Many school districts in the United States fail to provide professional translations of important educational material. A 2015 joint letter to school officials from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Education (DOE) cites a 40-year-old Supreme Court decision that interprets Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as requiring public schools and state educational agencies (SEAs) to ensure that students with limited English proficiency (LEP) are able to participate in educational programs and services in a meaningful way. The Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA), also from 1964, states that public schools must act to overcome language barriers that prevent students from participating in their educational programs.
The joint DOJ/DOE letter discusses a variety of aspects related to language access for LEP students. Among other things, the letter says that “School districts and SEAs have an obligation to ensure meaningful communication with LEP parents in a language they can understand…” (source: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-el-201501.pdf).
Being bilingual is not enough
The DOJ/DOE joint letter also states that SEAs and school districts must provide LEP parents with language assistance using appropriate and competent staff or appropriate, competent outside resources. “It is not sufficient for the staff merely to be bilingual”.
While bilingual staff members and others may be able to speak directly with LEP parents in a different language, this does not mean that they possess the expertise and qualifications necessary for professional, effective consecutive and simultaneous interpretation. Likewise, merely being bilingual does not equip a person with the written translation skills necessary to render an accurate translation of a document. Moreover, bilingual individuals who are not professional interpreters or translators are typically not familiar with the codes of ethics that apply to the translation and interpretation industries.
What about Google Translate?
In previous blog entries, I have cautioned against the use of web-based machine translation software such as Google Translate. Machine translation is not suitable for any communication that needs to be accurate and professional or that contains confidential information. Indeed, the DOJ and the DOE likewise warn against the use of machine translation since it is “inconsistent with the school district’s obligation to communicate effectively with LEP parents”. The letter also mentions the issue of confidentiality. Personally, I would not want my children’s grades and other personal data shared with and made searchable by Google—and that is exactly what might happen.
Are schools providing professional translation?
I browsed the websites of several school districts in my local community, as well as in other areas of the country. The websites that I visited either offered no translation at all or a Google Translate bar for translation into a multitude of languages. A local school district in my area offers Google Translate for the online parent portal. As expected, the translations are not only deficient; this system is likely to inadvertently cause parents to share their children’s personal data with Google, which is a serious breach of confidentiality.
Below is an example of a Spanish translation that I found:
“If you are on free and reduced lunch or fee waiver, please register for the AP test and your fees will be waived.”
“Si se encuentra en el almuerzo o la exención de cuotas gratis o reducido, por favor, registrarse para el examen AP y no se cobrará sus honorarios.”
Backtranslation to English (what the Spanish “translation” really means):
“If you are at lunch or the free waiver of fees or reduced, please, to register for the AP exam and your fees it will not be charged”. It should be added that honorarios are fees typically charged by a professional, such as an attorney, a translator, or an accountant.
Basically, the Spanish translation rendered above:
is confusing and nonsensical;
is fraught with grammatical errors
fails to convey the intended message to LEP parents;
makes the school district look incompetent (educational institutions should be expected to be able to communicate correctly, even in a foreign language);
makes parents wonder why their children have to be on their lunch break to register for the AP exam.
A professional Spanish translator would have had no difficulty translating the above English sentence above in a way that would sound natural to a native Spanish speaker.
What should school districts do?
To ensure accuracy in translation and interpretation services, school districts need to allocate funds for the use of professional translation and interpretation services. Depending on the needs of the individual schools, options include the following:
Directly contracting with professional translators and interpreters
Contracting with a translation agency
A translation agency such as WTS Translationscan be particularly useful in the area of education. Translation agencies have the resources to provide qualified translators for a variety of languages. Typically, translation companies follow a specific QA process to ensure top translation quality. In addition, they know the industry and are able to evaluate the qualifications of individual language professionals.
School districts that contract with individual translators should make sure that the translators are certified (if certification is available) and that they translate into their native language. A good source for translators and interpreters is the American Translators Association. Another source for interpreters are the court interpreter rosters with the local courts.
Are translation services expensive?
School districts pay for many services not directly related to the classroom—anything from lawncare and school buses to lawyers and accountants. In fact, my local school district has an accounting department with at least two accountants; the math teachers do not keep the books! The district also has a legal department with an attorney on its payroll.
Like the above examples, professional translation and interpretation services is not a free service. Rather, it is a necessary investment—an investment that will enable LEP students, or students with LEP parents, to excel and succeed academically.
Why not hire a language teacher/professor?
Language teachers teach languages. They specialize in language acquisition. They combine teaching techniques with linguistic skills in a particular language. Teachers are licensed to teach.
Translation is a completely separate profession with a separate set of skills. Translators translate. It’s what they do, full time. Translators specialize in certain disciplines. They obtain and maintain certifications by competent authorities or organizations, such as the American Translators Association, often involving continuing education. Many translators hold degrees in translation and/or interpretation, and they master and apply the techniques necessary to translate a document in a way that accurately relays the message with the appropriate use of proper terminology, register, and style. Translators are also skilled writers.
As the joint DOJ/DOE letter points out, merely being bilingual is not enough to translate or interpret professionally.
Although the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Supreme Court call for affirmative steps to ensure meaningful participation in education for students with limited English abilities, reality is that the written translations provided by school districts in the U.S. often lack the quality necessary to enable LEP parents to effectively participate in their children’s educational pursuits.
School districts can easily fix this. Simply put, they need to use professional translation and interpretation services from a company such as WTS Translations. This will enable schools to meet the needs of all students, regardless of the students’ and parents’ linguistic abilities.
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