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Marla Berkowitz: the interpreter capturing Ohio’s attention

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When Ohioans — and a widening national audience — tune into coronavirus (COVID-19) briefings by Gov. Mike DeWine and other state leaders, many of them are hearing the words coming from officials’ mouths. But many eyes are on the certified deaf interpreters and hearing American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters helping deliver urgent, possibly lifesaving messages to the state’s 303,000 deaf residents and others beyond state borders.

Marla Berkowitz, a certified deaf interpreter, in particular has become a minor celebrity, winning praise and admiration for her expressive interpretation, which makes full use of hand gestures, facial expressions and body language to convey both the content and the intent of officials’ words. Her clear devotion to her work is a bright spot in what’s otherwise a sobering broadcast. Berkowitz, senior lecturer in ASL at Ohio State and an independent contractor for various ASL interpreting agencies, courts and other institutions, answered a few questions about her approach and dedication to this work.

Marla Berkowitz is shown interpreting for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's during a COVID-19 press conference.
Marla Berkowitz interprets for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine during one of the state's recurring COVID-19 press conferences. Photo courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch.
What is the experience of interpreting like for you?

When I interpret, I have the deaf, deaf-blind, deaf-disabled and hard of hearing (D/DB/DD/HH) community in the back of my mind, which is a responsibility I embody to ensure they are understanding the critical situation we're faced with coronavirus. As every concept and detail is spoken, I utilize all of the parts of ASL grammar, which entails signs, facial expressions, body movements and other registers (such as distinguishing seriousness, sarcasm and other emotions that are typically heard as equivalent to vocal inflections) and stating whether it is a question or statement or a rhetorical question, among other ASL grammars utilized.

What do you like about interpreting?

ASL interpreting is a sacred profession to me. I am given the responsibility to convey information so that individuals can make informed decisions independently in their lives. D/DB/DD/HH people are a minority, oppressed group. Communication barrier is a constant battle in our daily lives. Hearing people often deprive us from opportunities to have access to information because they do not know ASL.

What are some of the different settings in which you have provided interpretation?

In addition to press conferences, I've interpreted in a wide variety of settings including court (I'm certified by the Supreme Court of Ohio), mental health and education settings, business meetings and many more. My specialty is legal and high-profile conferences. I've done murder trials, hospitals where people are dying, trainings and theater as well.

How is expressiveness part of your job as an interpreter?

Expressiveness has two parts, which I explained above. One is the emotive aspect and the other is the grammar aspect (how to distinguish between questions and statements). In addition, we use signing space around us to determine the dialogue between two or more people, the inflection verbs and tenses (past, present and future) among other aspects any language entails with its own grammar and syntax. 

You must be thrust into situations with their own specific vocabulary, some of which is new and evolving in real time.

The deaf community is constantly evolving with new vocabulary introduced. For example, the sign for coronavirus was created about a month ago and we, deaf Americans, learned it from the Asian deaf community — I believe it was either the Chinese or Japanese deaf people — who came together to develop the sign. Thanks to the internet and video postings, we were able to learn it.

However, if we're to be specific utilizing the vocabulary such as distinguishing COVID-19 from SARS or MERS, we would fingerspell it. Or if we're to emphasize the behavior of coronavirus such as when it's attacking, spreading or dying, our signs would look different in conjunction to our facial expressions and body movements. 

For how long can you and fellow interpreters work before you need a break, both mentally and physically? Do you work together to plan transitions and breaks?

Ideally, for situations like the press conferences, we would be needing two certified deaf interpreters and two hearing ASL interpreters. The switch of interpreters does not depend on time frame only; we do it based on the topic discussed. It wouldn't make sense to switch during the middle of a concept or sentence. The team determines the time among themselves. However, research has shown 20 to 30 minutes is the maximum time the brain can manage the firehose of information interpreted into ASL in situations like press conferences, courts and training.

Does everyone have an individual style of interpreting, or are you operating on best/standard practice?

Certified deaf interpreters and hearing ASL interpreters are required to go through training and testing to obtain certification. (Learn more about this through the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.) RID, a national organization for ASL interpreters, sets the standard for the ASL interpreting profession.

We do have our own style of interpreting, and that comes with where we get our training. There are 2- and 4-year ASL interpreting education and preparation programs throughout the country. Columbus has a 2-year ASL interpreting program at Columbus State Community College, which partners with other universities to meet RID's minimum educational and training requirements for ASL interpreters who are both deaf and hearing.