Being multi-lingual may serve as an indicator that some translators and interpreters are immigrants who at one point or another, have had to face some of the very same issues in which they become professionally engaged. Translators and interpreters do well to pay close attention to matters relating to immigrants and immigration since, among other reasons, the profession is involved in many ways.
A few years ago, through professional interaction with the LaGuardia Community College Immigration Legal Services Center, I learned about the services offered by the CUNY Citizenship and Immigration Project, which provides free services at various campus centers located throughout New York City. Services to the public include confidential one-on-one consultations with immigration attorneys and paralegals, as well as access to immigration and citizenship forms, and community and educational activities. and other citizenship and immigration clinics around the country. Usually, after immigrants cross the main hurdle of obtaining the right to live and work legally in the United States in order to make a living for themselves and their families, there are other issues they have to face.
Perception Issues. Through aiding in the communication process, translators and interpreters can help immigrants overcome the negative connotation that the word “immigrant” can sometimes bear. Because of fairly recent events in the U.S., some immigrants now have the appearance of being a threat to the security of the country. Others are often perceived as a threat to the economic wellbeing of U.S. citizens because of their willingness, borne out of their need, to work for a fraction of the prevailing rate in their respective industries. There is a tendency for some people to assume that immigrants have no assets or education and that their motive for immigrating into the U.S. is to take something from the country rather than to make a contribution there. While many immigrants do seek “opportunity,” a significant number have obtained tertiary education and/or professional skills and experience, while others are already property owners before hitting the shores of the U.S. Even though their decision to leave all of these behind may appear questionable to some, immigrants can have a lot to offer when they arrive in some cases at great sacrifice, especially when there are families in the new environment and/or back home to be supported.
Language Issues. Some immigrants who do not speak English tend to remain insulated in an environment where they feel they will be best able to function and be understood. The lesser the extent of the support they receive in their cultural communities is the greater the extent of the difficulties and challenges they will face when dealing with the public since they are unable to effectively integrate into the society, due to a lack of English language skills and cultural understanding. Because of this shortfall, some immigrants face difficulties because some US Citizens do not like the idea of having to accommodate immigrants so much. It is not unusual to hear the complaint, why do I need to press “One” for English when, after all, this is “America” and everyone should learn to speak English! Learning English to an acceptable level of proficiency takes time, nevertheless. Therefore, as long as immigrants are invited to the U.S., language professionals will continue to be called upon to bridge the gap, be it through teaching English as a second language or through translation and/or interpreting in a variety of situations in which immigrants find themselves.
Social Issues. At times, when people immigrate to the United States, they experience a culture shock and, not understanding the diversity that exists, may at times appear to be impolite. This can be very annoying for others when, for example, they may either avoid those who speak English or speak in a different language while in the presence of English speakers. This happens very frequently in places like grocery stores, dry cleaners, restaurants, nail salons and beauty parlors. Because their behavior may appear to be impolite, these immigrants need to be taught not only English but cultural awareness, especially in order to navigate service industries.
Over a two-year period, I observed the reaction of students in an English reading class I established for immigrants at St. Pius V Church, a Roman Catholic Church in Jamaica, New York comprised of a diversity of parishioners from the Caribbean, North America, Latin America, Central America, Asia and Europe. Some forty-one participants enrolled, and classes comprised mainly of Spanish, Portuguese and French speaking immigrants. The participants in the classes had some appreciation for their need to learn English in order to be prepared for life in the United States. A very important component that was added to the class was a cultural understanding of the community in which the students lived.
Other Social Issues. I was once in the presence of some women a few years ago and one very young mother of three told me that she was worried for her young toddlers and that she felt they would have a better life if only they could change her names. I understood her plight and the fact that for decades, some immigrants have changed their names for various reasons, including their need to avoid religious persecution, I cannot imagine a life worth living as someone else and would never consider changing my name, except to use a pseudonym for some artistic purpose. Immigrants from other cultures have had a similar social dilemma and have felt the need to use the anglicized versions of their names in order not to appear socially inferior. Others have felt the need to go to any lengths to look like their Western counterparts and have had their eyes surgically altered to lose their original look.
Health Issues. Immigrants are no exception to the numbers in the U.S. in need of adequate healthcare and healthcare coverage. Not only that, but they face the same concerns as everyone else when it comes to lifestyle, accessibility to proper nutrition, stress reduction and prevention. Because of litigation passed that requires healthcare facilities and providers to ensure that interpreting services are made available to non-English-speaking patients who present for medical attention, foreign language professionals are in greater demand and have more work opportunities than before. It is standard procedure for hospital and other healthcare facilities’ human resources departments to include multi-lingual healthcare providers among their personnel.
Legal Issues. Immigration attorneys deal with a range of concerns, including but not limited to adoption, asylum and protection, business and employment, consular processing, deportation and removal, family-related concerns, general matters, litigation, and naturalization. Some immigration lawyers also specialize in criminal law and human rights issues and immigrants needing support in these areas have to avail themselves of their services. Each of these legal areas entails distinct subject matter and call for informal meetings, conferences in chambers and a plethora of documentation requiring experience and the knowledge of various processes and varied terminology in all languages. Language professionals are required in the legal arena to assist with immigrant issues.
Working with immigrants can be very exciting and rewarding and it is certainly an area in which translators and interpreters can create and find many opportunities to develop their skills and make a difference.