The three women who translate Ohio leadership's message into American Sign Language explain their job and what you should know about the Deaf community.

Much ado has been made about American Sign Language interpreter Marla Berkowitz, whose expressive face often appears alongside Gov. Mike DeWine during daily COVID-19 briefings, and her fellow ASL interpreters, Christy Horne and Marlena “Lena” Smith. Berkowitz is even getting her own bobblehead from the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum, alongside DeWine and Ohio Department of Health director Dr. Amy Acton. 

Berkowitz works for the Deaf Services Center and is the state’s only certified deaf interpreter; she’s also a lecturer with Ohio State University’s ASL program. Horne also works for DSC; the pair were contracted by Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, a state agency, to provide interpreting services for the coronavirus press briefings. Smith is an OOD employee. Berkowitz herself is deaf; Horne and Smith can hear.

“Our role at OOD is to lead the way in carrying out Gov. DeWine’s commitment to Ohioans with disabilities,” says director Kevin Miller. “The interpreters are highly skilled professionals that facilitate communication between hearing individuals and Deaf or hard-of-hearing Ohioans. Especially right now, they are a crucial communication tool.” OOD estimates that approximately 303,000 Ohioans are Deaf or hard of hearing.

In honor of National Interpreter Appreciation Day, which is today, we chatted with Berkowitz, Horne and Smith via email to learn more about their job and its unique requirements. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us a little about yourselves—how did each of you become an ASL interpreter?

Berkowitz: Ever since I was little, I’ve always found myself making sure my Deaf, Deafblind, Deafdisabled and hard-of-hearing peers are understood and that they have the access to make informed decisions independently. Clear communication is the essence to having empathy, dignity and respect for people in general.

Horne: I became an interpreter by accident. I started learning ASL casually and fell in love with the language and culture.

Smith: I was exposed to some sign language as a child, but my love for the language and the community started in high school. Becoming an interpreter was an accident; my intent was always to learn more about the language and make more friends within the Deaf community. 

In the press conferences, Horne listens to speakers and relays information to Berkowitz, who then relays it to the Deaf community. Why use this process, as opposed to having Horne relay the information directly, for example?

Berkowitz: I have the formative experiences of living as a Deaf person, in which ASL and Deaf culture is delivered to Deaf, Deafblind, Deafdisabled and hard-of-hearing people in the language we understand. It is the very first time in our Deaf American history that the authenticity of ASL is seen in the spotlight. The Deaf and hard-of-hearing community finds it linguistically and culturally relatable [to get information from a native user], and as a bonus, the general public are amused by it. Christy and Lena, is ASL your second language? 

Horne: ASL is my second language and so as fluent as I may be, I am not a native user. The press conference provides essential information to people of varying language fluencies. Due to this, the information is best relayed by a native user.

Smith: ASL is my second language as well. Working with Christy and Marla is incredible. Christy can take the message and deliver it in a way that Marla is then able to make it digestible to a wide variety of people. It is a marvel to watch, and all of this happens within minutes.

The ASL interpreters at Gov. DeWine’s daily briefings have gone viral in part thanks to their highly expressive delivery of information. Can you tell us more about why this expression is necessary to properly convey information?

Berkowitz: Expression is one of the features of ASL that conveys the nuances of the words. ASL is a gift, with its movements of eyes, face, head, hands and body to express adverbs, adjectives and other grammatical elements.

Horne: ASL is an extraordinarily complex language, and the signs are only one part of it. The facial expressions and body language not only share the tone of the speaker’s voice, but they encompass all the grammar and nuances of the language.

What are some of the challenges of ASL interpreting?

Berkowitz: During press conferences, ASL interpreting demands intensive focus and concentration when teaming with co-interpreters. We are bombarded with crucial information, and responsibility is on us to render the message accurately—conveying the language and cultural content and spirit—all the while being impartial, not showing any bias to the speaker’s message.

Smith: There are so many challenges, and so many challenges that change depending on the day. A challenge can be hearing what was said accurately or remembering everything that was said while building your concept in another language.

What do you like best about your work as an interpreter?

Berkowitz: ASL interpreting is a sacred profession to me. It is the best platform to raise awareness and educate the public about the ASL, Deaf and hard-of-hearing community and about diversity and inclusion. Deaf, Deafblind, Deafdisabled and hard-of-hearing people now have 100 percent access to crucial information in their language, ASL, on national TV and on social media for the first time in their lives. … Every Ohioan deserves to obtain information to make informed decisions affecting their health, wealth and sanity. This is a win-win for everyone!

Horne: I love being present when two users of different languages can connect and share information and ideas.

Smith: The people. As an interpreter it is my honor to meet so many incredible people. They are all different, and they have a story to tell. If you listen, they always have something new to teach you, too. It is my honor and privilege to work as an interpreter.

What do you do when you’re not translating the governor’s briefings for the deaf community?

Berkowitz: I am a senior lecturer for the ASL program at Ohio State. In my spare time, I volunteer with Deaf-related organizations, am a member of a book club, and I enjoy yoga, cooking, taking hikes and hanging out with friends and family.

Horne: When not working for the press conferences, I’m out in the community interpreting. I enjoy genealogy and am a local history fan. I like to read. I also enjoy mentoring new interpreters.

Smith: I work for Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities as a staff interpreter. I interpret for our brilliant Deaf professionals, participants and guests. I enjoy playing tennis and coaching for Westerville Special Olympics. I also love to read, write, be a mermaid—I love mermaids, and I have a tail I swim in—and spend time with my family and friends. 

What’s something you wish more people knew about the deaf community and/or ASL interpretation?

Berkowitz: Being an ASL interpreter is not about being in the spotlight … it is a social justice endeavor in which I am mindful of people on the “margins”—due to their language and cultural barriers, they are at high risk [of losing] their health, employment and well-being.

Horne: I wish more people knew how fabulous and warm the Deaf community is. 

Smith: The Deaf community welcomes us into their world. They teach us their language [and] culture, and they accept us for who we are. They give and give. As interpreters, we give back to the community for the opportunity to learn and work. Interpreters and the Deaf, hard of hearing, Deafblind, and Deafdisabled community [are] a village. We build each other up, and we celebrate the strides that we make together. We keep the community at the heart of everything, because it isn’t about one of us, it about us all. 

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