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What it's like being a sign language interpreter on TV during a pandemic

Regan Thibodeau serves as sign language interpreter during a Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention briefing done over Zoom. Thibodeau, one of two on-screen interpreters for the briefings, is known for her dramatic facial expressions. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal
Regan Thibodeau serves as sign language interpreter during a Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention briefing done over Zoom. Thibodeau, one of two on-screen interpreters for the briefings, is known for her dramatic facial expressions. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal
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AUGUSTA (Sun Journal) -- You’ve seen them, the man and woman who take turns signing for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s daily COVID-19 briefings. You’ve marveled at how quickly they can interpret. You’ve maybe chuckled at some of their facial expressions.

You’ve wondered who the heck these people were.

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They are Regan Thibodeau and Joshua Seal. And while they’re the only ones on camera who don’t get an introduction, their faces may currently be as well known as the governor’s.

Mostly through email, we caught up with them — and another interpreter who works behind the scenes — to ask about their lives, their work and what it’s like to be a little bit famous right now.

But who are they exactly?

Regan Thibodeau, 41, lives in Windham. Joshua Seal, 32, lives in Lisbon Falls. Both are from Maine, both are deaf, and neither had seen many — if any — prominent sign language interpreters growing up.

“The only time I saw an interpreter on the TV was in that bubble for special church occasions. It wasn’t until college that I started to realize that the interpreters were often there but cut out of the TV screen. Even early on, during this pandemic, many news channels would cut out the interpreter until our deaf community came forward and advocated for the camera to pan on the interpreter steadily,” Thibodeau said. “I think the first time I saw a deaf interpreter in the news was Gigi Doran of Boston over 10 years ago during a national weather emergency in regard to a blizzard. It became a big deal — her facial expressions and so on was the center of many discussions.”

Thibodeau received her bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of Southern Maine, a master’s degree in teaching American Sign Language as a foreign language from the Teachers College at Columbia University and a doctorate in public policy from USM. She is now an American Sign Language interpreter and professor at USM.

Seal received his bachelor’s degree in linguistics from USM and is a part-time faculty member there. He also works as an interpreter for the Pine Tree Society, a Bath-based organization that serves people with disabilities and has offices in Auburn and Scarborough.

He started with Pine Tree Society five months ago, just a couple of months before the state asked the society if it happened to know any good ASL interpreters for this TV thing it was going to do. . . .


Closed captioning exists and it’s useful for a lot of people who are deaf or have trouble hearing, but it can leave out a large swath of people. ASL is its own language with its own grammar, and not everyone knows both a spoken language — which you need for subtitles — and ASL.

“Closed captioning works for those whose primary language is English. ASL interpretation is for those whose primary language is ASL,” Thibodeau said. “Also, our interpretation as deaf interpreters includes those who may only be ASL monolinguals. CC is an entirely different type of accommodation. It’s like saying a ramp provides the same access as stairs. Not quite. A ramp is accessible to all people, but stairs are exclusive.”

Even when viewers know both English and ASL, they still may find sign language is more comfortable and less distracting than closed captioning.

“Many people do not enjoy watching foreign films with subtitles. The viewer is splitting their attention between the words and the action,” said Maura Nolin, Pine Tree Society’s director of interpreting services and an ASL interpreter who works on the CDC’s daily briefings behind the scenes. “Closed captioning is like you watching a movie with the captions in Spanish or German. . . . An interpreted broadcast is like watching a movie in your preferred language. No need to split your thinking or take in information in a second — or third — language.”

How do they do it?

You’d think it would be pretty straightforward, that Dr. Nirav Shah — perhaps the only CDC director in Maine history to be more recognizable than the governor — would give his daily talk and Thibodeau and Seal would interpret what he says. But both Thibodeau and Seal are deaf, which means they can’t sign directly from Shah’s words because they can’t hear what he’s saying. And while they could, theoretically, sign from a teleprompter, those pre-written words wouldn’t tell them if someone went off-script and it wouldn’t help with the the daily briefing call-in questions.

So two other interpreters who can hear — Nolin is one of them — sit off camera. One of those interpreters feeds the speaker’s words to Thibodeau or Seal through sign while the other person monitors for accuracy. Thibodeau and Seal then sign to viewers.

Why not just have Nolin and the other hearing interpreter sign directly to the public and skip the middleman? Because ASL is not the hearing interpreters’ first language and that can make a difference, especially when trying to explain to ASL viewers something as complex as a pandemic.

Nolin’s analogy: Think of a student studying abroad in Italy. They’re socially fluent — they know the language well enough to take classes, navigate shops and restaurants, maybe even interpret for visiting family members. But then the pandemic hits and news reports start using terms like social distancing, public facing businesses, congregate settings, R-naught values and positivity rate.

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“The amount of cognitive and linguistic work that student, who socially is quite fluent in Italian, would need to do to figure out the meaning of these new terms in Italian in order to understand the broadcast would be significant. And there is potential for misinterpretation,” Nolin said. “That student would likely want to find an English language broadcast to be able to feel confident they understand the risks and measures being put in place to protect the public.”

“This is why we use a deaf interpreter,” she added. “As qualified as their hearing co-interpreter may be as an interpreter, the depth of information shared, the potential consequences of misinterpretation and the urgency of delivering accurate, accessible information makes it imperative that the information is presented by a deaf person.”

How do they know the signs for all those medical and epidemiological terms?

Signs for “pandemic,” “coronavirus” and “PPE” weren’t commonly used in Maine before COVID-19, but they did exist. And other parts of the world used them more often.

“Especially when ebola came out, we American interpreters learned their signs. So we had some vocabulary base ready,” Thibodeau said. “But when new signs emerge for new nouns like COVID-19, the deaf community will either naturally form a sign or adopt it from another country. In this case, our sign for COVID-19 was formulated by the Wuhan deaf community. As the first deaf community to be impacted by the virus, their sign came across the world quickly through deaf social media networking and their sign so happens to fit our morphemes and phonology, so it was easy to adopt. If they had used a hand shape that is not naturally occurring in ASL, it may have been modified.”

And what is that sign? Make a fist with one hand, then make a five with your other hand, put it on top of your fist and turn it outward.

“It looks like the COVID-19 virus structure, a ball with spikes,” Seal said.

So where does everybody stand?

Before COVID-19, interpreters stood close to the presenter so viewers could scan back and forth between them. But now, social distancing rules changed everything, even the daily briefing.

The logistics changed over time, but Thibodeau and Seal have stood 6 feet away from the speakers for a while now, even though it looked like they were closer. Recent viewers probably noticed another change — the interpreters appear in their own on-screen box, “Brady Bunch”-style.

“We have spots marked on the floor for where to stand, and we have even had a tape measure out to make sure we are at least six feet apart,” Nolin said. “One challenge was to capture all the needed participants in one frame. The behind-the-scenes tech team was able to add lighting and a second camera, which allows a more close-up framing of the interpreter. This allows the interpreter to stand farther away from the presenters and for the picture to be more close up.”

Thibodeau is so expressive. What’s up with that?

Both Thibodeau and Seal make faces, raise their eyebrows and generally use expressions to convey tone and affect, though Thibodeau sometimes seems more dramatic.

“The grammar is in the eyebrows, cheeks, mouthing, head tilting, shoulder shifting and torso moving,” she said. “Without it, it would be like trying to listen to Samuel Jackson speak in monotone without pauses and inflections — which I have heard he is the entire opposite of.”

It was a type of interpretation she valued as soon as she first saw it.

“As for Gigi Doran, I remember saying, ‘Wow! I’ve never seen anything like that on TV.’ It hit me that all the times I saw hearing interpreters in the news, that I was getting a black-and-white TV version. With Gigi and other deaf interpreters, I felt like I’m getting the information through a color TV,” she said. “The tone, affect, all of the ASL grammar, nothing is missing!”

Exactly how hard is it to interpret on TV during a pandemic?


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Thibodeau and Seal have to quickly sign complex information live, in front of thousands of viewers, often for an hour or more. They can’t stop to clarify the information they’re being fed. And while they can get the presenters’ speeches ahead of time to prepare, they have no idea what reporters are going to ask.

For Seal, who started interpreting for Pine Tree Society just five months ago, the gig was initially daunting.

“I remember the first time I was there on stage, my nerves did get the best of me at times. It was a very new experience,” Seal said. “Just being live and simultaneous . . . you can’t stop the speaker and ask for clarification. I’m just getting fed. If I make a mistake with a number or if I misspell something, then I have to quickly remedy that, back up and correct that information and move forward with the new information that’s being presented. Doing that for many, many weeks, it’s become second nature. It’s been a great experience for me. It’s been a great challenge for me being a new interpreter.”

How famous are they?

Thibodeau and Seal have fans both inside and outside the deaf community. Mainers who are deaf appreciate having easy, understandable access to the daily pandemic briefings, particularly since signing was limited-to-non-existent in past emergencies. Mainers who aren’t deaf are generally seeing interpreters for the first time.

“Initially, there were some people who found the interpreters distracting, but I feel now people accept they are an accepted part of the daily briefing,” Nolin said. “This has been an excellent opportunity for the deaf interpreters to educate people about their valuable work.”

Thibodeau, in particular, has gotten some attention. In the past two months, she’s been featured on WCSH-6, WMTW, WGME, WABI5, WJBQ and in the Bangor Daily News, among other news outlets.

She said she doesn’t feel famous. But the attention does have a good side effect.

“The best part about being featured in stories is that parents with deaf/hard-of-hearing babies are reaching out to me feeling inspired about the future of their own children. That they can do anything!” she said. “Being deaf is like having straight brown hair vs. blonde curly hair. It looks different, but you learn to live with it and style it accordingly. It doesn’t prevent you from living a life. You know?”

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