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Translating the crisis: A handful of sign language interpreters help local public officials get the pandemic message out

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Robin Babb and Katie Voice function as a team.

Babb stands in front of the TV camera and Voice looms just behind it, but together, the two American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters work as one.

As officials like San Luis Obispo County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein speak into microphones to give the latest updates on COVID-19, Babb shares the screen with them.

She listens for the main points of each sentence, and then translates them into ASL with signs, gestures, and facial expressions. If any details go missing in her initial translations, Voice helps fill them in with ASL of her own, which Babb sees and mimics to the camera.

"Then those little details don't get dropped," Voice explained. "If you're a person who is reliant on a visual and gestural language, you want to know what the point is. [Interpreters] want to listen for what the point is and put that out there first, and then describe the ancillary information."

Their end goal is to provide the clearest ASL translation so that the deaf public has access to the same information as anyone else.

In a crisis like a pandemic, when information is not only a civil right but a matter of life and death, ASL interpreters like Babb and Voice play critical roles. On the Central Coast, where just a handful of certified interpreters exist, that's especially true.

"I actually tried to count a couple of weeks ago. I think there's about seven of us around here who are certified," Babb told New Times. "In this situation, when you look at the way this disease can spread, just one person not being aware of what the guidelines are, just one person not knowing the importance of hand washing, if they go out in the community and contract this disease ... that in and of itself is clearly the best reason for us to be up there to make sure everyone is on equal footing."

Babb knew she wanted to become an ASL interpreter in eighth grade, when she became friends with a deaf student peer who had an entirely deaf family. They taught her ASL. The Atascadero native explained the nuances of the language, how the tiniest gestures make all the difference.

"The facial expressions add the grammar. It adds the adjectives, it adds the adverbs," she said. "You can sign a simple sentence the exact same way with your hands, and changing your facial expression can change the message completely."

Though she's among an already small group of local ASL interpreters, Babb is one of even fewer who hold a state disaster response certification. Babb received her disaster training three years ago and translated Santa Barbara County officials during the Montecito mudslides.

COVID-19 represents a much bigger challenge, and Babb said she's still adjusting to the daily limelight of live TV.

"My typical day job was at a middle school—that's very different than standing up in front of the television cameras next to the sheriff or the lead public health [official]," Babb said. "The first few minutes I'm always nervous, and then you have to settle into the work."

INTERPRETING Robin Babb, an American Sign Language interpreter, translates SLO County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein during a recent COVID-19 press conference. - SCREENSHOT COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH
  • Screenshot Courtesy Of SLO County Public Health
  • INTERPRETING Robin Babb, an American Sign Language interpreter, translates SLO County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein during a recent COVID-19 press conference.

Thankfully, she isn't alone. Since the onset of the coronavirus and the start of county officials holding regular press conferences, the community of Central Coast interpreters have formed a tight-knit team.

A group of five or six of them meet every morning on a Zoom call to compare notes. Joining them is Shelley Lawrence, a decorated Bay Area interpreter who's in SLO County for the shelter-in-place.

"She's phenomenal," said Mala Poe, a Santa Barbara County-based interpreter who participates in the Zoom calls. "It just so happened her husband and her are kind of stuck here. Out of the goodness of her heart, she contacted Robin [Babb] and I, and we jumped on it."

Together, the group discusses ways they can better communicate about COVID-19, a crisis whose dynamics and terminology are extremely complex. A key takeaway is to "use the space" to deliver more nuanced and precise messages.

"Shelley has tried to have us set up things in space, to work less on the English word order," Poe said. "She's trying to have us think about setting up a map, if you will. If the [COVID-19] numbers increase in Santa Maria or in Lompoc, where do you set that up in space?"

Leveraging space is particularly helpful when discussing challenging topics, like lab tests.

"When I'm up there, you'll see me shift from one side to the other and move my hands to specific locations," Babb said. "You can kind of set up the concept of what a lab does, and then you can hold it in this one particular spot in front of you and then add more information. ... It is really hard to express, and if you shift back into English [word order] when you're doing that, nobody watching you is going to understand anything."

As the COVID-19 fight moves forward, Babb and Poe asked that SLO County residents remember that everyone has an equal right to information, regardless of language or disability.

"I really want people to step back and realize we all deserve equal access in the moment," Babb said. "It shouldn't be the hearing people getting it, and then maybe it trickles down." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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