JOHNSTON, Iowa — Iowa PBS, which runs the broadcast of the governor's daily news conferences on coronavirus, launched a new way to connect with Latinos and Hispanics in Iowa through a live audio interpretation of the briefings in Spanish.
Vanessa Marcano-Kelly and Ernest Niño-Murcia are the makers behind the magic of getting the message and tone right.
"Getting information to people in their language is, I think, crucial and is a matter of public safety," Marcano-Kelly said.
The effort was aided in part by the Iowa Department on Human Rights and its Office of Latino Affairs, which helped connect Marcano-Kelly and Niño-Murcia to Iowa PBS. The statewide public television network has provided broadcast coverage on their local channels and to other newsrooms since Gov. Kim Reynolds has held daily news conferences with updates on coronavirus.
“We are proud to offer this vital service to Iowa’s Spanish-speaking communities to help keep everyone up-to-date on fast changing health and safety information,” said Iowa PBS Executive Director and General Manager Molly Phillips in a statement.
There are close to 195,000 Latinos in Iowa, or 6.2% of the population, and the ethnic group is the fastest growing community in the state, according to the Office of Latino Affairs.
Minority populations in Iowa are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. State demographical data shows that Iowans identifying as Latino or Hispanic make up 20.8% of the state's more than 3,700 known COVID-19 infections—more than triple their representation in Iowa.
The pair are both certified court interpreters who also do freelance work for private companies. They did a lot of work interpreting at campaign events when candidates paraded through Iowa in the lead up to the Iowa caucuses in February.
In an interview, they stressed the importance of being "in sync" with a good interpreting partner. They have worked together since 2016.
“You should usually be working in a team to give each other a break," Marcano-Kelly said. "It’s really good when you have someone you have worked with already for a long time and they kind of know your mannerisms, what you need.”
Language interpretation isn’t for the faint of heart—it’s requires depth of understanding and unique cognitive abilities.
And it’s mentally taxing, they said. Niño-Murcia highlighted all of the preparation before they actually begin their work: they go over infectious disease terminology and read Latin American newspapers "to try to pull some vocabulary" so that they are ready for what they expect to hear.
Still, some words get lost in translation.
But the two have to be quick on their feet when words like "federal block grant" or "hot spot" come through their headsets. They keep a glossary in a Google document on a nearby computer screen.
In fact, there isn't an exact translation for the word "Iowan."
“That’s one where we have to coordinate and figure out how are we going to address that and we came up with just saying ‘the residents of Iowa’—honestly it should be put to a popular vote among Spanish speakers," Niño-Murcia quipped.
It’s these sorts of kinks, they say, that are more easily smoothed over by a team effort.
So two heads are better than one, especially when the two increasing access to critical information.
“You don’t think about being an interpreter and translator as a being a 'public service,'" Marcano-Kelly said. "But I think it truly is and it’s a big responsibility as well."
The Department of Human Rights also offers translations of important information in a variety of languages online. There is also a multi-lingual hotline available at 1-877-558-2609 that connects Iowans to an interpreter in Spanish, Arabic, Swahili, Mandarian Chinese, French, Burmese, Somali and several others languages.
Iowans can watch the Spanish interpretation program live on their TV through second audio program services. Viewers can also stream the Spanish versions of the programs and press conferences later with dubbed audio on-demand on the Iowa PBS website.