Translation and Interpretation Services: SSU Partners with Salem Public Schools
By Elizabeth Blood
Last year, the Department of Foreign Languages was contacted by the Salem Public Schools. They were looking for interpreters to help with parent-teacher conferences and had an urgent need for interpreters in Arabic and French. A culturally and linguistically diverse city, 27% of the students in the Salem public schools come from families where the primary language spoken at home is not English. These families speak 36 different languages. Most are Spanish speakers or speakers of Portuguese, and the schools generally have access to interpreters and translators in those languages. Where they needed help was with the “low-incidence” languages, and we were able to assist by developing a resource list of bilingual students and faculty to provide interpretation services when needed.
“We often struggle to find translators for our low-incidence languages, meaning those that are spoken by much smaller numbers of students—Arabic, Albanian, Tagalog, Haitian Creole, Chinese, Somali, and so on. Being able to contact someone who is fluent in these languages through Salem State University is a wonderful benefit for our English Language Learners,” says Nancy Meacham, ELL Coordinator for the Salem Public Schools. “It is so gratifying to see the relief on parents’ faces when the meet a translator and realize they can now communicate fully with their child’s teacher or school,” says Meacham.
Meacham also highlights the importance of cross-cultural understanding: “Culture and language are so closely linked, and having translators who can bring that cultural expertise and sensitivity is crucial to positive communication between students, teachers, and their parents.” This sentiment was echoed by Dr. Joseph Hitti, an Arabic instructor at SSU who is also a professional translator. Dr. Hitti, a native of Lebanon, was able to help out with the initial urgent request for an Arabic interpreter, working at Collins Middle School and Bates Elementary School for an Iraqi family who has children in both schools. He highlighted the need for interpreters to understand both cultures in order to facilitate positive communication. “For me,” Hitti says, “the interesting thing about interpretation is that it always puts me in situations I’ve never been in before. This time, it was dealing with refugees and the education system. It’s actually a personal reward for me to be able to help people and to be an advocate for new immigrants.”
Brice Bambara, a 2012 SSU graduate with a major in Political Science and a minor in Foreign Languages, also volunteered to help with interpreting for the Salem schools. An international student from Burkina Faso, Bambara speaks fluent French in addition to several African languages. He was asked to help with interpreting and translation for French-speaking African families at the Bentley Elementary School. “I was asked to translate different types of documents, ranging from report cards to a document about new systems being implemented in the school. I also attended parent-teacher conferences,” says Bambara. “It was a great experience to be the link between parents and teachers. I felt very useful explaining to parents how their children are progressing learning English. It reminded me of my own experience in a way.” Bambara, who has been accepted into several prestigious graduate programs for International Relations in France and Switzerland, hopes to use his language skills in the future. “This gave me a sense of what it would be like to work in an international environment where people communicate in many different languages.”
Since the initial contact with the Salem Public Schools, the Department of Foreign Languages developed a resource list of speakers of many different languages. To date, we have been able to provide assistance for families who, in addition to Arabic and French, speak Albanian, Russian, Bengali, Chinese, Urdu, Vietnamese, and Portuguese. Also, according to Bilingual Outreach Specialist Alma Pimentel, five SSU students answered our call to assist with parent-teacher conferences in Spanish at the Bentley Elementary School in March.
In a letter to the Department of Foreign Languages written last month, Dr. Stephen Russell, Superintendent of the Salem Public Schools, thanked the students and faculty of Salem State for their willingness to assist Salem’s multicultural families: “Having access to Salem State professors and students who are fluent speakers of these [low-incidence] languages has been an invaluable benefit to our students and their families…Thank you sincerely for your efforts in connecting this resource at Salem State University to our work with Salem’s English Language Learners.”
The Department of Foreign Languages has also assisted with volunteer translation projects for Lifebridge and the Boys and Girls Club in Salem this year, and we plan to continue to expand our translator/interpreter resource list in the future. If you are a student, staff, or faculty member who is bilingual and would like to be contacted for paid or volunteer work in translation/interpretation next year, please send your contact information to Dr. Blood (firstname.lastname@example.org).