COLUMBUS — Marla Berkowitz made quick, staccato movements with her hands and lips to relay Gov. Mike DeWine’s blunt warnings about coronavirus.
Her eyes widened as she relayed shocking statistics about the potential impact of the new coronavirus on Ohio.
Berkowitz, front and center at the governor’s daily briefings, is one of three American Sign Language interpreters getting valuable information to the estimated 303,000 deaf or hard-of-hearing people in Ohio.
The three have become a bit of a social media phenomenon — a bright spot in challenging times.
“The most talked about and adored celebrity in my office is DeWine’s sign-language interpreter,” Tom Plute, a Bexley comedian who works in a battery-recycling center, wrote on Twitter during Monday’s news conference.
Berkowitz and her colleagues, Christy Horne and Lena Smith, try to be as expressive as possible to most accurately interpret information for viewers.
It’s mentally exhausting work as the interpreters constantly move their whole bodies — not just their hands and arms.
Berkowitz, who typically kicks off the news conferences, standing next to officials leading Ohio through this outbreak, is deaf herself.
She gets help from Horne, of Deaf Services Center in Worthington, who sits in the audience and signs so that Berkowitz can see. Berkowitz then relays the information — with little lag time — to viewers.
“Marla is able to keep up with the pace, but she has the added benefit that she is a native ASL user,” Horne said. “She’s aware of the intricacies of the language, not just the signs.”
Smith, an ASL interpreter with the state’s Opportunities for Ohioans With Disabilities, sits nearby and offers guidance through signs of her own to ensure the accuracy of Berkowitz’s translations. Horne and Berkowitz do the same when Smith interprets the question-and-answer portion.
Smith relieves Berkowitz because even after a short period of time, signing can cause fatigue.
“In general, you don’t interpret for extended periods,” Berkowitz, a certified deaf interpreter, signed while Horne translated for her. “You’re interpreting one language to another, and that’s not something your brain can do for a long time.”
Berkowitz relies on the movements of her hands and lips to emphasize important points from the state officials, such as “every person matters” or “the grocery stores will remain open.”
The signs are supplemented by her facial expressions, which lightened into a smile as she translated a joke from DeWine on Monday: “If you hear a crazy rumor, it’s probably a crazy rumor.”
Smith is every bit as emotive, showing worry or shock with a gaping mouth or exaggerated eyebrow raise.
That’s necessary to convey the information accurately. It’s not a style choice, Berkowitz said, but part of ASL grammar and how effective signing should be done.
“Voices have different intonations,” Berkowitz said. “You can tell if a person is angry, sad or scared. You can tell a lot by that inflection, and they don’t need to use facial expressions. The voice is doing all that work for them.”
Those using signs don’t have that luxury, the interpreters said.
“It’s very important to show the gravity of the situation or if the governor is making a joke,” Berkowitz continued. “Then you have to be direct about some things. When the governor gets blunt with a message, you have to show that.”
The COVID-19 crisis brought the three women together for the first time, but at this point, they’re a well-oiled machine. They meet about an hour before each news conference to go over notes with one another and state officials, who keep them informed.
They talk about how to sign new buzzwords such as “social distancing” and that they should use signs for “confirmed cases” rather than “positive cases” because the sign for “positive” conveys something happy.
And though they try to be prepared, surprises happen.
“They try to give us as much information as possible, but it’s constantly changing, and it keeps us on our toes,” Smith said.
The three interpreters said one of the unintended benefits of this experience is that they are exposing a wider audience to exactly what good ASL interpretation looks like, which can differ from what people are used to seeing.
That might be what has drawn the social media chatter.
“Some woman came up to us and said, ‘I don’t know sign language, but watching you, what you’re doing, helps me understand it even better,’” Berkowitz said. “She’s not deaf.”
Although they’ve enjoyed seeing all the positive — and at times, humorous — Twitter comments, the immense responsibility they have to the deaf and hard-of-hearing isn’t lost on them, they said.
“Raising awareness is important, but more importantly is the equality piece,” Smith said. Deaf and hard-of-hearing people “deserve to know the information just like everyone else.”
Added Berkowitz: “They have questions going through their minds just like everyone else.”