Child Interpreters: A True Story


Interpreting is one of the most noble careers. It bridges two worlds, allowing people to share their stories, dreams, aches, and hopes.

Interpreters make it possible for people to connect with one another on a deeper level, being the unsung heroes of communication. These professionals usually undergo an arduous preparation to assist their different clients. So, what happens when this noble job is not accessible to everyone who needs it? The closest substitute in many situations is the immigrants’ children. 

As a Latin American woman, I have embedded in my DNA the profound need to be loyal to my family and to provide whatever assistance they may require. My family immigrated to the United States when I was 9 years old because I had an illness for which some treatments were not available back home. The unknown adventure began for me, and so did the responsibility to fill the language gap between the English-speaking world and my Spanish-speaking parents. As a minor, I was the designated interpreter.

The interpretation usually involved easy interactions with others, such as conversations with friends or acquaintances. However, I also had the responsibility of filling out important documentation, paying the bills, and going to the doctor’s with any of the family members who were feeling ill while undergoing chemotherapy treatment. I was usually praised for being a “mature and helpful” child. However, people did not realize how stressful this was for me. I was, by then, an 11-year-old kid, and I was constantly struggling due to uncertainty about my ability to deliver messages accurately in both languages. I had to grow up quickly to be able to understand adult life without getting the chance to process the difficult information I was being asked to interpret. 

I remember two specific instances my parents and I had to go through that still haunt me today. When it comes to having a sick child, parents tend to want to shelter the child from some of the hard truths. In our case, my parents were not allowed to do that. At some point during my treatment, the chemotherapy was not working well enough, and I had to undergo serious surgery. The hospital at the time did not offer interpreting services to us because they thought I could handle the interpreting portion. That day, I had to inform my parents that there was a high chance of me not surviving this procedure as the survival rate in my condition was very low. My parents did not get the space they needed to grieve, considering what they were about to experience with their child. They also avoided asking scary questions they probably needed answers to as a way of protecting me. I remember that my biggest fear was that if I did die during the procedure, my parents would be isolated from the outside world because there was no one else to interpret for them.

Another instance I can remember was when my parents worked at a company that decided to lay them off amongst many other Spanish-speaking employees. My mom came to pick me up from school in the middle of the day because she was unsure what was happening. That day, I had to inform my parents and 15 other Spanish-speaking employees that they were being laid off from the job that provided a roof over their heads and food on their table. At that moment, I learned what the words “laid off” and “fired” meant. I had to witness my parents’ devastation together with fifteen other individuals. It was a very distressing moment in my life because I delivered the news to them, and I was also the one comforting them. 

As I reflect back on my experience as a child interpreter, I feel that I missed out on my childhood because I had to carry this burden with me. I could not be the patient I needed to be and receive the services I was entitled to. I was not able to be the daughter I wanted to be to my immigrant parents in the US. As an adult, I now understand the importance of interpreters. It breaks my heart to see immigrants going through experiences similar to mine and my family’s only because they do not speak and understand English. My heart also goes out to those immigrant children who, just like me, must give up being children to become their parents’ language access providers as they navigate this new world. 

Working with language access makes me realize how important interpreters, translators, and other language professionals are to limited-English-proficient (LEP) individuals in the US. Many professionals choose a career path in language access as adults. The unfortunate setup we can find across the US is children who are thrown into this role without choosing to do so and, of course, without knowing how to do it. We need to raise awareness in the US to stop the exploitation of children as interpreters.

These stories are just a few examples of what children of LEP parents have been enduring regularly for decades. However, we also must remember that there is a reason interpreting is a skilled, knowledge-based profession. It takes far more than language skills, which most of the kids are still developing in the first place. 

The following section is a legal analysis of this situation: Children serving as interpreters raise many troubling, problematic concerns — legal, ethical, and moral. The bottom line is that except for a life-threatening emergency, children shall not serve as interpreters for anyone, including their LEP parents or guardians. 

This has been federal law for decades. Indeed, the law is unequivocal and clear. For example, a document from the US Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Education entitled Information for Limited English Proficient (LEP) Parents and Guardians and for Schools and School Districts that Communicate with Them plainly answers the salient question of using child interpreters: 

“May my child’s school ask my child, other students, or untrained school staff, to translate or interpret for me? 

No. Schools must provide translation or interpretation from appropriate and competent individuals and may not rely on or ask students, siblings, friends, or untrained school staff to translate or interpret for parents.”

DOJ’s 2014 Americans with Disabilities Act Effective Communication Guidance addresses the emergency exception and states: 

“[In] an emergency involving an im­minent threat to the safety or welfare of an individual or the public, [a]… minor child accompanying a person who uses sign language may be relied upon to interpret or facilitate commu­nication only when a qualified inter­preter is not available.”

Besides the clear legalities, there are many compelling reasons for not using children as interpreters. These include not exposing children to trauma and stressful situations, not having them hear personal, confidential medical information about the people for whom they are interpreting, lack of accuracy because of their young ages, and, according to US Department of Justice: 

“… [children] … are not competent to provide quality and accurate interpretations. Issues of confidentiality, privacy, or conflict of interest may also arise. LEP individuals may feel uncomfortable revealing or describing sensitive, confidential, or potentially embarrassing medical, law enforcement (e.g., sexual, or violent assaults), family, or financial information to a family member.”

Simply put, children must not be used to provide language assistance to LEP people with only one exception — a life-threatening emergency that requires language interpretation. Language assistance is reserved for qualified, fluent, and trained adult interpreters provided by hospitals, courts, police departments, airports, and all state and local governments that receive federal funding, as the vast majority do so receive. A recent documentary, Translators, featured three middle- and high-school-aged children interpreting between their family members and hospital, school, and DMV staff. None of these subjects are trivial matters: One of the children is interpreting her little sister’s medical needs, including prepping for a life-saving surgery. The saddest and, at the same time, the most maddening part of the story is that not even one adult in the film raises the question of why these children are put in this position when we have laws guiding language access. Ask yourself: Would it be possible for a child to replace an adult if we were talking about another profession, a driver, a nurse, or a teacher?

-Jinny Bromberg, Bruce Adelson, and Onelia Navarro contributed to this article.

JINNY BROMBERG

Founder and president of Bromberg & Associates and the executive director of Linguist Education Online, Jinny is a lifelong advocate of meaningful language access. She dedicated her life and focused her companies’ efforts on breaking down language barriers. Jinny serves as Association of Language Companies board director, where she also chairs the Language Access subcommittee and is on the Advocacy committee.

BRUCE ADELSON

Bromberg´s compliance expert, Bruce is a former US Department of Justice senior attorney and is nationally recognized for his federal compliance expertise concerning Language Access Plan research and development.

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Onelia Navarro
Bromberg´s Talent Acquisition Specialist with a background in Industrial and Clinical Psychology. Onelia is passionate about working with people from different cultures and eliminating language barriers.

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