Essay Translating For Parents

Bridging the Language Gap

Though translating everything can get tedious, it does come with its advantages.

By Maria Alvarado, Savannah College of Arts and Design


It’s easy to grow used to mom and dad filling out paperwork, reading the instructions on how to do everything and all that adult stuff.

After all, parents do a lot for their kids that most times go unnoticed. But, things can change a lot when the heads of the family can’t understand the main language of the country they are visiting.

The first time I had to translate from English to Spanish for my family, we were lost somewhere in New Jersey. That summer my family and I had traveled to visit relatives in the Garden State, but we had to drive back to Virginia in order to take the plane back home. I was around fourteen at the time and was the only member of my family who could actually communicate in English. So, as we tried to figure out the road to Virginia, I ended up translating the directions of the fifty or so people we met on the road.

If you are bilingual, you might have experienced the tiredness that comes after spending all afternoon switching back from one language to the other. It is likely that someone reading this article might have, at one point, sat in between two people who didn’t speak the same language, and attempted to help them have a conversation by translating every line they said. Now, imagine that the two people are your college and your parents.

College applications and their deadlines already sound like a nightmare: the amount of papers that need to be filled out, the essay questions that have to be answered and the endless questions that emerge as the process moves forward. Normally, people have college advisors and their parents look over their college applications, helping them make decisions or changes that could help them get into their dream college. But, what happens when your parents can’t help you with the stressful college applications because they don’t understand English?

As an international student, I am constantly reminded by other people how amazing it is that I can fluently speak a language that is not native to my country. Of course, I know that not everybody can speak, read or understand English or other languages. However, I admit that the more time I spend studying in a college with almost a 50 percent international student body, the harder it is to understand why older generations chose to not learn a second language.

Nowadays, everyone wants to travel to a different country. People want to learn about foreign cultures, history or simply explore new cities and take nice pictures. Even college students look forward to visiting Europe, South or Central America during their breaks. As a result, many people take the initiative to learn the language of the places they want to visit. But this isn’t something that was always normal.

The amount of international students and English speakers in the world is so big, that not knowing English can be viewed as a grave mistake. Still, my parents would argue that back in the day, they had no need to learn English. Without the internet to show people what they were missing by sticking to the same town, people “back in the day” didn’t have the strong desire to travel that is common in today’s world.

When I first came to study in America, I knew that my college experience was going to be somewhat different. My parents had warned me that they would be able to help me only if I translated all the letters and documents with the information they needed to know. Because of this, I ended up reading the “Parents’ Section” of many schools’ websites and overview books.

By the beginning of freshman year, I knew information about the way college admissions worked that few students ever know.

Every time a school email appears on my parents’ inbox or they happen to see a post about the university in Facebook, I get a message with the link and a “Translate this for me, please” or a “What does this say?” And, even though translating small articles for my parents doesn’t really bother me, I always wonder how different things would be if they were more familiar with English.

On the other hand, I like to think that there are small perks in having parents that don’t speak English, especially when it comes to college.

The first time that my father asked me to translate a letter from my school in the U.S. to Spanish, the information in the message was not exactly good news. It was a letter from my math teacher, saying that my performance in the course wasn’t as stellar as he had expected. I didn’t want to lie to him, because I was afraid that he would eventually find out what the letter said. So, instead, I simply downplayed the severity with which the letter was written, making it sound “friendlier.” Did I deliver the message? Yes. Did I save myself from a good scolding? You bet.

Throughout the years, I’ve had the pleasure of making friends from all around the globe. This is how I discovered that my parents are not the only ones who struggle to understand a second language.

During the evacuations for Hurricane Matthew, a bunch of worried parents were trying to figure out what colleges were going to do with international students. There was a lot of confusion at the shelter, because parents were confused as to how severe the storm was going to be, how far away the city was where the school was evacuating and if it was possible to buy a last-minute plane ticket for their children to come back.

Due to the fact that not all these parents speak English and therefore couldn’t possibly ask these questions themselves, they sent their children for the answers. As a result, the shelter was filled with a constant mix of Chinese, Spanish, German, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, English and other languages.

I have noticed that the most notorious impact that having parents that don’t speak English is that it forces people to keep in touch. When students are away at school, they tend to get absorbed in the world of their college campuses and usually forget to call home. A month or two can go by without college students feeling the need to ring their mom or dad. However, this is something that cannot happen with parents that don’t speak English, as they will eventually find something they need to translate and call you.

Parents can grow frustrated when they have no way to communicate and know exactly what’s going on. When it comes to the language breach between English and other tongues, one can’t really judge how difficult it would be for someone to overcome it or adjust to it. Learning English could take from months to years. Who knows, maybe there’s a way to help them learn English faster. Meanwhile, I would say that the best thing to do is trying to understand and help them a little.

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By Shanshan Wang

Idalia Cervantes still recalls vividly when she accompanied her mother to the doctor as her interpreter at age seven. Not yet knowing the word “cough,” she faked several coughs to help describe the symptom.

“I was learning English myself and I only knew a few words,” Cervantes said. Even though she was born in America, she spoke only Spanish at home and began to learn English in school. Yet, by the time she was four years old, she started to translate for her Spanish-speaking parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1990s. “I was just doing the best I could,” she said.

Being the translator and interpreter for the older generation is the common role played by many young Americans  from limited English speaking households. Even when they are just little kids, they take on the responsibility to balance between two languages and the cultures behind them.

Within some immigrant communities where everyone goes to the same local groceries and diners, speaking English isn’t a problem. Yet when it comes to doctor appointments, prescriptions, credit card bills, taxes and school documents, hospital visits, reading and responding to mail, the language barrier can be daunting. And that’s when the roles change and young people become the guide for their parents since other language services are limited and the state budget cuts are hurting community organizations that offer them.

Jeanne Hou, a senior at Northwestern University, speaks Cantonese at home with her parents who came from Guangzhou and Hong Kong. The Hous live close to Chinatown, which gives them plenty of places where they can carry out business in their own language. But once they step outside the Mandarin/Cantonese-speaking area, Hou and her sister frequently do the translating.

During translating and interpreting, jargon and technical terms become the biggest obstacles. Young translators can encounter words such as medical terminology with which they are not familiar  or don’t know how to translate to their native tongue.

“There were many technical terms I didn’t know,” Hou said. Sometimes she took a guess at it, looked it up or asked the doctor. Often, she would describe the word to her parents using examples, like the fact that high “cholesterol” levels are “something you get from eating fatty foods.”

“Even if I understand, it’s very difficult to explain to the parents and grandparents because of the cultural difference,” said Winnie Lam, who now works at the Chinese-American Service League and often translates for her grandparents-in-law and parents-in-law who speak Toishanese, a dialect in eastern part of China.

Before Lam takes elderly clients to an annual check-up or an eye vision test, she often helps them call the physician’s office to make an appointment and goes with them herself to interpret when physicians explain the procedures.

However, it’s usually difficult for second generation students and working adults to help with in-person interpretation because of the conflict of time. “They have to balance their work duties,” Lam said. “So many parties are requesting them to help with the translation. They are dependent on you. So it’s a lot of psychological pressure.”

Hou is in college now and will move again after graduation, which also makes it harder to do in-person translation for her grandma and her parents whenever they need it. Even when they call her at a certain time, she is not always able to answer.

“They will send me a picture on WeChat of whatever they need me to translate,” Hou said. This requires her to constantly check her phone. If it is not an urgent issue, she can put if off for a little bit and focus on the schoolwork first, she said.

According to the 2010-2014 American Community Survey from U.S. Census Bureau, nine percent of the households in Chicago are “limited English speaking households” that have no one age 14 or older who speaks English only or speaks it very well. Approximately 16.1 percent of the population in Chicago may face significant language barriers.

It is vital for many immigrants to be able to communicate with someone in their native language when getting access to basic services. Language hurdles can lead to a wrong type of service or make them wait for a long time. Thus, assistances in language access can largely benefit those who are English limited and also help relieve some pressure on the second generation, Lam said.

Government departments and hospitals don’t routinely provide such assistance. “You can request in advance but it cannot be promised,” Lam said. Now more immigrants are residing in suburbs, it becomes more difficult for them since there are less social service agencies that speak their languages, she added.

“Sometimes they will have it when you need it right away, sometimes they won’t,” Hou said. “You don’t really know. So you just expect that they won’t have it or it won’t be a good translation.”

Some services offer a translator via phone, a cheaper option. “Some government entities, or clinics can only rely on the cheapest way of interpretation, which is over the phone, not having in-person translators. And this is a barrier to those with lower hearing ability and those who are deaf,” Lam said.

In April 2015, the City Council approved Chicago’s first Language Access Ordinance, which requires increased assistance and meaningful access to city services, resources and programs for “limited-English proficient Chicagoans” in the top five foreign foreign languages spoken here: Spanish, Polish, Mandarin, Hindi and Arabic.

According to the Language Access Advisory Committee Report, the implementation of language access includes interpretation services, translating all essential public documents provided to or completed by program beneficiaries and participants, training front-line staff and managers on language access policies and procedures, etc. The city has also allocated $100,000 from the 2015 Budget to translate the city website into the top languages spoken.

Under the ordinance, Chicago residents who are not proficient in English will have better access to City government resources in their native languages. However, unlike cities such as San Francisco and Washington D.C., the ordinance “does not apply to emergency services like 911, or the Chicago fire and Chicago police” departments, said Andy Kang, legal director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Chicago.

Community organizations have been offering help to immigrants but budget cuts have made the job harder. Many are operating without the state funds they received in the past due to the budget impasse. Community programs are being cut and employees are being laid off or doing the work as volunteers, leaving immigrants without some key services.

According to the website of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Immigrant Services Line Item (ISLI) in the Illinois Department of Human Services funds two major programs, including the Immigrant Family Resource Program which serves as a crucial language access bridge to government services and programs and helps state government stay compliant with Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act. The budget amounts to less than 0.01% of total state budget. Yet the budget impasse is hurting numerous community organizations and members.

About 60 partner organizations depend on the line item. “Not only our programs are being cut, but recognizing that language access should be people’s right is being devalued,” said Kristina Tendilla, community organizer at AAAJ, Chicago.

We are living in a country where there are resources. When translating medical terms involving serious health issues, it can be a scary situation that no child should be put in, she added.

In cooperation with some other immigrant communities, she initiated the I Speak Power campaign several months ago, calling for the restoration of the ISLI and more importantly, to increase these immigrants’ awareness of their essential rights and learn to speak for themselves.

“Language should be a human right,” Tendilla said. “Not having the language access or receiving service in your language can be detrimental to a family. You are not getting connected to basic things. And that’s a violation.”

Photo at top: Jeanne Hou as a little girl with her parents and older sister. (Photo courtesy of Jeanne Hou)

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