[Interview] Stéphan Barrère, FSL interpreter

Hello Stéphan,

Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

My name is Stéphan Barrère, I am an interpreter licensed in Master 2, French Sign Language to French interpreting, at Lille 3 University.

I became an interpreter by changing my career path. After studying Political Science with a focus on international relations and a DEA (Diploma of Advanced Studies) in information science and communication, I worked as Head of International Communications for major gas groups for several years. After a layoff, I took the decision to travel for two years.

Afterwards, I decided to change my career. I discovered interpreting as a job by chance, by opening a training folder at the employment agency.

Why did you choose FSL interpreter when you considered your career change?

I was looking for a job in the field of communications that had a human aspect to it. The job of FSL interpreter makes these two aspects come together.

It is a young profession that has become more structured beginning with the ‘90s. The job itself is not yet recognised; your status as FSL interpreter is not protected.

Before, it was usually family members who played the role of interpreter. Today, the FSL interpreter is more than a human aid, however he is usually seen as a social worker, because he is often financed by the PCH (Prestation de Compensation du Handicap) or AGEFIPH.

It is important for this job to become recognised and protected, as right now anyone who knows sign language can call themselves an interpreter. The training is very specific, it includes elements of linguistics as well as learning good practices as defined by our ethical code. Being an interpreter requires great concentration and intense mental alertness.

I argue in favour of our job being recognised, it is truly very important to me as an interpreter.

Did you know sign language before becoming an interpreter? Tell us a bit about your career path.

Before opening that folder at the employment agency, I had no knowledge of sign language. I don’t have any deaf family members, I had no ties with the deaf community, I did not know their culture.

To confirm my choice concerning this career, I received training in sign language and then I had a go at it. I needed two years to learn sign language before pursuing my Masters in interpreting. When I got my degree, I worked for three years in an agency for FSL to French interpreters, then I kicked off my freelance career by creating a network for independent interpreters, ( i ) LSF.

What does FSL training involve?

It is quite complex. To begin with, there is no FSL in public education. There is the “Science of language” course, the FSL option, but there are few hours of training involved.

FSL training, in this context, becomes a personal venture. You need to go to organisations who list this kind of course. This also means financial investment on your part, with sessions costing €250 to €300 each, and take into account that you need 14 weeks before starting the first year of the Master’s in interpreting. It might seem not worthwhile to do this training, as it is not a widely recognised form of education.

The interpreting training itself is equally complicated. In any case, it happened that way for me. In the beginning, you have a tendency to translate French sentence structure into sign language, which isn’t the case. It is very difficult to go from signed French to FSL.

Sign language is a visual language, it is built as a setting. You need to forget the structure of the French language to be able to visualize the meaning and make it come alive through visuals.

What is the role of an FSL interpreter? How do you work and with what organisations or structures?

The role of the FSL interpreter is to facilitate the linguistic obstacle between two communities. Like an interpreter for vocal languages, our role is to allow everyone involved to express themselves, and to understand each other. You need to see beyond human or social aid. The FSL interpreter works for two communities, one deaf and the other able to hear.

The way we work on the job is different from our colleagues who interpret vocal languages: the FSL interpreter is needed in a great many daily life situations. Most of the time we do simultaneous interpreting and very little consecutive interpreting.

I am very often contacted for liaison interpreting for professional or private discussions. My services are also often required at meetings between small groups, for example: business meetings, training sessions, weddings, baptisms…

We are also called at conferences, seminaries, political meetings, the National Assembly, or at TV shows. Some of my colleagues also do video-interpreting.

Some companies don’t call on professional interpreters and the quality isn’t always up to par.

Is it a widespread job in France?

There are around 400 certified interpreters in France, but they are not all active or full-time interpreters. You would think there aren’t enough interpreters in France, but there are some struggling to find jobs. Presently, in Île-de-France, this area seems saturated, but in other parts of France things might be different.

What can be done to promote this job?

The law of 11 February 2005 could be enforced, for one! French administration should make an effort to improve accessibility. It should be a given that the only interpreters they hire when the need arises, be certified interpreters, and they should make efforts to verify this.

There is also work to be done at the level of National Education to promote a bilingual FSL/French education and minimize the possibility of deaf kids not coping. The creation of free video-interpreting centers like those that exist in other countries, would also help.

FSL should also be more present in the media, especially television: evening TV news shows don’t get translated into FSL on public networks, nor are important political speeches translated. In other countries, we can see they make efforts to provide this service. Belgian TV allows you to watch the news translated on its website, and in New York, after Sandy in 2012, all press conferences started being translated in ASL (American Sign Language).

France needs to catch up. Unfortunately we were also able to see this lately with the dramatic events in Paris- no special edition of the news, nor the President’s speech were translated into FSL.

Do translation agencies contact you for conferences or other type of jobs, like we contact our, say, English or Spanish interpreters?

It happens rarely, but it does happen for company conventions. Anyway, there are agencies specialised in French/FSL.

What advice would you give to someone who wishes to become a FSL interpreter?

It is important to test your will and how much you’d like to learn FSL really, it’s a difficult language, which needs you to invest plenty of time towards learning it. As FSL interpreter, you sometimes need to go on stage for everyone to see you while you are interpreting – you need to make sure you have the capacity to deal with that kind of situation.

It is a good idea to go for a first training in the sign language environment to see if it’s what you’d like to do. You also need to understand it is a real job, you don’t learn it in one year, and it requires you to invest both time and money. Before starting FSL interpreting studies, you need to know sign language, the Master’s doesn’t include it.

After you decide you have the skills and the desire to go down this path, you can begin your journey towards becoming an interpreter. For example, it’s not enough to want to “help the deaf” when deciding on this job. The deaf want you to respect their autonomy, rather than you pitying them. Rather, it might be a good idea to choose this job if you like languages, interpreting, cultures different than your own, and the desire to help two different communities understand each other.

In France, there are five universities who offer a Master’s programme in interpreting FSL. At Toulouse, there is also a training for learning written French to FSL.

You might also want to learn FSL not as a job, but to use it in your professional life, allowing an easier integration of deaf and speaking-impaired people.

Thank you Stéphan for giving us the opportunity to discover the job of FSL interpreter!

Discover Stéphan’s blog : Des signes et des mots (French)