Interpreters, translators bridge gap between Haitian immigrants, community

Local agencies offer resources in Haitian Creole, French and Spanish.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Dealing with issues involving your health, schooling or legal status are challenging enough for many people, but imagine if the paperwork you see or the person talking to you used an unfamiliar language.

Haitian immigrants who have moved to Springfield and Clark County in recent years are now benefiting from interpreters and translators who are working to ensure the immigrants have access to critical resources in Haitian Creole, French and Spanish.

AccuracyNow, a language service that partners with Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio, trains interpreters and provides services to many places in Clark County, director Litz Main said during a Haitian Coalition meeting last week. The coalition formed as thousands of Haitian immigrants have come to the area in recent years.

Some nonprofits and agencies in Springfield have their own interpreters, like Rocking Horse Community Health Center, Saint Vincent de Paul, the Clark County Combined Health District and Springfield City Schools.

Main said having interpreters and translations of resources helps agencies provide services to everyone in the community.

“We have heard how many times when they go to the food pantries, just seeing signs in their own language or having interpreters there present — believe me, they will be returning to you,” Main said. “You are going to get less cancellations on your appointments because they know that there is an interpreter present, and what a joy it is to be able to communicate and understand what they are saying.”

Interpreters and translators

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires recipients of federal financial assistance to take “reasonable steps” to make the programs they offered accessible to users with “limited English proficiency.”

Interpreters do not directly translate idioms like “it’s raining cats and dogs,” because that could be confusing in other languages, so they capture the “spirit of that message” to make sure it is understood, Main said. They may use more or fewer words than a speaker said but that does not mean they didn’t convey the entire message.

Main said interpreters and translators are often referred to as interchangeable, but translators typically work on transferring written words to another language, and translation is not immediate like interpretation.

Trained interpreters vs. volunteers

Main said trained interpreters with a code of ethics and professional standards are better than volunteers, but volunteers are better than no one.

Wislande Henley, an interpreter with AccuracyNow, said she started interpreting in January and has seen an increase in people and organizations requesting language services for the growing Haitian community, which she attributes mostly to a building of trust.

Interpreters refrain from giving advice, sharing their opinion, helping with other tasks and are not responsible for what either person in the conversation says, Main said.

Henley said that she often interprets in the healthcare field — at Mercy Health - Springfield or elsewhere — and only intervenes during a conversation between a medical provider and a patient who doesn’t speak English if she notices that communication has broken down. She said she only does this in select cases.

“I will explain to both parties that there might be a miscommunication, and then I would ask the doctor to explain further what is the meaning of whatever it is,” Henley said. “Sometimes it might take a couple more minutes for the patient to understand what the doctor is saying, but sometimes they (doctors) like to go quick. You want to get to the next patient.”

With advances in technology, interpretation services are available over-the-phone and online, but interpreters typically prefer in-person work because many find that meanings get lost and miscommunication happens more often when interpreters aren’t physically with their clients.

Luckens Merzius, a translator and interpreter for the Clark County Combined Health District, said in-person interpretation is quicker and more effective than over-the-phone or other virtual means. He said virtual interpretation can take hours, and body language and nonverbal cues are easily missed.

“It’s easy to have [a] Haitian on site and then doing interpretation. It takes you like 30 to 40 minutes,” Merzius said.

Main said having an in-person interpreter helps facilitate the best communication between two people who speak different languages.

“As interpreters, we rely on nonverbal cues; that’s why it’s so important that we have an interpreter present or observing those nonverbal cues because they are part of the communication,” Main said. “We also want to make sure you understand that interpreters don’t interpret word-by-word. Context matters because we interpret meaning-by-meaning.”

The services provided

Henley said since she started working as an interpreter, she has only worked in Haitian Creole, but she also offers services in Spanish.

Merzius said most Haitians speak Haitian Creole or a combination of languages, and almost all of the people for whom he interprets or translates speak Haitian Creole. Those who spent several years in Latin America after leaving Haiti also use Spanish, he said.

Merzius became an interpreter and translator in 2020 around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he spoke English back in Haiti when he worked as a manager for a company that did shipping business in Haitian Creole, English and French.

When he came to Springfield, Merzius volunteered to help people in the Haitian community who spoke little to no English, eventually starting to help Springfield City Schools regularly, he said.

“When I first came to the U.S. I saw ... most of the Haitians struggling with speaking and then people started to reach out to me and say, ‘Luckens, can you help me with that?’ and they have that document to translate it into Haitian Creole,” Merzius said.

Now he works full time for the health department, helping with a variety of things, including translating healthcare-related documents and healthcare education for Haitian community, and referring people to organizations who can help them if he cannot.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Henley said she learned English and Spanish traveling from country-to-country with her mother, who was looking for work, before moving to Springfield. She said she wanted to be an interpreter to help others like her who are in an unfamiliar place where they don’t speak the main language.

Benita Bayan, who interprets and translates for Saint Vincent de Paul, said she left Haiti to attend university in the Dominican Republic but when it became too expensive, she joined her cousin in the island of Dominica where she interpreted from Spanish to English at the Venezuelan embassy.

Bayan started working at Saint Vincent de Paul a few months ago to continue helping people.

Interpreters help parents in parent/teacher conferences because in some cases, children learn a new language before their parents. Henley said she interprets during these meetings and helps with testing for students who speak little to no English.

Bayan said she often translates birth certificates and other documents so parents can enroll their children in school. She said in many cases, the documents are in Spanish because the child was born in Chile or another Latin American country after the family left Haiti.

Interpreters and translators are in high demand, Merzius said. Although he is no longer overwhelmed like he was when he first started as one of very few Haitian Creole interpreters, Merzius said he and the other interpreters at the health department are busy.

“For translation I can’t count (how many requests) because I receive so many phone calls on a daily basis,” Merzius said.

Challenges of immigration

Interpreters like Bayan draw from their own experiences with Temporary Protected Status to help others in the community.

Several of the Haitian immigrants in Springfield are here legally under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which prevents those registered from being deported until Aug. 3, 2024, according to Katie Kersh of Advocates for Basic Legal Equality Inc. (ABLE).

Merzius said one of the biggest challenges for Haitian immigrants is getting and maintaining legal status. The process is highly involved and further complicated when resources are not available in Haitian Creole.

“For immigration, it’s a big animal,” Merzius said.

Bayan said she has become an expert in TPS and helps interpret and translate documents at TPS, asylum and other legal clinics with ABLE.

“So I can go with the lawyer and sit down with them and talk, and they say, ‘OK, so this is what you are doing today; you are doing TPS. You know what is TPS exactly, and you explain to them and you help them,” Bayan said. “With TPS you have a long, long questionnaire to ask the person.”

Interpreting and translating in healthcare

Main said that the U.S. healthcare system is a barrier in and of itself, being vastly different from many other countries.

“It’s not easy coming from a country, for example, where you have access to health care [where] even the pharmacists can give you medication without having to go to the doctor,” Main said.

Healthcare workers need to take time to explain how the process works to new immigrants while also conducting a medical appointment, Main said. Working with an interpreter during these appointments adds about 50% more time than one where the provider and patient speak the same language.

Hensley said she has noticed through her interpretation work in the healthcare industry that providers often rush through appointments, which increases the likelihood of interpreter and patient confusion and misunderstanding. She said it is important in all settings in which an interpreter is working for the conversation to be unrushed.

Trained interpreters are important in healthcare and other settings to avoid miscommunications that could lead to issues like improper use of medication, loss of housing and children being taken away by social services, Main said.

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