Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Training Volunteer Interpreters in Small Immigrant Communities

Today's New York Times reports on a lawsuit challenging New York city agencies' compliance with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's order to provide translation and interpreting services to non-English speakers seeking city services. In "Language Help for New York Immigrants Using City Services Falls Short of Goals", Fernanda Santos quotes, among others, a woman from the Dominican Republic who said that workers at an upper Manhattan food stamp office ask volunteers in the waiting room to serve as Spanish-language interpreters.

For those of you outside New York, upper Manhattan is home to a rather large Spanish-speaking community. As a result, the chances that someone in the waiting room of this agency speaks both English and Spanish are rather good. However, the chances that this person is familiar with the specialized social services vocabulary in both languages and also possesses the other skills required for consecutive interpreting are quite low. Contrary to some people's beliefs, growing up with two languages provides a good foundation for becoming an interpreter and/or translator, but is not enough in and of itself.

If in a city where 24.5% of respondents in the 2000 census speak Spanish at home, providing Spanish-language services at an office that serves a large Latino neighborhood is such a problem, what does that mean for smaller immigrant communities? While the city -- and other large institutions dealing with the public on a regular basis -- needs to do better in providing translation and interpretation services for the major immigrant languages, it cannot be expected to do so for every language that might come up.

Which leads to the next question: how to ensure access to services for people from less-common linguistic backgrounds. Professional interpreters for these languages are clearly the preferred solution. If not enough (or no) such professionals exists for a particular language, using telephone interpreting services provided by an interpeter located elsewhere may be an option in some cases. But sometimes you need someone on site.

Professional translators' organizations, such as the American Translators Association, were organized to protect the interests of professional translators and interpreters. However, they are also in the best position to offer training in basic interpretation skills to members of underserved linguistic communities. Since there are not enough professional interpreters for these languages, such training will not take potential work away from existing interpreters. Rather, it will supplement existing interpretation services to ensure that non-English-speaking immigrants accessing vital services do not have to rely on the sometimes haphazard interpreting skills of children and other untrained volunteers.

The training I envison would focus on basic consecutive interpreting skills (note taking, breaking text into chunks, listening for key words, etc.), supplemented by medical and social services terminology in English, with English explanations of each term. It seems to me that it should be possible to get a philantropic organization to fund such an undertaking, so that the cost of the training could remain low, or the training could even be offered for free. And, who knows, some of the people so trained may decide to pursue this career and eventually become professional interpreters -- and ATA members.

1 comment:

  1. When you’ve got to have a serious conversation, it’s best to have an interpreter at hand who knows what he/she is doing. It's good to know that courts take interpreter training seriously, and that there are qualified, professional interpreting services available for most languages.I'm guessing it only gets worse when language barriers come into play as well.


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