New York: School Translators Can Help Parents Lost in the System

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Aug 16 19:06:58 UTC 2007

August 13, 2007
School Translators Can Help Parents Lost in the System

In an earlier life, Xin Meng chased stories as a reporter for a
Chinese-language newspaper in New York. Now he spends his days
figuring out how to translate mysterious phrases like "empowerment
school" and "English language learner" into Chinese. "It can be very,
very tricky," said Mr. Meng, one of 28 linguists employed by the New
York City Department of Education, as he stood in an office strewn
with dictionaries, Korean newspapers and a mouse pad resembling a
miniature Persian rug. "I've certainly learned a lot about the New
York City public schools."

Forty-two percent of the parents of children in the school system, the
country's largest, are not native English speakers, and communicating
with them is an immense challenge. That is especially the case at a
time when the system is offering ever-increasing school choices but is
also requiring students to go through a complex admissions process for
high school and certain programs. So prodded by advocates for
immigrants, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein created a unit three
years ago to translate a never-ending flow of school documents, like
press releases, report cards and parent surveys, into the eight
languages most commonly spoken in New York, after English: Spanish,
Chinese, Russian, Bengali, Arabic, Urdu, Korean and Haitian Creole.

It has since expanded to an office with 40 employees and a $4.5
million budget, and is the largest of its kind in any school system in
the United States, said Kleber Palma, the unit's director. In one
respect, the office even surpasses the translation division at United
Nations headquarters, which translates most documents into only five
official languages other than English: Arabic, Chinese, French,
Russian and Spanish. The school linguists, who come from places
including France, Russia and Bangladesh, work in clusters: Korean
speakers in one corner, Russian in another. Mr. Palma recruits them
from language schools, trade associations and local ethnic newspapers.

Mr. Palma, who is from Los Angeles, tries to keep office politics
tranquil with monthly lunches that rotate among the native cuisines of
the employees. Hector Velazquez, a translator of Spanish, who is from
Venezuela, said he and Nasser Larkem, another Spanish linguist,
frequently argue over the precise translation of a word. "We go back
and forth a lot," Mr. Velazquez said. During the school year, the
office receives 30 to 40 documents a day, which the linguists then
translate and return to a school or to the Education Department office
that needs them. Of the more than 1,400 public schools in New York
City, about 450 used the services of the unit in 2006-7.

"It's mentally draining," Mr. Palma said of the work, which he summed
up as "sitting in front of a computer and translating all day."  He
added, "I always joke that if World War III would break out, it would
happen here." There are other, more unusual, management challenges. "I
can't tell the Arabic translator that he's doing it wrong, because I
don't speak Arabic," said Mr. Palma, who said he speaks Spanish and
some high school French. He said he has learned to recognize the
Chinese characters for "Department of Education."

Even the graphics editor, Michael Kass, has to deal with linguistic
problems. On a recent afternoon, he squinted at his computer screen,
frustrated with trying to change the cover of a high school directory
to read in eight languages. "Spanish takes 30 percent more space to
say the same thing in English," he said. "On the other hand, Chinese
takes up much less space." The New York City public schools have not
always tried to accommodate non-native English speakers. In the 1950s,
teachers relied on "children helpers" to act as interpreters for a
wave of Spanish-speaking students who arrived from Puerto Rico. At the
time, the Board of Education appointed fewer than a dozen teachers to
help smooth the transition.

More recently, the Education Department has depended on private
vendors for translation and interpretation, a haphazard approach that
forced most non-English-speaking families to rely on bilingual friends
— or their own children — to translate.
Deycy Avitia, the coordinator of education advocacy for the New York
Immigration Coalition, said she had heard complaints from parents for
years. "We have parents coming to us after a couple of semesters of
their kids getting failing grades," she said. "They didn't realize it
because the kids were doing the translating, and they would say that
an 'F' stands for fabulous."

Aside from reading report cards, non-English-speaking parents have
trouble negotiating the enrollment and registration process, attending
parent-teacher conferences, understanding disciplinary actions taken
against their children and even listening to the proceedings at PTA
meetings. And to understand the complexity of the system, consider
that at one high school in Queens, four of five students speak a
language other than English. There are parents throughout the system
who speak obscure indigenous languages like Mixtecan, spoken in parts
of Mexico, and other parents who, because they are illiterate in any
language, sign school documents with an "X."

Some advocates for immigrants have criticized the performance of the
translation unit, saying it is slow and ineffective. Schools
frequently complain that the office turns out documents at a glacial
pace, often taking weeks or months to translate paperwork.
The Immigration Coalition released a study in June about the unit's
efficiency. The report called for the department to expand available
services and communicate more frequently with schools. Mr. Palma
acknowledged that many principals have no idea that the translation
office even exists, and that it typically takes a week to translate a
two-page document. "We have a lot of work to do," he said. "We are not
the only solution to the problem."

But he is also contemplating what languages to add next. French and
Albanian are both candidates, as is Hindi. "Polish is very big right
now," he said.

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