Marcano-Kelly: Understanding the Importance of My Voice

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Guest post by Vanessa Marcano-Kelly, who served as one of the Spanish-language interpreters for Gov. Kim Reynolds last year during her then-daily coronavirus press conferences.

Since my informal community organizer/interpreter days, I was aware that my job as an interpreter and translator was important.

People’s stories were heard because I was there to provide this service. The importance of interpretation was evident when I began doing this professionally both in court and in medical settings when people are going through difficult moments and accurate communication is essential.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic made me truly comprehend the significance and responsibility of my work. Even though in the United States we have so many different languages, when the pandemic hit, not only did the country struggle to have enough medical staff but there were also difficulties in finding enough medical interpreters.

Several news articles at the time highlighted the awful situation that non-English speaking COVID-19 patients faced, when not only were they isolated without their families, oftentimes they also didn’t have a way to even communicate basic ideas.

Iowa saw some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking and food processing plants, whose workforces are largely made up of immigrant or refugee non-English speaking individuals. All of the emergency declarations and safety measures were being issued in English, so many communities had very little access to current, accurate information during an unprecedented time.

Thanks to the initiative and collaboration among the Iowa Office of Latino Affairs, the Iowa Department of Human Rights, Iowa PBS (as well as my interpreter colleague and myself), Iowa’s Spanish-speaking population was eventually able to get up-to-date information about the pandemic from the governor’s office. The Department of Human Rights also did a good job of getting people to translate and record summaries of the governor’s emergency declarations in languages other than Spanish.

It really took a village to make this happen, because while the first step was making sure there were interpreters relaying the information, the other key step was ensuring that the Spanish language broadcast was reaching people. That’s when my community connections from my previous organizing work came into play.

Given my past organizing work, Spanish-speaking media had a general idea of who I was, so when I alerted them to the fact that we’d be interpreting the governor’s press conferences in Spanish, they got into action and began rebroadcasting the interpreted press conferences through their platforms, especially Facebook Live.

Something I found fascinating was the fact that, once people had access to information in their language, on the Facebook comments people would express their opinions about a situation that they otherwise wouldn’t have been so aware of. When businesses or schools or daycare centers closed or opened back up, or when racial justice protests took place in our state, people participated in the public discourse, and through the social media engagement, you could get a glimpse into the thoughts of this community.

Having the privilege to interpret this crucial information for people was an incredible experience that taught me so much about being flexible, adaptable, working as a team, and putting aside personal or even ideological differences to achieve the greater good of transmitting timely information to protect public health.

It also reinforced my sense of responsibility and my code of professional ethics in my job; I did get some “haters” who questioned why I accepted to interpret this assignment, simply because they did not agree with the decisions or ideology of those in power, or there are those who always ask, “Why wouldn’t you make a comment or say what you think?”

Simple: it would be unethical, and a violation of the deep trust that institutions and communities have in me and my fellow interpreters. It was a no-brainer: I was there to do my job to the best of my ability, no additions, no omissions. I can always editorialize while having a drink with friends or tweet a sassy comment about current events, outside work hours.

by Vanessa Marcano-Kelly


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