Sunday, December 21, 2014

Young Interpreters: a Terminology Proposal

The December issue of Young Interpreters Newsletter has arrived with its usual roundup of good news from the schools that are members of the Young Interpreters Scheme (YI). YI, in case you don't already know, is a unique organisation sponsored by a British education authority for encouraging bilingual pupils to use their interpreting ability to help fellow students, school staff and other less advantaged members of their communities. Their ability, at least when they start, is largely natural; and it's important to note that they are not 'exceptionally gifted' children. Bilingualism and the translation ability that goes with it are already a fact of everyday life in multicultural Britain. (For more about YI, enter yi in the Search box on the right.)

More important, though, than the current news is the link in the middle of the Newsletter to YI's general list of does and don'ts for using children. The topic has been touched on before on this blog but the YI treatment is more complete and has official backing.

What the YI interpreters do is a form of language brokering. I've never liked the term language broker, because of its commercial connotation (as in insurance broker). But it's been in use now for at least 20 years, so we're stuck with it. However, it became apparent some time ago that it was inadequate with respect to the age of the interpreters. The people who coined it meant it to apply to children. Yet the functions of language broker don't end at such an early age. A great deal of it is done by adults for their families and acquaintances – and even for their children. A child who accompanies an adult family member to the doctor's to interpret is a language broker, but so is an adult who accompanies his or her child. So it has become customary in recent years to qualify the term in order to preserve the original intent, and to speak of child language brokers.

So far so good. But child is still a vague age indicator and certainly doesn't cover all the YI interpreters, the older ones of whom – the ones in the secondary schools – could reasonably object to being called children. It's in order to be more precise therefore, though not overly so, that I propose the following scale of terms. They can be applied not only to language brokers but to child translators in general.

1. Infant translators / language brokers. Under five years old. There are certainly children who can do some translating at that age, but language brokering is unlikely. This isn't because of language but because of the knowledge of the world around that language brokers need. Nevertheless, we should allow for it.

2. Child translators / language brokers. From five to ten years old. This corresponds to the period of primary education in most education systems.

3. Adolescent (or ado-) translators / language brokers. From 11 to 18, corresponding to secondary education.

4. Adult translators / language brokers. 18 and over. This takes us beyond the originally intended scope of language broker, but it must, for the reason given above, be allowed for.

So now what to do do about the YI interpreters, whose ages span both 2 and 3 above? We might make up a compound like child and adolescent translators. But that's a mouthful. Instead I propose to take advantage of the correspondences with the school systems and speak of

5. School-age translators / language brokers, ie, from five to 17 years old, to cover both categories.

We'll see if it catches on.

Hampshire Count Council, EMTAS. Young Interpreters Newsletter, December 2014. To receive or contribute, contact Astrid Dinneen at

Lucy Tse (University of Southern California). Language brokering among Latino adolescents…. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 1995.

J. McQuillan and L. Tse. Child language brokering in linguistic minority communities. Language and Education, 1995.

Infant translators was used as early as 1978 by Harris and Sherwood in Translating as an innate skill, which is avaialable on

School age language brokering has been used, but only with limiting qualifiers such as high school age language brokers, as in:

Sarah Louise Telford. Language Brokering Among Latino Middle School Students…, PhD dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 2010, which also uses adult language brokering.

The same is true of school age translating.


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