Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

W&L Free Service Translates 50 Languages

Who would think that the small town of Lexington, Va., would be able to provide a translation service for 50 different languages? Who would think there would be a demand for it?

Yet such a service does exist and it’s free.

English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) at Washington and Lee University has provided live translations to the community for the last seven years. “Most of the demand is for Spanish,” says Ellen Mayock, professor of Romance languages, “but we have provided translations in Mandarin Chinese, Farsi, Swedish, French, Italian, Russian, Turkish, Ukranian, Portuguese and Korean and have the capability to offer 50 languages.”

Master Patrolman F.W. Smith, a 27-year veteran of the Lexington Police Department, agrees that it’s mostly Spanish that’s needed. But he recalls an incident where he used the ESOL service when he arrested a Bulgarian man for a DUI. “It was the Fourth of July, and the men in the car were all heavily intoxicated. Where am I going to find someone who speaks Bulgarian? School was out but luckily a W&L student helped me through the whole situation,” says Smith, adding that the student ended up coming to the police station as well as the court hearing.

“When I started back in 1982 we didn’t have an interpreter, and you didn’t need one because the population was not that diverse at the time,” says Smith. “But it is now and it really helps — especially when you make a traffic stop. It’s unnerving when they don’t speak English. I know a little bit of Spanish but it’s hard to get your point across.”

W&L students and Mayock cover approximately half of the 50 languages offered, and the others are handled by volunteers from both the W&L and Lexington communities. Mayock would like to add to that list. “I’d like to tap into the retired community more,” she says. “There are a lot of people here with great education, a desire to help and they speak plural languages.”

“We have a large Hispanic population in this area” says Mayock, pointing out that the latest language map indicates that there are now 1,100 Spanish-speakers in the Rockbridge County area. In the 2000 census, nearly eight per cent of respondents in Lexington spoke a language other than English in their homes. Almost five percent spoke English less than ‘very well’.”

ESOL began two years after that census, and the area has seen an increase of more than 200 percent in Spanish-speaking people since then. “That means our service is much more in demand,” says Mayock. “If there’s a need in the community, we want to address it, and we’ll do it as professionally as possible.”

More than 300 Individuals Served

ESOL has provided translations to more than 300 people so far and for a variety of situations. Hospitals, schools and pharmacies have all used the service. The police will sometimes call the service at 3 or 4 a.m. looking for help. But the District Court is one of the most frequent users.

Guadalupe Maria Suarez, a W&L senior from Buenos Aires, Argentina, has been chairman of the ESOL hotline since she was a sophomore. She recounts one particular case when she went to court.

“There was the judge, me and four men from Guatamala,” she says. “They didn’t speak a word of English. I would listen to the judge, translate for these guys and then translate back to the judge. They had gotten a speeding ticket, and they were angry about it. They believed they had been stopped only because the police could tell from their license plates that they were Hispanic. With some of the language they used, I couldn’t translate everything they said, but I did my best to explain how they felt.”

Another time, she was called to the hospital. “This guy fell from the staircase and broke both his wrists. It was pretty bad. He didn’t speak a word of English, and he could barely say “hi” and “bye.” I felt bad because I had to tell him “Both your wrists are broken.” I went with him to the pharmacy to get his medicine. I feel so bad for these people. It reminds me of me when I was younger and English was a second language for me.”

But it’s not all police and medical cases.

Hansen Babington, another W&L senior, recalls working with a Bolivian man. “I helped him with finding a job, and we went to about eight or 10 restaurants in the Buena Vista and Lexington area. I worked as a translator between him and the cooking staff. I tried to communicate his aims for employment and what he was capable of doing. He was successful in getting a job but he ended up having to move to Washington after about two weeks.”

Mayock recalls one particularly interesting case. “We had a Spanish-speaking couple going through pre-marriage counseling at the Catholic Church. One of our students went to several different meetings between the priest and the couple to do the live interpretation back and forth. The couple has since married, and now they and their two children are taking English classes with us, which is another service we provide.”

A Learning Experience

Besides helping the local community, Mayock and the W&L students learn a lot themselves.

“The students want to use their Spanish every day in real situations,” says Mayock. “ESOL was student-driven from the start. They came to faculty members in the Spanish department and said, “We have this idea, what do you think?”

“Selfishly, for me, it’s a great way to get to know some wonderful students outside the classroom. Then again, we’ve all learned how to say the Miranda warning in Spanish and words like arraignment. We’ve even produced a glossary of terms that students can refer to and take with them on appointments.”

Mayock also points out that they’ve improved their knowledge of the street jargon used by drug dealers. “It comes in useful when attending an attempted drug bust. Plus, it’s linguistically fascinating,” she says.

Any organization using the ESOL services must sign a waiver. It states that ESOL is a volunteer organization of amateurs coming out of a university, that it is a free service, and that translators will facilitate communication and remain impartial.

“One of the things that sometimes happens in tense situations,” says Mayock, “is that the person you are sitting with and translating for can begin to see you as an ally through language. I have a very soft heart and tend to want to feel that alliance as well. I understand. There’s something completely reassuring about having a bi-lingual person in the room who can make sure that you are understood.

“But to be totally faithful to the whole situation you need to represent exactly what’s being said and nothing more. These are the lessons that we are all learning when doing these live interpretations—that we should just be invisible and let the language speak.

“One result of the ESOL service,” says Mayock, “is that it creates an ongoing link with the Spanish-speaking person you are helping. They know they can call upon you again, and very often they start coming to our English classes.”

• Call (540) 460-6606 to reach the ESOL hotline. Or e-mail esol@wlu.edu to set up an appointment for a live translation.

• ESOL offers free English classes at the Rockbridge Regional Library every Thursday night at 8 p.m. and expects to continue this service throughout the summer.
• ESOL also offers three different levels of free Spanish classes each week on the W&L campus. One-on-one tutoring arrangements can also be made.

• Further information on ESOL services can be found on their Web site http://esol.wlu.edu/