Hire a Professional, Respect the Vulnerable.
It’s not too often that I get the chance to post about language-related issues on a site related to Catholic social teaching, but a news roundup from the American Translators Association, of which I am a member, has delivered a story in which these two sets of concerns dovetail quite naturally. Here is the story as summarized in the ATA Newsbriefs (the original news article is here):
A Spanish-speaking woman is suing New Jersey’s Berlin Township police department for false arrest because she was not provided a competent interpreter. Carmela Hernandez alleges that in June 2012 police wrongly arrested her for child endangerment. At the time, she was three months pregnant. Hernandez spent six months in jail awaiting trial, and in the interim lost custody of her three children, including the baby she delivered while in prison. Documents filed with the court say Hernandez “lacks any ability to effectively communicate in English.” Her boyfriend, who tried to speak with the Berlin police at the time of the arrest, has only “limited ability” in English. The Berlin police called in an officer from a neighboring department to conduct Hernandez’s interrogation. Although the officer was fluent in Spanish, Hernandez asserts in her lawsuit that he was “without the proper training and skills to have acted as an effective interpreter.” As a result, Hernandez says she was “unjustifiably and falsely arrested.” In February 2013, Hernandez was found not guilty after the judge in the case ruled her interrogation inadmissible.
On the language side, it bears explaining that the majority of translation and interpreting work is done on a freelance basis by independent contractors; hence, a lack of regulation in the language services industry, and by extension a perceived lack of respect for the profession, is the subject of frequent complaint in those circles. I can just hear a chorus of my fellow language professionals saying to the Berlin, NJ police department, “You wouldn’t expect an interpreter to try to do police work without any prior training in police procedures, would you?” As these will readily tell you, bilingualism by itself does not automatically make one an interpreter or translator. The professionalism of these services is often salvaged, in a sense by proxy, via intersection with more highly regulated professions such as law and medicine, whose service providers are often required to use a professional interpreter (and in some cases, especially in the courts, one certified within a specialized field) for that very reason.
The related issue from a Catholic perspective is respect for the dignity of all human life, especially where it is most vulnerable. As the U.S. bishops have repeatedly stated, this includes immigrants – especially when there is the added vulnerability of a language barrier. And, of course, it includes children, both born and unborn. And related to both of these is respect for the dignity of the family; children should not be separated from their parents except in cases of grave necessity. None of this negates anyone’s duties and responsibility – another central feature of the Catholic social tradition – whether it be duty toward children or parents, toward the stranger or toward a host country’s society. At the same time, none of these duties negate the respect owed to anyone as a bearer of the image and likeness of God.
So, when in doubt, hire a professional. And always, always respect the vulnerable.