UK Government daily COVID-19 briefings

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Both Sam Taylor, Head of Live News and Broadcasting and Chris Cook, Creative Director BBC News said…

“…our thanks [signing team] for the tremendous work throughout the last 3 months – it’s been hugely appreciated along with your ever present focus “

I have interpreted the UK Government Daily briefings since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m one of a team of freelance interpreters for Red Bee Media on behalf of the BBC who work everyday for our audience on this world health and economic crisis.

Team work

The domain of media interpreting requires individual interpreters to be self reliant, competent and flexible in the glare of studio cameras and the expectant audience beyond.

These individual strengths go to make up a team of interpreters who, critique one another’s work in a professional manner. This peer to peer feedback develops the solid groundwork required for the team to thrive. This mutual respect and support provides an environment for productive development which ultimately benefits our audience.


How to prepare?

Preparation for televised public addresses presents particular challenges. Firstly, it is necessary to identify both useful and reputable sources of information to research and then be able to discern appropriately about the pandemic.

Secondly, to consolidate this learning, it’s important to seek out people to talk to about it. Creating opportunities to discuss the Coronavirus in both BSL and English this solidifies knowledge and understanding.


Managing mistakes

There are pit falls regardless of the preparation completed. During a daily briefing the Minister, for instance, will present statistics within a specific time frame. With a tone of justification as they outline their course of action, all in a context of balancing competing risks.

For example, to accurately translate the utterance

…94 deaths in the last 24 hours compared to 211 a week ago and at the peak of the pandemic 2,679, demonstrates we are on the right path.

…requires exceptional memory for figures on behalf of the interpreter and a significant enough time lag to successfully interpret the source language into the target language. You must be able to be reliant upon your; preparation, knowledge and coping strategies.


New knowledge

Preparation is key in every interpreting assignment but it is not possible to prepare for every eventuality. The reading and discussion opportunities on the topic gives the interpreter a reservoir of knowledge on which to draw. But, this will need to be coupled with the support of technology in the studio; monitors and colleagues once the transmission has begun.


Difficulties will occur and mistakes will happen. For example: The first time I heard the concept of the reproduction number (R) was during a live briefing. I stumbled when the reproductive number was raised by the Science Officer on the day of the briefing. Up to this point I had no knowledge of it consequently I limped through this particular part of the briefing as I struggled to understand.

I had no prior knowledge to draw upon, perhaps due to poor preparation -non the less I was in a dilemma. I attempted to make sense of this new information and wrongly deduced it was a percentage. Unfortunately for me and worse still for the audience I’d made a mistake which I could not recover from. Later my colleagues corrected my understanding and I can only apologise to our audience.


Review learning

In an epidemic, one of the most important numbers is R – the reproduction number. If this is below one, then on average each infected person will infect fewer than one other person; the number of new infections will fall over time. The lower the number, the faster the number of new infections will fall. When R is above one, the number of new infections is accelerating; the higher the number the faster the virus spreads through the population.


Recognise language register

An understanding and appreciation of both tone and register from Governments during public addresses is paramount. They are authoritative with an air of justification for their message and will either offer guidance or give orders, whilst attempting to keep the public onside with their plan.

Know the context

An awareness of the over arching context assists the interpreter to make more accurate lexical choices. Here, the Government are ‘balancing risk’, both public heath and economic stability. …we are in a healthcare crisis that is also an economic crisis.” is their message. An understanding of how this is talked about in both BSL and English enables the interpreter to move freely between both languages, resulting in a more accessible interpretation.

Here I only highlight a couple of issues along with a memorable mistake of my own in regard to televised public addresses. My hope is that you’ll take this thinking further and explore these and other dilemmas which may occur in the field of media interpreting.

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