As we have all been grappling with a new language which includes words such as ‘R factor’, Irish Sign Language interpreter at Stormont and celebrated performance artist Amanda Coogan tells Gail Bell how the deaf community helped form the dialogue from the outset

IT IS a long, theatrical leap from the stage of a musical in Dublin to daily news briefings at Stormont and, for once, Amanda Coogan was lost for words.

The ISL (Irish Sign Language) interpreter, who now stands alongside our first and deputy first ministers – as well as her BSL (British Sign Language) counterpart Kristina Sinclair – was not perplexed at the sight of the TV cameras, nor nervous at the thought of the massive TV audiences waiting at the other side. It was the brand new language that we were all grappling with in March that was causing her headaches.

How to translate the concept of ‘lockdown’, for instance, or the ‘R rate’ and ‘social distancing’? There were no literal signs to adequately convey these new terms for the deaf community, who needed to understand their significance for everyday life just as readily as the hearing population.

“Like any language, if I – verbatim – translated the terms, ‘social distancing’ into French or German, it wouldn’t exactly make sense,” explains Amanda, who was signing for Blood Brothers on the stage of Dublin’s Bord Gáis theatre just before Covid-19 brought the curtain crashing down on live theatre and virtually everything else.

“You have to translate the concept and then make it appropriate in the language. It was an extremely intense time back in March, and we were going, ‘What? What the heck is that: households, lockdown? We’re locking you into your own homes? We can’t literally translate that.

“I can tell, you, we were online a lot and, in the end, we went back to the deaf community for help with the appropriate signs to say what it all meant in practical terms. It was deaf people owning their own language, so I would just take a lead from them.”

The day she took up her new job as ISL sign language interpreter at Stormont was on ‘Lockdown Day’ – March 23 – but as restrictions ease, communicating the updates has become easier with the initial terminology now in place.