During the ongoing public-health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, time-sensitive information is being released that is not always readily available in languages other than English. There are constant updates and numbers changing that might make it difficult for a limited English-proficient speaker to keep up. What happens to an already vulnerable population when they can’t access this information?
Translation services in public and private institutions have increased in recent years, but not enough to service the needs of the growing population of limited English proficiency (LEP) speakers. Since 1990, the number of US residents who speak a language other than English at home has more than doubled, to 67.3 million, according to census data analyzed by the Center for Immigration Studies. As a share of the population, more than one in five US residents speaks a foreign language at home. Of those, 25.6 million reported that they speak English less than very well.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 there were approximately 76,000 translators in the American workforce. That would mean that for one translator, there are 342 people with limited English proficiency in need of translation services. In other words, people are being lost in translation; language becomes another barrier to full participation in US society for communities of color and immigrants.
Mariel Fiori, the cofounder and managing editor of La Voz magazine, has created a space for Spanish speakers in her community and beyond since 2004, giving access and information to those who might not be able to get it otherwise. La Voz (Spanish for “the voice”) was founded at Bard College and serves the large Hispanic population throughout the mid-Hudson Valley, for free, in the Spanish language. Fiori, in response to the exigencies of the coronavirus, has taken it a step further on her daily Spanish-language show on Radio Kingston, “La Voz con Mariel Fiori,” providing the latest updates in Spanish from 5:45pm to 6pm, and by translating information COVID-19 updates for Spanish-speaking residents in collaboration with The River and The Other Hudson Valley for La Voz magazine’s website.
Fiori says she saw the need for bilingual information with the pandemic disproportionately affecting vulnerable communities. “In Poughkeepsie, there used to be a radio station that would broadcast things in Spanish, but now there’s just music. They don’t have any hosts anymore, so people are kind of lost as for what’s going on,” Fiori explains. “I think it is important to have a place where you could see everything happening in the Hudson Valley related to COVID-19…I think having a daily update is important in times like this, because things continue to change every day.”
Fiori also notes that the lack of translation services and multilingual resources is not a new phenomenon. Prior to the pandemic, she saw how there was, and still is, a growing need for more support for people who speak languages other than English.
“The situation before [the pandemic] had been improving, little by little, but what I notice is that you cannot do everything and then at the last minute say, ‘Okay, everything we did in English, just hire someone and translate it,’” she says.
Translating is a profession and a career for Fiori. She studied four years at a university level to become a translator in Argentina. “The fact is people need to realize that…[it] doesn’t mean because you know two languages, you can be a translator. Everyone else is like, ‘Oh, I’m looking for anyone that speaks Spanish…let’s do this,’ just to realize that this is a profession and it takes a lot of brain work and you have to be paid.”
In the Hudson Valley, the number of people whose first language is not English is also increasing, with high populations in Orange, Rockland, and Westchester counties, according to the US Census Bureau. These communities house LEP speakers, who require translation services when they enter certain institutions, like clinics and hospitals, public schools, and government offices, but with limited resources available, local governments aren’t always able to meet that demand.
Some municipalities are making information available in different languages online, like Orange and Ulster counties. Ulster, specifically, has a coalition that compiles resources and services in Spanish called “Mano a Mano,” which translates to “hand to hand.”
The Westchester County Department of Health provides material in different languages, including public clinic schedules, on its website. Columbia County runs a migrant and seasonal farmworker health program, which includes translation and interpretation services. Rockland County’s family planning services include “Spanish-language interpreters,” according to its website.
While the majority of the Hudson Valley counties’ general webpages can be translated via Google Translate or other machine translation programs, a select few counties have specific translation or interpretation services. LEP speakers might be able to read flyers or press releases about the flu, or COVID-19 updates, but when they have specific questions, there is no one answering from the other side of a screen. And there are factors that even state-of-the-art AI programs can’t account for, such as a reader’s education level, reading comprehension, dialects, and internet accessibility.
When contacted by The River, Hudson Valley county health departments gave a variety of answers about their translation services. Some said that they had Spanish speakers on staff; others were not sure. For instance, a representative from the Orange County Department of Health said that while they did not know if they had translators on staff, they do “have Spanish-speaking employees.” Dutchess County’s representative “did not know” about available translators and translated documents, although they did state that there is a Spanish-language option available for the county’s phone directory service.
Some counties, in fact, have added in Spanish-language options for their COVID-19 hotlines, including Dutchess, Ulster, and Sullivan. Rockland County does not have a Spanish-language option, but an official said that third-party translation lines are available. Putnam, Westchester, and Orange counties, though they do not have county hotlines, have the New York State Department of Health’s COVID-19 hotline on their websites, which has several language options.
Veronica Martinez-Cruz, a translator and interpreter located in Kingston, has worked with the City of Kingston, the YMCA Farm Project, and other organizations. She describes how the profession has grown somewhat to meet demand, but acknowledges the challenges still existent in the field.
“Translation and interpretation involve more than just being bilingual,” she says. “In order to ‘transport’ the source language to the target language, we have to be able to transmit emotions, feelings without disrespecting both languages. Not every organization is familiar with language justice, and that creates a big gap between the community.”
Language justice goes beyond just translating and interpreting, but working to end language barriers in social and political contexts. While there is no single definition of the concept, according to the Communities Creating Healthy Environments, language justice “affirms the fundamental rights of individuals and communities to language, culture, self-expression, and equal participation.”
The situation is changing, though. Throughout the Hudson Valley, nonprofit organizations are helping people not be lost. According to the New York State Education Department’s Office of Bilingual Education and World Languages, there are 26 community-based nonprofit organizations for immigrants in the Hudson Valley, providing a range of services, from advocacy and community engagement, legal assistance, and help navigating health care, housing, labor, and insurance. They aim to provide people with access to classes to learn English, services that help LEP speakers find programs they may need, and translation of important documents. Some also provide educational, cultural, and recreational programs.
But all too often, family members are still depended upon to translate official and/or governmental information. Workers are asked to do a job completely separate from their own because everyone knows them as “the coworker that speaks Spanish.” There is a request for volunteer translators and bilingual speakers, but few occasions where translators are hired full-time.
The population of limited English-proficient speakers is growing and their need for inclusivity is as well. While there have been steps taken in the right direction, it is not matching up with the current needs of these communities.
“Organizations and individuals need to make the political and intentional decision to set up spaces and organizations and relationships so that the English language is not prioritized,” Martinez-Cruz says, “allowing everyone participating and leading to do so fully, regardless of which language they speak.”
Valerie Pereyra is a recent graduate from SUNY New Paltz. She interned at CBS News and is the former station manager for WNPC-TV. Follow her on Twitter @PereyraValerie.