February 20, 2016 by atacompass
Most translators and interpreters care deeply about the future of their professions and welcome the opportunity to talk to students of any age about their jobs. This was why I recently leapt at the chance to visit my daughter’s 4th grade class to talk about translation and interpretation. I hope the class came away from my talk with some valuable ideas. I know my visit certainly gave me some interesting and unexpected insights into the relationship between translation buyers and the younger generation.
Our local school has students from all over the world who together speak over 40 different languages and dialects. True, we live in a diverse neighborhood of Queens, which is in turn the most diverse borough in New York City, but this statistic is indicative of changes in school populations throughout the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “The percentage of public school students in the United States who were English language learners (ELLs) was higher in 2009–10 (10 percent, or an estimated 4.7 million students) than in 2000–01 (8 percent, or an estimated 3.7 million students).” This figure will only continue to grow over the coming decade, and it doesn’t even include children who speak a second language at home, but are not in ESL classes. Indeed, the percentage of public school students who identify as non-Caucasian or non-African American has grown over the past two decades as well, with 23% of students listed as Hispanic and 8% listed as Other.
With this information in mind, I knew that to make my talk relevant, I had to build it around the students and their experiences so that they could see what important roles translation and interpretation play in their lives. I started my talk by introducing myself and asking the class what the word translator means. Then I asked the students to tell me what languages they speak besides English, which led to a discussion about the meaning of the word “bilingual.” From there, we did a translation exercise, where I wrote a word on the board and had volunteers come up and write the same word in their languages. Next, we did an interpreting exercise, where I spoke a sentence and had volunteers interpret the sentence into their languages. We went on to talk about where translators and interpreters work, what kinds of tools they use, and what kind of training they need.
Finally, we looked through some supporting materials I brought in, including several of my dictionaries (even the dictionary I used in 4th grade!), translations of middle-grade books into English (the Ghosthunters series by Cornelia Funke, the Geronimo Stilton series), a translation into Russian of the second book in the Harry Potter series, and a Judy Moody book that gives examples of how the name Judy Moody has been translated into other languages. I explained how I use my dictionaries, and then we talked about the fiction books. I was quite impressed by how quickly the students were able to identify the various translation challenges that might arise with each book.
The most important insight I gained from my talk was that, even at a young age, these students are savvy citizens of the world. In addition to speaking their second languages at home, they help their families navigate their lives in their new communities by interpreting for their parents and grandparents in stores, on doctor’s visits, and even at their school. They also communicate with non-English speaking friends and family members in their native countries, and they may even travel to these countries during vacations. Without being aware of it, they serve as ambassadors in many different ways.
The lesson for translation buyers is that these students are your future customers. They will be buying your products and services to support and communicate with their communities here and abroad. They are one of your avenues into new markets. Translation providers and buyers must work together to get it right for them. Put simply, if they are not impressed by the way we work together to represent your company in their languages and cultures, they will not use your products and services or mine. Investment in high-quality translation services will guarantee a competitive edge that has the potential to last for years and will pay for itself many times over. Although I have known this all along, it is hardly an idea that I expected to have reinforced by a group of nine-year olds!
Lucy Gunderson, CT is a Russian to English translator and Administrator of ATA’s Slavic Languages Division.