ASL Translation

Paola Morales, right, translates Mayor Robert Garcia's words into American Sign Language during one of the city's coronavirus updates.

As Mayor Robert Garcia speaks to the camera, giving that day's death toll from COVID-19 and explaining what the city is doing about it, Paola Morales can be seen in the background.

For some of those watching the live update, Morales is by far the more important of the two. They are the city's deaf community, and Morales is telling them what's happening through ASL — American Sign Language.

"There are specific signs regarding COVID," Morales said via Zoom last week. "I had to do the research. Being able to interpret the meaning of the information being conveyed is so important. We know we will be held accountable."

Morales has been held accountable for almost all of her life. She was born to deaf parents living in Mexico.

"It wasn't an option for me," she said. "I was immersed in deaf culture from the beginning. I was learning signs before learning to speak."

Morales was learning lengua de señas mexicana — LSM or Mexican Sign Language — along with spoken Spanish. Then her parents immigrated to the United States. As her parents were learning ASL, she was learning that and English at the same time.

Helping her parents navigate through life became second nature to Morales, as is often the case for CODA or Children Of Deaf Adults, she said. She called it being a "language broker."

"The motivation was to help, to care and love for the family…," Morales said. "I never felt pressured to interpret. But the family is in need and you try to do your best."

An estimated 37 million deaf or hard of hearing people live in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. More than 800,000 of them live in the Greater Los Angeles area and surrounding counties.

ASL translation is required in most government meetings now. But, according to Kavita Pipalia, president of the California Association of the Deaf, providing ASL interpretation is an after-thought far too often when people plan meetings.

"We need more access-centered planning," Pipalia, who is deaf, said. "It needs to be considered at the very beginning. Far too often, we have to ask to be included."

Morales said it was just a given in her life. She acted as an interpreter for her peers while taking classes at El Camino College. By 2002, she was a professional interpreter.

As is the case with most interpreters, whether in sign language or other languages, Morales is an independent contractor registered with multiple agencies. Her ability to translate from Spanish and English to ASL (most Spanish speakers in America use ASL) makes her a valued interpreter. It's one reason she got the job translating for the city during the coronavirus pandemic. She does the ASL translation whether Garcia is speaking in English or Spanish.

Delivering bad news day after day, at least early on, was just part of the job, Morales said. Both she and Pipalia said it it critical for interpreters to understand their role as communicators, without becoming emotionally involved.

"I think growing up in the deaf community you develop a sense of resilience," Morales said. "You have to overcome so many obstacles, you learn to just take things in stride.

"This isn't the hardest thing I've done," she added. "We are in situations where we have to translate very private, very personal things."

Being a good interpreter, Morales said, takes experience — both in translating and in life.

"You live a life (in the deaf community) that runs the gamut of joy and pain," she said. "It takes life experience to convey meaning. And you have to have a sense of integrity."

One of the most difficult things for deaf people during the coronavirus pandemic, Morales and Pipalia said, is the almost universal use of face masks. It takes away an important part of communication — both understanding what hearing people say and getting hearing people to understand what a deaf person is saying.

"The deaf burden is really compounded by the masks," Pipalia said. "People try to mouth what they are trying to convey, or try to read the lips of what they are trying to say.

"Other things are difficult too," she added. "For example, deaf people often tap another deaf person on the shoulder to get their attention. Today, well …"

Morales said she expects to continue interpreting COVID-19 information at 3 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday as long as city officials think the briefing is necessary. It provides an important service,  she. said.

"I think the mayor cares about it," Morales said. "He's learning about it, and he cares about keeping the lines of communication open."

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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