Hire a Professional, Respect the Vulnerable.

It’s not too often that I get the chance to post about language-related issues on a site related to Catholic social teaching, but a news roundup from the American Translators Association, of which I am a member, has delivered a story in which these two sets of concerns dovetail quite naturally.  Here is the story as summarized in the ATA Newsbriefs (the original news article is here):

A Spanish-speaking woman is suing New Jersey’s Berlin Township police department for false arrest because she was not provided a competent interpreter. Carmela Hernandez alleges that in June 2012 police wrongly arrested her for child endangerment. At the time, she was three months pregnant. Hernandez spent six months in jail awaiting trial, and in the interim lost custody of her three children, including the baby she delivered while in prison. Documents filed with the court say Hernandez “lacks any ability to effectively communicate in English.” Her boyfriend, who tried to speak with the Berlin police at the time of the arrest, has only “limited ability” in English. The Berlin police called in an officer from a neighboring department to conduct Hernandez’s interrogation. Although the officer was fluent in Spanish, Hernandez asserts in her lawsuit that he was “without the proper training and skills to have acted as an effective interpreter.” As a result, Hernandez says she was “unjustifiably and falsely arrested.” In February 2013, Hernandez was found not guilty after the judge in the case ruled her interrogation inadmissible.

On the language side, it bears explaining that the majority of translation and interpreting work is done on a freelance basis by independent contractors; hence, a lack of regulation in the language services industry, and by extension a perceived lack of respect for the profession, is the subject of frequent complaint in those circles.  I can just hear a chorus of my fellow language professionals saying to the Berlin, NJ police department, “You wouldn’t expect an interpreter to try to do police work without any prior training in police procedures, would you?”  As these will readily tell you, bilingualism by itself does not automatically make one an interpreter or translator.  The professionalism of these services is often salvaged, in a sense by proxy, via intersection with more highly regulated professions such as law and medicine, whose service providers are often required to use a professional interpreter (and in some cases, especially in the courts, one certified within a specialized field) for that very reason.

The related issue from a Catholic perspective is respect for the dignity of all human life, especially where it is most vulnerable.  As the U.S. bishops have repeatedly stated, this includes immigrants – especially when there is the added vulnerability of a language barrier.  And, of course, it includes children, both born and unborn.  And related to both of these is respect for the dignity of the family; children should not be separated from their parents except in cases of grave necessity.  None of this negates anyone’s duties and responsibility – another central feature of the Catholic social tradition – whether it be duty toward children or parents, toward the stranger or toward a host country’s society.  At the same time, none of these duties negate the respect owed to anyone as a bearer of the image and likeness of God.

So, when in doubt, hire a professional.  And always, always respect the vulnerable.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Julia, thank you for this interesting perspective: one which I had not thought about before. I know the need for translators is great and they are generally lacking. So much so that until reading this I thought it was a good thing if a school could come up with a bilingual staff member to translate at a parent/teacher conference. (I guess it is a good thing, but perhaps not sufficient or the best solution.)

    I am reminded of the painful difference between European and American airlines on the trans-atlantic runs. If you fly any of the major European carriers they flight staff are all bilingual and often speak three or more languages. By contrast, I have been on flights to/from Spain on American carriers where it appeared that only one steward spoke Spanish. Listening to the head flight attendant make the safety announcement in Spanish was remarkably painful: my spoken spanish is halting, but I could have done better.

    • Julia Smucker

      I guess I’d still say having a bilingual staff member would be better than nothing, at least in some cases, depending on where you are and how possible it is to find a qualified interpreter. I have interpreted at least one parent-teacher meeting telephonically, and in my biased opinion, having a professional interpret remotely is still preferable to having an amateur in person. But again, it depends on the resources available. But a police department, or an airline, really should have access to the necessary resources and should know better than not to use them.

  • Ronald King

    Julia, Did she have a competent attorney at the time of her arrest? Was there a social worker involved who would have conducted an evaluation and who perhaps would have insisted on using a professional translator? Six months in jail awaiting trial seems outrageous considering what was posted.

  • Kurt

    I’m dealing now with an employer in the international travel industry that is proposing to eliminate the premium pay (worth about $500-$4,000/yr) to employees who know and use a second language on the job. Employees are not happy that they took the job with the promise of this premium or learned a second language to get the premium pay. (all are tested by the employer to prove their proficiency before they get the bonus). I suspect you are going to see them refusing to communicate other than in English if this proposal goes forward. Should make a fun summer travel season.

  • Stuart

    Of course, she should have learned American since, after all, the first real people in this country spoke English! I mean, the ones who came after the Native Americans. And the Vikings. And the Irish. And the Spanish. When you come to this country, you should learn to speak English–just like Columbus! :)

  • brian martin

    For an interesting twist, I work in a mental health setting. I have refugee clients who insist on a family member interpreting, because they do not trust interpreters, even professionally trained ones. Sometimes it has to do with the gender of the interpreter, the particular religious background of the interpreter (Shia or Sunni), the ethnicity (arab or kurdish) etc. . The other is that even with national professional telephone interpreter services, you may not get someone with the correct dialect. I once waited for over a half hour of an hour long therapy session because the service could not locate the correct Kurdish dialect.
    The frustrating thing was that we have competent professional interpreters who know the correct dialect but are not recognized by the particular insurance company.
    Clearly the presence of a professional interpreter is to be desired, but it is not always feasible or practical.

    • Julia Smucker

      Thank you for sharing from your experience, Brian. I hear about the dialect problem sometimes, especially in Arabic. And on the other side of the trust issue, there are medical professionals who don’t want to use a patient’s family member for fear of selective interpreting, although legal concerns are mentioned more often. But I know that with telephonic interpreting services you can usually make certain requests, maybe not for religious background but at least for gender.

      Your experience also makes me think of an article I read recently by a male Arabic interpreter pertaining specifically to in-person medical interpreting. One of the anecdotes he used was about interpreting for a female friend who was uncomfortable with having to remove her hijab for a head scan in his presence – until he decided he would interpret facing the wall.

      • brian martin

        Sometimes it becomes a question of communicating or not being able to provide a service. I would argue that if a client wants their family member to interpret we have to at least try to work with that rather than have them not get needed medical..or mental health..care, even if it affects the quality of the care. Of course it is a hard line to balance on, because it is often hard to know if what you are saying is being translating. It is also interesting to have a client interrupt a telephonic interpreter and say…in very broken English… “he/she is not translating this correctly”. The other difficult thing is gender roles. It may be normal in some cultures for the husband to speak for the wife, or perhaps the other way around. It all speaks to the need for professionals to try to have a level of cultural understanding. Of course this is much more difficult in a law enforcement setting.

        • Julia Smucker

          These are all important concerns to balance, and this speaks to the different roles an interpreter can have, which may be accentuated differently depending on what recourse is used. The interpreter’s primary role is supposed to be as a conduit of communication, but they may occasionally need to act as a cultural broker to explain some cultural or linguistic issue, or in some cases an advocate for the person’s needs. I imagine the latter is frequently the biggest concern for a family member, which can be an advantage as far as advocacy is needed but also a disadvantage if an ad hoc interpreter gets stuck there to the point of impeding communication, and/or inside knowledge may tempt them to simply answer for their spouse or relative (who would then remain at a disadvantage due to the language barrier). On the other hand, telephonic interpreters are trained to maintain the conduit role most of the time and, while they may briefly step into “cultural broker” mode on occasion, they cannot act as advocates, so professionalism may be a constraining factor in the other direction if there is nobody to fill that role. I’m inclined to think an in-person professional interpreter is the best option when possible, as they may be able to bridge that dilemma more effectively. But as you suggest, sometimes the situation can be complicated.

  • brian martin

    Another thing I run into is the therapists I supervise, especially if they have little experience working with interpreters, is that things we discuss, especially in the mental health field do not translate word for word, and sometimes they get upset because they think that the interpreter is not interpreting what they are saying. So yes, an in person professional interpreter is ideal, especially if you have built up a relationship with them and trust them. And that, the relationship part is what you seem to be talking about. We are called into relationship to our fellow human beings through our creation and through our baptism.