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Coronavirus: BSL Interpreter On Her New Found Fame

May 18, 2020

“Did I see you on the telly?”

Cathryn McShane-Kouyaté keeps being recognised in the supermarket.

As the British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter for the Welsh Government’s televised daily Covid-19 updates, she has suddenly become a familiar face to many.

Most days the 44-year-old cycles from her home in Cardiff to Cathays Park where she shares a stage with whichever minister or official is giving the latest coronavirus developments.

Ms McShane-Kouyaté never set out to be an interpreter.

After moving from Pembrokeshire to study at Cardiff University she took a night class in BSL to try to meet people and “fell in love with it”.

“I didn’t think of it as a career until years and years later,” she said.

She has been quietly freelancing for the Welsh Government for over a decade but this this is the first time it has been so public-facing – leading to her being recognised “a lot”.

“It’s funny,” she said.

“I’ve had it in places like the post office or from the security guard at Sainsbury’s.

“People who’ve seen my face over the years and recognise me as a customer say ‘Is it you who’s on the telly?’

“People I haven’t spoken to for years have been calling or emailing me, some people I haven’t seen since school, and neighbours.”

Ms McShane-Kouyaté said she is sometimes briefed on the content of the statement at the start of the briefing but does not know what questions journalists will be asking afterwards so cannot predict what the speaker will say in response.

“Sometimes it’s complicated messages, some days it’s very statistics-heavy and quite technical and you have to step up and do the best you can,” she said.

“Some days I worry it’s not the greatest interpretation. You can’t create beautiful BSL when the source you’re given is a load of statistics.

“It varies quite a lot. It depends who is presenting on the day, it could be someone who speaks very fast, or if their content is technical. There’s different challenges with different people.”

She said her job is to give a BSL interpretation of what has been said: “I’m not signing word for word what they’re saying,” she said.

“I’m trying to convey the meaning of what they’re saying in BSL.

“It’s the BSL equivalent.”

She said the first few days the briefing was televised she had lot of feedback from deaf people on things such as camera angles.

“There was a time they were panning to people asking questions so people were missing what the questions were,” she said.

She has also been getting feedback on her outfits: “I’d been wearing my one black suit for about a week… I washed it and put on a green dress.

“Then I got texts from deaf people saying it was a better contrast [as] I’m standing in front of grey or black drapes.

“We always wear black so your hands stand out better but because of the background I was being swallowed up.

“Since then I’ve been trying to find green things, but of course, like everyone, I can’t go shopping for clothes at the moment.”

‘Taken off guard’

Like many during lockdown, Ms McShane-Kouyaté is trying to strike a balance between being well-informed about the virus and having time away from it.

“In normal times I’d have the radio on in the morning, listening to the news and be watching news on the television but we’ve stopped that, it can be too much,” she said. “I’ve stopped consuming news.”

It led to a bit of a surprise for her during one of the briefings: “The day that Donald Trump spoke about disinfectant I hadn’t seen the news that morning.

“I couldn’t believe what I was signing. ‘Am I really hearing this right?’ I was really taken off guard,” she said.

“It would have helped if I’d heard that in advance.”

The rights of deaf people have made the news recently with campaigners starting legal proceedings against the UK government over a lack of sign language interpreters at its daily coronavirus briefings.

A Twitter campaign which started as #WhereIsTheInterpreter? has now morphed into a class action legal case.

Number 10 responded, saying the BBC had agreed to use interpreters on the News Channel.

But Ms McShane-Kouyaté is proud of the way Wales has included the deaf community: “[The Welsh Government] has led by example and shown a commitment to equality,” she said.

“I hope it [the daily briefings] is raising the profile of BSL. Hopefully it’s bringing equality issues to the fore…

“Deaf people have the same rights as other people and shouldn’t have to wait until later in the day [to get the same information].”

 

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