

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