A USC Upstate program is training students to bridge language barriers.
By Elizabeth Anderson
Andres Villegas remembers the frustration of being in a classroom surrounded by students speaking a language he didn’t understand.He was a teenager when he arrived in the United States from Colombia, and started high school without knowing any English. That disorienting experience is one of the reasons Villegas, a biology pre-med major, is pursuing a minor in Spanish translation and interpretation at USC Upstate. “I just want to be able to help the people who are not able to speak the language,” he says. “I know how those people feel when they’re not able to express themselves.”
With Spanish the primary language spoken in nearly 5% of South Carolina households, and 13% of households nationwide, according to 2021 census figures, interpreters and translators are a growing need in everything from health care to the justice system. Because of that demand, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates employment of interpreters and translators will grow 20 percent over the next 10 years.
Maria Montesό wants to be sure those jobs are filled by qualified people. Montesό, senior instructor of Spanish at USC Upstate and an accredited Spanish-English translator and interpreter, won approval for a minor in Spanish translation and interpretation earlier this year, making USC Upstate the only college in South Carolina to offer a formal undergraduate program in the subject.
“We have a community eager to do things, and they are already bilingual, so we need to provide them with the academic tools to know how to protect themselves and do a good job,” Montesό says.
A new approach
Montesό has offered Spanish interpretation and translation classes before, and she teaches a summer program on interpreting in education settings. She also organizes an annual translation and interpretation conference at USC Upstate. But formalizing the program as a minor allows her to go into greater depth in both areas and spend more time helping students hone their skills.
No formal certification is required to become a general translator or interpreter in the U.S., but medical, legal and government agencies do require certification and often an additional proficiency test. Montesό, a native of Spain, prepares her students using a research-based approach that’s common in Europe and Latin America, where many schools offer advanced degrees in translation and interpretation.A common misconception, she notes, is that anyone who speaks another language can be called upon to act as an interpreter. At schools, for example, she’s encountered situations where children, Spanish teachers, and even janitors have been asked to interpret for non-English speaking parents. “That’s completely unethical, because you wouldn’t ask a teacher to clean the bathrooms or a janitor to teach a math class,” Montesό says. “You need to follow a protocol.”
Sofia Villegas, a junior majoring in early childhood education, was one of those people who was asked to interpret as a child. “When I was in elementary school, teachers would come to me to help interpret with parents,” Villegas says. “And when I was in middle school and high school, I would go back to my elementary school to volunteer during the summer, and I would get called often to the nurse’s office to interpret for the nurses.”
Taking Montesό’s class showed Villegas how much more skill is involved in interpretation beyond bilingualism. As a child, Villegas says, you often just summarize what you’re being told, which is not interpreting. “With class, you learn all the different strategies you have to use, and also the amount of research you have to do before you do an actual interpretation,” Villegas says.
Getting it right
When Montesό began the translation and interpretation program, she offered one semester of each, which she says wasn’t enough to fully prepare students. The minor has allowed her to teach two semesters of each subject, so students have the option of deeper study in both areas or just in one.
An important part of the coursework is learning ethics, including a person’s rights as a professional interpreter/translator and the limits of those rights. When doing an interpretation, for instance, you always speak in first person, Montesό says, and try to match a person’s tone as closely as possible.
“The intonation, the pronunciation you’re using has an impact on the person who’s listening,” she says. “So all of that is very important, especially when it’s a delicate situation. You need to know how to do it right.”Research is a major component of Montesό’s classes. Not only do students learn about developments in the field, but they also learn about the resources available to professionals and how to use them, such as software, linguistic databases and online dictionaries.
Knowledge of world events and cultural competency is important as well. Students study several Spanish-speaking cultures, to make them aware of the various meanings words can have in different contexts, and follow global developments and immigration trends that may impact local communities.
Work in education, medical, or legal fields also requires a general understanding of state law in those areas and knowledge of frequently used terminology. If, for example, you are interpreting between parents and a school psychologist about a child’s behavioral disorder, you have to have the vocabulary to accurately convey the diagnosis so the parents fully understand it and can ask questions, Montesό says.
Because a professional translator or interpreter brings all these skills to any job, they should be compensated accordingly, Montesό says. Part of her mission as a teacher is educating people why using a certified translator or interpreter matters. “You’re paying me not only because I have training behind me, but also because I’m going to give you quality,” she says. “I’m going to give you a good product.”
Jeannette Houchens, president and founder of HIT Services, a professional translation and interpretation agency in Greenville, agrees, noting schools and other organizations often overlook how they, too, benefit when their message is professionally communicated to clients.
“When providers understand how crucial language access is, not just for the people that are receiving the services, but for them to be able to provide good services, they tend to see the value of the services in a different way,” she says.
Community service is a required component of Montesό’s classes, since much of the need for interpreters in the U.S. is in the social services sector, especially education, health care, and criminal justice. It’s also a way the university can directly engage with the community, and provide a service to some of its most vulnerable members.
“Our jobs as interpreters depend on how we treat migrants who have come here for a better life, and on how we give them the possibility to communicate in their own language and be understood in their own language,” Montesό says.Kimberly Ramos, a senior political science major who is staying on an extra semester just to complete the minor, finds that idea particularly compelling. “I think it’s very important to value that cultural sense of language,” she says. “Being able to communicate could resolve a lot of things in the world.”
The concept of language justice is well established in places with large immigrant populations such as California, but it’s still new in South Carolina, despite years of steady growth in immigrant populations, Montesό says. She notes one reason is that universities, which have the resources to train students to meet community needs, are often disconnected from the changes occurring outside their walls. “Society goes much faster than we as an institution,” she says.
But that’s slowly starting to change, she says. USC Upstate’s South Carolina Centro Latino, of which Montesό is the assistant director, gives the university a toehold in the community so it knows what changes are happening and how the university can provide support. “We bring the community to the university and the university to the community,” she says. “It’s helping each other.”
Houchens says academic programs such as Montesό’s can also help change the perception of translation and interpretation as a hobby for bilingual people. “When you have the backing of an institution like a university, and you can say, I took my classes at a university, that has a lot more recognition and helps the profession,” she says.
Many of Montesό’s students plan to use translation or interpretation in their future career fields, and some have already gotten certified in a specific area. Others, such as Valeria Perez Espinosa de los Monteros, a sophomore engineering major with a concentration in chemistry, want to be prepared for wherever their careers lead them. “If we’re talking about a medical setting, a life is involved,” Perez Espinosa de los Monteros says. “And I need to know how to interpret correctly.”
She notes, too, that even bilingual people like her parents sometimes have trouble with language. “So I think a big part is, whenever I think about interpreting and translation, I want to do it right,” she says. “Because I would want somebody to do it right if this were my parents.”