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HomeFeaturesBuilding Interpreter and Translator Networks

Building Interpreter and Translator Networks

Debbie Zacarian and Jennifer Love lay out the basis for transforming schools to welcome and include Multilingual Learners and their guardians


During the past decade, interpreter and translator services have soared across public and public charter schools in the US.

A primary reason for this dramatic increase is the “Dear Colleague” letter written by the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division (January 2015a). A first of its kind, the letter was sent to every school, district, and state education agency across the nation.

It reinforced the laws and regulations about providing all parents and guardians, regardless of the languages they speak and understand, with equal and meaningful access to the same school-related information as all parents receive. In addition, it was written to remind educators that we must provide parents and guardians of multilingual learners with meaningful access to information to make informed decisions about their child’s language-assistance education programming. What was the impetus for this letter? The two US departments found that many districts were not following the laws and regulations and wrote this letter to remind us of our legal obligations.

Despite our awareness of the laws and the importance of family–school partnerships in supporting students’ success in school and their lives, many of us are challenged to secure and sustain the type of interpretation and translation services that are needed to follow our legal obligations and form essential relationships with families.

What are the challenges?

  • Securing translators and interpreters.
    All too often, we feel reliant on students, their siblings, extra-familial members, or bilingual staff to provide these services. According to the US Department of Justice and the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (January 2015b), doing so violates parents’ rights, as “we must provide translation or interpretation from appropriate and competent individuals.”
  • Communicating with interpreters or translators, as opposed to parents and guardians, further distancing them from being informed, meaningful partners (Klingner and Harry, 2006).
  • Engaging in a one-sided flow of school-related information instead of meaningful back-and-forth dialogue with parents and guardians.
  • Ensuring accurate, meaningful, and “neutral” translations and interpretations.
  • Allotting the time and resources needed for translators and interpreters to engage in the work successfully.

It is with urgency that we must professionalize the roles of interpreters and translators, create a culture of compassion, and support meaningful interpretation to:

  • build family–school partnerships grounded in caring, empathy, and compassion (instead of checking the box that we are complying with the laws).
  • support parents’/guardians’ understanding of their children’s schools (including their policies, procedures, and language-assistance programming) and being active, empowered, and engaged in their children’s education.
  • support school communities in understanding and building partnerships with parents/guardians.

We explore the following topics:

  • Defining what we mean by interpretation and translation: What are the differences?
  • How can we secure and retain interpreters and translators?
  • What steps are needed to support meaningful access to school-based information and meaningful decision-making? What does that look like?
  • What role does professional development have in supporting interpreters, translators, and school staff in working closely and in partnership with parents/guardians?
  • What can we do to strengthen family–school partnerships with a professional cadre of interpreters and translators?
  • Defining what we mean by interpretation and translation: What are the differences?

The term translator is often used to reference both interpreters and translators, even though the roles are not the same or interchangeable. They are two distinct professions—each performs essential roles in ensuring that parents have equal access to information and can make meaningful decisions regarding their children’s education and educational programming. However, the two roles require different sets of skills and expertise.

What is an interpreter?

An interpreter is an individual who can accurately say or sign what needs to be conveyed or understood in another language. Generally, but not always, interpreters work on the spot as communication is occurring to support a meaningful flow of conversation between two or more people who are speaking in different languages. Interpreters must have the requisite knowledge and skill in the languages being spoken to negotiate meaning and support understanding of the culture and context in which the languages are being spoken. Additionally, they must demonstrate strong proficiency and fluidity in communicating back-to-front and front-to-back in both languages.

What is a translator?

A translator writes what is needed to convey information in a printed format. A school translator must be proficient and fluent in English and the home language(s) of parents/guardians to provide meaningful and comprehensible information. Translators must also have a depth of knowledge in a family’s home language, culture, and school practices as well as in American English and culture and school practices. They generally work in a written modality on a computer. As such, they need time to complete a quality finished product and ideally have access to a computer-assisted translation (CAT) tool/software (not machine software such as Google Translate) to leverage terminology and facilitate consistency. The expected outcome is to provide an accurately translated document that expresses the same message and context as the source text.

How can we secure and retain interpreters and translators?

There are various sources for securing interpreters and translators including school, district, local, and higher education communities. Each school and district should look closely at its unique community to determine the most effective way to secure interpreters and translators. For example, an influx of refugees in a local community led to a school district reaching out to the church groups that sponsored families in their community. They knew that the church group had “insider knowledge” of various members of the community who could provide the type of multilingual, multicultural assistance that was needed to support families in enrolling their children in school and, more importantly, become involved as partners in their children’s education. Tapping into these resources involves engaging in various modalities including personal contact; a school newsletter; a local newspaper; social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp; and reaching out to local agencies, organizations, and institutions of higher education including community colleges, four-year institutions, and professional organizations.

Interpreters and translators should have the opportunity to fully embrace their roles and be supported in their practice. Comprehensive language assessments are integral to ensuring depth and adeptness in linguistic flexibility and cultural understanding. It’s helpful to:

  • Work with partner institutions/organizations who support the evaluation of the linguistic proficiency of interpreter and translator candidates.
  • Develop an interview protocol to ask standardized questions relevant to the interpreter and/or translator role to ensure candidates demonstrate the peripheral skills (e.g., the ability to communicate as a neutral party, to make sound judgments around communicative flow, etc.) necessary to provide efficient and professional services in educational settings.

In hiring translators, the most successful candidates in the role will have strong linguistic ability between languages and be resources and team players able to identify the most effective style and terminology for the target audience of linguistically diverse families.

Translators and interpreters must know that they are supported, that they have opportunities for continuous growth and improvement, and that their value is reaffirmed as central parts of the district’s equity model and engagement goals. This involves the development of a professional language-access community that is steeped in investment in these essential staff. Indeed, this type of commitment and dedication to their work is central to retention. Competitive compensation is also an important consideration, and strategic partnerships and supplemental funding are paramount.

What steps are needed to support meaningful access to school-based information and meaningful decision-making? What does that look like?

New interpreter and/or translator onboarding is needed to ensure that the work that these professionals have been employed to do can be done effectively, with fidelity to the educational process and environment and to bridging partnerships with families. For example, interpreters should be provided with training in the standards of practice (including confidentiality and impartiality) that are integral to their role, and translators should receive onboarding regarding the content and context of school and district communication. Some districts have found it helpful to create handbooks and guides for these two professional roles.

What role does professional development have in supporting interpreters, translators, and school staff in working closely and in partnership with parents/guardians?

Professional development should exist as an evolving model for interpreters and translators. These should be filled with contextual learning and specific skill-based opportunities for growth. An example is a district that meets with interpreters and translators on a monthly basis to support the work and provide rich opportunities for new and veteran professionals to honor and affirm strengths and address challenges as a school year unfolds. At a minimum, professional growth opportunities should occur at least two to three times during the academic year or over the summer months and be facilitated by field experts or staff interpreters and translators who possess deep knowledge and awareness about the work. The goal of professional development should be to support interpreters and translators in broadening and sharing their knowledge and experience and reaffirming their investment in and commitment to this professional work. Sessions should focus on a wide variety of pertinent topics. Indeed, the possibilities are infinite and should include such areas as professional development related to informing parents about the special education process and relevant documents, trauma-informed language access, strategies for simultaneous interpreting, sight translation, interpreting in a virtual environment, federal and state language-access regulations, evolving grammar and style, and understanding parental rights.

What can we do to strengthen family and school partnerships with a professional cadre of interpreters and translators?

Schools and districts share a commitment and responsibility to create welcoming environments for newcomer families and all multilingual families to be our partners in their children’s learning.

Whether a family has recently arrived from Sudan or traversed several hundred miles to the southern border, welcoming language is a meaningful and authentic connector to create partnerships with them. We can strengthen partnerships by intentionally cultivating spaces to acclimate families to the system of education in the US and empowering them to navigate the educational journey in partnership with their children and schools.

Interpreters and translators are fundamental to creating a welcoming environment for families, providing professional and accessible services so that language is never an obstacle. Interpreters and translators are critical to providing equitable access across a wide variety of communiqué, including but not limited to registration platforms, parent–teacher conferences, school messaging services, district calendars, report cards, and extracurricular activities.

In short, all aspects of communication with parents and guardians should include interpreters and translators, as needed, so that every parent/guardian has equitable language access to the full spectrum of their child’s education.

We can support families in navigating the educational journey of their children when we build a strong cadre of interpreter and translator networks.

References

Klingner, J. K., and Harry, B. (2006). “The Special Education Referral and Decision-Making Process for English Language Learners: Child study team meetings and staffings.” Teachers College Record 108, 2247–2281.

US Department of Justice and US Department of Education (2015a). “Dear Colleague.” www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-el-201501.pdf

US Department of Justice and US Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (2015b). “English LEP Parent Fact Sheet.” www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/dcl-factsheet-lep-parents-201501.pdf

Zacarian, D. (2023). Transforming Schools for Multilingual Learners: A Comprehensive Framework for Educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Dr. Debbie Zacarian, founder of Zacarian and Associates, brings three decades of combined experience as a university faculty member, educational service agency leader, and district administrator. With scholarship in responsive leadership, instructional practices, family–school partnerships, and policy analyses to benefit student outcomes, she’s written many books and school policies and presents extensively.

Dr. Jennifer Love, author, district leader, and consultant, is an expert in language access and engagement recognized by the National Education Association.

As past president of the Maryland ELL Family Involvement Network and having served on the Board of the American Association of Interpreters and Translators in Education, she is committed to professionalizing the field.

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