Ethnic, linguistic diversity drive need for interpreters, translators

By Wendy Solomon, December 3, 2018

The large influx of Spanish speakers in the Greater Lehigh Valley over the last decade has increased the need for more interpreters and translators in a wide array of businesses, from law firms to doctors’ offices.

The burgeoning Hispanic or Latino population has grown more than 30 percent in the region. In Lehigh and Northampton counties, the population grew from 87,851 to 114,612 between 2010 and 2016, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data.

In Berks County, the Hispanic or Latino population grew from 67,649 to 87,953 between 2010 and 2017, according to the Census.

And many in the Hispanic community have limited ability to speak English, which has ramifications throughout the community. In Berks, 23.5 percent of households where Spanish is spoken includes no one age 14 or over who speaks English or speaks English “very well,” according to 2013 Census date, the most recent year available.

“The number of agencies offering translation and interpreting services has grown exponentially in the area,” said Antonio Guerra, a Spanish interpreter and translator who has worked in the Greater Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia area for more than 20 years.

“My colleagues and I find ourselves turning down work because there is so much out there,” said Guerra, a board member of the American Translators Association, the country’s largest professional association of interpreters and translators.

“It allows us to be more selective in the fields that are of particular interest to us,” said Guerra, a freelance interpreter who contracts with more than a dozen agencies to do legal and medical interpreting.

Anna Maria Shah, who has been working as a Spanish interpreter in the Lehigh Valley for 14 years, founded Link2Language in Fogelsville in 2011 because of a growing demand.

“I’m very busy. There is a big demand for trained, qualified interpreters,” said Shah, who frequently does medical and legal interpreting throughout the Greater Lehigh Valley.



Employment of interpreters and translators in the United States is expected to grow 18 percent from 2016 to 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

Interpreting and translating are terms that are often mistakenly used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Interpreters work in spoken or sign language and translators work in written language.

A population with limited English proficiency has implications for the U.S. court system. Over the past two decades, the courts have recognized the challenges faced in the judicial system by people who speak limited English and have implemented programs to improve interpreting services. A growing number, including Pennsylvania, have instituted certification and continuing education programs and professional codes of conduct.

In 2004, after a Pennsylvania Supreme Court study on racial and gender bias in the courts, the state created an interpreter certification program in the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts to improve court access for people with limited English proficiency.

“I’ve been with the program since its inception and we definitely have grown and continue to grow because the linguistic diversity and the need for interpreters continues to increase,” said Osvaldo Aviles, administrator of the interpreter certification program for the courts office.

The state program has a roster of about 235 interpreters representing 35 languages. Pennsylvania is the 10th-most linguistically diverse state in the country, with 10 percent of its residents speaking a language other than English at home, according to the courts office.

Spanish is the most frequently interpreted language in the state’s courts, followed by American Sign Language, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Arabic and Vietnamese.

“Even though we have a pretty good size group of interpreters, there are still not enough,” Aviles said.

“There are some languages, particularly Arabic, Korean and Vietnamese that we still can’t find interpreters for that can pass a qualifications test,” he said.

The increasing linguistic diversity in Pennsylvania presents a challenge for finding interpreters who speak those languages, he said.

For example, there is a high demand for Nepali interpreters in Central Pennsylvania and Erie because there is a population of Nepalese immigrants in those regions, Aviles said.

It is also a challenge to find interpreters of indigenous Central American languages, such as Quiche, Mixteco and Akaceco, which are derivatives of Mayan, and whose speakers know little Spanish, he said.

When a court in Pennsylvania needs an interpreter for a less commonly spoken language, Aviles puts out a request on a listserv available through the National Center for State Courts, which has a database of interpreters nationwide.



As a profession, interpreting and translating are relatively young and had been highly unregulated, said Guerra, who also serves on the ATA’s interpreters’ policy advisory committee.

“There used to be a low threshold to entry, meaning anyone who was bilingual could enter the industry and call themselves an interpreter or translator, he said.

“Being bilingual no more qualifies you to be an interpreter than having two hands qualifies you to play a piano concerto,” he said.

Businesses should seek out qualified interpreters who have earned their qualifications or certification from reputable organizations or language schools.

“Hiring an untrained, non-professional interpreter really puts your practice and your business risk,” Guerra said.

The ATA’s code of conduct for interpreters, for example, defines the correct positioning of an interpreter during legal and medical procedures.

Guerra said he always tries to stand next to the attorney “to hear and be heard.”

And in a medical setting, interpreters should never attract attention to themselves.

“Interpreters need to be in the background. It’s not about us,” he said.

Shah said when she does medical interpreting she is “the medium between the doctor and the patient.”

Shah said if a doctor speaks at too high a level or uses technical terms and the patient isn’t grasping all of the information, she asks the doctor to express information in a way the patient can understand.

“As a native speaker, I can quickly see or know when the patient has a tough time understanding,” she said.

Shah said she primarily does consecutive interpreting, which is when one person speaks, there’s a pause and she conveys the speaker’s overall meaning. The other mode is simultaneous translating, which is when the interpreter listens to the speaker and interprets at the same time.

Simultaneous interpreting was created during the Nuremberg Trials when Nazi war criminals were prosecuted.

Shah, who was trained by the Lehigh Valley Health Network’s medical interpreting program, said she usually does simultaneous interpreting in hospital emergency rooms.

“If it’s an ER case where the doctors are screaming and there’s a life-or-death scenario, you’ve got to be able to switch gears and do simultaneous interpreting,” she said.

“The doctor needs to know what is happening. They need to treat the patient immediately because there’s no time to waste,” Shah said.



Wendy R.S. O’Connor, an attorney in the casualty insurance department at Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin in South Whitehall Township, said she uses interpreters for Spanish about four to six times a year and her department uses them about 20 percent of the time.

“We have cases where one or more of our parties are Spanish-speaking and I’ve had cases where everyone in the case is Spanish-speaking,” O’Connor said.

Using a qualified interpreter is paramount because accuracy is essential, O’Connor said.

An error can make all the difference.

“It’s a person’s life, it’s a person’s health, it’s a monetary consequence,” Guerra said.

An experienced, professional interpreter who hears an unfamiliar word or phrase knows to ask what it means. For example, street and drug language, which are often used in court cases, are constantly changing.

Guerra recently interpreted a conversation between an attorney and his client, a drug dealer, prior to a deposition. The drug dealer used a common Spanish word, manteca, which means butter or lard, but Guerra knew in this context it likely meant something vastly different.

He flagged the term and asked the defendant what it meant. The man explained manteca is brown heroin, so named because it resembles bacon grease.

“Because I don’t know this world, I don’t know what brown heroin looks like, I had to ask the defendant to explain it to me and then I was able to accurately interpret for him,” Guerra said.



Interpreters are often asked for their opinion, but professional interpreters know they are bound by the rules of their profession.

“You need to remain neutral, you cannot give an opinion. That would not be professional or ethical,” Shah said.

“When I meet a new client I tell them I am not going to add anything to your words or the attorney’s. I will tell the client that I’m their voice, that’s all I am,” she said.

Added Guerra: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in trial or even traffic court and the person thinks I’m their ally because I’m Spanish-speaking. They’ll ask me, ‘What should I say?’ I just turn to the attorney next to him and say, ‘What should I say?’ The attorney will say, ‘Just tell them what happened. Tell the truth.’”

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