Growing numbers of immigrants to the US from Mexico and points south don’t do well with Spanish translation because they don’t speak Spanish. These are the speakers of American Indian languages. Mostly from the southern part of Mexico, these speakers of Mixteca, Zapotec, Quiche and other American Indian languages have journeyed to El Norte for the same opportunities as their Spanish-speaking countrymen, but are isolated by an inability to speak the common languages of the continent. .
Providing translators and interpreters for these indigenous groups has been a challenge for language service providers. Dialects vary widely and the number of speakers in each language group is slim. Finding speakers of these languages fluent in English is always a challenge and providing them with steady work even more so.
Three years ago, a Mixteco speaker at Natividad Medical Center in Salinas, California needed a cesarean section stat, but refused because she didn’t understand what was going on. Dr. Peter Chandler, OBGYN and Chief of Staff at Natividad told the story to NPR. “So they ended up having to get other consultation from people in their community. And that took time. Luckily everything turned out okay, but it is very intimidating.”
To address these problems, Natividad assembled and trained a group of linguists to work in these less-commonly translated languages and establish a center for best practice where none had existed before. Professional linguistic training only occurs in those commercial languages able to generate enough profit in a transaction to justify the cost. So interpreters in non-commercial languages are ad hoc. Even community members working as cultural brokers are usually without professional linguistic training which practically guarantees bad interpreting.
So to build a capability in these languages, Natividad needs to increase demand. Interpretation is now available to clients and other language service providers as Indigenous Interpreting + . The language list includes Mixteco, Triqui, Zapoteco, Chatino, Nahuatl, Purepecha, Amuzgo, Yucatec Maya, Mam and Tlapaneco, so far.
Finding qualified people to translate and interpret in these languages is further complicated by intelligibility problems across dialects. Indigenous Interpreters + has to localize for every hill top. “We have to identify township and the districto they’re from because we have to get the right variant. If it’s different enough they won’t understand each other,” Victor Sosa, Language Access Coordinator at Nativdad told NPR.
Mixteco interpreter Angelica Isidro thinks its important that Mixteco speakers “understand when they come to the hospital what is wrong with them. That’s very, very important that when they leave, they leave happy that they were treated well. They were looked after.”