Debbie Johnson, left, and Richard Martell provide sign language interpretation for the daily conferences with Premier Stephen McNeil and Dr. Robert Strang. Photo: Suzanne Rent

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Every day at about 3pm, Nova Scotians can watch Premier Stephen McNeil and chief public health officer Dr. Robert Strang give an update on the COVID-19 crisis. But there’s another face that’s part of these daily conferences. Richard Martell is the Deaf Interpreter you can see in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen.

There are actually two interpreters at each conference. Behind the scenes is Debbie Johnson, who is hearing. She listens to McNeil and Strang and interprets what they’re saying. She sits in a chair not far from the desk where McNeil and Strang sit, and in between lights and a camera focused on Martell. Martell takes what Johnson signs and interprets that message to viewers who are Deaf. Johnson signs in American Sign Language (ASL) while Martell uses a combination of American Sign Language and Maritime Sign Language (MSL), sort of a regional dialect of ASL, into a language that is culturally and linguistically appropriate for the audience.

Martell and Johnson were hired by Society of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Nova Scotians Interpreter Services to do the daily conferences. Martell wasn’t aware who he’d be teamed up with at first, but the two have known each other for years. Says Martell:

It was really the first time we’ve done something like this together. We just connected, we work very well together, and I can communicate easily with her.

I feel it’s my responsibility to have the Deaf understand it. They need to be educated on the seriousness of this. I know many Deaf people have been watching it and I get a sense a lot of them are listening to what Premier McNeil and Dr. Strang have said. They are listening to the protocols.

Martell has accumulated experience as an interpreter over the last 30 years. Martell is Deaf, so sign language is his first language. He’s a Deaf Interpreter primarily self-taught and took courses and workshops in British Columbia and Nova Scotia. He was an instructor for Interpreter Training Program and is currently an instructor for Deaf Literacy Nova Scotia. He has an independent business offering sign language classes and was recently certified as a Deaf Interpreter. He works with people who are Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and Deaf-Blind.

People who are Culturally Deaf have been deaf since birth. That’s different than those who are deaf or hard of hearing and experienced hearing loss later in life and who may not use ASL.

Johnson has had dual languages from birth. She has Deaf parents, so sign language was her first language along with English. Her experience with ASL and MSL started before there was a formal training program available in Nova Scotia. She’s attended a number of language development courses. That, combined with her family history, makes her qualified to work for the federal government, supreme, family, and provincial courts, and in the health care and community settings.

Johnson says Martell is very fluent in Maritime Sign Language and American Sign Language. But because of the urgency of COVID-19, when they first started, they didn’t have a sign for coronavirus, so they used their years of experience to create one.

Richard Martell is a Deaf Interpreter who interprets what Premier Stephen McNeil and Dr. Robert Strang say at each daily press conference on Covid-19.

When you watch Martell, he’s using more than sign language to communicate. His facial expressions and body language are an important way to communicate the emotion of the conferences. If McNeil is angry when he speaks, Martell expresses frustration, too. So last week, when McNeil told Nova Scotians to “stay the blazes home,” Martell expressed similar frustration in his signing.

After the taping, Martell and Johnson go over the material again to get ready for the next conference.

For Johnson, one of the hardest parts of the jobs is getting the questions from the reporters whose voices over the phone can be low or indiscernible. Martell says he can get distracted when people are walking around the room. A flickering light can be visual noise. Martell says Deaf viewers only see him in that tiny box on the screen and it would ideal for the Deaf community to have the interpreters in the same screen shot as McNeil and Strang.

The conference challenges Martell and Johnson physically and mentally. “You’re taking the message and then you have to go from English to American Sign Language,” Johnson says. “Then I am looking at Richard to make sure he’s getting what I’m saying. Then, he’s interpreting at another level, culturally and linguistically, for the Deaf viewer. It may be 45 minutes to an hour, but we’re drained after.”

“It’s very important we get that message out to the viewers,” Martell continues. “The Deaf community seems to be very pleased.”

Johnson and Martell are providing an essential service to the community. They’re helping not only people who are Deaf to understand, but also to help those who are hearing communicate with them. Martell says he’d like to see more interpreters at other news events.

We want to make sure there are no barriers to communication. I see sometimes people see us out there talking and they pity us. We don’t want to be pitied. We have interpreters helping us to access information like we have right now. Don’t pity us.

Frank O’Sullivan, the executive director of the Society of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Nova Scotians, says there are about 3,000 to 4,000 people in Nova Scotia who use ASL and or MSL. He adds that statistics show that close to 60,000 Nova Scotians are Deaf, deafened, or hard of hearing. Interpreters were first used on televised federal parliamentary debates 40 years ago. Interpreters have also been used on the provincial level during emergencies. O’Sullivan says these days, we’re seeing them on news conferences more than ever.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the most widespread and most sustained visibility of interpreters at municipal, provincial and national levels, both on TV and via the internet streaming.

O’Sullivan says Martell is versatile and can adapt quickly to the changing demands of each assignment. He says Johnson is “profoundly dedicated” to the interpreting profession. Johnson was awarded the prestigious Phyllis Joynt award for mentorship by the members of Canadian Association of Sign Language Interpreters/Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada (CASLI/AVLIC), the national professional association for interpreters. Together, they make a good team on providing access to Deaf viewers.

They are both highly trained professionals who have to quickly and seamlessly interpret what is being said by a wide range of people over a wide range of topics. They are providing interpreting and not translating services and it is not a case of signing what the speakers say word for word. The interpreter needs to ensure that the viewer has access to the exact same information as the person who is listening to the speaker. The interpreter must ensure message equivalency and include all content and contextual information. Interpreting, especially news conferences, puts great physical and mental demands on an interpreter.

Viewers who are hard of hearing can also use the captioning that runs along the bottom of the screen during the conference. That captioning is called Communication Access Realtime Translation, or CART for short.

Sandra German is the owner of AB Captioning and CART, the Alberta-based company providing the captioning to the conferences with McNeil and Strang, as well as to the HRM’s media updates. For the province’s conference, there’s a captioner somewhere in Canada, working from home, listening in via the phone line and writing the captions. Captioners have training as court reporters and use the same steno machines.

German herself is a highly trained court reporter and pioneered the use of CART in Alberta. AB Captioning and CART is the largest remote CART captioning company in the country.

Before CART was used in 1989, paper steno notes were dictated into a dictaphone. German recalls using the technology at a meeting for people who were hard of hearing. To communicate, the guests took turns writing notes on a clear sheet on a projector. German offered to try her CART service, which required she turn off the lights. That meant guests couldn’t see and therefore couldn’t lipread. But they quickly picked up on using CART.

After that, if I couldn’t make a meeting, they’d cancel it.

Sandra German, owner of AB Captioning and CART, captioning an event. Photo: Sandra German

German says most people think the CART captioning is actually voice-to-text technology, but she says that wouldn’t work as well as what captioners can do. Voice-to-text technology can’t pick up on accents, can’t identify who’s saying what or when there are several speakers at once. Says German:

A lot of people said we would be taken over by technology. It will be many years before technology can do what we’re doing. We are busier than we’ve ever been.

German says what the captioners do is not typing, but rather writing. She has about eight live French captioners and 20 live English captioners. Each language has its own steno machine. Captioners listen to what is being said through the phone line, they write steno shorthand on a steno machine, and the steno strokes are fed through software that matches the steno strokes to words. The translated words flow through a streaming service that displays the captioned text on screen.

The captioners are quick, too, writing about 300 words per minute with a 98% accuracy. Captioners are trained at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, where to graduate they must be able to caption at least 225 words per minute (normal speech is about 180 words per minute). There’s less than a second of delay from the time McNeil or Strang say something until it appears as a caption on the screen.

Unlike court reporters, CART captioners cover a variety of events from fashion shows and sporting events to political meetings around the world. The steno machines are like those used by court reporters, but because CART captioners cover so many different events they can create huge databases that will match what they write to what will eventually come up on the screen. German says a big database for translation is not the only skill a good captioner has:

Captioners who have excelled in this profession either know a second language, play a musical instrument, or have an ability to calculate mathematics quickly in their head (all brain-processing abilities), and are well read. This skill has nothing to do with how fast you can type on a typewriter. It’s how fast you can process the words you’re hearing, write those words in steno, and spell the words correctly at breakneck speed with 98+% accuracy.

German says AB Captioning provided captioning for Grey Cups in 2019 and 2018.

This is captioning for fans inside the “bowl,” which is very different than watching the football game on TV. Stadium captioning has no commercials and includes everything said to the fans, like referee calls, contests, interviews, fan reaction, 50-50 numbers, advertising, etc.  So, everyone benefits from this type of captioning because no one can hear well in a large open facility like that.

Mistakes are rare, but when they happen German says in most cases it’s because a captioner’s finger slips, hitting the wrong key. That can make for some humorous and awkward captioning. In one of the recent conferences, the caption for Canadian Press reporter Keith Doucette showed up as “Keith do suck.” German sent along this list of some captioning errors:

  • There will be Mr. Drizzle today in the weather (mist or drizzle)
  • Malfunctioning four-stair furnace (forced air)
  • An amazing gymnast and a crow bat (acrobat)
  • She used fee breeze to get the smell out
  • The Crowsnest pacifier (Crowsnest Pass fire)
  • Different character sticks (characteristics)
  • She would love to get hermits on that (her mitts on)
  • 20 tenure peen tour = 2010 European Tour
  • Low cal police = local police

German says it’s not only those who are hard of hearing who use the captioning. She says newcomers to Canada often use the captioning to learn English. People with mental disabilities use it to follow along in meetings and conferences. Even people with the ability to hear use the captioning to catch up on something they missed. German says they can also send along a rough copy of the translation to anyone who missed something at the conference.

German now also works with a company that can translate the English captioning into 78 languages. So, those taking part in events around the world will see not only the English captioning, but also captioning in their first language.

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Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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