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How American Sign Language Interpreters Are Interpreting A Pandemic

Nicole DeVore is an interpreter for Paraquad's Deaf Way Interpreting Services. | 4/21/20
Nicole DeVore

American Sign Language interpreters have become a ubiquitous presence at public health briefings. Usually standing a few steps in front or behind and at least six feet to the side of elected officials and health professionals, interpreters continue to provide an essential service to deaf and hard of hearing people.

What’s it like to interpret during a pandemic? Aside from signing the letters, how does ASL evolve to include signs for “coronavirus” and “COVID-19”?

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with Nicole DeVore, interpreter services manager for Paraquad’s Deaf Way Interpreting Services.

In addition to their presence at virtual public health briefings, interpreters have seen an uptick in Video Remote Interpreting business — which is similar to Zoom conference calls and medical appointments but uses an interpreter to relay information to deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

A transcript of this conversation is below. Listen here:


Sarah Fenske: We've all seen American Sign Language interpreters hard at work during this pandemic. The governor may be the one talking, but it's an interpreter translating their words for the deaf audience. That makes these translators, truly, an essential service. 

Now, today, of course, that work looks different than it did before we all started sheltering in place. Now they're translating Zoom calls — not rock concerts — and it presents unique challenges. How do you say "coronavirus" in American Sign Language?

Here to discuss the life of a sign language interpreter is Nicole DeVore. She is the interpreter services manager with Paraquad's Deaf Way interpreting services. Nicole, welcome.

Nicole DeVore: Thank you for having me.

Fenske: So, let's cut right to the chase. Walk us through this, don't just do the sign, but how would you say "coronavirus" in American Sign Language?

DeVore: It's kind of hard to describe without a visual, but it basically ... you take your left hand and make a fist, your right hand [is] an open five-hand. It starts at the wrist area and rotates — it almost looks like what the coronavirus looks like.

Fenske: I was going to say, as you were describing this, I'm picturing that little horned virus, it makes sense. How does that come about? Who decides that's how coronavirus is signed?

DeVore: It's like with any language, it's always changing and growing. Sign language is very pictorial, very gestural. As with any language, somebody starts along the way and it spreads like wildfire. And at some point, it becomes the accepted sign for something.

Fenske: So there's no committee that has to sign off on this or something, it just kind of evolves the way English evolves?

DeVore: Exactly, just like natural language.

Fenske: How frequently do you see some big, new word come on the scene that you're all of a sudden having to use with such great frequency like this?

DeVore: Fairly often. All of the slang terms and all of the buzzwords that are out there end up with signs. There's a lot of Facebook groups and connections that are made where these things kind of become available to us. As an interpreter, you're always trying to keep up with the times, so you make sure that you're getting access to these new terms as they come along.

Fenske: If you learn a new term, then it seems that the second half of that would be making sure that it makes sense for the audience that you're introducing it to. I imagine you can't just start inserting it into a conversation. What does that introduction look like the first time coronavirus may come up in a conversation you're translating?

DeVore: When an interpreter is introducing something like that, you would finger-spell the word first. You would finger-spell "coronavirus" and assign it that particular sign. From the briefing, the conversation, from then on, that sign has already been labeled coronavirus. So, it's just understood.

Fenske: That does make sense. These are these things that I think many of us never think about, and it's fascinating to think of how these languages evolve. I'm wondering, in your case, what got you interested in learning American Sign Language in the first place?

DeVore: I grew up with a friend of mine that was deaf, and our family naturally learned the language from them and it went from there. It became a career for me that I really enjoyed.

Fenske: When did you realize it was a career? Did you have to get some specialized training?

DeVore: Back when I became an interpreter, specialized training was not necessarily required. That was 25 years ago, and things have gotten far more advanced in becoming an interpreter. I basically kind of fell into it. I knew the language, I had a lot of people that were willing to mentor me and support me — deaf and interpreters. They kind of guided me through. Now, you would go to an interpreter training program. And now there is Missouri state testing that is required.

Fenske: There's a formal test now?

DeVore: Yes.

Fenske: OK. And are you licensed? Or [are] you certified? What's the proper word for that?

DeVore: Both. You pass a certification test and then you get licensed in the state of Missouri and in Illinois.

Fenske: You're also a manager with Paraquad's service. In addition to this translation yourself, how in-demand are these services in the St. Louis metro [area]?

DeVore: Interpreting, in general, is in very high demand. There is a shortage of interpreters that is unexpected to resolve for 10 to 15 years. We are constantly looking for new interpreters, we're trying to encourage people to get into the field because it's very busy.

Fenske: Busy in what ways? We all see interpreters now, standing behind the governor and doing these marvelous interpretations of what they're saying in real time. Up until we hit the pandemic, that wasn't a huge source of work for you guys? Where were Paraquad's services being employed?

DeVore: The short answer is just about everywhere that you can imagine, I know there has been an interpreter. A vast majority of our work is medical and legal, but also [in] education — from kindergarten all the way through [getting] a Ph.D. — just about anywhere you can imagine. It's a pretty wild ride sometimes.

Fenske: You mentioned legal or medical — these seem like things where they have such a lexicon, that even for people who are hearing ... half the time, people don't know what these words are that are being thrown out. Do people have to develop a specialty in order to handle something like that?

DeVore: They do. And in this day and age, there's so much available, thankfully, that people can tap into. It starts with learning, in English, what are these things? What does all of this mean? And, then, kind of exploring options for how to sign different concepts. It's an intense amount of work to prepare to be a medical or legal interpreter.

Fenske: If you're doing medical or legal, does that pay better than, say, a rap concert?

DeVore: It all depends. The people who are doing those things — the medical and legal — tend to have a higher certification. So they kind of naturally make more. The short answer is, yes, it does pay a little better.

Fenske: So it makes sense to have a specialty? If that's what you're pursuing. Do you, yourself, have anything you specialize in?

DeVore: I work mainly in medical and legal interpreting.

Fenske: OK. So you pursued those specialties and words like "plaintiff" — you know how to sign "plaintiff"?

DeVore: Yes, I do.

Fenske: That's awesome. So you're there in court, how is it affected by the fact that no one's [there] in person? Are people bringing you in on video for these legal hearings?

DeVore: Yes. Things have gotten very creative, and we use different platforms [that are] kind of like Zoom. Everybody has a preference to interpret remotely. And it would be like any other video call that the interpreter can see the deaf person and vice versa, and you would just interpret as if you were in person.

Fenske: Are there challenges to trying to do it that way?

DeVore: For sure. Visibility is often a problem. You're used to seeing a language in 3D. Now you're in 2D. So that's a little odd at times. Like anybody else, internet connection is often a problem. As long as everything is going smoothly, that works great. But oftentimes it does not.

Fenske: I imagine it's hard when people's voices freeze. When you're there frozen, and your whole job is [staying] up with this conversation, you must be wanting to tear your hair out.

DeVore: Exactly. 

Fenske: You mentioned this 2D versus 3D aspect, that's so intriguing to me. Are there certain signs where maybe they just don't come across on a video screen as if you were in person with someone?

DeVore: Absolutely. In English, we use vocal inflection and we use certain tones to express feelings, to express intensity. In sign language, those are done with the face and the body and different gestures and different intensity of the sign. The signs mean different things. Sometimes that interpretation can be lost trying to view it on a small screen that may or may not be cooperating.

Fenske: Is there ever a chance, if you're translating for somebody — and something isn't coming through clearly — to slow down or do a rewind?

DeVore: There is, and people are very patient, and sometimes the interpreter will ask for clarification in certain settings, especially if it's something truly serious — medical or legal — they will ask to have things explained better or broken down to something that is easier to interpret. Each individual varies in the level of understanding.

Fenske: I've got to ask one last question, and I have to apologize in advance if this is a dumb question, but when I was reading up on this, I learned that American Sign Language has regional dialects. There's always this question of whether St. Louis is Southern or Midwestern. What part of the regional dialect do we fall into?

DeVore: That's a very good question. I never thought of that. I would say that we fall into a Midwest dialect. St. Louis is a hotspot for deaf people because of different schooling options that are here, and you'll see a lot of influence from other dialects that are part of the St. Louis sign language usage. We're definitely Midwestern, I would think.

Fenske: OK. So, we're kind of a hub, but we have that Midwestern accent going on when we're doing our American Sign Language.

DeVore: Yes.

Fenske: I learned something new today about St. Louis, so I have to thank you for that. That's good to know about this new thing. Nicole DeVore, I want to thank you so much for joining us today.

DeVore: Thank you for having me.

Fenske: And Nicole, again, is the interpreter services manager with Paraquad's Deaf Way interpreting services — [who are] just doing valuable work translating things into American Sign Language for deaf people or people who need that service done, and how interesting it is to learn about the various facets of that.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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