Behind the scenes with sign language interpreters

Published: Jul. 3, 2020 at 3:40 PM EDT
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If you've tuned into any of Vermont Gov. Phil Scott's COVID-19 response press conferences the last couple of months, you've noticed whoever is at the podium, isn't alone. They're joined by interpreters signing what is being said for people who can't hear but understand American Sign Language.

Our Scott Fleishman met with many of the interpreters you've seen on your screen. He gives you a behind-the-scenes look at how they do their jobs and explains why having a certified deaf interpreter is so important to the deaf community.

Their faces have become almost as famous as those of Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine.

Three times a week for the last dozen weeks, a handful of interpreters, led by Patrick Harris, have been signing everything that's said during the state's press conferences.

"What we're doing is we're taking a message from one language, finding equivalency in another language and then having to produce it all in real-time," explained Harris, a certified deaf interpreter

"This is something we've wanted from the very get-go," said Elena Shapiro, the interim president of the Vermont Association of the Deaf.

The group petitioned state officials to have access to in-person interpreters for the press conferences, particularly a certified deaf interpreter like Harris.

"A deaf interpreter provides an additional level of clarity for deaf people in a way that's clearly understandable to users of the language," Shapiro said.

That is why closed captioning just doesn't cut it in instances like this when valuable details are discussed.

"So, if you're watching, let's say a foreign film and you can have subtitles, that might make it a little more comprehensible, but you're not going to enjoy the movie in quite the same way if you could access it directly and that's what it's like for deaf people relying on captions," said John Pirone, an American Sign Language lecturer.

Harris' teammates, Cory Brunner and Kristal Haynes, are certified interpreters but they aren't deaf. Sign is a second language. So when Harris is front and center, he's looking to them for a translation, which he then interprets in front of the camera.

"Working together, we are like two brains in one. When you have less interpreters, the quality of the interpretation goes down," Harris explained.

It takes about 25 minutes before their ability to keep up with the accuracy of the interpretation starts to diminish, which is why you'll often see the interpreters taking turns.

"It's not like we're just hearing the information and putting it out. There's a lot of thinking, a lot of intent behind the work that we do," Haynes said.

This leads to one of the more fascinating aspects of the process, their passion and intensity while signing, even if the person speaking doesn't seem as excited. It's the reason you'll never see the interpreters wearing masks.

"As interpreters, our job is to convey the intent and sometimes that requires that we need to emphasize certain pieces of what the message is as a way to make sure that the intent is equivalent and that requires use of body language and facial expression," Harris said.

The Vermont Interpreter Referral Service based in Montpelier handles interpreter requests from local businesses to state government. Interpreters are selected based on the clients' needs.

"It's a struggle to find interpreters who are willing to be on camera, willing to be on stage, and who have the platform experience and skills to be able to interpret in that environment," Shapiro said.

"I know what it's like to be a deaf person," Harris said. "I can understand how the deaf community feels and specifically how they're going through something like a pandemic, so we have that same sense of culture and community."

The hard work of many, making sure important information isn't getting lost in translation for the deaf and hard of hearing community.

One of our viewers reached out to us last month saying they could have sworn they saw the same certified deaf interpreter at Vermont Gov. Scott's press conference and New Hampshire Gov. Sununu's press conference on the same day.

That viewer was correct. David Kruger is a Vermonter but is primarily handling the signing duties for New Hampshire's COVID-19 response press conferences. There was one day in early June where he had to fill in for Patrick Harris in Montpelier. He left that presser a little early so he could join Gov. Sununu in Manchester later in the afternoon.