HOW I BECAME A COMMUNITY INTERPRETER?
In September 1977, when I was a freshman at Northeastern Illinois University, in Chicago, Illinois, I used to work as a student aide at the Financial Aid Office, for the Veterans Administration Scholarship department and the UNI Scholarship department, when I was not in class, and I also helped the front desk accepting student financial aid forms and advising students about registration procedures. Since Northeastern Illinois is an urban university, the majority of the student population
were urban minorities who commuted to school and work to get a college education in Chicago.
Many of the students were Spanish-speaking people who had just arrived from Mexico, Latin America, the Caribbean or Spain and needed to enroll in college courses to learn English and get a college degree or validate their college transcripts from their former countries in the United States.
Since these students spoke Spanish only at the beginning at UNI, whenever they went to the Financial Aid Office, they required an explanation in Spanish of all the financial aid requirements to apply for the Pell Basic Grant, the Illinois State Scholarship and/or student loans. When I was not completing Veterans’ Scholarship forms, totaling veterans’ points for scholarship after military service, typing award letters and post cards for the veterans, filing, and/or managing awards letters or denials for other scholarship funds, I would be asked to work at the front desk informing students and answering the telephone in English and Spanish. If a Spanish-speaking student was interviewed by a financial aid counselor who only spoke English, sometimes I would be called to interpret from English into Spanish.
Thus, I enjoyed the rapport and the language interaction with my fellow students and fulfilled my responsibility to the community by helping Spanish-speakers become mainstreamed into the English-speaking community at Northeastern Illinois University and in Chicago, as I had been during my high school years where I only spoke English and French, in a Catholic parochial school, Madonna High School on the Northwest side of Chicago.
After completing my core curriculum for my Bachelor’s Degree, I decided to focus on double majors in Education to teach languages like English, French, and Spanish, Writing, and minor in Linguistics and Athletics. Having had four years of English and French in high school, I was accelerated into more advanced courses in these two disciplines, so I completed my major requirements early enough that I could regain my usage of the Spanish language through specialized coursework for bilingual Spanish speakers.
As I became more proficient in the colloquial use of the Spanish language for bilingual speakers in the Chicago area of the Midwest, I interacted between English and French easily, thus I became multilingual. I graduated from Northeastern Illinois University after five years of study with a B.A. in Secondary Education, Type (09) Illinois State Teaching Certificate, English, French, Spanish, and minors in Linguistics, Writing, and Athletics.
It was through one of my friends, Maureen, that I started doing translation work and language instruction at Translingual International. I also taught at Berlitz Language Schools in Downtown Chicago and surrounding suburbs. Later on, I began to interpret at the Illinois Industrial Commission through Accurate Translations for workers’ compensation arbitration hearings for Spanish-speaking employees who had been injured by work-related accidents.
The last two years of college, I was referred and recommended by my French teacher and her physician friend, for a summer job working for an European travel insurance company, GESA Assistance, S.A., based in Barcelona, Spain, with branches in the U.S., Belgium, France, United Kindgom, Germany, Italy, Portugal, some Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Japan, Australia, Mexico, the Caribbean, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Africa. I was hired part-time as a travel insurance representative to assist European travelers with medical-related and other insurance claims, while traveling in the Americas and around the world.
All GESA personnel spoke English, French, Spanish, Dutch, German, Catalan, Portuguese, Japanese. Most of these travel medical insurance claims were handled through telephone interpreting, facsimile, and designated agents and physicians in the corresponding countries. Assistance was provided on a 24-hour basis and full medical claims reports were written in English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and any other required language to be passed on via facsimile or by telephone relay to the insurer’s country of origin. Many times I was required to provide emergency medical assistance on world-time, that is to say, observing European time, 8-10 hours ahead of U.S. time, contacting Doctors-on-Call or Physicians Without Borders to effect repatriations, emergency hospitalizations, and/or contact attorneys for legal interventions. During these emergency situations, I developed a quick way to contact medical personnel and/or legal assistance through a zip code grid identifying the area where the insured called by zeroing in on the address zip code to quickly locate assistance on call, at the last minute. This approach was later on used to organize the U.S. GESA Assistance response to the emergency calls from the insured travelers around the world.
Although this part-time job was not well remunerated, I enjoyed working with foreign nationals who traveled world-wide, interpreting and translating for their claims over the telephone, and using multilingual and cultural skills in an international U.S. and European company. I felt I was a community interpreter as I became an essential link between the insured traveler and the GESA Assistance network around the world.
In the past, I have also worked with a federal agency in Virginia, as a community interpreter assigned to federal investigative work under strict confidentiality. In addition, I have done extensive legal interpreting for workmen’s compensation at the Industrial Commission in Chicago; as well as in the Illinois judicial system in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Will, and LaSalle counties. While doing graduate work for communications at the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago, I was a also a volunteer community interpreter at the Emergency Room for elderly Spanish and English-speaking patients for a study sponsored by the Gerontological Society of America.
Having worked for the U.S. Department of Labor as a medical claims examiner, and as an insurance customer agent for travelers, also provided excellent background for medical interpreting experience to teach Medical Spanish at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.
So, I have become an incidental community interpreter, in addition to being an educator in Illinois, as I fine-tuned my language skills in English, Spanish, French, and later studied basic Portuguese and Japanese in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
As a community interpreter I feel that I am able to help people using languages to communicate better and assimilate in the community where they live for the benefit of all involved, you, me, and the community. Thus languages are not only used to express our thoughts, ideas, and emotions, but also become working tools for communicating the needs of the community within cultural contexts in the 21st century.
“Frequently Asked Questions about Interpreting” by Gardenia C. Hung
TIP Lab Seminar for Interpretation and Translation by Holly Mikkelson, Ph.D.