The Edge of Words

9 November 2012

Ella Leith, Celtic & Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh

“Going Beyond Words: A British Sign Language Translation of Scots Oral Tradition”


The assumption that language is predicated on words is fundamentally challenged by the existence of sign languages - the full, natural but visual languages of Deaf communities throughout the world.

As small communities within larger, phonocentric societies, sign language users must negotiate the porous boundary between their own visual, wordless language and the majority spoken/written language which surrounds them.

This seminar will provide an introduction to the issues and challenges involved in dealing academically with a wordless language and its cultural forms, and of enabling cultural exchange through translation into and from sign languages.

This will primarily be presented through a case-study of a translation project undertaken in 2011 involving a folktale, recorded from the Scots oral tradition, being translated into British Sign Language.

This translation took place across languages, across language modalities, across media and across cultures - constituting both an inter- and intra-cultural exchange.

Using audio and video footage of both the original and translated story and interviews with the key players, the audience will be invited to consider the unique challenges of navigating worded and wordless languages, and to discuss the commonalities of language that take place beyond words.


Ella Leith is a graduate student in Celtic & Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her supervisors are Dr Margaret Mackay and Rachel O'Neill.