Caracol Interpreters Collective: Bridging Language Barriers

Caracol Interpreters Collective: Bridging Language Barriers

via WNYC

The Idea

“Language justice puts all people in the position where they can fully participate and bring their whole selves.” — Patri González Ramírez, Caracol Interpreters Cooperative

Ramírez: Caracol Interpreters Cooperative is a small, worker-owned business that is lead and run primarily by immigrant women. We offer high quality language services in English and Spanish. These include interpretation, translation, interpreter trainings and consulting for organizations that want to build their multilingual capacity.

Some of the topics of the meetings that we work are housing, education, workers’ rights, financial literacy, and community organizing meetings.

The issue with language services or language access is that it is formulated from a position of power, right? So you have the city for example implementing guidelines and policy around language access, but they come from top down. Or you have people talking about why language access is important. Well access is accessible to you, but that doesn’t allow you to be empowered necessarily, it doesn’t put you on equal playing field. So the way that we practice this work is around justice.

Being a bilingual person, I have experienced through my life that role [of being an interpreter] informally, and I was involved in activism and movement work. I started volunteering and I noticed slowly that I started incorporating principles of language justice in other work that I did. I never thought initially that I would end up doing it as what I do every day.

When you’re talking about issues of criminalization, housing, access to healthcare, there is a huge racial and ethnic disparity. A lot of that also has to do with language based on who are immigrants in this country, [who] belong to marginalized communities, and [who] have intersections of identities that further push them to the sides.

The work that I was doing and how I was involved made me realize that there was race and ethnic disparities but there was also a whole other level with the language piece.

Making It Happen

“Everyone must be in the process of participating in establishing the multilingual space.” — Patri González Ramírez

Ramírez: A lot of what we do has to do with making sure that everything that will be printed and handed out is in both languages that the meeting [is] held in. Then it will be to make sure that the setup is also conducive to allowing for anything that happens in the space to also be done in both languages. So if people are going to be writing down ideas as a brainstorm on a board, to make sure that board has space to write both in Spanish and English. If there’s a PowerPoint, to make sure that PowerPoint is in both languages. And also if there are any other audiovisual materials, those materials are assessed for translations, or given to the interpreters beforehand, so they can study and make sure that they’re prepared to interpret simultaneously for them.

Wearing a Headset

Ramírez: We start giving out equipment as people start arriving. We don’t ask folks “Oh, you only speak Spanish?” or “You only speak English?” because we we don’t want to single out people. We let people self-assess, but we explain, if they’re not sure, “Well how is your English? Do you think you can understand the full meeting? Would you like to take it just in case?”

We want to make sure that we educate people to know that they shouldn’t miss out on information or what is going on in the meeting because they feel shame.

Something that I do as an interpreter, sometimes to make people more comfortable is I wear the set, so people also know that I also might want to hear my partner, or I also want to hear the interpretation.

Using Hand Signals

Ramírez: We work with some hand signals. And those hand signals help the interpreters and the room be able to stay on track in terms of understanding each other. Some of the hand signals that we use, one of them is for folks to slow down a little bit and keep a pace. People should be speaking at a pace that is not too fast. Another hand signal that we use is to show that they need to speak up.

The other rule that’s very important is one mic. So only one person can speak at a time, not only because it’s a general ground rule, but also because an interpreter can’t interpret two people at the same time. We have a hand signal where we ask folks to repeat something. It usually just means “Repeat the last bit,” that we didn’t catch it. We try not to, but sometimes it does happen. Our [interpreters] are from a good chunk of countries and backgrounds in New York, [and] different parts of the United States. Between all of us we have a big pool of words and terms and different slang that we can negotiate.

Lessons Learned

“When you get past the language part, that’s when you actually start building.” — Patri González Ramírez

Adapt To Your Audience

Ramírez: We have to adapt to the audience. Some things will look different, some things are just general. We need to make sure that we’re using the words that make sense with the context and are most appropriate for the theme or the subject.

Caracol is the only language justice co-op in the city right now. There are networks of folks that are also community interpreters for Arabic, South Asian languages, Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese.

Caracol only does Spanish and English, but because of our work and broader movements, we are connected to interpreters and organizations that also interpret into other languages. Some of them are Nepali, Tagalog, Urdu, Portuguese, Haitian, Creole. They are not part of our co-op but we know how to find them, and if we are working an event or a gathering that incorporates those languages, we collaborate with them.

Best Practices

Ramírez: We try to stay on top of terms and make sure that we’re always open to and not being resistant about language because language is fluid. We also want to say things properly, but we also have to be open, especially right now in this country, how language is mixed and in flux.

You have to say it all, even if you don’t agree and even if it’s something that hurts you to say as an interpreter. [You have to have] good buddies and other good interpreters that you can [talk to] and sometimes do a little bit of the healing work because this work can also take a toll on you in terms of the kind of stuff and conflict that you are interpreting.

I think we’re in a place where we can’t have separate people in separate rooms anymore. We need to make an effort to have folks that usually wouldn’t be in that room together to actually be in that room and when you get past the language part that’s when you actually start building. The discomfort, the misunderstanding, once you get folks in that room and you don’t have to worry about the language piece, about them understanding each other, then you start doing the work, and that is where the actual possibility of deep transformation, I think, can happen in a way that the current political climate needs.


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