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Linguists Translate COVID-19 Information

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From national security missions to disaster relief to COVID-19 testing, the right interpreter is vital to getting the message out in a way that can be understood. 

The National Language Service Corps is a Defense Department entity that provides the federal government with workers whose primary mission is to promote understanding — literally. 

Three soldiers stand in front of a military vehicle.
Army Pose
Interpreters Army Maj. Nelson Cruz, Army Spc. Ali Gamah and Army Staff Sgt. Claudio Barzan pose in front of an Iraqi army vehicle during an advise-and-assist mission with the 14th Iraqi Army, April 21, 2011.
Photo By: Army Maj. William Mott
VIRIN: 110421-A-ZZ999-001

Since March, NLSC interpreters have been called on by the White House Coronavirus Task Force and Federal Emergency Management Agency community-based testing sites to interpret virus-related questions for people whose first language is not English. 

Some 500-plus languages and dialects are offered by more than 10,000 NLSC interpreters. The top-three requested languages for FEMA's COVID-19 response are Spanish, Vietnamese and Arabic, an NLSC official said.

When a person who isn't English-proficient arrives at a FEMA-established COVID-19 testing site, a call goes out to an NLSC hotline that has an interpreter standing by for the specific language. 

A soldier kneels while on patrol.
Sector Scan
Army Spc. Ahmed Ahmed, a linguist with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, , scans his sector while on patrol in southern Baghdad, July 31, 2007.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Nathaniel Smith
VIRIN: 070731-A-ZZ999-001

These specialists are by the phone, ready to engage with the person who has limited English proficiency, the official said. "They're able to say, 'OK, here's the menu of languages that are available for you to get interpretation support.'" It's about making sure there's clear communication between the health care providers and the people being tested, the official added.

Eric Heuberger is one of about 70 NLSC interpreters assigned exclusively to pandemic work. He is in Brooklyn, New York, interpreting Spanish over the phone for FEMA's citywide system of COVID-19 testing sites. If Spanish-speaking people have questions about the virus or testing procedures, Heuberger is the one they ask and he translates for health care workers and for those being tested. In addition to health care settings; he also is involved with interpreting for educators.

An interpreter goes over notes with a man in a military uniform.
Humanitarian Aid
Japan Ground Self Defense Force Lt. Col. Noritaka Ito, left, a liaison officer assigned to U.S. Army Japan, looks over notes translated by interpreter Mayuko Omoto during the Sapporo Epicenter humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise at Camp Sapporo, Japan, Jan. 23, 2013.
Photo By: P Timothy Shannon, Army
VIRIN: 130123-A-AS473-001

"In New York, what we've seen is that the poor people are in the more crowded living circumstances, and they are more likely to get infected," Heuberger said. "So, where people are being infected is within their living spaces, and there's not much they can do about it."

"We anticipate that [the virus] is going to be here for a little bit. So we're going to be ready to support in whatever capacity is needed," the NLSC official said.

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