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Sign of the times: Interpreters feel great responsibility during pandemic

DeafACT president Jacob Clarke, who teaches Auslan, says the increased visibility of interpreters during the pandemic has led to a surge in people wanting to learn to sign.

“It is one thing that we are sort of grateful for, because if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, people wouldn’t have found interpreters more recognisable,” he said. “The general community have a much wider understanding now of using interpreters.”

Ms Dolejsi grew up near a hard-of-hearing boy who taught her to fingerspell. She later learnt Auslan after meeting her husband, who is profoundly deaf.

Because she could sign and understand deaf people, colleagues asked her to help interpret informally. Her job has grown from there.

During the first press conferences Prime Minister Scott Morrison held about the new virus, Ms Dolejsi spelt out COVID. But she and other interpreters soon adopted a sign that had been developed in the deaf community overseas: the right hand waving in an open-palmed arc, mimicking COVID’s “crown of spikes”, behind the left hand held in a fist.

The deaf community says the visibility of Auslan interpreters during the pandemic has given the wider public a greater understanding of their importance.

The deaf community says the visibility of Auslan interpreters during the pandemic has given the wider public a greater understanding of their importance.Credit:Penny Stephens

“Because it was daily, they were seeing it on the television. It just took off,” Ms Dolejsi said.

“That’s how the language changes … it’s used by deaf people, it gets out there and then as an interpreter you watch that and you take on that new language.”

Facial expressions are incredibly important too.

The Auslan recounting of an incident in NSW when two naked sunbakers became lost in the bush after being startled by deer received widespread attention in part because of the interpreter’s facial expressions.

The language is visual and spatial and can be tiring for interpreters.

“You need to get fluent in both languages, and then you have to train your brain to be able to do the interpretation,” Ms Dolejsi said.

“We work simultaneously, we don’t do consecutive interpreting, so we’re under a lot more mental and physical stress than spoken language interpreters.”

In the early days of the pandemic, she was translating press conferences for Mr Morrison, Commonwealth health officials, and the ACT’s leaders and health authorities, often all in one afternoon. When the severity of the crisis became clear, they started bringing interpreters from other states.

Preparation and getting to know a topic’s jargon is vital – just as with Professor Murphy’s explanation of R numbers.

That can be quite complicated when the Prime Minister faces the Canberra press gallery.

“If you’ve got a presser that’s going for an hour and a half … it’s not just COVID. It can be Defence, royal commissions, China, the budget, all in one presser, ” Ms Dolejsi said. “And it’s not just what he wants to say; it’s what the journos want to ask.”

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