Educational Interpreters: filling the gap and breaking bad habits

Maria Francisco Montesó

If you work at a school, how many times have you, or one of your colleagues, been asked to interpret for a non-English speaking family? Or, how many times have you seen a school kid or a kid’s family member interpreting for a teacher or other school staff? Perhaps you have seen it many times, or even you might have experienced it yourself. Probably, you (or someone else) were asked to “translate” in a specific situation when actually you should be asked to “interpret”. I am not referring to a non-English speaker that needs to find the bathroom or the library, or needs to find the children’s classroom. I am referring to parent-teacher conferences, a speech therapy meeting, general school meetings or talks, school announcements or changes; or even having to interpret school letters or notes to parents or family members.

Well, let’s start from the beginning. In case you don’t know there is a difference between translating and interpreting. “The term translation is used in two different ways. First, it refers to the general process of converting a message from one language to another (Bathgate, 1985), and second, it refers to the written form of that process” (González, Vásquez and Mikkelson, 2012). The term interpreting or interpretation means to convert a spoken message from one language to another, so you are also translating when you interpret, but the way to deliver the translation is verbal. “Translators have time to reflect and craft their output, whereas interpreters must instantaneously arrive at a target language equivalent, while at the same time searching for further input” (González, Vásquez and Mikkelson, 2012). When you are asked to verbally translate a written document into another language is called sight translation, and it is considered to be an interpreting modality since you deliver the message verbally.

Having clarified this, it is utterly unfair and unethical that a teacher, children, or a family member is asked to interpret in schools setting just for being declared as bilingual. Bilingual people are not interpreters nor translators.

Let me give you several reasons why I believe this in unfair and unethical: these bilingual people are doing someone else’s job, they are not being remunerated for their effort (and believe me, it is an enormous brain effort), they are placed in a stressful and uncomfortable situation and, most importantly, they are not qualified to do this job. More professionally, this is called a natural or ad hoc interpreter, an untrained person pulled away from other duties to interpret. Since these individuals are not trained or certified interpreters and lack professional experience, they originate consequences: a deterioration of the language and underestimation of the interpreting profession. Also, their mental health might be seriously affected due to the pressure they have to face and, unconsciously, they are condemning the art of interpreting as mere “it’s just a talk”. They do not need and should not cope with such an arduous task. For a bilingual person, doing the job of a professional interpreter can truly become a hideous duty.

Interpreting not only requires being proficiency in two or more languages, it also involves a domain of specific terminology depending on the setting and the use of linguistic and paralinguistic elements. Interpreters need to possess quick reflexes and mental agility, stamina, memory and retention, good cultural awareness, analytical skills, and professionalism among other skills. These abilities take years to develop and master.

Conversely, the fact of not understanding a language is a disability; it is the incapacity of communicating and being understood, it is the condition of being disabled. We can compare it with a deaf or hard of hearing individual, to which the administration provides qualified interpreters in schools or other setting to meet their needs by law. Why can’t we see the same scenario for a non-English speaker in a school setting? Because “it’s just a kid” or “it’s just a family”? Or because it happens at a school, not at a hospital or court. It is not my intention to start an immigration discussion, but if those children go to school here, they and their families deserve the same treatment and rights as those with any other type of disability.

I believe it is time to show some respect for these citizens and for the interpreting profession. Maybe it is time to say “no”. Say “no” when you (or someone else) is asked to interpret for a family member or a teacher, and say that you are not a certified interpreter and some skilled professional should do it instead. These type of situations should be reported to the state department of education, and the state board of education should provide one or more skilled interpreters to schools, especially to those schools with higher numbers of non-English speakers’ enrollments.

Here, however, is where the real problem arises. South Carolina’s demography and population are changing, and there is a huge demand of interpreters, but there are no institutions offering a respected and comprehensive training for educational interpreters to fill this gap in our society. There is quite a lot of existing training for court and medical interpreting but, unfortunately, not much has been done for educational settings. These other professionals could definitely do the job at schools; however, the ideal situation would be to have an interpreter trained specifically for educational settings. School settings would fall under the category of community interpreting.

Since this is our reality, I am committed to provide a solution and transform this situation. I am in the process of obtaining my PhD on educational interpreting, and my dissertation is centered in the lack of educational interpreters and the growing demand in schools. That’s why I am thrilled to share that part of my dissertation involves developing a certification course to train bilinguals interested in the subject matter and in becoming skilled interpreters. I am putting all my effort and endeavors into finishing this process and, therefore, assist schools and LEP individuals in need of an educational interpreter.

Hopefully one day the ad hoc interpreter will vanish in schools settings and will be part of the past. Hopefully one day qualified educational interpreters are as visible and recognized as medical or legal interpreters.

Maria Francisco Montesó

Spanish Instructor at USC Upstate

Certified Translator and Interpreter English<>Spanish