Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Should Children Be Translators?

The last post, the one about The Guardian newspaper award to the Young Interpreter (YI) scheme in the UK, brought me some correspondence from experts on legal interpreting in the UK and Holland. They're concerned about whether children ought to be entrusted with translating in a public institution like a school. There's a danger they may be made privy to information they shouldn't have, for example. More generally, they're being given responsibilities – towards the school, other children, parents, et al. – that shouldn't be laid on them at their age. I know from conversations with Claudia Angelelli  (see References) that this is a concern in the United States as well; to the extent that some people consider child language brokering a form of exploitation and therefore oppose teaching children to translate.

I have my views, but I'm neither a parent nor an educator nor an expert on educational ethics. So I turned for an opinion to Astrid Gouwy, the coordinator of the YI scheme. Here's her reply.

"You are right, there is a danger of over-enthusiasm which sometimes can come from certain misconceptions around interpreting as not everyone realises the complexity of the task. The role of Young Interpreters is not to replace professional interpreters in interpreting for situations you mentioned – including PTA meetings. The role of Young Interpreters is to provide peer support to new arrivals in the early stages of learning English so that they feel welcome in their new school. The guidance pack gives examples of how Young Interpreters can help – for example to show a new arrival around the school, or to play a game with them at break times. In addition, the role play situations which are used during the training depict typical situations where Young Interpreters could help – for example what to do if you see a new arrival on their own. Finally, whilst language is an asset for the role and can be used to welcome others, Young Interpreters don’t have to be bilingual or share the same language as their buddy to make them feel happy in their new setting. Effectively, many Young Interpreters won’t ever get to ‘interpret’ in the sense that most people attach to the term. However, they will use a range of strategies learnt in their training to communicate with their buddies and make them feel included e.g. through use of pictures, body language etc. They will also use their many qualities – in fact, one Young Interpreter was telling me the other day that the most important thing about the role was to be caring and kind.
"I understand concerns from professional interpreters over the use of children as interpreters but I hope the above clarification of the role of Young Interpreter will reassure them. The new edition which will be out very soon will give further guidance to practitioners in charge of developing the scheme in their schools. This will comprise dos and don’ts of Young Interpreters’ role and more on safeguarding."
To this, though it really needs no further comment, I'll append my own simple list of contexts in which I consider – with the reservation mentioned earlier – that translating by children should be scrupulously avoided unless no other translator is obtainable.

A. Legal. Those that might have legal implications or repercussions. For instance, a serious dispute between a parent and a school; or an injury to a child that might lead to a claim; or an accusation of sexual assault.

B. Medical. Any serious medical problem. The danger in medical interpretation comes not only from conveying wrong information but also from omissions. Unlike Expert Interpreters, Natural Interpreters are not constrained to reproduce everything they hear. Expert Interpreters must struggle to do so; but if Natural Interpreters can't understand or can't reproduce something, they just skip it and carry on.

C. Emotional. Something that might cause the interpreter stress, eg having to convey bad news about someone in the family.

One of the aforementioned correspondents mentioned a PTA meeting that proposed to use YI but dropped the idea. Sometimes it might be a matter of age. Events like PTA meetings require some knowledge of the school system, of its terminology and of the stakeholders. Perhaps 14 years old would be a viable minimum. I think I knew enough by that age.

For more information about YI, click here.

Claudia V. Angelelli (San Diego State University). Expanding the abilities of bilingual youngsters: can translation and interpreting help? In M. J. Blasco Mayor and M. A. Jimenez Ivers (eds.), Interpreting Naturally: a Tribute to Brian Harris, Berne, Lang, 2011, pp. 103-120.


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