BISMARCK — Lindsey Solberg Herbel didn't have to say a word to become a universally adored figure among a niche group of her fellow North Dakotans.
Appearing 6 feet to the left of Gov. Doug Burgum at his daily coronavirus press conferences, Solberg Herbel's quick hands and quicker mind have garnered her more public attention than most other sign language interpreters draw over their whole careers.
Since she started the high-profile gig three weeks ago, Solberg Herbel has received 20 Facebook friend requests from strangers. While picking up cat food and litter at PetSmart, a fellow shopper exclaimed to her, “you’re the lady on TV!” It happened again at Dan’s Supermarket a few days later.
An appreciative fan even sent her a bouquet of lilac-colored roses last week.
After one March press conference, Solberg Herbel softly smiled and rolled her eyes at a text message from a friend reading, "You need an agent."
The 44-year-old is clearly unaccustomed to the shine of her temporary spotlight, and she definitely doesn't want to be famous — not even North Dakota famous.
"We don’t do this to become known. We do this to provide access and promote inclusion," Solberg Herbel said. "We just want to make sure that all parts of the government and all parts of life are accessible to the deaf community."
Grandma Doris' legacy
Solberg Herbel's journey to becoming one of the few certified American Sign Language interpreters in North Dakota started at a young age.
One of Solberg Herbel's first babysitters in her native Devils Lake was deaf. Contrary to the name, Grandma Doris and Solberg Herbel were not related by blood, but the woman holds special significance as her first sign language teacher.
Solberg Herbel said she later became fluent in sign language while conversing with her deaf classmates in high school. A few years after graduating, she studied sign language at Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Over the next 15 years, she went on to work as an educational interpreter for the North Dakota School for the Deaf in Devils Lake and Fargo Public Schools, as well as an instructor at Minnesota State University Moorhead and Minnesota State Community and Technical College.
Now, Solberg Herbel is back with the School for the Deaf, but in the Bismarck office this time. As a public employee, she works mainly with deaf people through state agencies and local educational institutions. On occasion, she does freelance interpreting work for deaf residents in underserved western North Dakota. Those jobs take place in a wide variety of settings, including medical clinics, courtrooms and boardrooms.
The job of a sign language interpreter boils down to swiftly solving puzzles, Solberg Herbel said. An interpreter must end up with the same picture the speaker conveys but with the pieces of the puzzle in a rearranged order. That’s partially due to the tangled nature of American Sign Language, which derives its grammatical structure from French.
The intonations and physical expressions of the speaker also must be translated into ASL, hence the demonstrative faces Solberg Herbel displays at the press conferences. When speaking about the spread of the virus and the need for “social distancing” during press conferences, Burgum projects a firm tone and Solberg Herbel said her face must reflect that to properly convey meaning to deaf viewers.
Signing for the fast-talking Burgum is no simple task — in the beginning it was a little overwhelming — but Solberg Herbel said she has gotten more used to his cadence and style of speaking over time.
"I’ve tried to stop and let myself listen a couple seconds because he is speaking at a relatively high rate of speech," Solberg Herbel said. "Sometimes you do just have to listen and find out what he's really trying to say here."
Still, the governor isn’t the toughest press conference speaker for whom she has interpreted. Solberg Herbel said state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jon Jensen and U.S. Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, both R-N.D., have challenged her with their quick pace and frequent use of technical jargon. For instance, visually distinguishing between district court judges and Supreme Court justices when mentioned in the same breath gave Solberg Herbel trouble. The senators’ tangents on specific parts of the newly passed federal stimulus package and the oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia also threw Solberg Herbel off her flow.
Burgum has remarked several times that he would try to keep the press conferences short to preserve Solberg Herbel’s hands, but the interpreter said it’s her brain that tires before her nimble fingers.
“I finally told him I can’t go more than 70 minutes when it’s this fast," Solberg Herbel said.
The governor's call
When Solberg Herbel's phone rang at 6:23 p.m. on Sunday night, March 15, she had no idea she would become a fixture of the governor's press conferences on the state's outbreak of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus. Not an hour and a half later, she was standing behind Burgum with little knowledge of the big news to be announced that night: the last-minute closure of all schools in the state. A livestream video of the Sunday press conference on the state Department of Health's Facebook page has now been viewed more than 240,000 times.
But Solberg Herbel’s rise to local fame could’ve been someone else’s. The only other certified interpreter in Bismarck wasn’t available on such short notice, so Solberg Herbel had to call her husband home from work to look after the couple's two young kids while she signed for the state's top public official.
The job has consumed nearly every one of her nights since mid-March, especially since the work doesn't stop when she steps away from the cameras.
Like an athlete preparing for competition, Solberg Herbel reviews her efforts at the day’s press conference and watches interpreters in other states and cities. She said the exercise helps her spot phrases or ideas she could sign more clearly in the future.
She also tries to incorporate the regular feedback she gets from deaf viewers on using signs that are more regionally familiar to them. Usually they just reach out to say she’s doing a good job.
Joel Derrick, 50, had nothing but praise for Solberg Herbel, saying he has no problem understanding her.
The Bismarck resident said he came to know the interpreter through a friend, and Solberg Herbel ended up interpreting for him a few times at his job as a construction materials tester.
Derrick, who has been deaf since birth, said in an email he tunes into the governor’s press conferences four or five times a week and watches Solberg Herbel’s hands and facial expressions to follow the speakers behind the lectern.
Derrick said it’s valuable to have an interpreter present at important news events because closed captioning is not always reliable, and some deaf people can’t read or understand it anyway. He said he gets about half of his local news about the COVID-19 outbreak from the press conferences, and without an interpreter, he would rely mostly on social media.
For his part, Burgum said Solberg Herbel has earned his vote for being named "the fastest signer in the West."
"Communication is key in any emergency, and Lindsey is an incredibly talented communicator," Burgum said. "We are grateful for her reassuring and engaging presence and for her important role in clearly conveying information to all our citizens."
Even now with 19 press conferences under her belt, Solberg Herbel said she gets a little nervous before each appearance, but it's not because she knows more than 100,000 people could be watching. The way Solberg Herbel sees it, her responsibility is to deaf viewers like Derrick who rely on her for accurate information, and doing right by them is the only source of her anxiety.
“I think you still have to have a certain amount of confidence in yourself, but there are always nerves because you’re providing that access to people and you want to make sure that you’re on your game,” she said.
Solberg Herbel doesn’t much care if the internet notoriety and grocery store fame continue beyond the final coronavirus press conference, but she hopes North Dakota’s fascination with sign language endures.
A 2006 study found that about 500,000 Americans use ASL as a primary form of communication, and that figure is likely higher now. Solberg Herbel said she would like to see the language picked up by more North Dakotans who can hear, so they can build friendships with deaf people the same way she did in high school.
"If you have deaf neighbors or deaf co-workers, have them teach you (ASL)," she said. "They would love to share their language and share their culture. ... Let's include everybody."