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Foreign Language Interpreters Eliminate Communication Barriers

April 30, 2010

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Imagine if you landed in the hospital or at a doctor's office with severe pain or injury and couldn't tell health care professionals what happened to you or where you hurt. Or, envision having to appear in court but not being able to communicate to the witnesses, judge and jury.

For the many people in the U.S. who do not speak English easily, this is a reality, not something to be imagined.

Luckily, there is a growing number of qualified professionals to help bridge the language communication gap. They are interpreters - professionals who provide oral translations between languages.

Unlike translators, who do similar work but focus on the written word and usually conduct their work in front of a computer, interpreters are out in the community, facilitating cross-cultural interactions in many medical and judicial settings, social service agencies, community gatherings, at conferences and in business meetings.

Interpreters need more than language ability

Good interpreting involves more than just being bi- (or multi-) lingual. "It's not just having the language skill. It's also having the expertise in the subject matter," says Abigail Dahlberg, who has a master's degree in translation and interpretation and has established a niche for herself in the field of waste management. She is quoted in the Los Angeles Times, and adds that "there is a wealth of knowledge and background you need in your area of specialty."

Understanding local cultures is critical, too. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, spoke with Eduardo Vega, coordinator for the area's Language Access Metro Project, which provides interpreter services in medical and legal situations. He says, "One of the fundamentals of doing interpretation correctly is that not only are you the interpreter, but the cultural broker.

For example, in Asian cultures, they might have a home remedies procedure that sounds strange to a Western person. But the interpreter has to, in his or her way, explain the meaning of the esoteric concept."

Professionalism and certification are necessary in some fields

Interpretation is becoming more and more professional as it matures. In fact, Federal and/or state certification is usually required for interpreters to work in medical and judicial settings to ensure that candidates not only have strong language skills, but also that they understand and uphold the ethics and standards of interpretation in their respective fields.

Accurate communication is especially critical in these areas because life or death decisions are being made. Terminology is often highly specialized and when translated into another language it must be done with complete accuracy. Otherwise, grave errors may be made. The Daytona Beach News Journal cites an unfortunate case in Florida in which a man was mistakenly sent to prison for 15 years because of a poorly rendered translation done by an uncertified interpreter.

Interpretation is a rapid growth field

Nicholas Hartmann, the president of the American Translators Association (ATA) - which represents interpreters as well as translators - says that the demand for translators and interpreters is expected to grow by 15% in 2010. He cites globalization, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the international green movement as primary reasons for the increasing demand for foreign language interpreters.

Kevin Hendzel, National Media Spokesman for the ATA, adds another important reason for the upsurge in an article in Crain's New York Business: the Clinton-era executive order requiring organizations that receive federal funding to provide information in multiple languages for people with limited English proficiency, which has increased federal, state and local government spending on language services.

"Forty eight million Americans speak another language at home, and many first generation Americans do not speak English well," says Hendzel. Parents are put in the position of needing to communicate in school meetings, in hospital settings and at doctor's offices, etc. and they need assistance. He adds, "There's much interest in interpretation even though it doesn't always reach the news. The need often disappears within the immigrant community, but there are tons of horror stories [about medical or legal mistakes made] due to the lack of language facility or professional interpretation skills."

Interpreters work with the U.S. Military

"National security is another place where there is tremendous growth [in demand for interpreters]," says Hendzel. Speakers of Arabic, Farsi, Pashtun and other Afghani tongues, Chinese, Korean and Russian, among other languages, are being requested. "The U.S. Army has a boot camp to train members of the military in language skills, but the program lacks funding for expansion." Thus, the need for trained civilians.

Hendzel adds that the U.S. military is active in approximately 143 countries and that much of its work consists of humanitarian aid on the ground. There is a critical need for Department of Defense staff and contractors to communicate with the local populace in an effective and professional manner. The recent earthquake in Haiti is just one example where interpreters (and translators) were duly employed on salary, as well as pro bono.

Interpretation in business settings

With commerce becoming increasingly more globalized, there is also a growing need for interpreters at business meetings and conferences. According to PR Newswire, one of the language service-providing companies, California-based Language Line Services, is adding over 1,000 new positions for interpreters who will conduct over-the-phone, over-video and in face-to-face interpretation for a variety of clients including those in the healthcare, telecommunications, financial services, utilities, and insurance industries.

The experience of being an interpreter

While training programs to become an interpreter are hard to come by, especially outside of legal and medical subject areas, a good way to learn and practice interpretation techniques is to find a mentor and spend as much time as possible with him/her. By observing and listening to how information is accurately and effectively conveyed between languages and cultures, a novice can learn quite a lot.

Hendzel clearly likes his job and feels good about what interpreters accomplish. He says interpretation is "a positive thing because it brings people together." It helps bridge cultures and increase understanding. According to Henzel, interpreters are generally very open. "They are people people who like other cultures."

"When you work in interpretation, you see the results right away. And, you can go home at night knowing that you've finished your job. It's not like translation, or other writing work, where there are fixed deadlines and you may have to stay up nights to meet them," he adds.

That's not to say that it's not hard work. It can be extremely demanding, requiring strong communication skills, a good memory and endurance. And, if you do simultaneous translation in which you're required to be listening and talking at the same time you need to be a master at multitasking. Understand? Comprenez vous? Entiende?


Written by Abigail Rome

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