The late Ben Souter stood at the intersection
of the Deaf community and Auslan interpreters
I knew Ben, not well, but well enough. I would sometimes encounter him on the train between Melbourne and Castlemaine. He had a place out in Drummond, near Kyneton in central Victoria. His eyes would light up when he saw me, and we would chat and laugh a little.
He terped for me frequently. Nothing seemed to faze him, no concept seemed too complex for his fluid, restrained, but purposeful signing style. He terped in Castlemaine for the launch of my memoirs on deafness. He terped in Bendigo when I visited the local art gallery with a Deaf friend for a curator’s tour of an exhibition. I saw him often enough at events in Melbourne. There were several terps who became my preferred choices for public meetings and events, and it wasn’t long before I added Ben. He was a brilliant addition to the ranks of the very few Auslan terps in rural Victoria.
Alongside the recognition of Auslan as a language, the emergence of Auslan interpreting as a professional discipline must rank very high as one of the most positive developments for the Deaf community in recent decades.
In the past, interpreters tended to be on the staff of the Deaf Societies in Australia’s capital cities. With the era of the independent professional interpreter, there was at last a chance for hearing people with experience in Auslan to train, hone and refine their skills to become accredited interpreters.
They soon became the latest group of hearing people who work in some professional capacity with Deaf people. Yet, terps seemed just a little different. Hearing people in the established professions, like audiology or education, could be quick to regard Deaf people either as clients or as children. Up to a point that’s ok, but not when such a view clouds an attitude towards Deaf adults. Not all are like that; I know people in both professions whom I regard as personal friends.
Auslan terps lack historical baggage. Almost all of the terps with whom I have worked have regarded me as an equal. They maintain professional distance when working, and integrity and confidentiality if they talked to me about their work. Yet they became friends. Without actually being Deaf, they ‘get’ a lot of what it all means. It’s as if the Deaf community, and the profession of Auslan terps, for the most part, soon came to mesh together.
Ben Souter was at the centre of that intersection. It’s the reason his passing is unexpected and shocking, as if one of the pillars of what we know has abruptly been pulled away. “A beautiful, beautiful man” is one of many things I have heard described about him. Yes, all of us who knew him will soon pick ourselves up and carry on again. But right now is a time for remembering Ben, and for mourning him.
I will miss you Ben. I will miss your skilled terping. I will miss the way you understood the Deaf perspective so well. I will miss your patience, your ready smile, your subdued humour, your readiness for a chat. Goodbye Ben; sleep peacefully.