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  • Writer's pictureImmigrant Connections

How to Fulfill Interpretation & Translation Requirements: Tools for Guiding Decisions

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Both before COVID and now, the topic of interpretation (oral) and translation (written) in schools is something that regularly comes up in Immigrant Connections’ work with schools and districts, particularly because it has to do with equitable family engagement. This topic, otherwise known as language access, has to do with providing parents with equal access to information and opportunities, regardless of language. According to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and many other subsequent Executive Orders, memos, and laws, schools must communicate information to limited English proficient parents in a language they can understand about any program, service, or activity that is called to the attention of parents who are proficient in English.

For a short, two-page summary of these requirements, please see this document authored by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice (in English here and other languages here). Some key points from this document include:

  • It doesn't matter if the student is an English Learner – we're talking about all parents in our school or district who do not speak English (therefore, this is NOT only the EL department's responsibility!)

  • Language assistance must be provided by appropriate and competent staff who have received training (it's not enough to just be bilingual)

  • Students, siblings, friends, parents, etc cannot be used

We understand that what is outlined in this document is far from reality in most districts and we know that implementing these requirements is easier said than done, but we must keep advocating for parents’ rights because this is an issue of equity! We at least need to know how things are supposed to be so that we can work towards that goal, not to mention avoid an OCR (Office for Civil Rights) complaint. It's important to balance thinking about what we need for tomorrow (usually some sort of quick fix) with what we should advocate for long term.

Let’s take a look at some of the options for fulfilling these requirements. We at Immigrant Connections regularly hear from educators who are trying to make decisions about which practices to use, but unfortunately, there are few tools to help educators – and administrators – in making those decisions. Therefore, we created the tools below. The “spectrum of options” is a graphic representation of the most to least meaningful communication practices when there is a language barrier with parents. Below that is a more detailed chart, with factors to consider when selecting which interpretation practice to use.

Lastly, it is important to note that in most districts around the country, getting adequate interpretation and translation services in place typically requires a significant amount of advocacy. For more information on advocacy, see our blog posts on Immigrant and English Learner Parent Advocacy and Educator Advocacy for English Learners. Furthermore, check out the new Interpreting and Translation in Education Workgroup. This group of educational interpreters formed in 2019 and is pursuing a national effort to create educational interpreter and translator ethics and standards. Essentially, this group seeks to professionalize the field of educational interpreting.

* There is no strict guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on this; however, there is a little more information from the U.S. Department of Justice. In an FAQ from the Fall 2014, question #5 is about whether using machine translation or applications such as Google Translate is acceptable and their answer is “Generally, no” with further explanation provided. In addition, there are recent settlements that mention Google translate and offer additional information. For example, the settlement from Arlington, Virginia states “Except in an emergency, the District will not use students, family or friends of limited English proficient parents, or Google Translate for interpretation of District-or school-generated documents or for any other translation or interpreter services. If there is an emergency and no District interpreter is available, the District will follow up with the parent in a timely manner to communicate, through a qualified interpreter or translation, the essential information that the family or friends orally interpreted.” Anyone can read about other cases on the U.S. Department of Justice’s website as well as the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights “reading room.”

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