Interpreting in Rural Communities

Based on our experience training community interpreters in a small town, here are a few ways to meet the increasing need for language services while ensuring linguistic rights in underserved rural areas.

Immigration to the rural U.S. has grown in some areas by as much as 130% in the last generation.1 Despite this growth, language-access services remain concentrated in urban centers. Based on our experience training community interpreters in a small town, this article will consider ways to meet increasing needs and ensure linguistic rights in underserved rural areas.

We both work as associate professors at the University of Minnesota Morris, a small liberal arts college located in a rural Midwestern community. Thomas teaches Spanish and Tammy teaches French. Thanks to expansion in manufacturing and agriculture, immigration in our small town (population 5,100) has for years followed national demographic trends: nearly a fifth of the local public-school population now identifies as Hispanic/Latino.

Unfortunately, interpreting resources in our community are scarce. The closest company dedicated exclusively to providing these services is located nearly 100 miles away in a larger urban center. The distance that interpreters must travel to reach our community increases the cost of these services, sometimes prohibitively.

Lacking local professionals, small towns like ours often turn to remote interpreting, yet broadband access in rural areas remains relatively limited: 30% of people living in the rural U.S. don’t have a home broadband connection. Meanwhile, smartphone, tablet, laptop, and desktop ownership in rural communities trails rates in urban and suburban areas by about 10%.2

In an effort to remedy this situation, in 2015, we worked with our university’s Center for Small Towns to create a local community interpreter/translator training workshop. The series is offered every year in advance of parent-teacher conferences in the local school system. Although the need for interpreting consistently outpaces the number of participants in the workshop series, hosting it annually serves to strengthen and maintain key relationships. It also sustains awareness of a constellation of issues around language access, civil rights, and linguistic and cultural diversity, as well as aspects that support and hinder efforts to build a more inclusive and culturally dynamic community.

Rural Realities

The rural U.S.—a world that places a high premium on both good neighborliness and self-sufficiency—presents a series of cultural challenges for community interpreting. As David Grant, a writer and playwright in Minnesota, describes in his essay “People Like Us”: “When people come here in need of a safe place to make a fresh start, the culture […] is glad to welcome them and help them make the transition to their new life […] But the unspoken rules that the newcomers are supposed to intuit include [this]: ‘Assimilate, and do it quickly.’”3 Such expectations can make it difficult to provide sustainable language services in rural areas, where interpreting is understood as short-term support for newcomers rather than a long-term investment in community life.

As a result, community interpreting is frequently carried out by untrained volunteers. In some ways, this willingness to help one’s neighbors for free represents the best of small-town culture; however, volunteers often have full-time work and family duties that make them unavailable to interpret. Moreover, because they offer their services “out of the goodness of their hearts,” it’s difficult to hold volunteers accountable to professional standards and protocols.

Even when undertaken with the best of intentions, volunteer community interpreting in small towns entails particular hazards. Interpreting for our friends, neighbors, and co-workers can impede the flow of information between service providers and clients. After all, it’s only natural that people who know us socially will feel uneasy discussing personal matters regarding health, finances, and family in front of us.

The same holds true for bilingual employees, who often double as interpreters in rural areas, sometimes without proper training in protocol and ethics. This blurring of professional boundaries can prove dangerous, as untrained individuals are called upon to negotiate potential conflicts of interest between their ad hoc interpreting duties and their official job descriptions.4

Thus, confidentiality, impartiality, and role boundaries are critical ethical standards that can make or break effective communication in a rural setting. As much as we value the spirit of neighborly generosity in which volunteer interpreting takes place, the close-knit nature of small-town life makes meaningful training and a culture of professionalism vital for effective community interpreting in rural areas.

The Workshop Series

Following a community needs and assets assessment by the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota Morris, our workshop series was developed as a “town-gown” partnership designed both to train interpreters for our community and to shift the local culture surrounding sustainable language services.5 In addition to interpreting skills, the workshops seek to build relationships among the different stakeholders in our area: the university, public-school system, and local Hispanic/Latino and non-Hispanic communities. Before the pandemic, the series was held at the town library. Free childcare was available on site and the Center for Small Towns provided a light meal as part of each session.

The series covers basic concepts and skills for community interpreting and translation, including:

  • Community interpreting code of ethics and standards of practice
  • Preparation and anticipation
  • The interpreter introduction
  • Liability issues
  • Practice with message transfer, intervention, and cultural mediation

While these elements seem like standard fare, others address our local situation. For example, the first session features a panel of relevant community members, including the cultural liaison and other bilingual personnel in the school district, faculty partners who research Hispanics/Latinos in the rural Midwest, and the director of the Center for Small Towns. The final session includes a meet-and-greet with the teachers with whom interpreters will be working.

Similarly, in the interest of advancing equity in our community, we developed a bilingual booklet for the workshop. We also created tip sheets tailored to each of the three parties engaged in an interpreting encounter: one for interpreters; one for teachers and administrators; and a third, in Spanish, for families.

About 60 people have completed the workshop series since it was first offered in 2015. A majority of them have been undergraduate students who finish their studies and leave town. To date, the program has yielded relatively few community interpreters who stay in the area and can contribute to local needs.

Lessons Learned

Although it was our initial intention to offer the 40-hour training, which is now recognized globally as a minimum credential to work as a community interpreter, we quickly realized that community members were unable to commit to so many hours. So, we scaled back considerably, to four 2.5-hour sessions, and began describing our workshop series as a “gateway” to the field of community interpreting. Whenever local participants want to pursue the full 40-hour training, we work with the Center for Small Towns to secure funding for them to do so.

Having completed the full 40-hour training ourselves, we were surprised to hear local participants report that little of its content resonated with rural experiences. Their feedback prompted us to reevaluate the content of the workshop series and further emphasize its unique focus on our community. For example, we now dedicate more time to discussing how to handle confidentiality, conflicts of interest, and role boundaries in the specific context of our small town.

Currently, all bilingual school personnel have completed the 40-hour training, which has proven to be immensely supportive of local efforts. These individuals schedule, coordinate, and monitor community interpreters on parent-teacher conference day. Additionally, bilingual staff members are able to step in when a suitable community interpreter is unavailable.

We’ve taken several other steps to ensure the quality of community interpreters:

  • The importance of a reflective log of one’s learning and growth is emphasized in the first session. Participants are invited to submit their logs to us at any time and receive thorough feedback about their bilingual skills.
  • Along with these comments, participants receive detailed reference letters characterizing their skill level, in which we raise awareness about the professionalization of community interpreters and suggest the full 40-hour training as the next essential step in their growth. The reference letters serve an important purpose, especially in small communities where, due to a variety of factors such as limited access to the study of world languages and cultures in K-12, the importance of bilingual skills and intercultural competence may be misunderstood or underestimated.
  • Interpreter knowledge and skills are carefully vetted. Trained community interpreters who don’t seem ready for interpreting instead translate school and classroom-related documents under the supervision of school personnel.
  • Participants complete an anonymous evaluation of their experiences, providing feedback we rely upon to improve the workshop for the following year.

Another lesson we learned is the importance of grassroots collaboration. As university faculty, we naturally designed a program based on our experience. We easily recruited university students of Spanish to the program and to serve as community interpreters for parent-teacher conference day. Within the school building, we and the recruited students assumed the roles that were familiar to us, which created a kind of university bubble—a cultural in-group. Positive changes came when the school’s cultural liaison took over the task of recruiting participants through her connections to the Hispanic/Latino community. Having people from the local community participate in the program and their visibility on parent-teacher conference day shifted the power from “Gown” back to “Town,” undermining unintended hierarchies, foregrounding organic community relationships, and inspiring greater confidence and belonging among Hispanic/Latino users of community interpreters than we had seen in the past.

Collateral Growth

Although the workshops have yielded comparatively few interpreters who stay in the area and engage regularly at the school, the continued advocacy that the series represents has supported positive change in our community. A cultural liaison was hired in 2017, and she currently works part-time in the school and part-time as the executive director for a local nonprofit serving immigrants in our community. The serendipitous connection between the local school and the community inherent in her dual role has evolved the workshops toward a more organic, grassroots approach to training. The school administration now recognizes the skill-building required of teachers as part of their professional development (i.e., with continuing education credits) and compensates them for their voluntary participation in our workshops. Recently, funds have also been made available to remunerate interpreters as well.

Future Plans

The pandemic has prompted us to reformulate the workshops for remote delivery, yielding still more insights about the value of what we’re doing locally. A few workshop alums have been able to join us for a refresher session and then as interpreters for parent-teacher conferences, thus alleviating scheduling pressures. Remote meetings have entailed the technological barriers already discussed (e.g., low bandwith) and undermined what we now realize are strengths inherent in our grassroots and community-oriented approach to ensuring language access in our schools. Other small communities in our region report similar challenges. In response, we’ve begun to imagine a hybrid workshop series, although not without some ambivalence about its promise. We also have plans to partner with neighboring communities to undertake community needs and assets assessments and to support the development of similarly place-based grassroots programs.

This article was made possible with the generous support of the Bremer Foundation as well as the University of Minnesota, including the University of Minnesota Morris Center for Small Towns and the Division of the Humanities. We would like to acknowledge Argie Manolis, Dr. Cristina Ortiz, Windy González Roberts, Chris Staebler, Citlali Ibáñez, and Autumn Macias for their collaboration on the workshop series. We also thank our workshop participants and other partners at Morris Area Schools.

Notes
  1. Frey, William H. “The Nation Is Diversifying Even Faster than Predicted, According to New Census Data.” (Brookings Institute, July 1, 2020), https://z.umn.edu/demographic_diversity.
  2. Vogels, Emily A. “Some Digital Divides Persist between Rural, Urban, and Suburban America.” (Pew Research Center, August 19, 2021), https://z.umn.edu/digital-divides.
  3. Grant, David L. “People Like Us.” In A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota. Edited by Sun Yung Shin (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2016), 199, https://bit.ly/Minnesota-Grant.
  4. Okraski, Cornelia V. and Stephanie M. Madison. “Pueblo Pequeño, Infierno Grande: Shifting the Burden of Latinx Spanish Teacher Retention in the Rural South,” Foreign Language Annals (Fall 2020), 594–612, https://z.umn.edu/Okraski_and_Madison.
  5. Morris Intercultural Education Initiative: Initial Assessment, https://z.umn.edu/MIEI_report.

Tammy Berberi is an associate professor of French at the University of Minnesota Morris, where she teaches modern French literature, translation, and disability studies. Together with Thomas Genova, she developed and has delivered the Translation and Interpretation Program, an annual community interpreting and translation workshop that’s also an academic course. In 2019, she received the University of Minnesota President’s Award for Outstanding Service for her work in developing community engagement projects concerning world languages and cultures. berberit@morris.umn.edu

Thomas Genova is an associate professor of Spanish at the University of Minnesota Morris, where his teaching and research include interpreting and translation theory and practice, as well as Latinx studies. As part of the Morris Intercultural Education Initiative, he collaborates in providing community translation and interpreting services in rural Stevens County, Minnesota. Together with Tammy Berberi, he developed and has delivered the Translation and Interpretation Program, an annual community interpreting and translation workshop that’s also an academic course. He won a 2018–2019 Campus Compact Presidents’ Civic Engagement Stewards Award for his work on this program. tgenova@morris.umn.edu

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