My flight lands around 7:50 p.m. at the Don Mueng airport in Bangkok, Thailand. I hoist my bag onto my back and navigate through customs, emerging into the muggy night air, my eyes scanning the horizon for the bus which will shuttle me to Nana Station. I discover that language is a significant barrier for me in Thailand, and I find myself gesturing madly, with big swooping motions – “BUS? NANA STATION?” I say, over-pronouncing the words, my voice set to megaphone. Finally, a young woman who understands English, directs me to the A1, and just like that, I am on my way to the LRT, which, upon arrival, presents a whole new set of dialectal challenges.
After spending an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to pay for my ticket, and then hovering in front of the map showcasing the colorful LRT lines that zig zag across the city, I jump onto a train cart and cross my fingers, hoping that I am headed towards the Ambassador Hotel, where I will attend an Asia-Pacific conference on refugee rights over the course of the next 4 days.
This regional conference supports an open and growing network consisting of more than 300 civil society organizations and individuals from 28 countries committed to advancing the rights of refugees in the Asia Pacific region. Its members are diverse, and include service providers,human rights advocacy groups, research institutions, law firms providing pro-bono legal aid, refugee community-based organizations and refugees themselves. The conference itself is held once every 2 years, and involves a series of member-led workshops and a number of geographical and thematic working groups, aimed to address specific issues that members are encountering in the work that they do, while promoting an atmosphere of information sharing, mutual capacity building, and joint advocacy.
Since my blog revolves around language, I will only discuss one of the sessions that I attended at the conference, entitled “Working with Community Interpreters”, but feel it is also necessary to highlight the tremendous amount of good work that the organization affiliated with this conference is doing, in collaboration with members around the Asia Pacific region. I was so fortunate to be able to participate in this conference, to engage in discussions around capacity building, refugee protection, mental health, youth, advocacy, post-deportation, legal aid and immigration detention.
The conference session that I will highlight, “Working with Community Interpreters”, was led an expert from the Cairo Community Interpreter Project (CCIP), and took the shape of an interactive circle discussion about positive practices in community interpreting in refugee NGOs. The facilitator led us into a dialogue about interpreter system coordination issues such as interpreter recruitment, vetting, ongoing assessment and oversight, as well as ethics, standards of conduct, and interpreter training and linguistic resource development for both interpreters and other organizational staff.
Language can be a significant barrier for refugees and asylum seekers to access services, as highlighted in my previous blog posts, and oftentimes, organizations cannot sustain a formalized interpreting program, due to lack of funding and capacity. Community-based organizations working with refugees often source their interpreters from the refugee population, which means their primary languages can range from Arabic to Farsi to French to Urdu to Somali (to name a few). Interpreters working with refugee-centered organization provide a variety of language services to registered beneficiaries, through activities such as doctors’ appointments, counselling sessions, legal interventions, case conferences and emergency support requests.
In many organizations, interpreters can be an after-thought, assigned to case work on an ad-hoc basis, and it can sometimes be difficult to secure an interpreter who meets the needs of the beneficiary accessing language support. While many organizations would benefit from a formalized interpreter program, the reality is that many organizations working in a multi-language setting simply do not have the capacity to introduce these types of programs, because they require intensive inputs of time and resources, both in limited supply, in order to flourish.
That being said, since arriving at my CAPI organization, I have been involved in many aspects of program development and delivery – SMART goals, and funding applications, objectives and indicators, risk assessments and community consultations. I have learned that asking hard questions – questions that might mean more time, more money, more concentrated thought – is a good way to jump-start the intensive planning process that this type of programming requires.
As participants of the interpreting workshop began to assess their own strengths and challenges in their organization’s current interpreting systems, many questions came to the surface surrounding program design and intended impact. Although I was trying to participate in the conversation, I also managed to jot a few of these questions down. While they in no way encompass all of the interrogations that an organization should make in the initial stages of introducing a formalized interpreting program, I felt they would help to demonstrate what kinds of discussions need to take place priorto unrolling an effective and sustainable interpreting service.
What role do interpreters play in the organization – are they integrated into the organization or are they transient?
Oftentimes, interpreters are registered as refugees or asylum seekers with the organization in question. Most refugees and asylum seekers are not transient, since the UNHCR process can take years from point of entry to re-settlement. It is likely that in a context where refugees are providing most of the interpreting services, organizations would likely benefit from consulting regularly with interpreters, to determine ongoing challenges and durable solutions, as they relate to program implementation.
Are interpreters being trained in HOW to interpret properly? What does this training look like? Are there organizations dedicated to providing interpreter training? How do you offset the costs of this kind of training?
It can be difficult to access reputable training for interpreters, and when it can be found, it is oftentimes too expensive for an organization to pursue. In order to provide a well-rounded interpreter training program, it is essential for each organization to develop its own (context-specific) training program in collaboration with a professional OR access funding for interpreters to be trained through online platforms or external service providers (non-context specific).
How are interpreters booked or scheduled for activities? Is it on an ad-hoc basis? Is there an online booking system?
When a staff member needs language support, how do they book interpreting services? Oftentimes, interpreters are an after-thought, and their services will not be requested until a beneficiary comes to the office for a scheduled meeting and can only speak Arabic, or Farsi, or Dari. If an organization wants to operate a formalized interpreter program, it will likely need a dedicated staff person, tasked with scheduling interpreters, and tracking the number of interpreter hours dedicated, by language, to each program per month. This would help to streamline interpreting services, as well as to ensure adequate tracking for reporting purposes while contributing to baseline data for future funding proposals.
Is there a system of accountability for interpreters who break the rules (ie. leak confidential information)? Is there a company policy on minimum standards for interpreting?
It is essential for any organization working with interpreters to have an organizational policy on minimum standards for interpreting. As an organization continues to grow, these minimum standards need to be continuously updated, and implemented, along with more effective tools for monitoring and evaluation, through the process of hiring to service delivery.
Is there a method for interpreters to access technical terms, jargon, etc. so that they can be prepared to navigate that language immediately in their given context (ie. health, legal, etc.)?
In many cases, interpreters collaborating with organizations are working in a specific sector (i.e. health, legal, etc.) which requires an understanding of process, as well as acronyms, glossary of terms, relevant policies and applicable legislation. It’s like a whole other subset of language, embedded within language itself. Developing a context-specific training tool, surrounding urban refugee health and UNHCR process, for example, would be a helpful addition to any organization’s interpreter training toolkit.
Is there any emotional/mental health support available through the organization for interpreters?
After my interview with one of MSRI’s community interpreters, in CAPI Blog 4, I realized the emotional toll that interpreting can take on a person, in particular a refugee, who must navigate their own trauma in tandem with providing language support. It is integral for organizations working with interpreters to determine how they will offer mental health/trauma support to staff members working on the front lines with refugees but again, this requires additional resources for planning, design, implementation: resources that many organizations simply do not have.
Are staff trained on how to work most effectively with interpreters?
There are certainly best practices when it comes to working with interpreters. Officers are meant to speak slowly, at an even pace, in relatively short segments, directly to the beneficiary, not to the interpreter, and the list goes on and on. It would be in any organizations best interest to formalize these best practices into a policy or standard operating procedure, and to communicate this to interpreters as well as to administrative staff, so that everyone is on the same page.
Competing interests and competing roles – should organizations prioritize livelihoods for refugees or promote access to a more professionalized talent pool?
Since many organizations work directly with beneficiaries from their refugee populations, the pool of talent can be limited, and further training and support is necessary. Most refugees who begin interpreting do not have a formal, academic or professional background. There are also issues surrounding confidentiality and community integration which come up, as a result of interpreter access to sensitive organizational and community information. Organizations encountering this challenge would benefit from conducting a risk assessment, to determine how to mitigate some of the issues that may arise as a result of working with community based interpreters.
During the course of my CAPI internship, I have realized that designing an effective and sustainable program is a long-term process, which involves a great deal of careful consideration, in addition to a healthy dose of trial and error. I have also learned that language is infinitely complex, riddled with subtle differences and distinctions in expression, meaning and response. When you combine the two – taking the complexity of language, and attempting to address its nuances as part of a comprehensive program – you are bound to encounter a mountain of difficulties.
That being said, refugees depend on interpreters to access services, to participate in livelihood programs, to schedule class times to attend English classes, to advocate for themselves. For this reason, it is exceedingly important for organizations working with refugees and asylum seekers to provide a high-quality interpreting program, grounded in the unique contexts and challenges of refugee and migration fieldwork, in order to open up an accurate and meaningful dialogue with affected communities, to ensure, first and foremost, that their collective needs are being met.
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