Reading the Signs: An Interview with Andy Carmichael: The Hearing Son of Two Deaf Scottish Parents, 36-Year-Old Andy Charmichael Came to Sydney to Take a Graduate Diploma in Television Producing at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, Why Did a Professional Sign Language Interpreter with a Peerless International Reputation Decide to Go to Film School So He Could Reinvent Himself as a Television Producer?

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ANDY grew up bilingual in the deaf community in Glasgow, a community he describes as 'pretty much self-reliant'. He explains:

Deaf people are hard workers--my father was an engineer and college lecturer, my mother worked in an office. Deaf people the world over have a lot of pride in themselves and their culture--and in their communities too.

Andy studied at Durham University in the United Kingdom before embarking on a career as a professional British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter, working with deaf people who required the interpreting of their doctor, their lawyer, their social worker, their priest, the police--as well as for the European Commission, the BBC and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Flubbing a funeral: a visual culture

The professional life of the interpreter who signs is fraught with unique dilemmas. Andy notes:

There are extraordinary implications in using signed language that hearing culture is unaware of--it's a visual language. I've held conversations from one building to another twenty stories up across a motorway.

To explain, Andy tells a story: he's in London on 6 September 1997 for the funeral of Princess Diana. Andy and his wife Jemina, also a sign language interpreter and now a senior lecturer in the Department of Linguistics at Macquarie University, are the official state interpreters for the funeral service. Diana was not only loved and respected by the deaf community, but could also hold a conversation in BSL. She was the patron of the British Deaf Association.

The streets of London are packed with vast crowds who are completely and utterly silent. 'There [isn't] a camera shutter, a cough, a mobile phone,' Andy recalls of his and Jemina's approach of Westminster Abbey. A policeman escorts them inside, where they discover they've been seated alongside the group of Diana's deaf friends and associates for whom they must translate the service. A basic sign-language necessity is for the interpreter to be at a distance to give everyone a comfortable eye line. From where they are seated alongside their clients, they can't see one another at all. It takes charm and diplomacy for Andy to convince two of Diana's closest friends to swap seats. The service, and its translation, passed without incident.

In the United Kingdom, the deaf community is nearly two million strong (including family members, friends and colleagues of those with significant hearing loss). This community has members actively involved in all levels of government, industry and media. After years of advocacy, they claim a range of victories: today the BBC and the commercial channels run a range of TV programming targeted to an audience of BSL users, and most of it is made by crews of deaf TV professionals. Andy says:

It took years of advocacy, but the deaf community is recognized in the UK; it has a seat at the table of TV broadcasting. The BBC has a crew of forty deaf and hearing people making programs under a senior deaf producer.

Yet at the biggest British funeral in generations, probably the most professional event managers in the world flubbed a simple requirement. So even when a community is active and strong, their biggest enemy is ignorance of basic needs.

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Translating the visual: getting into television

While interpreting for a group of deaf television students in the UK, Andy became interested in television. He found that an interpreter's translation is only as good as his knowledge of the subject.

I found myself faced with a whole vocabulary that seemed familiar but in fact was very industry-specific. There were no signs for basic concepts and equipment--like 'cut', 'dolly', 'wipe'--and that was just the start of it.

Andy's training to 'translate meaning' challenged him to dig deeper, particularly as television is a medium in which deafness need not be a limitation. …