Indigenous Language Interpreters Unite to Fill Gaps

Oregon lawmakers set aside money to help Indigenous language interpreters get certified.

Oswaldo Martin, an Oakland resident and native of Todos Santos Cuchumatan, Guatemala, is a court interpreter for those who speak the Mayan Indigenous language Mum. (Getty Images)

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Bethany Fisher was raised in the Marshall Islands, the daughter of American missionaries who spoke English at home but who insisted that she and her siblings speak the Indigenous language of the island republic everywhere else.

The parental say-so proved smart when the family returned to the United States. With the fluency they gained as children, Fisher and her sister Anna followed their mother, Barb, into careers as interpreters serving Marshallese speakers who have migrated to America in recent decades. As many as half of the estimated 60,000 Marshallese speakers in the world live in the U.S., with large populations clustered in Arkansas, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington.

Although the Fishers have been able to build careers out of their specialized knowledge of an Indigenous language, many interpreters of such languages struggle to piece together good-paying work in the United States. That’s despite a desperate need for interpreters who speak what are often known as languages of lesser diffusion, especially those spoken in the United States by migrants from Mexico and Central and South America.

But some states are beginning to pay more attention to access to interpreters for such languages, including at least one — Oregon — that is creating a program to certify interpreters. Across the nation, interpreters with skills in such languages are organizing in collectives to fill gaps in coverage, particularly in federal immigration courts or detention centers and in health care settings.

Fisher works for about 17 different companies that provide interpretation services for health care systems, businesses, schools, courts and government agencies. Most of her work is over the telephone, from her home in South Carolina. Many days are unremarkable, with a focus on interpreting insurance or tax matters, Fisher said, but some days she goes “from zero to 60” with an emergency call.

“Birth calls are really fun because you’re just thrown into the room: ‘All right, she’s like 10 centimeters dilated and we’re going to tell her to push,’ and all this kind of stuff,” Fisher said. “And then you’re there for maybe an hour or two or even less. And then you hear the baby cry, and then everybody’s excited. So anytime that happens, I always get really emotional cause it’s like, ‘Oh, this is really exciting.’”

In Oregon, where an estimated 35,000 people speak an Indigenous language from Mexico, Central America or South America as their primary language, lawmakers set aside money in this year’s budget for a program that would make it easier for interpreters of Indigenous languages to get certified for their work.

The legislation, which awaits the governor’s signature, includes $2 million to support the creation of language proficiency evaluations. The program would allow Indigenous interpreters to obtain formal credentialing and recognition as qualified, fluent interpreters, said Cam Coval, the co-founder of Pueblo Unido. The Portland-based nonprofit helps people seeking legal immigration status access legal, social and Indigenous-language interpretation services. Unlike more widely spoken languages, many Indigenous languages do not have formal certifications in proficiency, a barrier to professional recognition.

Lawmakers have budgeted another $500,000 for interpretation services, money that would go toward a fund that not only pays living wages to the interpreters of such languages but also helps the people who speak those languages access legal and medical help. The money would be administered via existing organizations that work with people who speak Indigenous languages, including a state-funded program that helps asylum-seekers avoid deportation by pairing them with lawyers in federal immigration court.

Indigenous languages are spoken by about 20% of the people Pueblo Unido helps with legal matters, Coval said.

“It fits very clearly with the legal needs and health stability needs,” Coval said of interpretation services. “It’s also, of course, a fundamental human right and essential for social inclusion and regular participation and experiencing the benefits of living in this country.”

Puma Tzoc, whose first language is Kʼicheʼ, a Mayan language indigenous to Guatemala, coordinates interpreters for Pueblo Unido through the Collective of Indigenous Interpreters of Oregon. Its members are from Mexico and Central America and speak Spanish, K’iche’, Q’anjob’al, Akateko, Chuj, Mixteco Bajo, Purépecha, Q’eqchi’, Zapoteco, Ixil and Mam. They also work to establish standard pay rates and fair treatment of Indigenous interpreters.

Tzoc said he first witnessed the power of access to interpretation about a decade ago, when he was living in New York. There, he was asked by a friend to interpret for a man who had languished in jail for months because he was unable to communicate with authorities in his native language, Kʼicheʼ. Shortly after Tzoc’s intervention, the man was released.

“That was remarkable for me,” Tzoc said. “And that’s when I started being more involved and searched for more information about being an interpreter.”

In New York, Indigenous interpreters face many of the same issues around organization, credentialing and pay. They’ve begun work to form a collective, modeled on some of the West Coast initiatives, said Luis Gallegos, an administrator for the collective. They currently have about 25 interpreters representing nine Indigenous languages through Colibrí Interpreters Collective, which is under the umbrella of Red de Pueblos Trasnacionales,an organization that works to advance the social, economic and cultural inclusion of Indigenous migrants in New York City life.

The Colibrí Interpreters Collective in 2020 began working to make sure that speakers of Indigenous language had accurate information about the pandemic in their own languages.

Currently, the collective works with NYC Health, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs as well as health care systems, the federal court system and the New York City Department of Education. The collective hopes to expand its reach and the languages covered in the coming years, Gallegos said.

In California, among those leading the way is CIELO, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit with a network of 350 Indigenous language interpreters available in California and remotely. The Indigenous-led nonprofit conducts twice-monthly virtual sessions to train new interpreters, many of whom dial in from states with less organized interpretation services for Indigenous languages. In 2021, CIELO set up 4,000 interpretation assignments for Indigenous speakers in need. The nonprofit connects social service providers, state and federal courts as well as hospitals with Indigenous language interpreters.

A spokesperson for CIELO said they’re also constantly studying the social and political climate of Mexico and Central America to better understand the root causes of immigration and to prepare for the arrival of Indigenous-language speakers from specific communities.

The lack of interpreters for such languages has “grave consequences” at the border, according to a report by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C. Without adequate interpretation services, migrants who speak Indigenous languages may face increased challenges navigating the asylum system or exercising their rights. They are less likely to report abuse they may have experienced in detention, the report notes. It might also slow the immigration process and lead to “family separation, extended detention and even wrongful deportation.”

“There just aren’t enough Indigenous language interpreters in general in the U.S,” Zefitret Abera Molla, the author of the report, said in an interview.

That’s why organizations like Pueblo Unido, CIELO in California and the Colibrí Interpreters Collective in New York are pushing for alternative pathways that make it less burdensome for Indigenous interpreters to prove their proficiency, Tzoc said.

“Our Indigenous interpreters will be able to get into those entities that require those certificates or proof. So I think it’s a win for us, for the Indigenous interpreters and for the community we serve,” he said.

Fisher, who this fall will begin pursuing a master‘s degree in translation and interpreting at New York University, describes interpreting as being a conduit of communication — and an art. When she’s interpreting Marshallese, she speaks in the first person as though she is that person, including conveying their anger or irritation or even profanity.

“I kind of feel like I’m putting on different costumes or different hats,” Fisher said. “You are basically speaking as that person.”

Tzoc, whose second language is Spanish, often uses relay interpretation when he’s interpreting for Kʼicheʼ speakers in court settings. He will listen to the Spanish interpretation of English proceedings, and then interpret the Spanish to Kʼicheʼ.

Then, he’ll interpret the Kʼicheʼ speaker’s response in Spanish to the original interpreter, who will render it from Spanish to English for the proceedings. Tzoc said that hearing the words in English and Spanish first before interpreting it for the Kʼicheʼ speaker helps him convey the meaning of English phrases and words that have no direct equivalent in Kʼicheʼ.

It can get a little complicated in his brain, Tzoc admits: “It’s a machine in my head.”

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Scott Greenberger for questions: info@stateline.org. Follow Stateline on Facebook and Twitter.

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