This historical record was kindly prepared for ASLIA by John W Flynn
This is a record of some of the History of Sign Language interpreting in Australia. Firstly, it will focus on the interpreting role of some of the teachers of deaf children and some of the Missioners and Community Workers; a few brief biographical background follow. Secondly, several attempts made to promote and maintain high interpreting standards are outlined including the work of organisations such as NAATI, ASLIA and the Adult Deaf Societies. Thirdly, there is reference to the birth of sign language interpreter training. Along the way, there is mention of a few of the unusual events that have occurred, such as theatre interpreting.
Who interpreted in Australia in the early years?
Doubtless there was sign language interpreting, certainly sign communication, in Australia from the time that Elizabeth Steel arrived in 1790; the first deaf woman convict in the second fleet ship “Lady Juliana”. Jan Branson and Don Miller in their book “The Story of Betty Steel” mention Bett Farrell and others who were friendly with Betty and her husband James Mackey. This group almost certainly had a system for communicating with Betty Steel; they probably interpreted for her as well. They would surely have been the forerunners of the family and friends who have communicated with deaf people over the years in Australia since that early time. Sometimes hearing family and friends interpret for those they know, but only a few are sufficiently free of work and home commitments to be easily available for interpreting. Many have said they do not have the confidence to work in public; many others say they don’t want to interpret, because too much demand was put on them as children when they were expected to interpret for their parents. Thus it is not surprising that deaf people turned to others, when family or friends were unable or unwilling to assist. They first turned to some of their teachers, those who had nurtured them in the residential schools, those with whom they had developed a bond and could trust. Trust is a key element. Interpreting in any language is built on trust and sign language interpreting is no exception.
Teachers who interpreted
Now, let us look at some of the teachers who were significant in the lives of deaf people and who, in addition to teaching, interpreted for them. I suggest that it was these teachers who provided the earliest professional sign language interpreting. Firstly, there was Mr. Samuel Watson, Superintendent of the NSW Institution for the Deaf & Dumb & the Blind, Newtown from 1870 to 1911. One gets the impression that he was interpreting at special events from soon after his arrival in Sydney. Fletcher Booth, a deaf pioneer of the Society in NSW writes that, “The first Divine Services for the Adult Deaf were held in St. Andrews Cathedral, the late Dean Cowper officiating, Mr. S. Watson and Mr. P. Forbes interpreting”. However, the next reference to those same services is rather surprising! Doubtless it would be viewed most unfavourably by the Disability Discrimination Act of today! Booth goes on to say, “As it was found more suitable advisable (sic) to have independent services, (the gestures of interpreting disturbed the usual hearing worshippers) a room was secured … in the Temperance Society’s building in Pitt St. when Mr. Watson conducted morning services.”1 Another of the many references to Mr. Watson interpreting is to be found in the report of the wedding of Mr. R. Lansdown and Miss L.J. McMullen. It was “celebrated at St. Alban’s Church, Darlington on April 3rd  at 4pm. A good number of friends attended to witness the ceremony, which was performed by Rev. Mr. Trevitt, and interpreted by Mr. Watson.”2
The second teacher is Mr. Moore Hesketh, who was at the Victorian Deaf & Dumb Institution from 1872 to 1874. After that, he was from 1874-1876 the first Superintendent of the South Australian Institution for the Blind and Deaf and Dumb.3 Moore Hesketh, according to the deaf lady, Mrs. Clara Frewin, is understood to have conducted the first service of religious worship at the YMCA rooms in Russell Street, Melbourne in 1879.4 That was after his return to Melbourne from Adelaide. It is probable that he interpreted from time to time as well.
The third teacher I want to highlight is Samuel Johnson. His illustrious career in Australia begins with this item in the 1882 Annual Report of the Victorian Deaf and Dumb Institution (now known as VSDC Inc). It is recorded there that Rev. J. Stanley Lowe, the Minister of Christ Church St. Kilda, who was visiting England, secured the services of an experienced assistant teacher for the School. Mr. Lowe, the report says, was ably assisted by Rev. Samuel Smith, Chaplain of the Royal Association of the Deaf & Dumb in London. They engaged Mr. Samuel Johnson, who had for six years occupied the position of second master in the Claremont Deaf & Dumb Institution, Dublin. He left England in the “Sorata” and at the time the report was being written expected to arrive in Melbourne at the end of July, 1882.5 Mr. Johnson threw himself into the cause of pupils at the Institution and also those who had left. Mr. F.J. Rose attests to this in his Manuscript on the Rise and Progress of the Adult Deaf and Dumb Mission of Victoria. Mr. Rose said “a good opportunity for resuming Divine Services was now available by the arrival of an experienced teacher of the deaf and dumb in the person of Mr. Samuel Johnson.”6 Mr. Johnson conducted Divine Worship, but he also interpreted at special events as the following item from the “Age” newspaper on 1st April 1885 explains. When reporting the Annual Meeting of the Victorian Society for Promoting the Temporal and Spiritual Welfare of the Adult Deaf and Dumb, it says “Mr. Johnston (sic), teacher in the Deaf and Dumb Institution, rendered the speeches delivered in sign manual (sic) for the benefit of the mutes present, and also translated the addresses given in sign manual”.7 Alas! Even the ‘Age’ over 110 years ago confused the words “translating” and“interpreting”.
Present day support services for Adult Deaf people had their roots in Missions. The Victorian Mission was the first in 1884, although four years earlier a group of deaf men founded the Melbourne Adult Deaf Mute Association in October 1880.8 The Association dissolved and later the Adult Deaf & Dumb Mission was formed because, as the ‘Age’ newspaper reported Rev. William Moss saying on October 17th 1883, “The necessity for providing a special religious Service for the Adult Deaf and Dumb in Melbourne has for some years been felt by those who have been brought into frequent contact with that afflicted class of the community. This necessity has arisen, not so much from any increase in the number of deaf mutes arriving from Europe or America, but from the fact that many of those born in the Colony, and who have been educated in our own Institution, are now, from various causes, principally with a view to obtain regular employment, resident in the neighbourhood of the metropolis. None of these are able to benefit by the ordinary Church Services and unless some special provision be made for them must remain without religious instruction and influence.”9
The first missioners to the deaf
As the Missioners were appointed the teachers gradually became less involved in Adult work. Let’s look at some of those early Missioners and Welfare Officers. Who were these people? What do we know about them? The Welfare Officer, or Missioner was a person with welfare or community work skills and was a good communicator in sign language. Many of these persons in both Australia and in Britain were excellent sign language interpreters.
Mr. Peter Holt was the first paid Missioner appointed in Victoria and indeed in Australia. He began on September 8th, 1884 and worked until January 1888. According to the records he “performed his work well and was very much liked by the Deaf people”.10 Oddly, his resignation came about because of interpreting. There arose a dispute between Mr. Holt and the Mission committee concerning the administration of the Sacraments and performing weddings. Fifty three of the “deaf mutes” had signed a petition saying that they wanted him to be able to perform these services directly instead of interpreting them as they were performed by others. Mr. Holt was told that because the Mission was not a Church or a denomination “the committee had no power, nor means for obtaining for Mr. Holt that ordination (or recognition) to the full status of a Christian Minister necessary to the administration of the Sacraments and to the obtaining of legal authority to marry.”11
The next appointee was Mr. John F. Blanche, and as it says in “No Longer by Gaslight”, he was Missionary on probation from February, 1888 for a period of three months. Regretfully, he had an accident to his foot and was no longer able to continue in the position.
The third appointee was Mr. Fred Frewin 1888 – 1892, the hearing brother of a deaf man and son of a clergyman. There is an interesting comment about him in a letter to Mr. Frewin from Mr. Samuel Johnson. It says “I am informed that you are much appreciated by the mutes and that they understand you much better than Mr. Cooke. It is very cheering to hear how nicely they speak of you. I tell you this to encourage you in your work, for I believe you will prove a great blessing to the deaf and dumb.”12 Mr. Cooke was one of the teachers from the Victorian Deaf & Dumb Institution.
Robert Ross Paterson followed Mr. Frewin into the Melbourne position as the fourth part time Missionary. He worked from 1892 to 1901. It was written of him in the ‘British Deaf Mute’ that “Mr. Paterson had no great experience of the deaf in general then, nor of the nature and extent of the duties that would be required of him, but a sense of duty lead him to offer his services to see what he could do. He rapidly increased his knowledge of the deaf and their finger and sign language. He does not pretend to any great attainments, but he can give a very pathetic, graphic, or interesting account of anything that suits his fancy”.13 Mr. Paterson was brother of one of the deaf pioneers of the Victorian Deaf Society, Mr. W.A.Paterson.
Ernest J. D. Abraham
The first full time Missioner in Australia was Ernest Josiah Douglas Abraham. He was thirty four years of age when he arrived in Melbourne from Britain and was in charge of the Victorian Society until his death in 1940. Abraham was renowned as a signer and it is interesting, in this context, to note an article about him in a July 1901 Lancashire Magazine. It said that “The native dramatic ability of Mr. Abraham – in whom one can readily believe that a fine actor-manager is lost to the stage – is one of his most valuable qualifications for his post. The preacher to the deaf must, above all things, be dramatic, for he has to address himself to the eye alone.”14 Mr. Abraham travelled regularly to other States and frequently lectured for their Missions. In Australia he was seen by many as a expert model for the work. His influence was enormous, but that is a huge subject in itself and not for this article.
Missioners served for long periods compared with the present day staff. The significance of that will, hopefully, become apparent a little later.
Herbert V.S. Hersee was thirty one when he arrived in Sydney on 6th April, 1928, having been brought from Britain as its first full time Welfare Director by the Adult Deaf & Dumb Society of NSW. His mother and father were deaf. His father, like Mr. Hersee Junior, was a Missioner in Britain. Hersee was a skilled interpreter. For Deaf people in NSW and for the Society that brought him out, the consequences of his arrival were unforeseen! Within a year there was to be a breakaway Organisation, (The New South Wales Association of Deaf and Dumb Citizens)
John M. Paul
John M. Paul had an interesting history in Australia. He was Missioner assisting Mr. Abraham in the Victorian Society from 1914-1918 then returned to Britain. He came back to Brisbane nine years later, in early 1927, to be Superintendent and Chaplain of the Queensland Deaf and Dumb Mission. About four years after that, in September 1931 he left to be Superintendent of the new breakaway Queensland Association of Deaf and Dumb Citizens. He held the post for about twenty-two years until the Association dissolved in 1953.
Perhaps the longest serving worker was William James (Bill) Engel. He was not known as a Missioner, yet his function was similar. He retired in 1979 after 47 years with the Adult Deaf Society of NSW. It was the author’s good fortune to begin work as a Trainee Welfare Officer under Mr. Engel in 1950 in Sydney, retiring 43 years later from the position of Executive Director of the Victorian Deaf Society. Speaking of Mr. Engel, this cartoon by the famous Stan Cross may be of some interest. It was drawn in about 1933. The story behind it is that Mr. Engel had been in a Sydney court interpreting for an elderly deaf man about that time and was seen there by Stan Cross who drew them into the cartoon.
Ernest Reynolds worked full-time in Victoria from 1942 to 1972. He had thirty years as Welfare Superintendent and Missioner of the Victorian Society, but before that he was Honorary assistant interpreter to Mr. Abraham from 1937, taking his service to 35 years. As a youngster he interpreted for his parents and others, especially so at the time when a group of Victorian deaf people were meeting separately from the Society.
Herbert Shore Parkinson, must not be forgotten. He was brought from England by the Victorian Society in 1953 and worked there for nineteen years until his sudden death in 1972. He, like Mr. Reynolds, was the son of deaf parents. Then, there was Jack Levitzke, who was a very long serving worker in the Western Australian Deaf Society.
I have not listed all the workers in the Adult Societies who had an interpreting function; just those who served for a very long time or those who, because of their being the early appointees, have a significant place in the history of sign language interpreting in Australia.
Let us now look at Australian moves toward formal interpreter training and accreditation. The first moves seem to have been when Mr. Ernest J.D. Abraham (then Superintendent of the Adult Deaf and Dumb Society of Victoria) travelled from Melbourne to speak at the Annual Meeting of the Sydney Adult deaf on August 23rd, 1929.
Mr. Abraham, Mr. H.V.S. Hersee and others had discussions about a National Centre for Training of Welfare Staff for the Australian Deaf Societies. 1929 was the same year in which the “Deaf Welfare Examination Board” was established in Britain. The Board there resulted from merging the Joint Examination Board of the Central Advisory Council for Spiritual Care of the Deaf and Dumb, plus the National Council of Missioners and Welfare Officers to the Deaf.
The scheme they discussed was established. Mr. Abraham conducted the training using an apprenticeship model within the framework of the Adult Deaf and Dumb Society of Victoria. Two persons were trained. The first was Mr. Wilfred Appleton, who on May 30th, 1932, was accepted as “a probationary trainee in welfare work for the deaf”. He was joined by Mr. W.J. Engel in 1933. Bill was from New South Wales and after doing his training in Victoria for about nine months, returned to his sponsoring body the Adult Deaf and Dumb Society of New South Wales. He worked there for about 40 years, subsequently becoming Superintendent/Secretary. Mr. Appleton, after his training, was appointed Assistant Welfare Superintendent of the South Australian Deaf and Dumb Society in May of 1935.15 Apart from five years away at the War, he worked with Oliver (“Ollie”) Redman until 1949. Thus, Mr. Abraham’s influence and his renowned interpreting technique had the opportunity to spread. There were no others trained by Mr. Abraham. After the Second World War the Adult Deaf and Dumb Society of New South Wales became a de-facto training centre; never a formal one.
Mr. W. J. Engel
The author was appointed on 16th October, 1950 as a trainee Welfare Officer with the NSW Society, perhaps becoming the first trainee in Australia since Engel and Appleton. Mr. Engel, said that he used many of the ideas that he had received from Mr. Abraham to guide Flynn when he was learning Sign Language. Mr. Engel’s important influence on many workers in Australia must not be overlooked.
A significant step on the path to our present interpreting testing and accreditation system, I think, took place on Sunday, 3rd January, 1965 at a meeting of the newly formed Australian Association of Welfare Workers with the Deaf. In brief, there was a Board of Examiners created to accredit workers and an agency arrangement was set up with the [British] National Council for Missioners and Welfare Workers with the Deaf. However, events overtook this well-intentioned Board of Examiners in Australia. Nobody presented for examination and no-one was likely to, because of other changes taking place in the general Welfare and Social Work training arena. However, Summer Schools for Welfare Workers & Community Workers who were new to the field were held. Interpreting was included in the program. About that time, 1979, in Melbourne, the Society made quite a number of Sign Language training Videotapes. Up to this period, the focus was still on the need to train people for the combined position of Welfare Worker/Interpreter.
Then came April of 1979, when the possibility was noted of all “manual and visual interpreters for deaf people being officially recognised by the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters”.16 It was agreed“that all members be informed of the possibility of being accredited as manual interpreters and that a letter be written to N.A.A.T.I. offering the services of A.A.W.W.D. members as assessors in determining the abilities of applicants”.17
The Commonwealth Government established N.A.A.T.I., in 1977. It was for the testing of Interpreters who spoke in community languages used by migrants who were not fluent in English. One of its objectives is to establish professional standards for Interpreters and Translators and to develop the means by which Interpreters and Translators can be accredited at various levels. That was exactly the aim of workers in the Sign Language field at the time. Therefore it seemed logical in 1978, rather than setting up testing exclusively for the Deaf area as the RID (Register of Interpreters for the Deaf) in America or the Consultative Council for Communication with Deaf People in Britain had done, to turn our energies toward getting N.A.A.T.I. to be the Interpreter Testing Authority for Deaf Language. NAATI had the structure and furthermore, were funded by the Australian Government.
Now let’s turn to some of the key events in the history of getting N.A.A.T.I. to accept Deaf Sign Language as a community language and to test Sign and Deaf Oral Language. The initial N.A.A.T.I. reaction was that, because deaf manual language was not an ‘ethnic’ language, the Authority did not have a role in accrediting Deaf Sign and Deaf Oral Languages. Nevertheless, those concerned persisted with their demand. An outcome was that at N.A.A.T.I.’s request, John W. Flynn went to Canberra to a N.A.A.T.I. Executive Committee on 2nd October, 1981. He proposed that Deaf Sign Language Interpreting should be part of the Authority’s testing program. To support the case, the committee was given copies of some of the newer writings in which it was held that Sign was a language in its own right. The Authority accepted the argument put before them, thus opening the way for N.A.A.T.I. tests. Subsequently the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs invited Flynn to occupy a place on the fourteen member National Authority Board.
As is the custom with other languages in which N.A.A.T.I. conducts accreditation tests, a National Language Panel was established. The panels write the tests. The original panel was John Lovett, John Ferris, Jacqui O’Callaghan, Ray Jeanes, Brian Reynolds (the son of Ern Reynolds, mentioned earlier) and Miss Anna Fratta. Anna was a N.A.A.T.I. Board Member and an Italian/English Interpreter. Flynn was the first Chairman of the panel.
The first N.A.A.T.I. test was for Level I. It was in Melbourne in the Conference Room of the Victorian Society on Monday, 22nd November 1982. Maybe it is of interest that from that date to 14th March 1987 N.A.A.T.I. conducted 115 individual Sign Interpreting tests. 82 candidates (71%) passed and 33 failed. Those figures include all three levels. By the way, the first Level II test was in Melbourne on 8th June 1983 and the first Level III test was on 22nd May 1986, also in Melbourne.
Moves originally intended to train and accredit the combined role of Community Worker/Interpreter rapidly changed into training and accreditation of Interpreters alone. N.A.A.T.I. is the established body setting high standards in Australia, it was opportune to become part of that system. N.A.A.T.I. is unique. Overseas, it attracts envy. Sign Language is now in the arena with other community languages in Australia. In that one single step of becoming part of N.A.A.T.I. Sign was shown to be a respected language in its own right. Furthermore, the move later helped Sign Language to be drawn into National Language Policy activities.
So much for accreditation, lets now look at training, but before we do, it is important to note that an impetus to training and testing came from a new demand from deaf people. A demand for interpreters to be available in more places than the Deaf Societies had traditionally provided them. Indeed, the demand could rarely be met from the staff available.
Formal, full time tertiary training for Sign Language Interpreters appears to have commenced in Australia, in 1986. A part time Course developed in Perth and subsequently in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne. Before those developments the training was “in-house” through the Deaf Societies. The “in-house” training was very effective for a number of people, indeed some of them are still working in the field. One key to its success was that the workers had a significant, regular association with deaf people through the Societies.
The history of the Barton TAFE (then Richmond College of TAFE and now Chisholm Institute of TAFE) Course begins in November, 1984. Mr. Barry Clyne, a member of the Special Project Unit at Richmond, Melbourne, TAFE College had special responsibility for access at Richmond TAFE. The College was about to employ Laurence Hayes of Pima College in Tucson, Arizona, to do some feasibility work for them regarding creating a Notetaker and Sign Language Interpreter course. Mr. Hayes commenced on Wednesday, 7th November 1985. His role was to advise Richmond TAFE on the curriculum required for a short course in Notetaking and Deaf Sign Language and Deaf Oral Language Interpreting courses.
Barry established a small Advisory Committee, consisting of Mr. Ray Jeanes, Mr. Laurence Hayes, Mr. Don Dwyer of the Heidelberg High School Support facility (now known as Banksia College), Mrs. Sue Campbell and John Flynn (Victorian Deaf Society). The first meeting was held on November 7th, 1984.
From that, many meetings flowed, the result was that in December of 1985, TAFE Board, Victoria approved the “Certificate of Applied Social Science – Interpreter/Deaf Hearing Impaired Course”. It was a two year full time course and four year part-time. The course aimed to provide students with the skills, knowledge and attitudes necessary to act as a Competent Interpreter for the Deaf/Hearing impaired and competency in the four major modes of communication used by the Deaf/Hearing impaired in Australia. The original focus has since changed; Chisholm now teaches Sign Language and cultural issues whereas the Interpreting training is available at RMIT.
Interpreter Associations Emerge
It is difficult to pinpoint just when interpreters felt they needed their own support group. A clue perhaps lies in a circular sent out by Peter Bonser in March of 1983. In that circular he said that at the Deaf Games in Melbourne Welfare personnel from around Australia held an informal meeting to discuss “interpreting”. From those discussions it was decided there should be an informal meeting held during the April 1983 National Conferences to discuss “interpreting” and “interpreters” with the aim of formulating some recommendations. The notice said that there was a meeting to be held on 14th April 1983 at the Deaf Centre, 123 Cambridge Street, Stanmore. It was announced as a meeting for all persons interested in manual interpreting for the deaf. It was clearly stated that the meeting had nothing to do with WELFARE, the meeting was addressing the area of INTERPRETING. Some of the suggested agenda items were definitions of interpreting, training of interpreters, levels of efficiency, rights and obligations of interpreters as against the rights of the client, eventual separation of interpreting and welfare, setting up of an AAWWD sub-committee on interpreting separate from welfare, the fact that welfare staff are overworked as interpreters and therefore are neglecting case loads.
Members of the Australian Association of Workers with the Deaf, many of whom were both Welfare Officers and Interpreters grappled with some of those issues through the Association until 1991, when on Friday 26th April, the Association of Australian Sign Language Interpreters was established at a meeting in Adelaide. Its aims were to be the Central Co-ordinating body for State Interpreting Groups, to act as a clearing house to distribute information amongst State interpreter groups, to standardise interpreter remuneration and working conditions and to promote future ventures in relation to the field of interpreting. Its Constitution was formally adopted in Perth on 26th April, 1992.18
State Interpreter Associations pre-date the National Body. AVID (Association of Victorian Interpreters for the Deaf) began in 1986. There was an active group in NSW and a group in Queensland.
The National Organisation is now called the Australian Sign Language Interpreters Association and in its short life has thrown itself into the maintenance of high standards of sign language interpreting in Australia.
And now a few minutes on the lighter side! The staging of “Children of a Lesser God”, the play about the aspirations of a deaf woman to be a teacher of deaf children was the trigger for sign language interpreted theatre. Pamela Spicer and a Sydney colleague of hers, interpreted the show at the Sydney Theatre Royal on 23rd June, 1984. The Melbourne group of theatre interpreters began with that same show on 17th July 1984. From that time in Melbourne to December 2001 about eighty five shows have been interpreted. In some cases more that one performance has been done. “Phantom of the Opera” had four performances interpreted.
- Booth, F.S. History of the N.S.W. Adult Deaf Society organisation work (sic). Unpublished paper, undated, p1.
- ‘Whose Wedding?’. The Silent Messenger, Organ of the NSW Adult Deaf Association, Vol 1 No 11, Sydney April, 1909, p2.
- Centenary Souvenir, South Australian Schools for Deaf & Blind Children, 1st October, 1974, p12.
- Flynn, J.W. No Longer by Gaslight. Melbourne, Adult Deaf Society of Victoria, 1984, p5.
- Victorian Deaf and Dumb Institution, 20th Report, Melbourne, 17th July, 1882, p7.
- Flynn, J.W. No Longer by Gaslight, Adult Deaf Society of Victoria, Melbourne, 1984, p11.
- Victorian Deaf and Dumb Society, Melbourne, The Age, 1st April 1885.
- Flynn, J.W., No Longer By Gaslight, Adult Deaf Society of Victoria, Melbourne, 1984, p7.
- Deaf and Dumb Reunion, The Argus, 17th October, 1883.
- Flynn, J.W., No Longer by Gaslight, Adult Deaf Society of Victoria, Melbourne, 1984, p21.
- ibid., p22.
- Johnson, Samuel. Letter to Fred Frewin on notepaper of the South Australian Institution for the Blind and Deaf & Dumb, Brighton, Adelaide, June 1st 1889.
- History of our Adult Deaf and Dumb Societies, Melbourne Adult Deaf and Dumb Mission, Australia, in The British Deaf Mute, Bolton UK, Vol. IV. No. 48, October 1895, p1.
- Mr. Ernest J. D. Abraham, Missionary to the Deaf and Dumb, in Lancashire Faces and Places, Manchester, Vol.I. No. 7. July 1901, p101.
- Flynn, J.W., No Longer By Gaslight, Adult Deaf Society of Victoria, Melbourne, 1984, p157.
- Australian Association of Welfare Workers with the Deaf, 14th Meeting, Queensland Deaf Society, 34 Davidson St. Newmarket, p4.
- ibid., p4.
- Judd, J., Secretary/Treasurer of Association of Australian Sign Language Interpreters, Letter to Australian Federation of Deaf Societies, 28th April 1991.