Holyoke schools cultivate translation skills among staff

  • Katy Moonan, a professional interpreter and translator, teaches the last in a series of workshops meant to give bilingual Holyoke Public School employees the tools to be better translators and interpreters. Participants are standing in “powerful” stances for several minutes as a way to gain confidence ahead of interpreting or translating, which can be stressful and high-pressure work. —DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Staff Writer
Published: 12/9/2018 11:40:03 PM

HOLYOKE — As a bilingual employee in the Holyoke Public School system, Nikita Perez finds herself doing a lot of translation and interpretation — work that can be difficult even for those like Perez who are perfectly fluent in two or more languages.

Recently, the 31-year-old family and community engagement coordinator found herself thrust into that role during a meeting for a parent who needed to sign her child’s individualized education program, or IEP.

“First of all, they didn’t give her the form in Spanish,” Perez said. And when a translated document was eventually provided to the parent, some of the words — “sight words” and “decode,” for example — didn’t have easy translations into Spanish. “I would just give an example to her.”

Perez spoke to the Gazette Friday, when she and more than 20 other Holyoke school employees and educators took part in the last in a series of certification workshops meant to give them the tools to be better translators and interpreters at their schools. The trainings were designed and presented by the Translation Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which provides translation services and trainings to a range of clients.

“Right now I don’t know of any other school districts who are investing this much in training their people who do translation and interpreting,” Regina Galasso, the Translation Center’s director, said. “I think this is pretty new nationwide.”

Interpretation — the act of translating spoken language — and translation — the act of interpreting written documents — are vital skills that are an art form in and of themselves. But Holyoke’s receiver and superintendent, Stephen Zrike, said the district hasn’t been providing employees with the training they need to do that work in a more formal capacity.

“In my time here there’s been some concern about the need for greater access for families for information and dialogue in their native language,” Zrike said.

And in a district where English is a second language for almost 43 percent of students, those services are in high need.

“We got feedback that over time it hasn’t been consistent — parents getting information from schools — both in translation and interpretation,” he said.

More than 44 percent of Holyoke residents identified as Puerto Rican in the 2010 census, and 70 percent of students in Holyoke Public Schools are Puerto Rican, according to the district’s website. For that reason, Spanish is the language most often needed for translation and interpretation in the district.

On Friday morning, school employees filed into a large conference room at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, code-switching between English and Spanish as they greeted one another and got settled in. This training was the sixth and final one for the employees, all of whom are bilingual and routinely find themselves stepping into the role of interpreter or translator in addition to their usual duties.

“We get pulled to do so many different things,” said Beatriz Cruz, a 34-year-old family and community engagement coordinator.

Remaining neutral

There to teach Friday’s program was Katy Moonan, a professional interpreter and translator who has worked in a wide range of fields, from school districts across the Pioneer Valley to the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Early in her presentation, Moonan walked participants through exercises to clear their minds and to relax themselves ahead of translation or interpretation, which can be high-pressure, stressful work. Many of these techniques have to be quick, the participants said, because they often get pulled aside to interpret or translate at a moment’s notice.

“I’m never ready,” said Debora Vazquez, 31, a paraprofessional at William G. Morgan Elementary School. “It’s always, ‘There you are. Come here, we need you.’”

The group also practiced remaining neutral during situations that can trigger strong emotions. Moonan said in a situation like that, she will think about something she doesn’t love but doesn’t hate — in her case, broccoli — in order to remain neutral.

Osmar Ramos-Caballero, a 32-year-old case manager at H.B. Lawrence Elementary School, said he’ll be thinking of the Diego Velázquez painting “Las Meninas” — a work of art he said he feels “meh” about.

Yamaris Rivera, a 42-year-old family and community engagement coordinator at Lawrence Elementary, said that in one of the programs she runs at her school she has already begun to use the strategies she learned in the workshops; she made sure to put the parents and teacher in a position where they could all look her in the face, and she translated for the parties directly — “I need more help,” for example, instead of “she said that she needs help.”

“I do like it,” Rivera said of the translation and interpretation work she does. “But I feel like if that was my only job, I’d be more prepared.”

Other topics covered during the six workshops, which began on Oct. 15, included variations among different dialects of Spanish, the ethics of translation and interpretation, and the specifics of doing that work in an educational setting.

Zrike, the superintendent, said providing quality translation and interpretation is of course important for the most critical information: IEP documents, and conversations about performance and discipline.

But, he said, the reason he went to the Translation Center for training help is because school districts should be putting resources toward that work for all conversations that a parent or guardian has at their child’s school.

“Schools around the state and country do their very best to do that for families,” he said. “But just because it’s the right thing to do, there hasn’t been necessarily the resources allocated or the partners to do this work.”

Galasso said dedicating those resources is very important, because it is difficult for any school district to be welcoming to all families when information isn’t as readily available in their native language, or is poorly interpreted and translated.

“I do hope that this is the start of something bigger statewide and nationwide,” Galasso said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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