‘Oh my God, how do you stand there and know that the whole nation is looking at you?’
Sign language interpreters have become familiar faces at daily official briefings on pandemic
Lisa Harvey stands between Minister for Health Simon Harris and Irish boxer Kellie Harrington at a briefing about mental health. Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland/PA
Thanks to their prominent placement next to the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, Minister for Health Simon Harris and others, a team of six Irish sign language (ISL) interpreters have become familiar faces at the daily Covid-19 press briefings on television.
Bernadette Ferguson, Vanessa O’Connell, Lisa Harvey, Michael Feeney, Romy O’Callaghan and Margaret Woulfe have been feeling the pressure that has come with doing vital work in such unusual circumstances, but also being very much in the public eye.
O’Connell tells of a longer-than-expected encounter with a Garda at a checkpoint who recognised her and delighted in the opportunity to practice her beginners-level ISL. “She was absolutely thrilled to be able to use it, which I thought was lovely,” she says.
Harvey says she has got loads of well-wishing messages from friends and family in her native city of Waterford, while Ferguson tells of one funny evening when she was loudly recognised by a member of staff in her local supermarket. “You know the way people can’t approach you discreetly and whisper in your ear any more? Well this guy just roared across the shop: ‘Was that you on the news? Wow! And that’s your job?’ It seemed really farcical because of the social distancing.”
This recognition may not have happened if RTÉ hadn’t taken the step of placing the interpreters well within the television cameras’ eye-view of speakers rather than off to the side, an approach since hailed internationally on social media as a model of best practice. It certainly helps make amends for the Government’s failure to ensure that interpreters were present at the first press briefings in March.
Besides the social distancing, these briefings have been a new experience for this interpreting team because there are no deaf people at them. “It’s difficult because you don’t have that visual feedback, the cues that you’d normally have such as head nods – people acknowledging that they’ve understood what you’ve signed,” says Ferguson. Research suggests that this doesn’t unduly affect quality, she adds, but “I certainly feel that if there’s a [deaf] human being in front of you . . . that your interpretation is of a better quality than kind of interpreting into a vacuum.”
O’Connell agrees: “With this, you’re just looking at a machine. I think one of the biggest reasons why I got into interpreting is to work with people, because I am a technophobe, a huge technophobe. That really has been a big challenge for me.”
But O’Connell says an effective coping mechanism for this is to imagine that she is talking to her deaf brother. “The way I think about it is that is my brother sitting there in his sitting room on his own with his TV and this is the only information he’s getting about Covid-19 and how to keep himself safe. Like my brother who lives alone, I’m sure there are hundreds of deaf people who live alone, and that is the lifeline.”
Harvey says interpreters also have to factor in the variety of their audience “with a lot of different variations, a lot of different dialects, a lot of different people to take into consideration when we’re trying to get something across in a very, very quick scenario”. The numbers are getting heavier every night, she adds.
As well as pressure conveying accurately the bewildering array of new facts, figures and other heavy information that emerge from each briefing, there’s also all the new terms and phrases that have entered mainstream usage – such as social distancing, lockdown, cocooning, furloughing, asymptomatic, vector, herd immunity, quarantine and ‘flatten the curve’.
But hard work has been going on an almost daily basis behind the scenes to develop and expand the vocabulary in ISL for these terms thanks to a working group recently formed by the Irish Deaf Society, the Irish Council for Sign Language Interpreters and Trinity College’s Centre for Deaf Studies.
It goes with the territory that sign language interpreters are often subject to a very intense visual scrutiny when signing to any type of public gathering, so being in the public eye of the entire nation has naturally turned up the intensity of that gaze a notch or two. “Definitely,” said Ferguson. “While I enjoy my work generally, it’s not something I necessarily enjoy in this scenario. But I’m not some altruistic angel; this is my job.
“I’m very conscious of the fact that deaf people need this information, that it’s essential. Subtitling and leaflets are simply not going to be good enough for a huge cohort of people.”
O’Connell has felt that pressure too. “A friend of mine said to me: ‘Oh my God, how do you stand there and know that the whole nation is looking at you?’ I said to her, ‘if I was to start thinking like that, I’d never go back’.”
It has also prompted many questions about sign languages, and while the group are happy to answer any questions in person, they are anxious to signpost further queries to the essential ‘patrons’ of the language, such as staff at the Irish Deaf Society and the Centre for Deaf Studies at TCD, but also any ISL user.
“Deaf people also have been involved in discussions that I’ve seen online where they’re saying, yes, well, this is where we get adverbial information, how to get tones, questions, negation and all these other aspects of sign languages,” said Ferguson. “So people have more of an understanding that it’s not just grimacing and gurning – this is actually part of the grammar of sign language.”
Training to be a fully accredited interpreter is a long road, involving an intensive four-year degree programme at the Centre for Deaf Studies, which takes about 20 new students every year. All the members of the team are graduates and have several years of experience between them. Often they work on their own, but teamwork has been a stronger element of the job in recent years.
For instance, Harvey explains there are always two interpreters at a briefing who take turns, and even when one is not standing on the stage, the other is monitoring what their colleague is signing and backing them up in case they get confused or lose track.
Susan Foley-Cave, a long-time interpreter who runs Bridge Interpreting, the agency that books the team, is mindful of all the other interpreters who have lost work during the pandemic, but she has never been more proud of her Covid-19 team and all the many others not in the public eye who are doing sterling work. “Without sounding saccharine, I’m very, very proud to be an interpreter and I’m just so proud of my colleagues. I’m so proud of all the amazing deaf and hearing interpreters who are just making things so much more accessible.”