An interpreter in the missioner era

court room

During the 19th century the role of the sign language interpreter was often undertaken by education professionals and missioners. Anne Leahy and Cormac Leonard look at how they worked and what their impact on interpreting was.

The previous article in this series introduced interpreters before Deaf communities and standardised BSL existed.  By the late 1700s, British law had formed the role of sign language interpreters through the courts. Our concept of professional interpreters as we know them nowadays didn’t exist until the mid-20th century. For hundreds of years, the service had usually been undertaken by hearing educators, ministers or social service workers. As they interpreted in a secondary role, they were often influenced by their main professions. In this article we look at how this development affected interpreting.

Samuel McClure was a semi-educated deaf man from Armagh, Northern Ireland, who was accused of killing his father in 1890. By that time, the legal rules for sign language interpreters had been published in official texts for over a century. However, McClure’s attorney, William Johnston, sought advice from authorities in deaf education and social services, not the law.

One of his first contacts was BDA’s own Francis Maginn, who was working as a deaf missioner in Belfast at that time. Maginn had met the defendant, and recommended an expert witness to vouch for the boy’s quiet nature. This hearing consultant’s name was David Buxton. (But not the one who immediately comes to mind!)

francis maginnLetter from Maginn to Johnston: 

Sir, Mr Beattie, the Head Assistant of the Belfast Institution, will be staying at Warrenpoint and you will get as much information from him as you need by coming here. I would advise you to see him. You can get his address from Mr G. Ea___, Hill Street Newry. I would advise you to ask Mr Beattie to come forward as a witness to prove that the prisoner was quiet and well behaved at school. Let me privately tell you that you should try to get Dr Buxton as the expert if anything is to be gained. Several of the masters tell me that you will have a chance of making it a great case. Mr Beattie is a very nice man but too hesitating in speech. Of course it depends if there is money enough to bring over Dr Buxton I have given you the best and must most disinterested advice and you can act for yourself. I have got the enclosed from Mrs Harris, McClures teacher. Please send them this letter. Yours, Francis Maginn

The first David Buxton (1822-1897) was a teacher, administrator, missioner, and interpreter in London, Liverpool, and Manchester. He was a man of his time, with complicated and sometimes changing views about the abilities of deaf people. Two months before the trial, Buxton wrote a three-page document to McClure’s solicitors from the Manchester Adult Deaf & Dumb Society, listing many well-informed points of law, and expressing his willingness to be brought in for the trial.

letter from david buxtonHe explained that communication depends upon individual preference, whether English through “writing or spelling on fingers”, or by “Sign language.” In addition to proving moral responsibility through the defendant’s educational background, Buxton agreed with Maginn that an expert should testify “as full as possible” regarding “(1) the capacity and (2) the responsibility of the prisoner for the act,” in addition to “character, temperament and demeanour.”

In many historical cases, the interpreter knew the deaf person, and had to give an opinion before the trial could proceed. But by 1890, there had been cases where the interpreter did not know the deaf defendant or witness personally, but was able to communicate effectively between dialects of BSL. Buxton instructed that if the deaf person used signs, “the interpreter for the prisoner should be one who knows his personal & the local signs,” admitting that as an outsider, he himself might not be the best fit. Even a fluent signer who did not know the defendant well would be limited by “not knowing his signs, or the Institution’s signs.”

Buxton suggested that a deaf defendant who lacked formal intellectual or moral education might think of a “wrong” act the same as something that was merely “unusual”. Buxton believed that the only way to communicate the question of guilt would be “performing the act before him by pantomime” then asking whether “he had done so.” If McClure nodded, it could mean that he was admitting to the act as shown, and the Court would assume he pleaded “guilty” to manslaughter.

Buxton advised the attorney to coach McClure beforehand to “put his finger on his lip and refuse to answer” – knowing the Court would record a “not guilty” plea. The trial could then proceed, and McClure would be free to describe his side of things. Buxton’s suggestions overstep our modern concept of interpreter ethics and boundaries. He obviously sympathised with McClure, and understood the legal risk for an uneducated deaf person to be placed in a lunatic asylum for the rest of his life without a formal trial.

This also demonstrates the attorney’s ignorance of rules for deaf people in court. Instead, he relied on a powerful educator and missioner, who came recommended by a Deaf leader. This example shows how interpreters’ identity began to shift away from the legal system, and toward Deaf culture. As hearing insiders who managed members of the Deaf community in their main professions became the natural intermediaries, the legal basis for interpreting was replaced by school, church and family influences—and so was nearly always patronising.

old letter extract

While today’s interpreters owe a debt to these early interpreters who lent professional authority to an underdeveloped field, it comes at a cost, as it brought into the profession bias and domineering. And so since the 20th century, interpreters have had to unlearn habits, restrain impulses, and balance humanity with neutrality.

Even through the decline and outright ban of BSL, signing deaf people continued to appear in courts through the 19th–20th centuries, and even as expert witnesses and interpreters in their own right. The next article will look at educated deaf people who took those roles for their less-educated peers in the 1800s in the UK and Ireland.

Want to read more? See 19th century deaf relay interpreter and The History of Interpreting

cormac leonardCormac Leonard is a full time Irish Sign Language / English interpreter. He has been registered as a PhD candidate with Trinity College Dublin since 2014. He has 10 years’ experience of professional ISL (Irish Sign Language) / English interpreting in a range of settings including conference, legal, medical and educational interpreting. He has also been the Secretary of the Council of Irish Sign Language Interpreters (CISLI). He is keenly interested in the history of the Irish Deaf community and that of interpreting in Ireland.”

anne leahyAnne Leahy has been an American Sign Language–English interpreter for 26 years. Returning to her academic roots of research and writing, she offers her historical work as inadequate repayment to the communities which have given her decades of rich experiences. For more information, see Interpreter History, also on Facebook


While deaf people’s civic rights were often abandoned during the 19th century, it was a progressive era in terms of sign language inclusion, writes John Walker.

The 19th century was one of the most progressive periods of the inclusion of sign language in civic life, including education and employment. It was not perfect but the general acceptance that deaf people will use sign language helped to push clear and succinct policies. The accounts from (the first) David Buxton is an example of how the legal system has demonstrated a similar interest.

Places of formality, such as religion and law, were essential for the professionalisation of interpreters. The language in these locations was based on tradition, influenced by Latin, and heavy on ritual. There was a risk that deaf people could be excluded from the judicial system just because of the language they used. Buxton was right to challenge how the cultural norms of the courtroom may misinterpret the responses from the deaf witness or defendant. Is a head nod a response to confirm understanding, or a plea of guilt? These ideas were fully elaborated in Brennan and Brown’s excellent book on Equality before the Law: Deaf People’s Access to Justice in 2004; well over 100 years later.

In many ways, the civil liberties of sign language users were abandoned by the government in favour of more audist practices. It opened the landscape for others to fill the vacuum such as the ecclesial and familial autonomy on the assumed “needy”. A civic right to access through a language was halted in favour of a missioner who took command of our everyday needs.

• John Walker is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Sussex