Found in translation

Jayna Rohslau interviews Trinity alumna Lianne Quigley on her interpretative work for the ISL Deaf Translations Project at Dublin Fringe Festival

“Then the wet windin’ roads / Brown bogs and black water/ And my thoughts on white ships / And the King of Spain’s daughter.” Although we may be accustomed to Dublin’s weather, imagining oneself in a sunnier locale remains undeniably tempting. Regardless, even as we dream about sipping a mimosa on a beach in Hawaii, we stay firmly lodged on these rockier shores. Rainy days are our reality whether we like it or not. Still, we can always escape through our imaginations. When these fantasies take to a stage, it is known as ‘theatre.’

Theatre confronts collective concerns ranging from unacceptable weather to societal norms. Irish playwright Teresa Deevy wrote “The King of Spain’s Daughter” to address the latter. Initially staged in 1935 at the Abbey Theatre, the play centres around Annie Kinsella, a woman who dares to dream a reality free from the constrictions of patriarchal, rural culture. While she ultimately conforms in frustration with her limited options in a conservative era, the play’s depiction of a woman aiming to exert agency is radical. In physical terms, purposeful stage directions evoke the power of the female imagination against reality’s boundaries. Ultimately, Deevy’s vision creates an alternative realm of possibilities for women.

“Action reconfigures itself into ISL translation within the theatre”

Trinity alumna Lianne Quigley understands the importance of redefining space. In the context of Deevy’s work, this applies from an intersectional standpoint. Deevy not only struggled with the tribulations of being a female playwright in conservative Ireland, but experienced considerable difficulties as a deaf woman. During a 2017 adaptation of “The King of Spain’s Daughter”, ‘Talk Real Fine, Just Like a Lady’, Quigley, now an organizer for Dublin Theatre of the Deaf, collaborated with artist Amanda Coogan to adapt Deevy’s work – a relevant choice, given how action reconfigures itself into ISL (Irish Sign Language) translation within the theatre. Recalling Annie Kinsella, Quigley – a deaf actor, activist and interpreter – understands the necessity of breaking down barriers and interpreting the theatrical landscape into an accessible vision for all.

As a keen advocate for representation, Quigley leads The Deaf Translations Project at the Dublin Fringe Festival. Throughout the festival, she is interpreting three shows which span diverse genres for an ISL audience: “Once in a Lifetime” (Projects Arts Centre, 11 September), “Hot House” (Project Arts Centre, 16 September), and “This is You” (Smock Alley Theatre, 17 September). Last month, I spoke with Quigley on the unique commission, which combines deaf and hearing interpreters. I also gained insights into her experience at Trinity and the background of deaf representation in Ireland. Anita Cunneen, from Irish Remote Interpreting Services (IRIS), provided interpretation services for our conversation.

On deaf interpretation and advocacy

Interpretation services are essential for ensuring artistic equity. Due to the 2017 passing of the “Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill 2016”, translation services must be provided for ISL speakers at no extra cost to ensure representation and enable ISL speaker participation in social and cultural activities. 

“Having a deaf interpreter sign to the audience in her native language makes the translation process more seamless”

Following this approach, the Deaf Translations Project aims to redefine the accepted mode for ISL translation; until recently, most interpreters were hearing or did not have a stake in the arts. Quigley explains how the Deaf Translations Project encompasses a more representative approach: “I’m on stage signing, and the hearing interpreter will be sitting opposite me.” The hearing interpreter feeds the deaf interpreter information, who then can sign in ISL to audience members. Quigley, who has “grown up immersed in deaf culture… and deaf style linguistics,” signs with natural skill since it is her native language. Having a deaf interpreter sign to the audience in her native language often makes the translation process more seamless. Furthermore, all six interpreters are also involved in theatre, making the translation comprehensive since they are all familiar with the cadences of movement central to acting. 

Always seeking recommendations, I asked Quigley to recall her favourite performances. As a performer, Quigley recalls “Talk Real Fine, Just Like a Lady” as a career standout. The show was special to Quigley because she recognised similarities between her and Deevy’s experiences that lent themselves well to a modern take. Before ISL was recognised, Quigley and the team utilised theatre performances to promote recognition by highlighting the language as a choreographic tool. Quigley says: “We used it as a clever way to spread awareness about artists […] you know, the way artists use campaigning a lot in their work.” 

Talk Real Fine, Just Like a Lady was staged during Dublin Fringe in 2017. Image via Dublin Fringe Festival.

The most memorable moment for cast and crew alike came when the production’s values were enshrined into law. The show ended with a video of the collective protesting for their dream to have ISL recognition, and – three months later – ISL was recognised by the Irish Parliament. Quigley states that the timing made the moment extra special; the personal was rendered political. “Talk Real Fine, Just Like a Lady” exemplifies how art, through the lens of interpretation, can boldly argue for systemic change. In its unprecedented capacity, interpreted art can surpass mere rhetoric by redefining how we conceive the original work’s implications.

“Art, through the lens of interpretation, can boldly argue for systemic change.”

Quigley is also the chairperson of Ireland’s only national deaf-led organisation, the Irish Deaf Society (IDS). In 2018, Ireland was one of the last countries in the EU to adopt the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which aims to protect the rights of disabled people. Representing her organisation, Quigley has campaigned and connected with people with disabilities through the DPO Coalition to investigate whether the Irish State is genuinely taking enough equality measures for the deaf community to represent themselves. 

Policy legislation should be based fundamentally on the experience of deaf people: “Without consultation with the deaf person, how do they know what our needs are?” The IDS must push policy makers, like kids in a grocery store cart, past their tedious default of stopping in the aisle and refusing to move. You would think the child could get out and walk at this point – and the government could take independent action without excessive prodding from the deaf community. Think again.

“There is a severe lack of interpreters, and many public bodies don’t have the necessary resources or awareness of the ISL Act”

That being said, a (legislative) tortoise is still better than no tortoise. Likewise, slow implementation is superior to unsubstantiated rhetoric. Between the 2017 ISL Act and the UNCRPD, the framework for keeping the government accountable exists. Still, there is a severe lack of interpreters, and many public bodies don’t have the necessary resources or awareness of the ISL ACT. 

Quigley says she understands the ongoing nature of the process: “It’s not going to be a quick change overnight.” She cites her involvement in developing the ISL voucher programme two years ago to provide interpreters in all public settings. There was a lack of interpreter presence in private sector settings, so the government set up an interpreting fund to pay interpreter fees. This pilot programme stopped, but it may be reinstated in October, which will benefit deaf people taking part in all activities, including those in the art world.

While famous works have mass appeal for a reason, one of the biggest thrills of art is finding niche pieces that resonate with you. There is a thrill to claiming a creative territory where only a few have ventured before, a joyous freedom to decide whether you want to share it with others or nestle it away within your mind. Independent performances also allow for sharing unconventional ideas – like Deevy’s – that make bold statements on questionable aspects of our culture. Deaf people are all too frequently denied entry to this province.While significant theatres, like the Abbey Theatre and the Gate Theatre, have funding from the Arts Council for interpretation, smaller theatres often cannot provide interpretation services. The ISL Deaf Translations Project is only a start. Implementing a voucher system would enable deaf individuals like Quigley to reach unprecedented levels of engagement with independent productions.

On the ISL translation process

 Translation is a mode for shaping discourse. Most languages contain phrases that do not have a direct equivalent or have multiple ways to express the same emotion. It is not a natural science but an art that depends on the translator’s sensibility. Still, ISL interpretation exceeds the limitations of dialogue. To translate ISL for the stage is to enact a separate performance in motion. 

Since interpreters are essentially actors, rigorous rehearsals are necessary, and translation between spoken and signed languages requires intensive preparation. After prepping the script, an interpreter attends rehearsals “so that they can match the script with the rehearsals” and note in their scripts what emotions to interpret “through their body language and their facial expressions as well”. Communication between the director and the rest of the team is crucial for successful translation work.

 Translating music poses great difficulty because “ISL is not a direct translation of English in songs,” so the translator must know the song’s context to translate it into a visual idea for the audience. Quigley says: “It’s not word for word, it’s more the process.” Translation also involves deciding on a shared vocabulary between the feed and the deaf interpreter, coming up with sign names to distinguish characters rather than relying on finger spelling. The physical movement of theatre is powerful for its capacity to stir up feelings. 

On her time at Trinity

University is a natural time to explore one’s interests. When attending Trinity, Quigley was passionate about exploring multiple interests. In addition to her love for theatre, she eagerly delved into accounting as a student in Business, Economics, Political Science and Sociology (BESS). Still, she felt nervous coming to the College from an entirely deaf school.

ISL has been a popular choice for primary school students within the Language Connect program. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Unconscious boundaries quickly became visible. During freshers week, she recalls she saw that Trinity had a sign language society and, thinking she would “really would like to be involved in that […] asked, “Could I join your society? And they were all shocked because, oh my god, it was their first time meeting a deaf person who wanted to join their society [… ] back then, the society was aimed at people learning sign language […] I didn’t think I was allowed in.” 

“They were all shocked because back then, the [Sign Language] society was aimed at people learning sign language.”

Despite this initial reception, Quigley joined the society a few months after and eventually became chairperson. She has been delighted to see Trinity Sign Language Society’s progress since her days at the College, at one point winning ‘Best Small Society’. Additionally, Quigley was on the student council campaigning to include interpreters. Progress was slow, but it finally arrived with the sustained effort of advocating from her personal experiences. In her third or fourth year, interpretation services were provided. 

Regarding ISL in an educational context, Quigley believes it should be included alongside other languages in most curriculums. She cites the Language Connect project that provides taster classes to primary school students as an exemplary model for sign language. ISL is “very popular among primary schools”: since an interest in learning ISL exists, the language option should be expanded to increase access to interpretation services.

On her love for ISL

Wrapping up our conversation, Quigley cites the need to recognise not only overlooked figures during their lifetimes like Teresa Deevy but “many other deaf artists that are alive now […] I work with deaf artists all the time, and we want to encourage that”. She cites her collaborators Alvean Jones and Breda O’Grady as inspirational examples. It is indeed difficult enough to be an artist, even without considering the difficulties locating an adequate framework for disability support.

Like how our destinations vary, ISL changes with the imposition of time. In particular, ISL has gendered sign language because many deaf boys and girls went to different schools and developed their language slightly differently. Further, there is generational language, since “the older generation [and] the younger generation sign quite differently.”

Quigley recalls her encounters with the sign of older women in full appreciation for its beauty. “So myself, I went to a deaf school, I went to the girls’ school, deaf girls’ school, and we signed. And then when we left school and when we met older deaf women, oh, their sign is beautiful. And they have, it’s called women sign.”

“As a deaf interpreter, you’re adapting to your audience all of the time”

Theatrical interpretation seizes the territory of the past. Quigley says: “Sometimes through my performance, I always use the old women sign. I feel really strongly about it. I don’t want it to disappear. I want to claim it back.” She notes that interpretation, which requires adaptation for new audiences, is in flux just as utilised sign changes depending on one’s age: “As a deaf interpreter, you’re interpreting, and you’re adapting to your audience all of the time.” 

Annie Kinsella’s story has found a happier ending. Clearly, Quigley has found her calling in the translation and advocacy for the ISL language, fostered by artistic and musical movement. Making your experience known is an arduous passage, but successful deaf representation illustrates that the destination is undeniably worth the effort. Fostering equity is a journey that links converging roads of “dream and reality”. In other words, Quigley – with her fellow collaborators at Dublin Fringe and beyond – have interpreted dreams into a brave new path for progress.

Jayna Rohslau

Jayna Rohslau is the Arts and Culture Editor and is currently in her Senior Fresh year studying English in the Dual BA