RALEIGH, N.C. — The sisters have one hour to prepare.
Gov. Roy Cooper will address the state at 2 o'clock. He's expected to announce the latest timetable for COVID-19 vaccinations. Johnson & Johnson's vaccine has just been approved, so now a third option is on the market.
When the governor steps in front of the cameras in the media briefing room at the N.C. Emergency Operations Center, Jackie and Yasmin Metivier will be watching, like so many of their fellow North Carolinians. But the sisters will have two tasks: Not only will they have to digest what the governor is saying, they have to interpret it in real time for thousands of Spanish-speaking North Carolinians.
After a year of briefings, the Metiviers have it down to a science. Within minutes of their arrival, an N.C. Emergency Management official hands them copies of the remarks Cooper and N.C. Secretary of Health & Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen will deliver. The pair will spend the next 45 minutes marking key phrases, noting places to pause or emphasize, and determining when to hand off the mic.
Interpreting in Spanish is not simply a case of changing words. Jackie Metivier said unlike English, Spanish uses gendered nouns. That means they have to figure out how to fit new terms into the language's existing rules. Moreover, Yasmin said Spanish is spoken in 19 countries, so that means the language might use multiple words to convey the same idea. And then there are idioms that simply have no equivalent, like long-hauler.
“It's someone who's had COVID but continues to have symptoms. There isn't one word in Spanish that can express that,” Jackie said. “So we end up looking up terms all day long.”
According to data from the 2019 American Community Survey, nearly 428,000 North Carolinians report their command of English as being less than “very well.” Nearly 300,000 of them are Spanish speakers, and nearly 176,000 of these either don't speak English at all or only a little.
If anyone is up to the task, it's the Metivier sisters. Born and raised in Mexico, they started an interpreting service in Cary in 1991. They are certified court interpreters and have provided services to employers for years. When the pandemic began, the state contracted with them to provide Spanish-language interpretation for every briefing. They handled 119 such briefings in 2020 alone.
Right at 2 p.m., Cooper and Cohen walk up to the microphone. After about 10 minutes, they conclude their remarks and begin taking questions from journalists. This is where the real challenge begins. Unlike the prepared remarks, the Metiviers don't know what questions journalists will ask or what responses officials will give. To ensure they can interpret reporters' questions, they keep up to date on a variety of topics just in case an issue comes up during the briefing.
“The reporters will ask about anything,” Yasmin said.
For more than half an hour, the sisters interpret officials' remarks and the question-and-answer session that follows, trading off the microphone every few minutes. When at last the briefing is over, they raise their hands in celebration and breathe a sigh of relief.
The Metiviers continue to run their interpreting service, coming in at least once a week for the latest state briefing. They said people now tell them they recognize their names or voices from the news conferences and even ask them directly for the latest pandemic information.
“It makes us feel essential, for one thing,” Jackie said. “We've always loved our work, but it feels like we're finally a true bridge to communicate to the Hispanic community what's going to keep them alive.”