Monday, July 31, 2006

As burden or honor, translation often falls to family

COMMUNICATION: School meetings and doctor visits operate through a barrier.

By JULIA O'MALLEY
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: July 31, 2006)
Sharon Smith, a doctor of family medicine at the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center in Fairview, doesn't need statistics to know how the city has changed.

"What I have noticed is the number of people who speak a whole variety of languages has increased," said Smith, who has worked in Anchorage for 10 years. "We used to just see Latinos, Koreans and Filipinos. Of late, we are seeing more and more Southeast Asians, and more recently we are seeing a whole new variety of Africans, like Nigerians and Gambians."

At least one in 12 people living in Anchorage was born outside the United States, according to the U.S. Census. The immigrant community grew by 60 percent in the 1990s and continues to increase, according to the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

More than ever, people need translation services in medical clinics, schools and government offices across the city. And more people are turning to family members, including their children, for help.

Nondiscrimination provisions in federal law say providers shouldn't use children or friends as translators.

"Despite this, it is a common practice," said Karen Ferguson, program director for the Refugee Assistance Program run by Catholic Social Services. "From my view, there is no ethnic group that does this more than others, although it would be true that the less common the native language, the more likely children or friends will be used."

At the neighborhood health center, Smith interprets for her Spanish patients, but other patients use family or community members. Generally, young children do not translate, but sometimes older teens do, she said.

"I have had some really good luck with some very intelligent kids who are now through college and were extremely helpful in translating for mom and dad," Smith said.

If Smith has a particularly delicate issue, or if she feels a family or community translator isn't getting the information across, she calls a phone-in translation line. The service, offered to Anchorage medical providers by AT&T, has interpreters for 150 languages.

"The only limitation with that is the amount of time it takes," Smith said. "It can double the time."

For some languages, doctors and health aides report waiting for 45 minutes for services. Translators for some Alaska Native languages are the hardest to find.

Using a family or friend as translator has drawbacks because translators are not neutral, Smith said. For example, in the Korean community, the wife of a minister volunteers as a translator.

"If you were doing something your minister's wife doesn't approve of, you would be loath to reveal it," she said. "With a family member, there's all sorts of different sensitivities and innuendos."

Courts across the state are also looking at ways to find trained interpreters for a growing population of non-English speakers, said Susanne DiPietro, judicial education coordinator for the Alaska Court System.

In the past, friends and family members have acted as translators, but now judges try to avoid that, DiPietro said. She and others are working on setting up a trained-interpreter-bank project that could serve medical, school, court and business needs in Anchorage.

The number of children serving as translators for their parents is hard to gauge, but language statistics help sketch a picture. In 2004, at least 35,600 Anchorage residents -- more than the population of Juneau -- were not speaking English at home, according to the census.

That number, which is now roughly 14 percent of the population, will continue to grow, said Neal Fried, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Immigrant and minority populations are concentrated in younger age groups, according to ISER. Children in families that have immigrated from the Pacific islands, Mexico, Asia and other countries have changed the face of Anchorage schools, where nearly half the student population is nonwhite. Enrollment of minority students increased 95 percent between 1990 and 2004, according to the Anchorage School District.

Around 7,000 students in the School District are part of the English as a Second Language program. More than 90 languages are spoken in the halls of local schools. The top languages are Spanish, a combination of Filipino languages, Samoan, Hmong, Korean and Lao.

Anchorage School District's Superintendent Carol Comeau called the language barrier between non-English-speaking parents and school officials a "national crisis." While some students who have become experienced translators thrive with the extra responsibility, other students abuse the privilege, she said.

"It has been very clear to us that some teenagers are translating the rules of our School District and the rules of our community, and it is not always the true story," she said.

Bridging two cultures can be tough for some young people, creating distance between children and their parents, Comeau said. Some children feel embarrassed when asked to translate, she said.

Using minors to interpret in any setting is fraught with problems, Ferguson said.

"All of a sudden the child is informing the adult of information and what the adult needs to do," Ferguson said. "The child is now in a position to filter information that they don't want the parent to hear ... For example, a principal once told me how a child had interpreted to his parents that he was in a 'gang'; however, the parents were very pleased, because the child interpreted 'gang' as 'club.' "

For young people who are translating, the job is often seen as a natural part of family life, said Adriana Rosas-Walsh, now an adult, who accompanied her Colombian grandmother to doctor's appointments in Milwaukee when she was 5 and 6 years old. Her parents, both South American immigrants, had to work.

"I remember just feeling like it was my duty and my responsibility. I saw everyone else do it, so it was the norm," she said.

Responsibility for older family members, even for a very young child, was part of her culture, just like it is common for Colombian people to care for ailing parents at home, rather than taking them to long-term care facilities, she said. She remembers translation positively.

"It is one of my most favorite memories," Rosas-Walsh said. "It was my special time with my grandmother."

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