A Recap of Translators Film: An ATA Roundtable

Please note: The views and opinions expressed in this summary do not necessarily reflect the views of each individual panelist or participant or those of the American Translators Association.

From child interpreter to professional interpreter

When he was 10 years old, Nery Mazariegos was asked to interpret for his mother during a visit to her obstetrician. Through her discussion with the doctor, he learned a family secret his mother may not have intended for him to learn so young—that he had had an older sister who had died. Not only did he have to process the information being exchanged between his mother and the provider about her current pregnancy, he also had to contend with the enormous emotional burden of trying to process the loss of a sister he had never known.

“I was not prepared to handle that. [...] Put yourself in the shoes of a 10-year-old who doesn't have the emotional intelligence, emotional maturity, hasn't lived enough to understand.”
- Nery Mazariegos

Now that he is a certified interpreter and talent acquisition manager at a language services provider, Nery realizes that his experience as a child language broker is not rare. The film cites that this is a scenario that is repeated 11 million times every day in the U.S. Most of these children are proud to be able to help, even though they are often ill-equipped to perform the task; as children, they lack certain soft and hard skills necessary for interpreting. All this despite multiple laws that require the use of qualified professional interpreters to provide meaningful language access. In the end, it is incumbent on us all to help the children of people with limited English proficiency (LEP) to just be children and ensure that language access is guaranteed whenever and wherever possible.

Skills: How well can child language brokers interpret?

Despite the title Translators, most of what this film portrays is actually interpreting. Interpreters work with spoken or signed language, whereas translators work with the written word. And although the children depicted in the film are ideal candidates for future careers in the translation and interpreting professions because of the linguistic, information processing, and interpersonal skills they gain by helping their families navigate systems in two languages, most professional interpreters train for years to acquire and hone the knowledge and expertise required to do their jobs. If more families were made aware of the opportunities that exist for children who are growing up bilingual, said panelist and researcher Aída Martínez-Gómez, the children of LEP individuals would be excellent candidates for this career path:

“In my experience, they feel really seen when they are told, ‘All these skills that you've developed through a lot of hardship are valuable, and you can turn them into a profession that can be really fulfilling.’”
- Aída Martínez-Gómez

The children of Deaf adults (CODAs) experience many of the same struggles that children of LEP individuals do, but with the added challenge that people with disabilities are often unfairly perceived to lack intelligence, creating a dynamic that their children cannot reasonably be expected to understand or advocate against. Between this level of emotional intelligence, analytical skills, and vocabulary, it is not hard to imagine how different the interpreting of a child is compared to that of a trained professional—and the consequences that could have for everyone involved.

“It's important for people to know that it's not a matter of replacing one word in one language with another word in another language. There are so many layers of complexities that translators and interpreters make decisions about. They make decisions about words, yes, but also structures, contexts, dialects, cultures, and so many other things all at once [...].”
- Yasmin Alkashef, ATA Board Member

Impact: How does child language brokering affect children and their families?

However underprepared child language brokers may be, the reality is that this work they are doing on a daily basis across the United States, and its impacts on the children themselves, are varied. Some studies indicate psychological risks, while others do not; research does not show a direct negative impact from child interpreting and actually indicates a positive contribution to the child’s cognitive development and cultural understanding when they act as interpreters,1 but anecdotal evidence suggests strongly that whether positive or negative, the impact of acting as a language broker for one’s parents cannot be underestimated.

Nery Mazariegos shared that as he watched the film, the reactions of the children depicted were familiar to him: they were nervous and often doubted themselves. The film also accurately depicted a perspective shared by many children in this position, including several panelists: a desire to please their parents. Likewise, drawing on his lived experience as a CODBA (child of a DeafBlind adult), ASL interpreter Brent Tracy shared the challenges of navigating systems with parents who have disabilities. Often experiencing barriers with his DeafBlind father that people without disabilities don’t have to deal with, Brent reflected that these situations had the capacity to cause him embarrassment, discomfort, and even trauma.

“In my experience, [having a parent with a disability,] oftentimes [...] when my parents would come on field trips and things of that nature, I'd get bullied, made fun of. You stand out a lot more because of the disability.”
- Brent Tracy

It is important to acknowledge that many families express concern for the impacts that child language brokering may have on their children, whether or not they are aware of the risks, and certainly no family intends to put their child in harm’s way. Rather, the willingness of so many children to help their LEP or disabled family members is a testament to the perseverance and grit of these communities. However, exposing children to the stress and vicarious trauma that is part and parcel to high-stakes interpreting is unfair, and it is crucial that all involved stakeholders learn more about the rights of these children and their families, so as not to feel obligated to put them in this difficult position.

Language access rights: Does it have to be like this?

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act2 ensures the right of LEP individuals to language access, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) enshrines the right of Deaf persons to receive ASL services. Children may end up brokering for their parents in many ad hoc situations, this being the reality of life in a multicultural and multilingual society, but at least in theory, all LEP and Deaf people have the right to meaningful language access, particularly when accessing services provided by entities that receive even a cent of federal funding.

However, noting the startling statistic shared in the film that 11 million children in the U.S. interpret on a regular basis, panelist and language access advocate Carol Velandia put it this way:

“If we were to say there are 11 million children of American citizens that are made to work, unpaid, for professional work, our society would be up in arms, right? But because the plight of immigrants when it comes to language rights, language justice, and language access continues to be invisible and misunderstood, we think it's okay and even wonderful and inspiring that those children work.”
- Carol Velandia

Put in these terms, the situations depicted in this film can easily be categorized as discriminatory. Immigrants’ children do work that is intended for paid professionals, and it is celebrated, instead of creating outrage. The film did not necessarily misrepresent the experiences of these families; however, it did fail to share that there are better options. In many cases, including those depicted in the film, companies and organizations that work with LEPs shirk their responsibilities, and parents are unaware of what options they have for language access or the channels by which they may file complaints when their rights are violated.3

Conclusion: An opportunity to do more and do better

In the end, where the film had the incredible opportunity to be an agent for change, it perpetuated unfortunate misconceptions and normalized a continued pattern of discrimination against non-English speaking communities and disabled persons. Taking the complex issue of language access and child language brokering head on, it oversimplified experiences, overlooked non-Latino populations, and, most importantly, failed to offer solutions to the challenges faced by so many families across the United States.

What can we do about it?

ATA encourages everyone to seek out any and all opportunities to advocate for language access. This means speaking up when you see a way to improve language access, sharing your thoughts with legislators and decision-makers, and being a voice for those in your community who communicate in a language other than English. We can combine advocacy with professional growth and networking by encouraging public and private entities to improve their language access plans. By actively working to increase awareness, we will be giving a voice to those who desperately need it.

1 Further reading:
Guadalupe Valdés et al: Expanding Definitions of Giftedness
Jemina Napier: Sign Language Brokering in Deaf-Hearing Families
Vicki Katz: Kids in the Middle
Marjorie F Orellana: Translating Childhoods

2According to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

3 https://www.lep.gov/file-a-title-vi-complaint

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