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Interpreters kept busy at Valley schools

January 30, 2017

BY BARBARA ANDERSON
banderson@fresnobee.com

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The fast talkers make Spanish interpreter Guillermo Berumen gulp.

One of his jobs at Fresno Unified School District is to keep up with words, often spoken rapid-fire in English, and repeat them back in Spanish to parents with limited English who are listening to him through headsets.

Interpreting in public is the biggest challenge, and the most rewarding, said Berumen, community relations liaison. “I have to do it right on the spot and a lot of people are watching me, too.”

Berumen got high marks for his interpreting at a parent advisory meeting at the end of the past school year. “The gentleman does a good job,” said Margarita Espinoza, who has children at Slater Elementary. “I understand a little bit of English,” she said, “but not as much as I would want to, especially if they’re explaining something deep.”

Interpreter/translators are kept busy at school districts in the central San Joaquin Valley. Interpreters communicate verbally, making telephone calls and interpreting at meetings. Translators provide written translations of school documents.

Larger school districts – and even some of the smaller ones – have entire staffs devoted to interpreting and translating.

Education law requires schools to provide information in a native language when 15 percent or more of a school’s population speaks a primary language other than English. In the Valley, more schools than not meet that threshold for Spanish. At Fresno Unified, 80 of 96 schools in 2014-15 had to provide interpretation/translation services, according to the California Department of Education.

School districts don’t get any additional funds for translation and interpretation services. Most cobble together funds from several sources, including general district budgets.

Fresno Unified, for example, uses a combination of state and federal grant funds along with general funds. In 2014-15, the 79,000-student district spent approximately $3.4 million from state and federal resources for translation and interpretation services.

Spanish and Hmong are the two primary languages that most often are interpreted and translated, but the Valley is diverse. Fresno Unified has identified 56 languages spoken by students. The district has a staff of 12 Spanish and Hmong interpreter/translators and more people at school sites who are bilingual in those languages. When interpreters are not available for another language, the district turns to a contracting agency or someone in the community.

At Madera Unified, all 26 schools must provide information in Spanish, and the district is doubling the two-person interpreter/translator staff this school year. It’s also adapting to meet a growing need for speakers of indigenous Mexican languages. The district is hiring an indigenous support specialist to be a Mixteco translator/interpreter, said Alma De Luna, the former director of English learner programs.

The occasional less-common language, such as Arabic, Russian and Farsi, can make Valley school officials scramble for face-to-face interpreters.

“It can be intriguing and a little daunting sometimes,” said Kimberly Salomonson, director of pupil services at Sanger Unified. As an example, this past school year the district needed an interpreter for a deaf student – but the interpreter had to be fluent in sign language and Spanish, she said.

Valley districts do on occasion contract for interpreters.

Individual students who need help typically are paired with a student buddy or instructional aide until they begin to grasp English. But Orchid Interpreting Inc., a Fresno company, provided Fresno Unified with a Farsi interpreter this past school year to help a student. And Madera Unified contracted for an Arabic interpreter for a special education student.

Rithy Lim, founder of Orchid Interpreting, said he can provide an interpreter for almost any language within 12 hours to a couple of days, at most.

School officials, however, sometimes turn instead to a telephone interpreter service or to others at the school to interpret, Lim said.

Cyndee Loryang, an advocate for parents at Fresno Center for New Americans, said using an office aide or janitor is better than nothing, but “it’s not adequate interpreting or adequate translation.” An interpreter with knowledge about school services, education law and terminology can make a difference in the quality of services parents receive, she said. “If I read and write in that language, that doesn’t mean I can interpret the material accurately.”

David Chang, a Hmong translator/interpreter at Fresno Unified, said experience matters. He was a bilingual instructional aide for several years before becoming an interpreter. Aides must prove they are proficient in both languages to receive a bilingual certificate from the district.

Interpreting also is a skill that develops. Chang said he can’t repeat every word when interpreting. There may not be a Hmong word for the English word, he said: “I could say every word you said, but it makes no sense.”

Even Spanish does not always translate word for word, said Salomonson.

One of her bilingual staff will catch errors, and keeps a running log of words and acronyms that need explanation, she said. One example: “APE,” which stands for adaptive physical education. If not explained, “it translates as monkey.”

Barbara Anderson: 559-441-6310, @beehealthwriter

Source: www.fresnobee.com

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