Boise State class collaborates with local journalists to translate coronavirus information into Spanish

Halfway through an already challenging semester, Fátima Cornwall, a Spanish language coordinator at Boise State, brought the students in her Spanish 382: Spanish for Healthcare class a proposal to change their entire fall 2020 course schedule. 

Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s frequent press conferences providing updates and announcements to Idahoans about the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic weren’t reaching Idaho’s Spanish speaking population because no interpretation from English to Spanish was being offered. Cornwall asked her students if they wanted to change their semester to provide a public service by translating Little’s message to Idahoans.

The proposal had originally been brought to her by Nicole Foy, an investigative reporter for the Idaho Statesman who also covers Idaho’s Latinx communities. 

Through a prestigious John S. Knight fellowship at Stanford University and support from her editors, Foy has been able to provide COVID-19 stories translated into Spanish. But Little’s press conferences, which have often included announcements and major news throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, have only been offered in English and American Sign Language. 

Knowing that thousands of Spanish speakers in Idaho would benefit most from audible news, Foy proposed that Cornwall’s class translate the conferences.

“This is a public health crisis, and we were very concerned that people were not being given the information they needed in the language they speak best to keep them and their families safe,” Foy said. 

Cornwall’s class had already completed one community project during the fall semester partnered with the Idaho Caregiver Alliance. After seeing how her class responded to that challenge, she wanted to offer any other opportunities that presented themselves for her students to connect with the community.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little speaking at a live press conference in Nov. 2020
Photo courtesy of Idaho Public Television

“After grading all that homework [from the Idaho Caregiver Alliance project], I got the feeling that a lot of students are just big-hearted and loved that idea of serving and putting their skills to good use,” Cornwall said.

Of the 23 students in the class, 13 opted to translate the announcements, while the rest finished their original planned course.

Jessie Wine, a senior Spanish and English linguistics double major, said she immediately knew that she wanted to be part of the new project.

“When Dr. Cornwall gave us the option, I was super excited,” Wine said. “It really appealed to me just because it sounded like something that would be really helpful to people — like it was for a cause, it wasn’t just an assignment. And so I thought, ‘Oh, this is great, it’s something that’s actually going to help people. It’s providing that service to Spanish speakers so that they can get that important information.’”

Since Little’s press conferences are live, the students listen to recordings selected by Foy and work in teams to translate them into writing, which is then read and recorded, all within a 48-hour turnaround period. 

Gabby Bates, a senior accounting and spanish double major, said that working in different roles has been both challenging and fun as students take turns translating and recording audio.

“It’s been cool because we’ve been able to work in a close group and ask each other questions and kind of bounce ideas off of each other, but we’ve also been able to try different roles within our groups, which has been really fun,” Bates said.

Throughout the fall and as winter progresses, the Idaho Statesman’s “Noticias en Español” have been kept freely available and have received some of their website’s highest traffic. 

Foy said that weekly coronavirus videos in Spanish she creates with a reporter based in Twin Falls have received five times as many views on Facebook as many of the page’s other videos, showing a clear need for information.

To continue providing this service, five of Cornwall’s students from last semester have stayed on the project for one credit each, and their latest video translates the government’s latest information on the COVID-19 vaccines reaching Idahoans 65 years or older. 

As the vaccines bring hope to ending the pandemic, Cornwall and Foy both hope that the pandemic has taught institutions important lessons about how to communicate with the public.

“I think sometimes there’s this misconception that because somebody speaks Spanish they’re not an Idahoan,” Cornwall said. “They are living in Idaho. They are Idahoans, and if people say we’re all in this together, it means all, not just people that speak English.”

Leave a Reply