Monday, July 18, 2011

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Increasing need in G.I. for translators in languages other than Spanish

By Kay Kemmet
Published: Saturday, July 16, 2011 10:52 PM CDT
When Estella Abuelsheikh moved to the United States from Sudan nine years ago, she was lost in the world of English.

Now Abuelsheikh is one of Grand Island's few translators for Arabic and Nuba Moro, a Sudanese tribal language.

While many Grand Island businesses display "Se habla espanol," speakers of Somali, Nuer, Burmese, Vietnamese and Arabic may not find the same accommodations. With the arrival of the Karen from Burma, there is another language to accommodate.

"There is a need," said Carlos Barcenas, executive director of the Multicultural Coalition of Grand Island. "We are a diverse population."

From the courts to schools to area businesses, Grand Island is becoming a multilingual town. While the demand for other language translators and interpreters is still small, locals are accommodating growing immigrant communities and working with available resources.

Students in the Grand Island Public Schools speak 32 different languages, including a wealth of African, Asian and some European languages.

While many staff members in the English language acquisition program speak Spanish and help with communication, Kris Burling, the program's director, said they use community members to help others.

"We do not have anyone on staff ... that speaks other languages," Burling said. Because Spanish is the most common language other than English spoken in Grand Island, there hasn't been enough demand to necessitate staff members for other languages.

Burling said many children have some understanding of English and are tested before entering the public schools. But communicating with non-English-speaking parents becomes the challenge.

"We want the parents to feel comfortable with their children entering the Grand Island Public Schools," Burling said. "That's our biggest obstacle: communicating with parents."

They also offer free English classes for Spanish-speaking parents at the public schools' Welcome Center next to the Central District Health Department. Burling said they would love to add more English classes for other language speakers, but there isn't as much demand as there is for courses for Spanish speakers.

"We would love to expand that once we see more languages come into town," Burling said. "That's our goal ... so they can live and be able to communicate in the community."

The Literacy Council of Grand Island, however, works with speakers of all languages to learn English.

When non-English speakers need translators, they sometimes turn to the Multicultural Coalition. Barcenas said the coalition relies on volunteers, making finding translators and interpreters difficult. Once they find a reliable interpreter, he said, they risk burning that person out with too many jobs.

Abuelsheikh works with Hall Country Judge Philip Martin as a court translator and with local clinics, such as the Orthopaedic and Arthritis Surgery Center.

"For newcomers to the United States, they don't learn English right away," Abuelsheikh said.

"(Interpreters) make sure everybody knows what to do in their appointment and knows what's going on."

She remembers what it was like not to understand and not to be understood. With her translating, she said, she hopes to assist her community and fellow immigrants.

"It's good to help someone who needed help," Abuelsheikh said.

At the Hall County Courthouse, Spanish interpreters are needed every day, Martin said, and interpreters for another language are needed a few times a week. The courts employ certified Spanish translators.

But certified translators in the less common languages in Grand Island are more difficult to come by. Abuelsheikh said she hasn't become certified yet because she's still learning English, but she's looking forward to taking a course in medical interpreting and getting her court interpreter certification in the future.

For initial hearings, the court can use Language Lines, a telephone translating service.

Martin said sometimes for basic communication, the court will take what it can get, which means a family member or friend can convey basic details.

"It's kind of been our job to do the best we can," Martin said.

But for trials, an informal translator won't do. There must be a trusted translator who is paid by the state. Martin said most of these translators drive from Lincoln or Omaha to assist the court, but that gets costly.

The court also has some translators who are trusted but not necessarily certified. Abuelsheikh mainly translates Arabic for the court. Many of Grand Island's Somali refugees speak Arabic, and for some, that's their only language. She said they call her once or twice a month, if at all.

Translators aren't just needed for the defendants and plaintiffs. Sometimes a witness or a family member also needs an interpreter. Martin said it's the court's responsibility to provide translators.

"It's always the court's obligation," he said.

The need for translators also causes scheduling problems. Martin said the interpreters are human and sometimes don't show up for the trials or have scheduling conflicts. Trials need to be rescheduled in those cases.

At other times, the translators get tied up in another trial. He said if an interpreter is in a district court trial that runs over, he or she might miss a trial in the county court, so that trial will get pushed back.

St. Francis Medical Center runs into similar problems, but it also relies on Language Lines. Cathy Brockmeier, director of marketing communications, said everyone on staff is trained to use the service. For Spanish speakers, there are staff interpreters, but for other languages, it's mostly done over the phone.

While many tellers speak Spanish at Grand Island's Five Points Bank, the bank doesn't employ other language translators or use an over-the-phone translating service. Many other local banks also have Spanish-speaking tellers.

For other language speakers, the situation can create frustration for the client, said Mirta Delgado, a Spanish-speaking assistant vice president at Five Points' Eddy Street location.

"We all probably wish we could have other languages around us," Delgado said. "If we can't help them, I normally transfer them and give them other names based on their needs."

But for Spanish speakers, Delgado becomes more than a banker. She said she also helps translate personal papers for clients who trust her.

As Grand Island becomes an increasingly diverse community, the need could increase. But right now, the courts, hospital, schools and local businesses are making do with the resources available.

"You try to communicate as clearly as you can," said Barcenas, who refers non-English speakers to services and translators who can help.

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