First, Liliana Gracia's grandfather had a heart attack and then her father had one. Soon thereafter, her uncle began having gallbladder complications.
Gracia, a University of Arizona senior studying physiology, said several of her family members spoke little English, making communication with nurses and physicians stressful. This meant she became "the ad hoc translator" for her family.
Appointing someone as the informal interpreter is not uncommon among those with low English proficiency. The issue is of more concern in Arizona, where nearly 30 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
"I didn't know what I was doing," Gracia said about her childhood experience. "I didn't understand."
That is one of the reasons Gracia is also majoring in translation and interpretation, a UA program that has steadily grown in popularity since its inception three years ago.
The problem Gracia and others in her program at the UA have noted with family members being designated as interpreters is that they may not be versed in medical, legal or business terminology, which makes the situation risky.
In the last two years, he and his colleagues have worked with local partners to establish nine internships, placing UA students in organizations and agencies where they can get the practical skills necessary to become certified translators and interpreters.
The most recent to be established are at Tucson Medical Center – having been initiated in March – and the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center, where UA students will begin working during the fall semester.
"The bottom line is that when oral and written communication are accurate, complete and reliable, everybody wins," said Jaime Fatás Cabeza, who directs the UA's translation and interpretation program.
That goes for the patient and the provider; for businesses, lawyers, judges and others.
Responding to Statewide, National Need
Translators and interpreters are in high demand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in a 10-year period beginning in 2006, the field would be expected to see about a 25 percent increase in the number of professionals.
The UA program is reflecting that demand, having grown from fewer than 40 students when it launched in 2006 to more than 150 students now.
"We're establishing practices that give the potential for growth," said Fatás Cabeza, also an assistant professor of practice in the UA Spanish and Portuguese department.
Fatás Cabeza is also affiliated with the National Center for Interpretation, Testing, Research and Policy at the UA, which is known globally for training translators and interpreters. The UA program helps place students in professional positions after they graduate, he said, adding that those students typically earn starting salaries upwards from $40,000.
But getting there requires a strong academic grounding and experiential learning – both areas of focus for the UA program.
Translators and interpreters need to have a strong command of both languages and cultures and also must be grounded in terminology, particularly if they are going into medical, legal or business fields. They often must be sensitive to cross-cultural issues and work in environments that may be erratic with swift deadlines.
At the UA, students work to become proficient in grammar, syntax and vocabulary, and must complete a series of seven specialization courses in translation and interpretation techniques in medical, legal, business and administrative contexts – all in a highly technological environment.
Students also take courses in social studies on topics such as the Chicano Movement, Mexican-American culture and social justice.
This is why the internships and volunteer opportunities are essential, said Gracia, who is committing 40 hours as an intern at TMC intern, which opened its International Services Department in 2003.
There, Gracia shadows and collaborates with UA alumna Ivonne Murrieta, one of the hospital's medical Spanish/English interpreters and translators, to translate Web resources into Spanish and also interpret for hospital staff and patients.
Murrieta, who graduated from the UA in December with degrees in business management and health services administration, intends to pursue medical school next year. She also plans to take the UA medical interpretation course this summer.
Other UA students are interning with the UA's Domestic Violence Law Clinic, Southern Arizona Legal Aid, the Pima County Superior Court, the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project and El Independiente, a newspaper produced by students in the UA School of Journalism, and other organizations.
About her training at TMC, Gracia said, "it gives me a chance to see what I can expect as an interpreter. I get to observe situations that are helpful to me."
The Services are "Fundamental"
Fatás Cabeza said that while demand is driving the increased activity at the UA and elsewhere, other issues come to the fore, such as government-mandated access and concerns related to liability and ethics. Living in a global society is another, he added, noting that Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.
"This is fundamental, and we see a great opportunity here to educate our students," he said.
The translation and interpretation program is run out of the UA Spanish and Portuguese department and the department of Mexican American and Raza Studies and was the first of its kind to be offered at a research institution in the United States.
Student response to the program has been strong.
Gracia, who is hoping to become a physician, said she only saw the need for translation and interpreting services while communicating between her family and physicians, but she sees the benefit now.
"This is good for ELL (English language learner) patients to have," Gracia said. "They need somewhere to go and when they need help they need to be able to find it."