“What is multilingual justice?”
The room of teens is quiet for a moment as they digest the question from interpreter Loreto Paz Ansaldo.
The youths, part of the Liaison Interpreters Program of Somerville (LIPS), work with the two interpreters from the Boston Interpreters Collective to define the term. Their definition: “Equal rights and respect for diverse people who speak more than one language so that they have access to information and communication in a comfortable environment.”
“What could multilingual justice look like being played out?” interpreter Isabel Catalina Hibbard asks.
“This place,” one teen answers.
LIPS teaches bilingual high schoolers from Somerville and Medford interpretation skills so that they can translate at community events and meetings. Along the way, the teens explore concepts of social justice and language-based inequities and are encouraged to embrace their bilingualism.
“One of the values that we try to bring to this space is to help immigrant youth see their bilingualism as a gift, when oftentime speaking another language within an education system is almost like, “Well, OK, but really, can you speak English?’” says Alison Kuah, youth programs coordinator.
Many of the LIPS youths have been informally interpreting for years, helping parents who don’t speak English navigate living in the United States. But switching to formal interpreting can be a challenge.
LIPS is part of the Welcome Project, a community organization that supports immigrant families and bolsters their access to participating in the city. The LIPS program focuses on expanding the teens’ vocabulary, working on speed, and emphasizing the accuracy that is crucial in formal interpretation. Rather than translating the sentiment of what a parent or grandparent is saying, the teens have to deliver a message exactly how the speaker says it.
“You have to translate like a machine,” says Edson Lima Siqueira, 16, who speaks Portuguese and English fluently. “You can’t change the words. When you’re translating for your family, you’re just like, ‘OK, this makes no sense in your first language, so let me change one or two words so it makes more sense.’ But when you realize that, you’re like, ‘Oh, I may be changing the meaning of the sentence.’ So you shouldn’t change anything when you’re doing the formal one.”
They also work on simultaneous interpretation (translating as a person is speaking) and relay interpretation (when some interpreters are translating another interpreter’s translation into a third language).
Twenty-four teens are in LIPS this year, speaking Spanish, Portuguese, Haitian-Creole, Nepali, or Bengali in addition to English.
LIPS helps youths get involved in community issues by translating at city meetings and events, according to Kuah.
“Language is a really great way for a lot of the youth to see larger institutional and structural barriers to participation in society,” Kuah says. “A lot of times the youth begin to see that the fact that they do speak English gives them greater access, and so see a greater responsibility almost to speak on behalf of those that don’t feel like they have a voice.”
“The availability and access of so many interpreters in the community reveals that even minority people, they’re strong,” says Kristina Gurang, 15, who speaks Nepali and English. “There are people who are ready to help them out in the community. Just because they have a language barrier does not mean they’re not good enough. Language can be a powerful tool to break down the language barriers and can bring multilingual justice in the community.”
Siqueira noticed the differences between cities’ language accessibility when his family moved from Somerville to Medford.
“Somerville had all the support when I got here,” he says. “My mom had the help to know what she was signing, what was everything that was going on, the rules, and stuff like that, they had everything in Portuguese. And then when I moved to Medford, there was no assistance, no support, nothing. They don’t have interpreting in the school. I felt that the Medford community has a lack of support for immigrants.”
After practicing interpretation skills in the weekly meetings, the youths will develop proposals for community engagement initiatives. Last year was the first, soft launch of the proposals, according to Kuah, who says that some of the youths asked community members to explain why they stand with immigrants.
Ansaldo and Hibbard lead the youths outside and break them into teams. One team gets to set the rules of the soccer game, but doesn’t have to follow them. The team makes its opponents hop around, hold a teammate’s hand at all times, and speak in languages that their partners can’t understand.
Back inside, the interpreters ask the teams how the game made them feel.
“We created the rules, so we felt powerful,” one teen says. The controlling team notes that they “felt abusive.” “You realize that it’s unfair,” another youth says.
The interpreters help the students relate the soccer game to other situations of power inequality, especially language-based ones. “It’s our job, as English speakers, to even that power out,” Hibbard says.
Ansaldo and Hibbard wrap up the session by challenging the youths to relay interpretation. One student speaks Portuguese, which a fellow teen translates into English. Three other interpreters listen to his English translation, and then interpret that into their own languages. The rest of the youths listen to those interpreters.
The room becomes chaotic with murmured interpretations, but it is clearly organized chaos—in all the hubbub, 24 teens are helping each other connect across five different languages.
This story appears in the Arts & Architecture issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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Reena Karasin is the editor-in-chief at Scout Somerville and Scout Cambridge. Follow her on Twitter @reenakarasin.