Melissa Sutton

Sign language interpreter, Melissa Sutton, talks about the challenges and rewards of working in such a high profile role.

Portrait of Melissa Sutton

Signs of the time

Sign language interpreters have become a familiar presence on our television and computer screens during daily COVID-19 briefings. We asked alumna Melissa Sutton about the challenges and rewards of working in such a high profile, fast paced role.

Tell us a little bit about being a sign language interpreter for the New Zealand Government at this time?

Well most interpreters train to do this job because we love working with the Deaf community and have been privileged enough to have had the language shared with us. However, working as an interpreter at media briefings is a lot different to most of the work we do, even more so with these particular briefings. Whilst we usually work alone or as a pair, we are lucky enough to be working in a team of six for these. This has allowed us to share the load and has also brought us closer together as colleagues.

We often see you on screen during high profile press conferences regarding COVID-19. What are the challenges and benefits of livestreaming information like this?

The largest and most important benefit of having these interpreted would be the ability for the Deaf community to access the information at the same time as the rest of the country. This information affects every person in Aotearoa and so every person should have the ability to receive the information as it becomes available. The biggest challenge for me personally, although others in the team may feel similarly, is the amount of context specific knowledge we need to learn and understand to be able to do our jobs effectively. Since New Zealand Sign Language is its own language with its own grammatical structure we interpret chunks of meaning rather than word for word or sentence by sentence.

So we need to understand what someone is saying to be able to interpret it, which means part of the job requires us to ‘study’ or prepare beforehand so that we have a better understanding of the concepts that might come up during the briefings. We are so lucky that the Deaf community also feeds into this and that a lot of the newer concepts have had signs attributed to them by the community already.

Was there a sign for coronavirus before this pandemic?

Not as far as I am aware. Once things became more serious a new sign was very quickly adapted by the Deaf community globally. So whilst we have different sign languages, every Deaf community shares the same sign for this.

What do you enjoy most about this type of work?

The creativity and challenge of finding linguistic equivalents is generally the most enjoyable part of this job. The briefings are different altogether though and with this work the most enjoyable part has been working closely as an interpreting team and also receiving new signs, feedback and more regular information sharing with the Deaf community.

What did you study?

Initially I studied theatre and film at Victoria and this is where I first learnt NZ Sign Language. Once my degree was completed I moved to Auckland to study interpreting as it is the only place to get this qualification.

Why did you choose your degree?

I chose theatre and film because it was something that fostered that creative energy and something I was passionate about at the time. Now that I am an interpreter I am lucky enough to interpret theatre productions and work on stage with some amazing Deaf people as well.

What appealed to you about Victoria University of Wellington?

To be truly honest it was because it had a great theatre and film programme and because I was following my sister who was also starting there that same year.

Any memorable lecturers?

Every Asian Theatre class, other than Deaf studies this was definitely my favourite paper. Thank you Megan! Also finding out that some of my NZ Sign Language classmates had accents. We only ever signed with each other, so at our last class when we finally spoke English with each other it was interesting to hear how many had accents. Another great memory was when a group of Deaf people from around the country were at Victoria doing the Certificate in Deaf Studies. They came to visit our class one day and lot of us are still friends today.

What were your plans on leaving University?

Before leaving Victoria I was already making plans to move to Auckland to do the interpreting degree at AUT.

Do you work, or stay in contact with, many people you studied with?

Yes and it is wonderful. I am still friends with people from my student hall, the theatre and film degree and also Deaf studies. Last year I was also lucky enough to work alongside my previous Deaf Studies lecturers which was such a great learning experience.

Best piece of advice you’ve been given?

A wonderful Deaf friend of mine once said “If you want to sign well then don’t think in words, think in pictures and paint those pictures”. This was ten years ago and it still sticks with me.

How has what you learnt at Victoria University of Wellington helped you in your career?

It gives everyone who goes through Deaf studies such a strong and solid foundation. The papers are built in a way that encourages the culture and language relationship and teaches you the language while you build relationships with people from the community. The Deaf Studies Research Unit is made up of top quality people who are so passionate about the work they do and this really shows in their teaching. Deaf studies as well as theatre training gave me such a strong foundation going into the interpreting degree and I believe that really placed me in good stead for this career.

Any tips for people wanting to learn sign language?

You can’t learn a language without meeting the people. Culture and language go hand in hand, so going to Deaf club and Deaf events is such an important part of the language learning process. Also acknowledging that we are so lucky that the Deaf community has given us this opportunity to learn their language.

· If you are interested in sign language check out the online sign language dictionary created by the University’s Deaf Studies Research Unit