This article is also published on Just Ithaca.
With more than 60 languages spoken in Syracuse alone, people who can bridge linguistic and cultural gaps are critical for the function of society. As communication facilitators, interpreters fill this role while providing a literal voice to many members of the community.
For non-English speakers, including the Deaf, services as common as church are often inaccessible. Theresa Slater, president and CEO of Empire Interpreting Service in Syracuse, said she entered the interpreting world when a Deaf pastor in her area offered a class for people to become church interpreters because there were none.
“When I started this whole journey, it was because my eyes were opened to the fact that something as simple as going to your place of worship was closed to so many people,” Slater said.
The need for communication goes beyond places of worship. Clients often request interpretation services in situations in which a clear understanding of information is required, such as courts, medical appointments, and educational settings.
“It’s critical that we’re there so that they can communicate with the world around them,” Slater said, “[when] they go to a doctor’s office, they can communicate what’s wrong with them and know how they’re being treated. If they get arrested and they’re in front of a judge, they have communication available to them.”
In addition to interpretation services, bilingual education is one of the biggest advocacy efforts by organizations such as La Liga in Syracuse, New York. Rita Paniagua, who has worked with the Spanish Action League for more than 10 years, said she has seen an improvement in accommodations for Spanish-speaking adults and children trying to learn English but still sees challenges for those people.
“It’s frustrating when they’re treated as slow,” Paniagua said. “Little by little more people are more sensitive to people that don’t know English because they have so many more around them. I would hope it would be a choice people would make.”
An emphasis on better training has especially impacted interpreters for the Deaf. Many Deaf people had bad experiences with interpreting services in the past due to the lack of quality, said Kip Opperman, an ASL professor at Ithaca College and interpreter in the upstate New York area.
“It’s gotten better over the years, and certainly now that interpreters are being trained and going through academic programs, they’re coming out with degrees that have given them the opportunity to develop their professionalism, their professional skills, and Deaf people are a lot more appreciative of and more accepting of interpreters,” Opperman said.
Cross-cultural communication presents many challenges for the clients and interpreters. Opperman said he has had to teach many of his business clients how to use an interpreter as well as about Deaf culture in order to properly facilitate communication between the two parties.
Despite the challenges, interpreters are needed to build and maintain a multicultural community as that community continues to grow. When interpretation services are provided, Slater said, linguistic minorities in the community not only have a voice but also have access to more information.
“When we listen to the radio, when we are on the web, when we’re watching television, that’s never going to be an equal playing field [for non-English speakers,]” Slater said, “but at least we can be there for those critical moments.”