Alan Wendt: The Interpreter
For many years, the Wendt name has been widely known in Aotearoa and well beyond because of Albert Wendt, a novelist and poet who brought a powerful authenticity to his stories of the Pacific. But now it’s a New Zealand-born nephew who’s been catching attention and winning praise. That’s Alan Wendt, a son of Albert’s sister, Ruth. And you’re likely to have caught him in action in the course of the almost daily Jacinda and Ashley television show, with their Covid-19 updates. Alan is one of the regular sign language interpreters — and here he’s telling Dale about getting into that line of work.
Talofa, Alan. First off, I must congratulate you for the mahi you’ve been doing. It’s been wonderful to have our sign language featuring so prominently on our TV screens every day. And thank you for helping us get to know you today.
Now, let’s start with your name. Alan Wendt is a fairly straight forward name but perhaps there’s a more exotic name in the middle.
There is. And, like Wendt, it’s a German name. It comes from my mother’s father. He was Henry Johannes Alualu Wendt, and I got Johannes from him. So I’m Alan Johannes Wendt.
How did that German whakapapa come about?
Well, back in the late 1800s, Sāmoa was one of the main trading posts in the Pacific, and so a whole lot of Europeans, including a good number of Germans, spent time there. Two of those Germans were the Wendt brothers who went to Wallis and Futuna, Sāmoa, and Fiji. And, along the way, they helped populate various villages.
I’m connected to one of those brothers who lived for quite a while in Sāmoa and had a family there, as was common for European traders including Dutch and Flemish as well as Germans — and Chinese, too. Sāmoan families can be a bit of a melting pot.
In terms of my family, on my mother’s side I’m connected to the villages of Malie and Gagaifo O Le Vao, which is out in Lefaga, a beautiful part of the country. My mother is one of the ali’i, the high chiefs of our Lefaga family, so she is Tuaopepe Ruth Wendt Barrowclough.
And then my birth father was Tiumalu Leaisemanueolo (Semanu) Vaega from the village of Faleasi’u, and his family are the ‘āiga Sā Leaupepetele.
So, I’m kind of blessed with lots of ‘āiga that I connect to. It’s definitely had a big influence on who I am.
And the New Zealand connection?
My mum came to Aotearoa from Sāmoa in the 1970s when she was 17 or 18, like many people of her generation. She came here for a different life — and to sort of stake her claim and forge her path. She lived with one of her sisters in Porirua and worked for a while, in a bank.
In Porirua, she met my biological father and they had me. But then they went their different ways and Mum ended up in Auckland. Then she met David Barrowclough, a Pākehā, who became my stepdad and raised me with Mum. He’d grown up on a cattle farm in Hoe o Tainui near Gordonton in the Waikato. I used to go there a lot as a kid.
I was strongly influenced by Mum’s side of the family, especially in terms of service to the community and to family — and also in seeing education as a way to make your way in life and to support your ‘āiga.
My biological dad had come over to New Zealand at a young age, for similar reasons to my mum’s. And he lived in Porirua, where they met. He played a big part in the sporting community, especially as a volleyballer and cricket player. And he had a fantastic singing voice.
Music has been an important part of my life, too. It was originally the way I wanted to go, but I ended up interpreting instead.
Anyway, that’s the story of my parents coming to Aotearoa. I was born and raised here and very much feel a connection with this country. But I also have a strong sense of connection with Sāmoa.
Church? Did that play a big part in your life?
Yeah, it did. But church for me was a bit different from the experience of a lot of my cousins and family and community, because I went to a Pālagi church as well as a Sāmoan one.
When I was little, we used to go to St Aidan’s in Takanini, Auckland. And, when we moved to Wellington, we went to another St Aidan’s, in Tawa. But we’re also connected to a church denomination called Lotu Pouesi, which is my mum’s family church that came out of the well-known EFKS church movement in Sāmoa.
The church, and the community around church, definitely played an important role in my upbringing — and I also think that it informs my sense of social justice and service to the communities that I work with now. Like New Zealand’s Deaf community.
You’ve mentioned your love of music. What was your instrument? And how would you rate your singing voice?
My instruments were piano and organ. And how would I rate my singing voice? Well, I can sing in tune, and I’ve sung in choirs all my life. I still do. And music is one of the ways in which I express myself, as perhaps everyone does.
But, for me, music is also a collective thing. It’s individual when I play piano just for myself but, when I’m in a choir, and when I used to sing at church, that was being part of something bigger than myself. Music really straddles all the spheres of my life in the sense that it’s therapeutic, it connects me to other people — and it lets me express myself.
Have there been occasions when you’ve felt really good, really special about performing with a choir? Any particular moments in your life when you thought: “Yeah, I love this. This is why I do this.”
What a great question. Yes, many. And that’s probably why I keep coming back to it, because I don’t think there’s been a time in a performance or at rehearsal when I haven’t felt a very deep human connection to the people around me through the music.
My mum is quite musical. She used to hang out with the boys, and they taught her how to play the guitar. She can play by ear and she’s really good, and so we always had music in the house. She sent me to piano lessons, too.
As for a musical moment that really stands out, I can think of one special occasion. I joined the Orpheus Choir a few years ago in Wellington and it’s a choir that sings a lot of classical music.
I like all types of music, so I was really into it. But a couple of years ago they sang a requiem called Duruflé’s Requiem. It was written by a French composer, Maurice Duruflé. Requiems all have the same structure. They take you through different parts of a Christian religious story — and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard in my life. Or ever sung.
It’s just a plain chant song that goes along over this amazing orchestration and it was one of those times where I felt every word as I sang. And I felt really connected to where I was and who I was with. At times like that, you intensely feel the emotion. So that occasion stands out in my mind.
Thank you. That’s a lovely insight into your musical experience. But can you now talk us through your love of languages?
I grew up with English at home. For my Pālagi stepdad, English was his first and really his only language. But we also had Sāmoan at home and then Sāmoan among my wider family. So I feel very comfortable around it, although my comprehension of Sāmoan is better than my speaking.
Because of our family history, I was always fascinated by the German language. So I took it at school (Tawa College), and it turned out that I was really good at languages. I liked learning them. In fact, I’m a language geek. I really am.
When you approach a language, you can’t help but learn more about the people and the way that they see the world. People talk about languages and cultures as being two sides of the same coin and I think that’s true. They’re two parts of the same whole.
For me, exploring the German language was a way of exploring my whakapapa as well as exercising my academic, intellectual side. And, when I went to Victoria University, in Wellington, I did languages and linguistics.
That’s where I discovered New Zealand Sign Language. I took courses in German, Latin, Spanish, Italian and te reo Māori. But NZSL caught my imagination because it’s constructed in different ways that, unless you’ve been exposed to it, you’d never have thought could be. That had a major impact on the next steps in my pursuit of a career.
What did you feel about the introduction that sign language gave you to a wonderful sector of our community?
It’s been a privilege. A taonga really. My journey into the Deaf world has been a true gift. The Deaf community isn’t well understood. Lots of people in New Zealand have a hearing impairment and a hearing loss. Actually, I have a slight hearing loss in one ear, too, in terms of high-frequency stuff.
But the Deaf community is a unique socio-linguistic minority. Yes, they have audiological deafness but, because they’ve come together as a community, they’ve developed a tradition, as well as their own sense of humour, their own way of looking at the world, their own language, and their own way of expressing themselves.
I came as an outsider into the Deaf community. And I came from a minority community, as a child of immigrants, a person of colour, a Sāmoan. Yet here I was entering a community where I was the one who carried all the privilege. I was from the majority community coming into a minority community.
That was a very strange experience for me, and it took a long time for me to get my head around now belonging to a majority as well as a minority community.
And how were you received?
The Deaf community, in their own way, appraised me and found me worthy of learning their language. It was Deaf people who encouraged me to be a sign language interpreter. After a while, they decided, in their collective way, that I, and other people like me, were worthy.
They said, in effect: “Yes, we will teach you our language. And, yes, you can go to Auckland, study the interpreting course, pass it, and then come back, work for us, and be part of the mechanism that allows us to exercise our citizenship and participate in society like other people.”
Probably the biggest issue that the Deaf community faces is access to citizenship and the world. There are lots of historic reasons for that, but one of the main reasons is that the education system was, for a very long time (and still is, many Deaf people would argue) inaccessible for Deaf people.
There were times when Deaf children were actively discouraged and physically punished for signing with each other. Today, we’d call that abuse. But it did happen.
A common theme throughout the Deaf communities of the world is that, despite whatever pressure was forcing them to learn to speak or to lip-read, their underground language, their sign language, still thrived.
And you can understand why. Language is part of your community — and for your community to survive, you must be able to use your language and talk to one another, and be seen as a community.
My impression is that us Māori and Pasifika people are more affected by hearing loss than others in New Zealand society.
I remember one of my lecturers telling me that Māori people make up a disproportionate number of the Deaf community. They’re a larger percentage of that community than Māori are in the overall New Zealand population.
And that’s for all sorts of reasons, including genetic. But the result is that Māori Deaf people aren’t well served in their access to te ao Māori, to te reo Māori, to their own iwi and hapū, and even to their local marae.
There are hair-raising stories that Māori Deaf people share with one another, and with people like me, about the way they’ve been treated by their own whānau, their own iwi leaders. Ignored. Made invisible. Not treated with respect and dignity.
And, when you don’t treat people with respect and dignity, they don’t treat themselves with respect and dignity. So Māori Deaf people, in particular, have suffered in ways that are very difficult to talk about. There’s definitely work to do.
That’s not to say that there aren’t many Māori communities who‘ve embraced their Deaf whānau and sign language and have gone to great lengths to integrate them into their everyday lives.
Our family, like many other Māori families, have had a couple of cuzzies who were Deaf. And, because they were difficult to understand, there was a sad perception that they were intellectually impaired. So I can see how prejudice takes root and grows.
One of the needs is for more trilingual interpreters. They’re people who can move between all worlds — mainstream Pākehā, Deaf, Māori, and Māori Deaf. At tangihanga, when you see interpreters working, they’re also providing a platform for tangata turi, which is how they refer to themselves.
And, when tangata turi stand up and talk eloquently in their language, NZSL, it always makes eyes widen because many of the whānau may never have heard their Deaf whānau members talk about anything — other than a few sentences in the kitchen at home.
Suddenly, they see this Māori Deaf person giving this eloquent speech and having it rendered in te reo Māori or English by the trilingual interpreter. They get a glimpse into a world they know nothing about — and they get a sense that they should know more.
I’d encourage any Māori people who have turi whānau to respond to that sense, take hold of it, open the door and ask to be welcomed in — and also take care of Māori whānau who’ve been on the sidelines for too long.
It’s a difficult mahi that you and the other interpreters are doing these days when you’re working alongside the prime minister at almost all of her releases and media stand-ups. How did that come to be?
Across the globe, a number of world leaders have engaged interpreters to work with them on various occasions. But my understanding is that Jacinda Arden is the first of them to engage an interpreter to work with her regularly at her post-cabinet briefings and at most important media events.
The Deaf community lobbied for that, with the support of some MPs and the prime minister. And, as soon as that started, other Deaf communities around the world began putting questions to their own governments. Like, if New Zealand can do this, why aren’t we able to do it? Why aren’t we providing access to citizenship and the political arena to our Deaf communities?
Most Deaf communities had never had access like that to what their leader has had to say about anything. So that decision and gesture that the prime minister made, from what my Deaf friends and colleagues tell me, was a real moment in time.
Access to information and communication is power. So, for a community that’s been disempowered on that level for so long, this was a wonderful moment. And it’s opened the door for more moments like this.
The way it works here is that the PM’s office engaged Deaf Aotearoa, New Zealand’s DPO (Disabled Persons Organisation), to provide interpreting services so she could have an interpreter regularly at her briefings. I work for that organisation. I’m the senior interpreter in the service called iSign.
They said: “Let’s try and make this happen. Alan, can you go in there and get a feel for how it all works? Then we can build a team.” That’s how it all began.
My guess is that simultaneous interpreting isn’t a pushover. It must be a bit of a brain strain.
Yes, it’s complex. You have to listen to a language that’s coming at you. You have to understand it at every level. And, while you’re doing that, you have to work out how to put that out in the other language — and in a way that makes sense to the audience. You need to know your languages and know your community really well, too.
I was a foreigner to these PM briefings for the media. Much less of a foreigner now, but it was like entering a new world where people had a different vocabulary. And where journaIists would be raising their hands and shouting questions. As interpreters, we’ve had to get our heads around all of that.
Another challenge for us is that we’re interpreting for a community that hasn’t had much access in their everyday lives to political discussions and to the theatre of politics. So we have a responsibility to make sure that what the PM says is accessible — and that the exchanges are, too.
Normally, when we’re working in a team, we swap every 15 minutes. And we do that to maintain a high and consistent level of quality. When you’re working from a spoken language into a signed language, it’s more demanding physically than the reverse direction.
And the 15-minute break gives the interpreter who’s not on stage a chance not only to take a breath but also to support the onstage interpreter. Perhaps ”feeding” them, as we call it, when dense numbers are mentioned, or there’s been a name or a question misheard or missed.
Well, congratulations for the job that you and your colleagues are doing. It’s not surprising that the accolades have been coming in from all directions.
In some ways, that’s been uncomfortable for us because we haven’t been geared up to be in the spotlight. We don’t seek that. And we don’t strut because this job isn’t about us. It’s about the Deaf community and about the people they engage with. We’re just part of the process.
I’m also mindful that, although a lot of attention has been given to me, there are other interpreters doing this work and some for much, much longer than me. I’ve been doing this mahi for 16 years, but I have colleagues who’ve been at it for 30 or 40 years.
Fortunately, we get support and advice from the Deaf community. For example, there’s a wonderful woman who’s well known in the Deaf community, Beth Titter, who emailed us with the suggestion that we should roll up our sleeves, please, because it makes our hands easier to see and understand on the smaller TV screen.
Given that our tangata turi are at such a disadvantage day by day, I wonder if you’d like to see more of us making an effort to learn signing. Not only so it can open up a whole world to us, but also because, if more of us made the effort, it’d seem less out of the ordinary. And that’d be a good thing, wouldn’t it?
Yeah. I think so. Probably it’d be best to ask Deaf people that question. But I see a clear parallel with te reo Māori, which is now viewed more favourably by more New Zealanders who are starting to recognise the importance, the place, and the mana of the language.
You don’t have to become fluent, but learning the basics of sign language, in a world that hasn’t respected sign languages, would also prompt more respect for the Deaf community.
I worked for a while in the UK at UCL (University College London) in a research centre that was comparing Deaf brains and hearing brains, spoken languages and sign languages.
And we had a policy that our building was a BSL zone — a British Sign Language zone. That meant that sign language was the normal way you communicated with everyone. It was like living in a bubble where sign language was just the way you did things.
But, because lots of hearing people were connected to that research centre, some of them learned to communicate with Deaf colleagues and Deaf people in a really natural way.
It wasn’t: “Oh, I learned some more signs. Let me practise them on you.” It was more about kanohi ki te kanohi — wanting to communicate with a person and having some wherewithal to do that.
So, yeah. Give it a go, people.
Just finally, what else do you fit into your weekly world besides your work? What is there that may illustrate another side of your personality?
Well, I read a lot. I’m a sports fan, too. You know, the All Blacks and Manu Sāmoa. I love watching tennis. And I play badminton. In fact, if I’d discovered badminton when I was a teenager, I might’ve had a very different career path, because I just love that game.
I feel like work has consumed my life for the last month or two. So I need some space to reassert who I am. But the things that are important to me are my family, all my siblings and their families, my partner and his family, and our communities that are close to us.
It’s less and less about partying at the club with my cousins. Although, as soon as this lockdown is over, we’re going straight to the club. There’s no doubt about that.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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