The challenge of translating Lopez Obrador’s remarks into sign language

By Eduard Ribas i Admetlla

Mexico City, Jun 10 (EFE).- It’s possible that they don’t remember her, but all Mexicans at one time or another have seek Laura. Below and to the right, in a little box on their television screens, each morning she translates into sign language the remarks of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and often that is not an easy task.

“Hearing impaired people have to understand that he has a very particular way of talking, slower, more colloquial. We have to transmit that,” interpreter Laura Alvarez told EFE on Mexican National Sign Language Day on Thursday.

Before the sun has appeared through the windows of the National Palace, the president’s team of interpreters is using the last few minutes before dawn to get ready.

At 7 am, his meeting with his Cabinet concluded, the earliest-rising president in Mexico’s recent history fields questions from reporters during his so-called “morning sessions,” an event with an audience like a sports event.

There are about two million hearing impaired people in Mexico who would not be able to understand what the president – widely known as AMLO – is saying without Laura and her team.

“This is historic, to work the president’s conferences every day as if there were an interpreter,” she said while her colleague Vanessa translates AMLO’s remarks into sign language.

The president’s comments are translated into sign language in a small room adjacent to the site of the press conference. To get there, you have to go through a large unused kitchen in the National Palace.

There, the equipment consists of merely a green canvas covering the wall – a little frayed with the passage of time – two spotlights, a camera and a monitor, where the team members watch and listen to the president so they can interpret into sign language his every word.

“Perhaps the biggest challenge is that we have to be here at 6:30 am,” joked Laura, 32, in her soft voice.

It is prohibited for a team member to interpret for more than 20 consecutive minutes, but that’s not time enough for this slow-talking president to cover much ground in the press conferences that often last two hours.

But Laura and another colleague take turns signing during the morning session. While one rests on a sofa, the other gestures in front of the camera.

“It’s a language that’s really made up of gestures, very visual and physical. Many people think that the hands are the most important part but it’s the gestures and the facial expressions,” Laura said. There are even people who have come to think that the interpreters are making fun of the president with their gestures.

Laura has worked with many politicians, but on the very day that Lopez Obrador took office she knew that something would be different now. “This way of communicating is a huge change from what we were used to,” she said.

“It was a challenge to communicate to hearing impaired people that the president uses lots of sayings, proverbs and traditional words for which there are no signs and you have to see the sense of what he wants to say,” she added.

During his inaugural address, for example, the sexagenarian AMLO retrieved from his trunk of memories the expression “me canso ganso” (the goose gets tired), a colloquialism that means something like “accepting a challenge.”

Some people were expecting – or hoping to see – the interpreter imitate a duck, but that didn’t happen because sign language can be used to interpret sayings like that.

The same thing happens with certain remarks that the president repeats endlessly, like “mi pecho no es bodega” (literally “my chest is not a storeroom,” or “I’m not keeping any secrets”), “este gallo quiere maiz” (“this rooster wants corn,” or “he needs a bribe”) and many others.

“They are concepts that are not commonplace” and sometimes Laura and her colleagues have to look them up on Google. In spite of all this, however, she has never found herself stymied in quickly searching for a way to translate a certain odd or colorful remark.

“No, his way of speaking is very clear. Other officials who speak too fast are much more work for us,” she said, without naming any names.

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