Sunday, June 19, 2011

Some Frictions in Language Brokering

From Reno, Nevada, comes a sensitive account that gives a realistic insight into language use by a family that depends on language brokering. The following sets the scene:
“Fifteen-year-old Katherine Nuñez sat on the old-fashioned sofa in the living room of her family’s tidy house. A painting of the Virgin Guadalupe faced the door, welcoming all newcomers into the casa. An El Salvador emblem was nailed into the pared just above the mantel, which was decorated with treasures and trinkets from the family’s native country.”
Katherine was three years old and spoke only Spanish when she came to the USA with her family. She began learning English when she started kindergarten at age five. Her mother, Josefina, still speaks only Spanish.
“The pair communicates in Spanish, which often proves difficult because Katherine prefers speaking in English. Katherine is unable to articulate some thoughts in her first language because English has been the dominant language in her life. 'It gets me aggravated, because if she spoke English, and if she had learned since we got here, I think her relationship with me would have been way better,' Katherine said…

Besides the typical problems parents and their teens encounter, the Nuñez family experiences additional challenges because of language barriers. 'Many things get lost in translation,' Katherine said. Katherine is a sophomore at Hug High School and often experiences translation problems. She speaks both Spanish and English with ease but feels that an idea’s meaning is frequently not communicated correctly in translation.

Josefina attends many parent-teacher conferences so they can work out missing homework and class-participation issues. Most of Katherine’s teachers don’t speak Spanish. Every time Josefina goes to the school to talk to Katherine’s teachers, someone has to translate. What might have been a minor problem regularly turns into a major complication and misunderstanding among Katherine, her teachers and her mother. When using a translator, Katherine feels she is being underrepresented and at times put down.

Two major differences between Spanish and English that Katherine mentioned are tone of voice and atmosphere. One of the most difficult differences between the languages for Katherine to deal with is sarcasm. She said that sarcasm comes out differently in English than when translated into Spanish. She enjoys being sarcastic and feels it is something she can’t do in Spanish. She said sarcasm frequently causes miscommunications when translating because her mother doesn’t always know what to believe.

Although some schools provide translators, Katherine said she prefers to translate because she can communicate the proper message. Translators are not aware of the individual circumstances or situations involved with the students, she said. That’s why the message at school gets lost.”
However, there’s another side to it.
“Many schools have translators available for parents who don’t speak English. Eddie Lopez, a parent involvement facilitator at Grace Warner Elementary in Reno, has a different view of translation than Katherine. Part of his job is to translate for parents at the school. He said that when kids translate, teachers run the risk of the kids selecting what they want to recount, resulting in withheld information. ‘We’ve come to find out that a lot of kids won’t fully translate so they need somebody that actually translates what they are saying,’ Lopez said. But often it’s not the child’s fault for not being able to translate correctly. Sometimes he or she might not have enough vocabulary to translate exactly what was first said.

Like any child learning how to speak, Katherine had trouble with vocabulary when she was younger. This was one of her biggest struggles when translating for her parents and speaking English at school and Spanish at home. ‘I’ve been translating since I was little,’ she said. ‘It’s a lot of pressure, actually, because I remember sometimes I couldn’t find the right words to translate, and my dad would get really frustrated. So would my mom. They would tell me that I needed to learn more because I wasn’t at the level I was supposed to be. … I was too young to translate, and they would get aggravated and make me learn more words,’ Katherine said."
As for Josefina,
"although she hasn’t learned English yet, she still recognizes that speaking another language is a great opportunity and blessing:
'It’s a great benefit, one who has two tongues,' she said [in Spanish]. 'To speak one language and translate for another is very good.'"
To be continued.

Rachel Breithaupt. Lost in translation: Northern Nevadans learn to cope with language problems, sometimes even between parents and children. news, June 9, 2011.

Lost in translation. This is a phrase that’s been around for a long time. But Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film of that name suddenly made it fashionable. Since then, hardly a day goes by without it turning up in the title of some article or newspaper report, to the point where it’s become ‘the mother of clichés’. Google now finds 51 million citations for it!

Image: Some of the Nuñez family. Katherine is on the left. Photo by Amy Beck.

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