Translation Transformation (Washington Post)
ronkinm at georgetown.edu
ronkinm at georgetown.edu
Wed Jul 9 17:42:26 UTC 2003
Governments Get Serious About Being Clear
By Elaine Rivera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2003; Page B01
The letter that went home to Arlington parents was supposed to inform
them of a recorder concert at one of the district's schools.
But the Spanish translation for Latino parents read differently.
"It told them there would be an ensemble of tape recorders," said staff
translator Thomas Mansella, dismayed by the amateur effort. "Imagine
that -- tape recorders!"
Once performed by volunteers, as a luxury or an afterthought,
translation is now seen as a necessity in many jurisdictions. School
districts and local governments are hiring professional translators
for printed material -- and interpreters for meetings -- to ensure
competent communication between institutions and growing immigrant
This month, Alexandria public schools introduced Spanish interpreters to
provide simultaneous translation at School Board meetings;
Alexandria city government is expanding translation services to all of
its agencies this year. Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery county
schools and governments have hired full-time translators. The D.C.
Council is considering a bill that calls for more translation services.
Walter Bacak, executive director of the American Translators
Association, said calls have increased steadily from "cities and
counties who tell me they have a new position for a language
"These are newly created jobs all over the country," said Bacak, whose
organization's membership has tripled in the past decade to 9,000
Translators put immigrants on "equal footing" when it comes to access to
government services, said Denise Gilman, an attorney with the D.C.
Language Access Coalition, which has been lobbying for more translators
in the District. "It really guarantees that newcomers, people who
have been marginalized and excluded from government programs, are able
Patricia Diaz, whose 8-year-old daughter, Kiara, attends Bailey's
Elementary School in Fairfax, is grateful for the appearance of
Spanish-speaking staff at the school. In the past, Kiara interpreted for
her mother when she met with teachers, but that worked only for simple
matters. "I would not be able to talk to the teacher if it were
something more complicated," Diaz said. "It's beautiful that they have
people there helping us now."
The work is not just about speaking a language or providing the literal
meaning of words. Experts say it takes as many as 22 cognitive skills
to capture the nuances and meanings of the vernacular in various fields
-- education, law, health or government. And the professionals say it's
not as easy as it looks.
Try translating "kiss and ride" into Korean, or "substance abuse" into
Farsi, or post-9/11 terms such as "first responders" into Spanish.
Literaltranslations of American idioms can range from the amusing to the
disastrous, experienced translators said.
"We're not translating words, we're translating units of meaning and
ideas," said Ana Lorena Lefebvre, who interprets for state and federal
courts in the region. "You can't just translate what it says. You need
to understand what it is."
Daryush Bodaghi, a Farsi translator for Fairfax schools, recalls the
letter about substance abuse that used the Farsi word for "substance,"
which, literally translated, means "spice." The letter warned Iranian
and Afghan parents that students would face serious consequences if they
were caught with illegal "spices."
"I'm sure the parents were asking, 'How come students get in trouble if
they bring pepper to lunch?'" Bodaghi said.
Bodaghi's colleague, Eunsook Kwon, a Korean translator, has struggled to
translate "back-to-school night" -- the literal meaning and the
concept. "We have to use a lot of words to explain one thing," she said.
"There's a lot of slang that in Korean we just don't have the words
Even a single word in the same language can have different meanings,
depending on the nationality of the person using it. For instance, the
word that means "skirt" in one Spanish-speaking country could mean
"slip" in another, said Silvia Gonzalez Koch, the coordinator of
Arlington's intake center, the hub of the county's school translation
"Being bilingual doesn't make you an interpreter or a translator," Koch
To avoid embarrassing or egregious mistakes, governments and schools are
spending money to ensure that translation is done properly. Costs
vary depending on the prevalence of the language and the difficulty of
the material, according to Bacak. Because Spanish translators are
plentiful, the fee could be 13 cents a word, he said, while a Chinese
translation would cost more. Translating a general newspaper article is
far cheaper than translating an account in a medical textbook.
"It's like freelance writing," he said. "It depends on the topic."
Full-time translators working in education make about $35,000 a year,
while government translators and interpreters average $41,000.
In Montgomery, officials have established Language Links, a directory of
speakers of more than 30 languages who are available to
government employees. For agencies with limited funding, it directs
employees to free county and federal translation banks staffed by
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said the service "pays for
itself" by allowing immigrants to be contributing community members
before they've mastered English.
But D.C. officials are concerned about the cost -- in the millions, they
say -- of the bill calling for translation services at all city
agencies. Advocates say the cost would be no more than $500,000
Abdul Kamus of the District-based Ethiopian Community Development
Council said he sees the need daily, as Ethiopians immigrants come to
his small nonprofit group for translation help at agencies such as the
city Health Department.
"It's a drain, and it's frustrating," Kamus said. "It's a burden on our
staff, and it's time-consuming for the immigrants."
Tedy Seyoum, 20, is an Ethiopian who lives in the District and hopes
there will be translators soon -- not for himself but for his mother.
Although she has been here longer, his English is better, so he
accompanies her to banks, hospitals and city agencies. "She can't go by
herself-- she feels more comfortable to go with me," Seyoum said.
"I'm going to college now, and I really don't have the time now."
Gilman, the Language Access attorney, said that guidelines for providing
translators under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act have been
strengthened in the past two years and that jurisdictions that don't
comply could be sued if they receive federal money.
Apart from a stronger federal mandate, officials see a compelling reason
for hiring translators.
"Assuming we're always going to have immigrants coming in, we're going
to have critical documents translated for these families," said
Richard Mondloch, a student registration coordinator in Fairfax. "The
demand is not going to go away."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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