Charlie Swinbourne: Are interpreters like #Signguy, who sign during public emergencies, going viral for the right reasons?

Posted on February 20, 2015

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Another storm, another sign language interpreter goes viral.

In Queensland, Australia, a sign language interpreter has appeared on TV alongside Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to warn the public how to stay safe during a category 5 cyclone.

The TV audience saw his signing and went crazy about it, and now he’s gone viral. His name is Mark Cave, but to Twitter users, he’s now known as #signguy.

Here’s a few of the tweets he’s attracted:

If you want to see him in action, you can watch him in a video on this page.

We’ve seen this happen before, when ASL interpreter Lydia Callis went viral for her signing during Hurricane Sandy, or more recently, when a Deaf interpreter called Jonathan Lamberton went viral for signing during an Ebola news conference.

Each time this happens, the wider audience can’t help but notice that these interpreters seem incredibly animated, almost as though they think they’re performing, rather than simply giving their audience (deaf people) a vital message.

Now, the reason sign language interpreters are seen on TV screens during these emergencies is because that’s the best way for the authorities to ensure that deaf people who use sign language get the message about how to stay safe.

Sign language is not all about the movements of hands and arms but also body language and facial expression, which help give the signs their meaning.

One way to understand it is to compare it with how a non-deaf person might adjust the tone of their voice to add emphasis to what they’re saying.

So, why do these interpreters look so ‘animated’?

Well, if you’re signing about a storm, and telling people that they really need to take the advice you’re giving them, otherwise they might be injured or die, it’s not enough just to tell them – you need to show them, visually, through your demeanour, just how serious this situation is, and how powerful the storm might be.

And that’s exactly what these interpreters are doing. Watching the video video of Mark Cave in action, he’s no more animated than he should be, and the information he gives is perfectly clear (although I don’t use Auslan, it is very similar to British Sign Language, and it seems clear to me).

In some ways, the way these interpreters go viral every time a storm comes is a good thing, in terms of raising public awareness of Deaf people – who are often so hidden from wider view – and of the language we use.

My concern, however, can be summed up by tweets like these below.

What worries me is that some people think that the interpreters are doing something comical – which they aren’t.

These skilled interpreters aren’t making fun of the situation, or giving people at home a cheap laugh. They’re simply signing in the most expressive and powerful way they can in order to tell deaf people how they can remain safe.

They deserve credit for how well they do that.

By Charlie Swinbourne. Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned the films My SongComing Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.

The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s most popular deaf blog. 

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The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s most popular deaf blog. It is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.

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