In the course of the pandemic, sign language has adapted and changed to deal with the demands of televised press conferences. Importantly, the interpreters are increasingly Deaf themselves. By Fiona Murphy.

Interpreting the pandemic

Auslan interpreter Stef Linder.
Auslan interpreter Stef Linder.
Credit: Courtesy ABC

“Interpreters don’t need to be hearing,” Stef Linder signs to me in Auslan. “Deaf people can do the job.”

Throughout the pandemic, Linder has been working as an interpreter for the Victorian government’s press conferences and the ABC’s Sunday evening news bulletin. Until recently, this job would have been considered inconceivable for a Deaf person to do.

“I grew up in a Deaf family who would say to me, ‘Don’t sign outside because people will stare. They will tease us and mock us. They’ll think we’re freaks,’ ” she says. “But now, in 2021, Deaf interpreters are no longer considered risky compared to hearing interpreters. I think we’ve broken through the ceiling.”

When interpreting, Linder wears dark block colours, which contrast sharply against her white skin. Each finger remains unobscured by pattern or print as they flex, twist, extend.

At press conferences Linder works in tandem with a hearing interpreter who is positioned out of frame.

“The hearing interpreter listens from English then gives me that information in Auslan. Sometimes I put the Deaf wash on it,” she says. “I need to rearrange the information so that it suits the Deaf audience.

“Auslan is a first-person narrative form that’s often chronological. That’s how Deaf people digest information the best. Whereas English is not chronological and often may not start with the main point at the beginning.”

Linder believes that unless information is presented in a grammatically correct and culturally appropriate way, then press conferences aren’t actually accessible.

“Sometimes I’ll see an interpreter who had not grown up in the Deaf community. They don’t really have enough vocabulary at their disposal to present [information] to the Deaf community,” she says. “Besides, Deaf people can tell when Deaf people are on TV.”

Linder explains that how someone signs is deeply influenced by their life experiences, including their exposure to sign language and Deaf culture.

“I can identify hearing interpreters versus hearing interpreters with Deaf parents,” she says. “I can identify Deaf people versus hearing people. I can identify Deaf people who have hearing parents and Deaf people who don’t.”

To a knowing eye, it is even obvious where in Australia someone has learnt Auslan. Linder says she signs with a Melbourne accent.

As a signer from a multigenerational Deaf family, Linder experienced barriers in accessing training and employment as an interpreter. “In Tasmania they have had Deaf interpreters for quite a while because they don’t have enough hearing interpreters. But in Victoria, we have a large pool of good hearing interpreters. It’s hard to enter the industry and claim your stake.”

The first time Linder can remember seeing an Auslan interpreter at a televised press conference was during the Queensland floods in 2010. Unfortunately, this move towards greater accessibility did not gain momentum. Auslan interpreters almost entirely disappeared from our television screens. Their absence became especially distressing as the Black Summer bushfires intensified.

“I had a few friends that were impacted by the bushfires and didn’t have any access to information. They were stuck in certain situations,” signs Shirley Liu, a Deaf graphic designer based in Sydney. “The [Deaf] community sort of banded together and said, ‘What’s going on? Why aren’t there interpreters at the press conferences?’ ”

In December 2019, Liu set up the Facebook group Auslan Media Access as a way of advocating access. The group “kind of became viral and we made a bit of noise. Community advocacy seemed to actually work in this situation.”

New South Wales and Queensland started including interpreters at their press conferences. By January 2020, there were interpreters at some of the prime minister’s press conferences.

While interpreters have become increasingly commonplace throughout media coverage of the pandemic, Liu says access still isn’t always guaranteed. “[Sometimes the] cameraman will zoom in on the main speaker and cut out the interpreter,” she says. “The best practice in terms of [access] is to keep a third of the screen for the interpreter.”

Auslan uses spatial grammar. The meaning of a sign changes depending on where it is located in relation to the body. An interpreter’s signing space – their torso, area above their head and either side of their body – needs to be in view. “The use of space is really important,” explains Liu. “We hate to see fingers or hands cut off.”

Now that most emergency media conferences include Auslan interpreters, they have had to quickly develop new skills.

“The press conferences are a new genre for interpreters,” says Linder. Compared with the beginning of the pandemic, Linder has noticed a big difference in how interpreters are presenting information.

“Interpreters used to sign super fast, pretty much word for word. It was very rushed. Now interpreters have found their space, they have found their pace. They understand the content better. They understand how to produce it in a more Deaf-friendly or more Auslan-friendly way.”

As lead translator for Expression Australia, Linder provides language consultancy for hearing interpreters.

“We’re working out how to [represent] the vaccine rollout and how our hands will move with that. The last pandemic was more than 100 years ago, it’s not new but it’s new in our context, so signs are still being developed.”

Typically, new English words are translated into Auslan via fingerspelling. However, if a word is used in high frequency, a new sign may emerge to improve the speed of communication. This is how Pfizer (fingerspell P-Z) and AstraZeneca (fingerspell A-Z) have become signs.

A new concept may be visually represented. For instance, in Victoria, the sign for “testing” involves pressing your right index finger and thumb together, placing your hand next to the base of your right nostril, then thrusting it upwards in a decisive manner.

“In Europe they quite often sign shut the door for lockdown. We started with that but by lockdown three or four we began using a new sign,” she explains. It looks as though Linder is tightly gripping a key in each hand. She twists each hand in opposite directions, repeating the movement twice in quick succession. “It’s like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. It’s sort of an interesting sign to get used to.”

New signs are developed only by the Deaf community. Hearing interpreters “don’t really have the authority to create signs. They can’t make up a sign on the spot and expect people to understand it.”

To ensure there is consistency in communication, Linder says that emergency media interpreters have been meeting on a regular basis to “talk about the language and vocabulary, including how do to unpack particular concepts for the Deaf community”.

Subject matter experts, such as Deaf scientists, are invited to attend these meetings. “We’d ask them questions about how viruses work and how can you show a virus [in sign language].”

The sign for Covid-19 was inspired by the visual structure of the cell. The cell’s round body and spiky exterior is represented by forming a fist with your left hand then placing your right hand on top with fingers splayed.

Linder believes that the inclusion of hearing interpreters at press conferences has been a “really good start”. But she hopes there are more opportunities for Deaf interpreters.

“If you see a hearing person on TV, you think that’s just the hearing world, that’s not for me. But if you see a Deaf person on TV you think this information must be for me, it’s not just a hearing-world problem, it’s a Deaf world problem as well.”

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Linder has started to be recognised in public, mostly by young Deaf people.

“I have also gotten messages from the Deaf community,” she says, “which say that it has been really important for them to see someone like themselves on the TV.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 28, 2021 as "Signs of the times".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Fiona Murphy is an award-winning Deaf poet and essayist. Her debut memoir is The Shape of Sound.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.