The Trump (non) effect

There’s nothing to see here, people. Move along.

When it comes to how US President Donald Trump’s ever-shifting immigration policies affect the translation industry, this seems to be the company line.

On January 27, President Trump signed an executive order putting a 90-day hold on visas for people from seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

At first glance, it’s easy to see why this would affect translation. The Trump administration says the President selected these countries because they pose the greatest security threat to the United States. In one fell swoop, his executive order promised to keep out the “terrorists.” The thing is, it could also keep out everyone who understands what potential terrorists might be saying. The languages spoken in these countries — Mai-Mai, Somali, Sudanese Arabic and so forth — aren’t frequently taught in American schools.

Even more pointedly, people from those countries en route to the United States while the order was being signed were detained after landing. One was a US Army interpreter.

Ask industry leaders, though, how Trump’s immigration policies impact the world of translation, and there is nothing to see here, people. Move along.

National Association of Judiciary Interpreters & Translators (NAJIT) members did step up the day the order went through, providing free services to the American Civil Liberties Union attorneys representing detainees. At the request of Red T, a nonprofit that works to protect interpreters in high-risk areas, on January 31 the organization cosigned an open letter to the President: “As representatives of the national and international community of translators and interpreters, we are greatly alarmed at the implications of your Executive Order on immigration for our colleagues who work in conflict zones.”

In the interim — on January 28, 19 hours after being first detained — Iraqi Arabic interpreter Hameed Khalid Darweesh was released. He had interpreted for the 101st Airborne for ten years. Since then, it’s all quiet on the industry front.

From Rob Cruz, NAJIT’s executive director: “At the present time, there is a great deal of concern about possible impacts of some of the new administration’s policy on immigrant groups but how that would affect interpreters is a speculative matter and the NAJIT board does not have a comment on that speculation. There seems to be a great many ‘what-if’ scenarios.”

From David Rumsey, president of the American Translators Association (ATA), who also cosigned Red T’s letter: “ATA is also interested to see how the new administration’s position on travel and immigration will affect the work of translators and interpreters. Early indicators are pointing to significant interest in the ATA conference, which is being held in Washington, DC, Oct 25-28 2017, where some of these issues may be discussed.”

President of the Association of Language Companies (ALC) Doug Strock said that the ALC did not have a statement. Laura Brandon, executive director of the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA), which as an international organization does not sign single country letters, similarly noted, “We do not have a position statement about Trump’s immigration policy.”

Nothing to see here, people. Move along.

Trick is, even though Americans use that expression sarcastically — mocking how police back crowds away from a crime scene — Trump’s new immigration policies (many of which, including the January 27th order, have been struck down by state courts) may very well not affect our industry at all. Neither Cruz, Strock nor Brandon knew of any direct impact on members, good or bad. If companies have experienced difficulty finding resources or an uptick in requests, they aren’t talking about it. Gio Lester, chair of NAJIT public relations (PR) committee and a legal interpreter, does say that “cases are moving faster,” but since interpreters are paid by the hour, faster cases don’t equal more business — just a busier day. And even Lester admits the heavier workload is nothing she’s experienced personally, just industry hearsay.

Hearsay does seem to be the bulk of it, as client-side there’s no change either. After reaching out to multiple firms and issuing a call for information on Help a Reporter Out — a commonly-used US listserv connecting reporters and sources — I found one law firm whose PR department indicated the policy had impacted its interpreting purchases: Gardere in Houston, Texas. But once PR connected me to the actual attorney there who works with interpreters, Anacarolina Estaba Bendfeldt, she explained there was no problem at all: “I work with local translators, not affected by the order.” (Bendfeldt means “interpreters,” but that’s another article.)

The best practice of keeping language local may be the industry’s saving grace. On the translation front, Stephanie Harris from localization provider Venga Global says, “As we use in-country linguists for our translations, we do not have to worry so much about the travel ban.” In this, it doesn’t really matter whether someone can enter the United States. Great translation requires them to be where the translation is going.

For an American market, though, great interpreting does require someone physically present. Why, the very nature of in-person interpretation means the interpreter is there. And as for over-the-phone interpreting, US-based interpreters and operators are the first step in dividing good providers from the bad. But because the languages spoken in the order’s listed countries are commonly requested for community interpreting, the battle to find trained, competent resources is nothing new. Presidents come and go, but the quest to find a reliable Somali interpreter is eternal.

“Is it going to make that situation that’s already pretty challenging worse?” asks Bill Rivers, executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL) and of the National Council for Language and International Studies (NCLIS). “We’ll see.”

Certainly it could, but it also could not, which is why Rivers says, “Don’t panic…The fundamentals of globalization, that’s not changing.” He then points out that Trump’s campaign promise to break the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) didn’t cause the decline in Chinese translation purchasing that many companies feared. Nor, he continues, did recent threats to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) disrupt French or Spanish buying. “Keep calm,” he cautions, “but be ready to react.”

Perhaps that’s why a select number of American schools have finally started to teach the languages of limited diffusion spoken in so-called “terrorist” countries: because linguistically, the United States is anything but ready. As of this writing, the American Council for International Education is putting the finishing touches on its census of foreign language instruction in US high schools. “We’re seeing some growth in Arabic in high schools,” Rivers shares, “There are places that are teaching Somali as a language. I believe they’re starting a program in Portland, Oregon. This is driven by community interest…and by school leaderships, school boards recognizing that language is a powerful tool.”

But because of the slowness of academia, any language education measures discussed in this report would have been put into place and executed long before the executive order. So even the positive uptick of possibly teaching more languages in school can’t be traced to the order.

So really and truly, people, nothing to see here. Move along.