Are Interpreters and Translators Essential Workers?
Providing the Essential Service of Effective Communication

Interpreters & Translators Are Essential Workers

“The great enemy of communication… is the illusion of it.1

~William H. Whyte

Effective communication is an essential service, reducing friction in critical systems such as in healthcare, immigration, emergency response and diplomacy. Because of their role in facilitating effective communication — especially in urgent situations — interpreters and translators should indeed, be classified as essential workers. In emergency situations, effective communication can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Conversely, as emphasized by Binod Prasad Bista (a Senior Research Scholar at Malavia Center for Peace Research), ineffective communication is an “important source”2  of global conflict, resulting in misunderstanding, mistrust, and ultimately war. Ronald J. Fisher, Professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University, elaborates further, saying that “miscommunication… can create conflict even when there are no incompatibilities.”3

Essential Language Services in the United States

In the United States, the work that language service providers (LSPs) perform facilitates effective communication on behalf of non-English speakers. Without the considerable talents and relentless efforts of interpreters and translators, individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP) would be denied life-saving services. According to the United States Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey (ACS), more than 67 million citizens and residents of the United States speak a language other than English at home, and more than 25 million are considered LEP, speaking English less than “very well” or not at all. For these individuals, having an interpreter present is not a question of preference, but an absolute necessity.

When an individual is in a medical or legal emergency, they are panicked and scared — in other words, the stakes couldn’t be higher. These individuals need to speak to someone immediately in their native language in order to understand and to be understood, and time is often of the essence. When the circumstances are dire, effective communication must be deployed rapidly in order to save lives, prevent avoidable errors in medical treatment, and keep families together at the border.

Graph showing Languages Spoken by LEP Individuals in the United States approx 25million individuals

We have always known how critically important language services are — the COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored the essential nature of linguistic services. Perhaps Ted Wozniak, the president of the American Translators Association puts it best in his letter to CDC director Robert Redfield dated December 17, 2020 when he urged “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to explicitly include on-site medical interpreters among the listed examples of health care personnel (HCP) eligible for Phase 1 vaccinations.”4 Wozniak’s concern extends beyond medical interpreters. In fact, he recommends the inclusion of “on-site interpreters in other settings (community interpreting, educational interpreting, state and local government offices, court and interpreters in legal or administrative law settings) among ‘other essential workers’ per the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).”5

Language Services are Mandated by Law

An interpreter’s role is to be invisible — a voice, not for the voiceless, but for those whose voices are often disregarded by society. Interpreters and translators perform a service that empowers non-English speakers, which is not only the compassionate and ethical thing to do, but is also required by federal law. On August 11th, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order (EO) 13166, “Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency” which “requires Federal agencies to examine the services they provide, identify any need for services to those with limited English proficiency (LEP), and develop and implement a system to provide those services so LEP persons can have meaningful access to them.”6 To that end, LSPs, interpreters, and translators play a significant role in facilitating effective communication and the execution of essential services.

Language Services in Healthcare

Being hospitalized is stressful for anyone, and miscommunication can occur even when patients and doctors speak the same language. However, those who do not speak English as their first language experience an entirely different healthcare system defined by “fragmented care, unequal access, and deep social inequities.”7 The impact of the language barrier is both measurable and shocking. In an article for the New Yorker, Dr. Dhruv Khullar asserts that LEP patients are “less likely to have their  symptoms controlled; they remain in hospitals longer; and they’re more likely to return after discharge.”8 In fact, LEP patients are “three times more likely to experience a preventable adverse event than patients who faced no communication barriers.”9

The divergence in outcomes stems directly from the lack of effective communication which makes it difficult for patients to “understand their illness, participate in medical decision making, and engage in their treatment.”10 Hospitals often operate under the illusion that communication has taken place. However, without understanding there can be no “meaningful access.” Interpreters and translators work to bridge that gap, providing the essential service of effective communication and ensuring that both parties achieve mutual understanding. Dr. Richard R. Hurtig of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) insists that “[f]acilitating patient-provider communication is an ethical and financial imperative”, and that “reducing communication barriers could lead to an estimated reduction of 671,440 preventable AE [adverse event] cases and a cost savings of $6.8 billion annually.”11

COVID-19

The rapid, global spread of the coronavirus could not be contained by national borders or language barriers. While many watched in horror as the pandemic jumped from country to country, LSPs got to work. In addition to disseminating critical medical information to a multilingual audience, LSPs provide medical translations of the lessons learned through international experience and research. The COVID-19 crisis is an international and multilingual phenomenon, making 2020 a year of “unprecedented global mass learning.”12 According to researchers Ingrid Piller, Jie Zhang, and Jia Li of De Gruyter Publishing, “The pandemic has exposed the fallacy of the belief in English as the universal solution to global communication problems.”13 For this pandemic and for the next, it is vital to invest in comprehensive multilingual solutions.

Immigration

The United States’ southern border is a complicated mess of preventable humanitarian crises brought about by the lack of effective communication. The country’s immigration system has demonstrated an unwillingness to listen to the languages spoken by those crossing the border, leading to linguistic discrimination and the incorrect assumption that everybody south of the border speaks Spanish. In fact, the demographics of those crossing the border have shifted dramatically in recent years with a 610% increase in the number of immigrants from Guatemala from 2007 to 2018. In 2020, 250,000 Guatemalan migrants were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border. Half of these were indigenous Mayans whose primary languages are Mam, Quiche, Kaqchikel, and Kanjobal.

graph showing Border Apprehension (in thousands) by country of origin

Despite their inability to speak Spanish, indigenous migrants are often given Spanish-only interpreters and translators both in custody and in court. As a result, “extended detentions or deportations caused by mistranslation or lack of translation are not rare.”14 According to a New Yorker interview with Lee Gelernt, the lead lawyer in the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) family separation lawsuit, “of more than five thousand parents separated from their children, at least eight hundred were deported without them. A significant number of those were indigenous.” His team found that half were Guatemalan, and that “ten to twenty per cent” were from indigenous-majority departments.”15

Efrén Olivares, a lawyer for the Texas Civil Rights Project, concluded that “[t]he language barrier contributed, at least in part, to a lot of those separations.”16 The forcible separation of children from their parents at the border is unconscionable and entirely preventable. Even worse are the deaths. Of the six children who have died while in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security since 2016, five of them were indigenous. The government forced the fathers of these children to sign “intake waivers stating that their children did not need medical care. The waivers were in English, and officials provided a verbal Spanish translation — two languages that the fathers did not speak fluently or at all.”17

William H. Whyte, in a 1950 article for Fortune magazine wrote: “We have talked enough; but we have not listened. And by not listening we have failed to concede the immense complexity of our society.”18 As a nation, we must grapple with the crimes perpetrated against migrants at the southern border, and we must move forward with the determination to do better. That begins with listening. It begins with the essential work of effective communication.

Humanitarian Emergency Response

In September of 2018, Typhoon Mangkhut struck the Philippines, one of the most linguistically diverse nations in the world with more than 180 languages spoken. When disaster strikes, it is a natural reaction to ask questions. How much damage has been done? How many people have been affected? How can we provide necessities like food and shelter? These questions are necessary, but the most important question is one that is all too often forgotten — what languages are spoken by those that are affected?

Crisis Language Map - Philippines - Super Typhoon Mangkhutx

The eye of Typhoon Mangkhut crossed the northernmost part of Luzon, the largest and most populous island of the Philippines. While Tagalog and English are the country’s two official languages, “the most spoken language in the northern part of Luzon is Ilocano (Iloco), spoken as a first language by approximately seven million people.”19 Had the typhoon followed a different trajectory, a different set of language skills would have been needed. The languages spoken by affected peoples will be different depending on the geographic location of any natural disaster. In order to effectively communicate and to save lives, the right languages are needed.

As we’ve mentioned before in our article entitled, “Translation and its Role in Safety”, by investing in professional language services you help to mitigate disasters and save lives.

Diplomacy

The primary function of diplomacy is communication between nations. Diplomats “engage in negotiations, persuasion, presentation, and communication, all of which necessitate language skills for the effective conduct of diplomatic work.”20 The challenges of the 21st century require multilateral cooperation — from climate change and environmental crises, to global pandemics and shocks to our interconnected economies. Without a multilingual approach, we will continue to talk past others, we will continue to fail, and will remain doomed to repeat the past.

Read more about language training for international business and diplomacy.

Nations inevitably enter into conflicts, whether disagreements over conflicting interests, or all-out wars. Conflict is neither good nor bad but is judged by how it is resolved. Binod Prasad Bista asserts that the “one of the important tools for resolving conflicts is effective communication” which he defines as not only “an act of entering into dialogue and relaying views and perceptions to conflicting parties but also securing their trust and confidence in order to arrive at a mutual agreement for securing peace.”21 Interpreters and translators are essential in bridging the interpersonal gap in international diplomacy. Through their mastery of effective communication, LSPs reduce the risk of global conflict and help to bring about conflict resolution.

Without effective communication, where would we be?

Interpreters and translators in healthcare, immigration, disaster preparedness, and diplomacy are essential workers, saving and improving the lives of millions. In all of these sectors, effective communication is a critical component. LSPs alone cannot solve all of the world’s problems — that will require courageous action on the part of both the public and private sectors. However, without effective communication, the world would be a more isolated and dangerous place.

Fortunately, Piedmont Global Language Solutions (PGLS) has been speaking to the world for more than 30 years, and in more than 200 languages and regional dialects. Our medical interpreters and translators unlock meaningful access to healthcare for LEP individuals and share the latest information from our international partners in the fight against the coronavirus. We provide services in the indigenous Guatemalan languages of Quiche, Mam, Kaqchikel, and Kanjobal — language services that can help to save lives on the southern border. We understand the complexities of disaster preparedness and the needs of various linguistic groups. That is why we also offer language services in both Tagalog and Ilocano, and we know that every word matters when it comes to international diplomacy.

PGLS works with thousands of content experts to provide comprehensive multilingual solutions in any language, anywhere, at any time. Request a quote today and ensure that your message is communicated effectively to a global audience.

REFERENCES

1, 18 The Biggest Problem in Communication Is the Illusion That It Has Taken Place. (2018, November 3). https://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/08/31/illusion/#note-9667-1.

2, 3, 21, Bista, B. (2016). “Conflict Resolution Through Effective Communication.” Tribhuvan University Journal, 29(1), 15-24. https://doi.org/10.3126/tuj.v29i1.25667

4, 5 Wozniak, Ted. “Vaccinations for Onsite Medical Interpreters: ATA’s Letter to the CDC.” American Translators’ Association, Press Room, 17 Dec. 2020, www.atanet.org/pressroom/letter_cdc_covid_vaccinations_medical_interpreters.pdf.

6 “Executive Order 13166.” The United States Department of Justice, 9 Dec. 2020, www.justice.gov/crt/executive-order-13166.

7, 8 Khullar, Dhruv. “The Essential Workers Filling New York’s Coronavirus Wards.” The New Yorker, 1 May 2020, www.newyorker.com/science/medical-dispatch/the-essential-workers-filling-new-yorks-coronavirus-wards.

9, 10, 11 Hurtig, Richard R, et al. “The Cost of Not Addressing the Communication Barriers Faced by Hospitalized Patients.” Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6402813/.

12, 13 Piller, Ingrid, Jie Zhang, and Jia Li. ” Linguistic diversity in a time of crisis: Language challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic”. Multilingua 39.5 (2020): 503-515. https://doi.org/10.1515/multi-2020-0136 Web.

14, 15, 16, 17 Nolan, Rachel. “A Translation Crisis at the Border.” The New Yorker, 30 Dec. 2019, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/01/06/a-translation-crisis-at-the-border.

19 “Philippines Super Typhoon Mangkhut (‘Ompong’) – Crisis Language Map.” Translators without Borders, 17 Sept. 2018, translatorswithoutborders.org/typhoon-mangkhut-crisis-language-map/.

20 “Language and Diplomacy.” Language and Diplomacy | DiploFoundation, 2020, www.diplomacy.edu/language

In addition to:

“Language Spoken at Home, 2019 American Community Survey.” Data.census.gov, 2019, data.census.gov/cedsci/table?q=language&tid=ACSST1Y2019.S1601&hidePreview=false.

Bureau, US Census. “Detailed Languages Spoken at Home and Ability to Speak English.” The United States Census Bureau, 6 Oct. 2020, www.census.gov/data/tables/2013/demo/2009-2013-lang-tables.html.

Jie Zong, Jeanne Batalova Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova. “The Limited English Proficient Population in the United States in 2013.” Migrationpolicy.org, 20 July 2020, www.migrationpolicy.org/article/limited-english-proficient-population-united-states-2013#:~:text=While%20the%20majority%20of%20these,Limited%20English%20Proficient%20(LEP).&text=Though%20most%20LEP%20individuals%20are,States%2C%20most%20to%20immigrant%20parents.

Misra, Tanvi, and Camila DeChalus. “More Non-Spanish Speaking Migrants Are Crossing the Border.” Roll Call, 4 Oct. 2019, www.rollcall.com/2019/10/04/more-non-spanish-speaking-migrants-are-crossing-the-border.

Nolan, Rachel. “A Translation Crisis at the Border.” The New Yorker, 30 Dec. 2019, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/01/06/a-translation-crisis-at-the-border.

https://pglsinc.com/translation-and-its-role-in-safety/