Providing community language services for migrants

ICVolunteers exchanges knowledge about social commitment in translation and interpretation
Brigitte from Brazil living in Canada (left) and Chantel from South Africa discuss community interpreting. Photo © V. Krebs.
Brigitte from Brazil living in Canada (left) and Chantel from South Africa discuss community interpreting. Photo © V. Krebs.
Irene Amodei
19 November 2007

...translators and other professionals, who deal with language amid such complex social relations, cannot cease to be aware of the linguistic implications of the fact that the capacity to use certain genres, discourses, etc. becomes an instrument of power.
                                                       Hatim and Mason

Social interpreters and translators respond to a growing social need in modern multi-cultural societies, their role, being of vital importance if access to essential public services is not to be restricted or conditioned by linguistic or cultural barriers.

This crucial theme was analysed in depth during a round table held in Geneva in 19 September 2007 to facilitate exchanges between ICV national offices working on Language and Migration Projects and other associations actively engaged in this work field, such as the Migraf and Appartenances.

Community interpreting

The core of the meeting considered the definition, role, perspectives and challenges of community language services.

The so-called "community interpreting" enables immigrants who are not fluent speakers of the official language of the host country to communicate, to gain full and equal access to and information about statutory services (legal, health, education...) and finally, to integrate themselves into the new society.
Apart from interpretation being a right of the person benefiting from it, - be it in a hospital, a prison or a refugee aid organization, - social interpretation is also a difficult profession, which requires specific inter-lingual and inter-cultural training. As pointed out during the meeting by Magueye Thiam, president of the Association Migraf and an interpreter for the Geneva Red Cross "the social translator must be able to manage the stress, the pressure, the emotion of the moment in order to convey both the verbal and non-verbal message." He or she usually deals with an asymmetric context, an unequal power distribution between the one accessing public services and the other providing them. This means that he or she has "to interpret intercultural challenges that are often characterized by the traditions and provide the link between the law and the culture where the dialogue is happening".

"Community interpreters serve as cultural bridges and, thanks to their double knowledge, they have a mediating, as well as, a translating task," commented Olga Markovic Wagnieres, member of Appartenances. Even if the task of conciliation is generally placed outside the interpreter's sphere of competence, yet community interpreters often act as social negotiators of cultural and linguistic differences, enabling people to talk to each other by providing a common communicative environment.

A special focus on interpreting in health care settings was proposed by Julia Puebla Fortier, Director of Resources for Cross Cultural Health Care. Through a variety of mechanisms, this American non-profit organization based in Washington D.C. works with ethnic communities to provide critical expertise and assistance in the design and delivery of health services for culturally diverse frameworks. Services include program design, policy development and analysis, research, and community advocacy. An example from the Linguistic and Cultural Competence Standards Project describes the case of an elderly Bosnian woman being admitted with terminal cancer. "She may present the following challenges for health care staff and organizations: she and her family do not read, speak or understand English; her Muslim faith requires modesty during physical examinations; and her family may have cultural reasons for not discussing end-of-life concerns or her impending death. A culturally and linguistically appropriate response could include interpreter staff; translated written materials; sensitive discussions about treatment consent; clinical and support staff who know to ask about and negotiate cultural issues; appropriate food choices. The provision of these kinds of services has the potential to improve patient outcomes and the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of health care delivery."

Methodologies & Projects

Moving from theoretical premises to contextual studies and practices, the picture that sprung from the assessment of the different projects and methodologies was one of the great diversity of approaches, constraints and responses to the challenge of interpreting and immigrants needs throughout the world. This exchange was also shaped by the variable interplay of factors like the existence of legal provisions, institutional arrangements for interpreter service delivery, and an authority-driven or profession-based system of accreditation and certification. In order to determine the needs and means that already exist and illustrate the prevailing trends, data, through interviews, field inquiries, questionnaires and researches, is being collected by ICVolunteers professionals in Switzerland, Spain, France and South Africa. The initial implementation of the project has already started in Spain and a final study is to be presented soon by the Swiss office.

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