Storytelling by Hand – An Interview with Tony Evans

Introductory text and questions by: Maret Nieländer

[My German translation will be posted here and here.]

Tony Evans is a British Sign Language interpreter. With his work he facilitates communication between deaf and hearing people in pretty much all situations in life – but he also helps fairy tales and stories travel freely: he tells, translates, and interprets stories for deaf audiences with his hands.

I met Tony at an online event in the context of the Beyond the Border storytelling festival. Because of the pandemic, many visitors and some of the storytelling artists invited could not or did not want to be present in Wales this year. The organisers therefore tried to make the spatial boundaries a little more permeable, with filmed story walks and livestreamed stories and discussions. To me, that also is a form of being ‘free from barriers’ [= Barrierefreiheit] or, as they say in English, of ‘accessibility’. And so, a few weeks ago, I found myself attending a lively Zoom discussion with people who bridge barriers/provide access every day: a theatre maker told of her work with mixed ensembles and guests, giving an example of audio description for people with visual impairments. Tony and storyteller Carl Gough shared stories of joint events, and everyone, including two other interpreters, discussed the subtle – or not so subtle – differences between exclusion, segregation, integration, and inclusion. Because people don’t feel truly welcome where a folding ramp is added to a dark back entrance, but where barriers aren’t erected in the first place.

In any case, translating and building bridges is in Tony’s blood. That’s why he agreed to tell me more about his work and to be interviewed for you, the visitors of this website. The following interview is the result of an email exchange in July 2021.

1) Tony, thank you for allowing me to interview you in this way. You told me that you have been working as a sign language interpreter for many years and have translated at job interviews, medical procedures, in court, at police stations, weddings, funerals, in the theatre… as well as hanging from a rope 20 meters above the ground, at diving courses, driver’s license exams… How did you come to translate stories at the Beyond the Border Festival?

When I discovered Beyond the Border, I couldn’t believe that there was no access for the deaf community. This is not a criticism; they had never been asked to provide access and so they’d never thought about it.

For me, storytelling and the deaf world are a natural fit! Sign Language is not a written language, so passing things on through the generations relies on keeping memories alive. Also, it’s a physical language where comparisons are important. Using stories to teach lessons is an important part of deaf life.

I offered my services and came to do a day for free to see how it would be accepted. The organisers and storytellers were delighted with the idea, and we started a relationship that has lasted more than a decade now.

2) You and your team/your colleagues probably can’t translate all the stories at a festival like this. How did you decide what was to be translated/presented and to whom? (Are there stories that work particularly well or not at all when translated?)

My job as the coordinator of the team is to look at several factors.

Firstly, we rule out performances that are non-verbal. Some are music only, mime, nonsense language etc. Many of these are hopefully accessible for a deaf audience without an interpreter.

Then we rule out performances that will be impossible to interpret for physical reasons of space on stage, lighting etc.

Now I ask the organisers if they have key performers/venues they want covered. It may be that they have a world-famous storyteller and they want all of their stories interpreted. We also try to cover a variety – children’s show, family show, adult show, local story, foreign visitor story…

I need to make sure my team of interpreters have enough break time, preparation time etc. – I check to see if there are stories we interpreted at the last festival, I check to see if storytellers have a preference… the list goes on.

In fact, now that I think about it, I’m amazed it ever gets organised!!!!!!!

3) Some storytellers tell the story calmly, others move around a lot and act out some of the roles in the story with the help of gestures, facial expressions, and their voice. How do you deal with this as an interpreter? What are the factors that make working with voiced artists a successful and agreeable experience for you?

This is a great question!!!! My job is to make a physical representation, not just of the words and the story, but of the WAY the story is told, too!! BUT… I don’t want to outperform the performer!

Whispers become signs close to my chest, my shoulders are hunched, and my head leans towards the audience as if sharing a secret.

Shouting becomes bigger signs, chest puffed out!

If a storyteller is very visual, I try to direct the audience to be watching them at key moments and use their movements to do my job for me. If a storyteller is talking about a sword, I need to make sure that I am talking about the same type of sword. If I indicate a light epee type sword, and they struggle to lift the giant broad sword in the story, then I’m doing something wrong.

Some tellers totally ignore the interpreter. This ‘works’ and I can get on with my job while they get on with theirs. It’s an ‘ok’ experience. Other tellers acknowledge that I am sharing a stage with them – they use me as a prop or an ‘extra’ in their story. This can be fun, but to really work it must be respectful and, if possible, slightly rehearsed so that we don’t surprise each other. An audience generally loves it when this happens.

4) Did you get feedback from the deaf people attending? Did they enjoy the show? Is there a distinct storytelling culture in the community? If so, do the stories differ? Would they be interested in sharing their stories to make them accessible to the hearing?

When deaf people have attended, the feedback has been great. Carl and I performed at the Village Storytelling Festival in Glasgow in front of dozens of deaf people from all over Scotland. The response was great.

The stories I have seen from deaf people tend to be traditional (Christmas for example) stories with incredible descriptive detail.

I don’t see a great desire from the deaf community to share their stories, although this may be because they have never had the opportunity?

5) At cultural events, what is the objective/expectation of the organisers who employ your service? (Do they have a mission/wish to bring hearing and non-hearing people into conversation? Or is it enough to ‘just’ make a pleasurable event more tangible/accessible to deaf audiences? Or is it some need for political correctness/new social norms/just normal?) How do you think about/deal with these expectations?

Objectives and expectations vary. For some events, it is tokenism and/or political correctness. For others, there is an honest desire to be as inclusive as possible. I think aiming to be inclusive is different from aiming to be accessible. (By the way, I love the German word for accessibility!)

No event can be ‘free from barriers’ – many people have their own barriers, whether they are disabled or not. But events can be as inclusive as possible and the things we put in place to improve this don’t have to be ugly!!!

I convinced Beyond the Border to use my services and we tried hard to encourage a deaf audience. The take-up was very limited, so after three festivals, I went to the Board and told them they should save their money and stop paying for interpreters. Their decision was to continue booking my team and make things inclusive IN CASE deaf people wanted to attend and because hearing people liked it too! The interpretation hopefully adds to the experience for everybody.

6) What (kind of) stories do you like best personally? 

I have not heard many stories I don’t like.

I am drawn to Arthurian stories and Welsh legends, but any that I can hear and retell to my young boys at bedtime fill me with joy. They like to hear stories about little boys like them from around the world.

7) As you have such ample experience in your line of work: have things changed over the years? Would you tell us about your wishes/expectations for the future? (What would you like the readers of this interview to know/think about/learn? Does digitalization influence your work and the situation of your clients? Do you think that in future there will be avatars that sign automatically or only people with cochlear implants and no deaf community? Are legislation, public awareness, technology changing things for the better or for worse?)

Things change…, things stay the same. Some changes improve the situation for some people – but overall… I would say not much has changed or improved over the thirty years I have been working! It is 2021 and having an interpreter (i.e., providing access) is still a novelty! That’s not progress.

The hearing world wants to fix everything. The medical model of disability is to cure or provide technology that makes someone ‘the same’ as others. Cochlear implants are useful for some, but for those who don’t get good use out of them, it is often seriously damaging. The development of ‘signing gloves’ that can tell you what someone is signing is a nonsense I’m afraid! Face it, Google can’t cope with written languages that well, how are gloves or cameras going to cope with a 3-D language involving hand shape, orientation and speed, torso/shoulder/neck/head movement and orientation, facial expression, regional variations, dialects and accents, context, etc, etc ???? In brief, I don’t believe a robot or computer will replace interpreters for several generations.

When/if language deprivation is recognised as a form of abuse, the courts will be full! How can it be right that deaf families have children being taught by staff who are not fluent in their language? I find it heart-breaking! Having events like storytelling and theatre available to them in fluent BSL is a tiny bit of relief for some families, but their everyday barriers are still there. Accessing the GP, the legal system, the education system, etc are all a nightmare for many people!!!

The mobile phone has been the single greatest advance for deaf communication in my lifetime. The ability to send short texts and then to use video calls has opened up so many opportunities, but the systems I’ve listed above have been slow to embrace this technology. Audiology departments still ring deaf people and if they don’t reply, they may be taken off the waiting list. Letters are sent out asking people to ring a landline number.

My message to people in all walks of life is this: before you organise a service or event, ask around! Look for ways to be inclusive, to become free from barriers. It may not be possible to remove them all, but every barrier you remove, makes someone’s life a little easier.

M: Thank you very much, Tony, for this insight into your profession and the situation of the deaf community! I think it’s great that you are working to promote understanding and participation on so many levels, and I hope to see you again – perhaps at the next BtB festival! Many greetings to Wales!

Here and here you can watch Tony and Carl ‚in action‘ telling stories together.

You can find more information about sign language on Tony’s website, as well as this link to a video interview (in English with subtitles), in which he talks about signing during the Covid-19 pandemic.


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