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School Interpreters' Goal: Being Word Perfect

L.A. Unified unit helps non-English-speaking parents understand necessary information. Colloquialisms and jargon can be hurdles.

April 28, 2006|Hemmy So | Times Staff Writer

How do you say "spaghetti straps" in Spanish?

To find the answer, translator Ron Koff paged through a mini-dictionary used by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

He found a few offerings for baggy pants: pantalones abombachados, anchos, sueltos, flojos, guangos.

He found halter top: blusa con espalda al descubierto.

But no spaghetti straps.

Such are the challenges faced by Koff and others in the district's Translations Unit, charged with helping parents understand just about everything -- district governance, graduation requirements, the dress code.

The unit, which was created in 1992, has 19 full-time translators and interpreters and draws upon part-timers who help out during evenings, weekends and large events.

Every so often, they run across a puzzler like spaghetti straps.

"When I can't seem to make it sound right, it's just one of those days when you just can't seem to do anything right," Koff said. "Then it's very frustrating."

Though the English/Spanish Glossary of LAUSD Terminology didn't address spaghetti straps, a colleague left a note suggesting blusas con tirantes delgados.

The majority of the unit's staff works in Spanish, but administrators and teachers can also seek services in Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Armenian. Thanks to a few multilingual interpreters, schools can get help in Polish, Hebrew, Taiwanese and even Swedish.

All hands were on deck this month for the 10th annual Parent Summit, which about 2,500 parents and guardians attended.

In contrast to the Spanish interpreters who provided translation to parents wearing headsets, part-time interpreters Jenny Lew and Calvin Chen worked directly with a three-person group of Chinese parents.

Lew and Chen did double duty during a seminar on math and science. While Chen interpreted the speaker's questions to parents on what they knew about avian flu, Lew translated a packet of materials explaining how scientists use petri dishes to study bacteria and viruses.

"It's always discriminating whenever they have materials, because it's always in English and Spanish," Lew said. "They never have other languages."

The Translations Unit staff blames lack of personnel and a limited budget for situations such as these.

Last school year, the unit received 7,488 translation and interpretation requests. More than a third of the requests were denied -- a situation created by a lack of resources, said director Tony Arias.

The unit has a $3.6-million budget, a stark contrast to the $12 million afforded a similar unit for New York City schools. The New York system has 1.1 million students, compared with about 727,000 in Los Angeles Unified.

A lack of funds has forced the Translations Unit to outsource sign language interpreters, freeze hiring and rely heavily on self-sufficiency. Staff technicians fix broken headsets to save on repair costs, and an online request system cuts down on paper use.

School board member David Takofsky said he supports redistributing district funds to beef up the unit's budget, because its services focus on parents.

"You give something to a junior high kid and hope it comes home. That expense of printing something may never actually affect a parent, whereas in a meeting with a parent with headphones on, you know it's getting there," he said.

Language requests have steadily declined since 2001. Translations Unit staff said the numbers are deceiving because as budget cuts forced the department to cut languages from its roster or deny services, schools reacted by forgoing requests or tapping bilingual staff on their campuses to interpret.

District spokeswoman Stephanie Brady said that for schools with high percentages of students who speak a particular foreign language, the district tries to ensure that at least one front-office employee speaks that language.

When that isn't the case, interpreters sometimes swoop in to save the day.

At one elementary school, a clerk had suspected that a father had not understood a document he had signed. Vietnamese interpreter Buu Chung called the father and quickly realized that the man had no idea he had agreed to attend an important meeting at the school the next day. After a brief explanation, the father promised to show up.

Although bilingual staff can often provide informal help, certain situations require the expertise of trained interpreters, especially given the education field's love of jargon and abbreviations.

Recently at San Antonio Elementary School in Huntington Park, social worker Kevin Mottus gave a talk while many Spanish-speaking parents listened on headphones.

Despite terms such as "auditory kinesthetical," "socially cognitive" and "neurodevelopmental constructs" popping out of Mottus' mouth, Gloria Miguel and Josefina Garcia barely skipped a beat while interpreting tag-team style.

Cultural differences also abound.

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