‘One of the world’s best’: Idaho interpreter wins fans during COVID-19 news conferences

Posted at 2:48 PM, Apr 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-01 16:49:28-04

This article was originally written by Hayley Harding with the Idaho Statesman

Idahoans, some for the first time, are getting a crash course in live American Sign Language interpretation.

As government officials share announcements and updates on COVID-19, Steven G. Stubbs, Idaho’s only certified deaf interpreter, is right alongside them, moving his hands and body to convey what was being said.

His work has won him fans on live streams from Gov. Brad Little’s news conferences. One commenter on the March 25 Facebook Live video of Little issuing the stay-at-home order called Stubbs “one of the world’s BEST.”

“Anyone else think the ASL guy should get a raise?” another commenter wrote. A third said she was re-watching a nearly 50-minute news conference just to watch Stubbs, who doesn’t speak.


The “ASL guy” is a Boise resident who is a clinical assistant professor at Idaho State University’s Meridian campus, where he teaches in the interpreting program. Stubbs also works as an interpreter in courtrooms.

He got into interpretation almost by accident. He originally worked in the computer industry, including work at Micron and Hewlett Packard. While doing that, he worked as a language mentor for budding interpreters who were not all native ASL speakers.

One of the people he helped began to handle legal interpretation. Stubbs went to support her as she interpreted in a courtroom for a deaf defendant. It wasn’t long into the trial, however, before she realized a more specialized communicator was needed.

“I was just sitting in the gallery, watching all this go on, and then she turns around and starts having a conversation with the judge,” Stubbs told the Statesman through an interpreter. “Then she turns to me and gestures and says ‘come here.’”

He knew he had “language competency” in American Sign Language, but he had no training in sign language interpretation at the time, he signed. He tried it, and he found he loved it. He earned a certification and has kept it since 2006. He runs Stubbs Services LLC to provide services, and he has won awards for his work.


Stubbs’ qualifications are one reason Idaho’s Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing connected him with the governor’s office. Federal law requires states to provide an interpreter to communicate with the public in an emergency, although it does not dictate what level of credentials that person must have, Steven Snow, the council’s executive director, told the Statesman through an interpreter.

When Little speaks, LaVona Andrew, another certified interpreter and the director of ISU’s interpreting program, listens and signs the information to Stubbs. Stubbs then signs it in a specialized way to be understood by anyone who communicates through American Sign Language, regardless of their language background.

ASL is “its own unique language,” Stubbs signed, with a unique sentence structure and vernacular.

Stubbs has interpreted almost all of Little’s news conferences since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Snow said the goal is to keep the same interpreter for all news conferences covering the same subject matter.

That allows for a level of continuity for those who need the information Stubbs is providing. To Little, it’s also made a difference in how the state is able to convey its message to every Idahoan.

“During this time of emergency, we are so thankful for our partners at the Idaho Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing for facilitating our interpreter services during press conferences,” he said in an email to the Idaho Statesman. “It is important for us to reach as many people as possible with vital information, so I would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to Steven and LaVona for their efforts.”

It’s also helped people think about American Sign Language in a new way, as people get the chance to watch Stubbs interpret in real time. Some people who have never watch interpretation think Stubbs is fun to watch, but to Stubbs himself, engaging interpretations is just a part of his job.

“Say you were speaking and someone’s listening to what you’re saying, you can intonate information in your message based on how you emphasize words or the tone you use or volume of your voice,” Stubbs signed. “Deaf people don’t use their voice, so they have to express all of those intonations and tonality on their face.”

Adverbs are shown by using the mouth, Stubbs signed. Prepositions don’t exist in American Sign Language in the same way they do in English, so those who sign use the three-dimensional space in front of them to show what’s happening.

Sometimes as a result, he signed, the interpretation may look “a little bit more exciting” than what is actually being spoken.

“I don’t want people to think that my interpretation is a characterization of the speaker or an animation of them,” he signed. “It is the visual representation of what is being said in a different language.”

Stubbs signed that his task is to dispel rumors and ensure everyone understands what is happening, as people who communicate only through American Sign Language are often “the last to know what’s going on.”

“I feel the impact of these press conferences and these announcements quite a bit,” he signed. “Now I’ve been in trials before where I’ve worked for the whole day in a trial, and by doing one press conference, I’m often ending that press conference just as exhausted, as I would with a full day of work. It is quite taxing.”