AMHERST, Mass. – The Translation Center at UMass Amherst has launched its second workshop series in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). During this seven-week, remote series, over 60 public school employees from across the commonwealth participate in training related to translating school documents and communications and providing interpretation services.
In May 2020, DESE began its partnership with the Translation Center to fund interpreting and translation services to school districts in Massachusetts. The center’s first DESE-sponsored workshop series took place in the fall and also had more than 60 participants.
Participating school employees range from administrators in leadership roles to teachers to administrative assistants. A valuable form of professional development, participants who successfully complete the workshop series receive a certificate and are better equipped to provide important services to non-English speaking parents and caregivers in their districts.
A failure to communicate effectively with non-English speaking parents and caregivers is a violation of their civil rights. It is considered discrimination based on national origin, which is prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Without translation and interpretation services, non-English-speaking parents and caregivers are considered to be blocked from equal access to school information and resources.
“Translation should not be an afterthought. Schools need to think bilingually and multilingually from the start,” says Regina Galasso, associate professor in the UMass Amherst languages, literatures, and cultures department and director of the Translation Center. According to Galasso, failure to provide these services effectively can also lead to distrust between families and schools. She tells a story from a local teacher who wrote a note to the Spanish-speaking mother of a student and translated it using Google. On her way to deliver it, the teacher ran into a Spanish-speaking colleague and asked them to review the note. That chance encounter prevented a potentially devastating incident. “The note said, ‘Tu hijo ha fallecido,’ which means, ‘Your son has died,’” recalls Galasso. “She wanted to say ‘failed’ but Google translated ‘failed’ as ‘fallecido.’ So even with just a simple sentence—no adjectives, no poetic language—Google can get it wrong.”
Translation and interpretation are highly specialized skillsets. Other fields that regularly provide these types of services, like medicine or law, require translators and interpreters to undergo standardized training, receive certification, and follow best practices and guidelines.
In contrast, there is no formalized approach to how translation and interpretation services are provided in schools. “Many times, schools, with the best intentions, hire bilinguals to provide translation and interpreting services to the families that need them without confirming that these individuals have had any training or professional experience as translators or interpreters,” explains Galasso. Therefore, services can vary widely from state to state and even district to district. “Schools are aware that they need to do better with their translation and interpreting services, they’ve been aware of it for a while,” says Galasso, “but the pandemic has really exposed the language access divide.” Many school districts conducting remote or hybrid learning rely heavily on written communications in order to relay information to parents and caregivers. Each of these communications must be translated, and the translations should be high-quality and receive just as much care as their English versions.
The current workshop series, conducted remotely via Zoom, was adapted from the Translation Center’s in-person workshops, which began in Holyoke in 2018. “One of the benefits of now having the remote option is that we are able to reach the schools in eastern Massachusetts, and participants can learn the material when it’s convenient for them and join the synchronous workshops from their homes or workplaces without fussing over the commute time,” explains Galasso, who is optimistic about continuing the remote model forward and expanding the Translation Center’s reach, even after a return to in-person learning is deemed safe.
So far through the DESE-sponsored series, the Translation Center has served about thirty districts and charter schools, including Amherst, Brockton, Chelsea, Chicopee, Clinton, Everett, Fall River, Fitchburg, Framingham, Gardner, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford, Northampton, Revere, Southbridge, Salem, and Worcester; and Abby Kelley Foster Charter Public School in Worcester, Argosy Collegiate Charter in Fall River, Boston Collegiate Charter School, Global Learning Charter Public School in New Bedford, Lowell Community Charter Public School, Neighborhood House Charter School in Boston, Pioneer Valley Performing Arts School in South Hadley, and the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership. They have covered 11 languages: Arabic, Cape Verdean, Chinese, Spanish (all variants), French, Haitian Creole, Khmer, Korean, Portuguese, Swahili, Turkish, and Vietnamese.