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British Sign Language interpretation of Prime Minister's questions

Posted by: and , Posted on: - Categories: Accessibility, Broadcasting, Collaboration culture, Language

[This post was originally published on 2 September, but has been republished to amend an error in the way it displayed on some mobile products.]

Last year, our broadcasting team described how they’re trying to make more accessible for everyone. They’re now making steady progress down that road, with the provision of live British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation of PMQs every Wednesday. Naomi Bottrill and Zoe Lane, respectively co-CEO and registered sign language interpreter at Love Language—the agency that provided this interpreting service during the pilot period from January to July— explain why this came at such a critical moment for Deaf people.

Navigating a COVID-19 world

In March 2020 our world was turned upside down by the spread of COVID-19. Suddenly we found ourselves faced with a torrent of new regulations and rather confusing ‘do's and don’ts’, not to mention the overwhelming panic and fear that ensued. Terrifying for everyone—agreed? Now imagine trying to absorb all this new information and chaos in a foreign language…

For the estimated 87,000 Deaf British Sign Language users in the UK, this is the reality. Those who use British Sign Language as their preferred language rely on its rich visual components—hand shapes, facial expressions, body language and gestures—to communicate and receive information freely within a three-dimensional space. For many Deaf people, English is a second language, and is therefore inaccessible even in a written format.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when access to information is unarguably highly crucial, BSL users have been left behind. Throughout the epidemic, Deaf people in England have only had partial access to information concerning their own health and wellbeing at live COVID-19 briefings, despite mounting pressure from national campaigners.

Prime Minister’s Questions

The delivery of live BSL interpretation during Prime Minister's Questions has given Deaf BSL users an essential opportunity to receive live updates on COVID-19 and other matters on a weekly basis. Since March 2020, Deaf people up and down the country have relied on to receive vital updates in their first language of BSL. Love Language co-ordinated the BSL interpretation of the visible on-screen interpreters, or ‘in-vision interpreters’ as they known in the industry, that made all questions directed to and answered by the Prime Minister accessible to BSL audiences.

Split screen of a BSL interpreter signing PMQs alongside Prime Minister Boris Johnson
BSL interpreter for PMQs; screenshot from

The role of a BSL interpreter

Central to this provision is the BSL interpreter: a qualified language professional who has received comprehensive training in the art of accurately transmitting linguistic and cultural information. As an outsider, you'd be forgiven for assuming that the figure in the corner of your PMQs broadcast is simply signing the English speech relayed between the politicians. However, in this and all situations, sign language interpreters are working hard to manage a host of complexities or ‘demands’ relating to language, representation and the environment in which we find ourselves: the ‘in-vision’ studio.

Alone in front of a camera, we bear the responsibility of making language choices that form a single gateway between our Members of Parliament—and the Government—and an entire community of Deaf people, many of whom belong to a variant language group. There are many variants in British Sign Language, due to user clusters determined by region, generation and even educational institutions, which all sit under the wider bracket of BSL.

As the studio lights flick on, the BSL interpreter faces several challenges: remaining calm and selecting the most widely recognised BSL lexicon to optimise comprehension; keeping up with the fast-paced hotbed of political discussion; and conveying the nuanced ambiguities, or other such language play that gets bounced between MPs, much of which is almost inaudible over the noise and heckling in the Chamber.

This post is a celebration of the interpreters who have helped to make the pilot BSL coverage of PMQs a success. Many travel the breadth of the UK to see that broadcasts are accessible in BSL, and daily manage the challenges we’ve mentioned here and the many, many more that are involved in being an in-vision BSL interpreter.

Split screen of a BSL interpreter alongside Ian Blackford MP
Interpreting MPs appearing via video link during the pandemic; screenshot from


Hansard reporters often describe themselves as providing a translation between the spoken word and the written word—and some even do provide translations—so there are probably a lot of similarities in our thinking processes. But there are a lot of fascinating differences too. We hope to share more insights into the mind of a BSL interpreter on the Commons Hansard blog over the coming months.

Further reading:

Dean, R.K. and Pollard, R.Q., 2013. The demand control schema: Interpreting as a practice profession. CreateSpace.

Fenlon, J., Schembri, A., Rentelis, R., Vinson, D. and Cormier, K., 2014. Using conversational data to determine lexical frequency in British Sign Language: The influence of text type. Lingua143, pp.187-202.

Napier, J., McKee, R. and Goswell, D., 2006. Sign language interpreting: Theory and practice in Australia and New Zealand. The federation press.






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