Many of us have dreams. Most of us probably fantasize about what we would do if we won the lottery. But I have a different dream, one that might be just as far-fetched as becoming a lottery millionaire, and it is this: that you could walk into any store, agency, dentist’s office or hospital, pick up a phone or press a button, and have access to an interpreter.
If you wonder why I would dream of that, you’ve probably never lived in a place that is new to you and tried to navigate an unfamiliar culture with the added challenge of not being able to speak the language. Imagine it, if you will. You walk into a busy store looking for baby formula. Words in English look like nonsense, and you can’t even ask someone to point you in the right direction. What would you do?
I’m the director for language services, the program at Catholic Charities of Louisville that gives people across the Archdiocese of Louisville access to interpreters and translation services in 32 different languages.
When we provide language support, we help businesses, health care providers and schools meet their federally mandated obligation for language access, and give individuals the opportunity to more fully integrate into the community. We help them consult with physicians, interview with employers, confer with teachers, and, yes, find baby formula in Walmart.
Interpreters allow immigrants to communicate with their lawyers to pursue legal citizenship and participate in decisions about their health, their child’s education, and other needs.
Interestingly, many of the interpreters who work with Catholic Charities first come to our attention when they partner with our Migration and Refugee Services to get established here. Those who arrive with good skills in English are referred to us and complete a stringent training program to become interpreters capable of assisting with medical appointments, one of the most demanding categories, as well as other professional assignments.
This is not only good for us, but it is wonderful for them. They quickly have meaningful work with good pay and flexible hours. Interpreters with us are independent contractors, not employees, meaning they are self-employed. So, in addition to career training as professional interpreters, we teach them important business skills including how to manage taxes.
Needless to say, a pandemic affected how we work. In the past, interpreting was almost always done in person. In September 2019, we started moving toward being able to do interpreting by phone and video remote. As it turns out, that was a fantastic head-start. In the last year, we have done almost all of our work remotely and, while in-person interpretation is always most effective, remote capabilities have allowed us to continue to serve those who need us. It also has opened doors for us to do exponentially more in the future, giving our interpreters the chance soon to provide services to people around the world!
I’m happy to report that our interpreters, along with their essential health care colleagues, have begun receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. They will be ready when we can return to working more closely together.
Language access is a right required by law. We work with large and small companies helping them to provide it, and can help you, too. Call us at 637-9786, ext. 326. Professional interpreters make it possible for all newcomers to this country to pursue their dreams, and that’s a dream we can all share.
Alisa Pifine is the director for language services at Catholic Charities of Louisville.