Needing Translators for Immigrants is No Laughing Matter

I lived in Beijing for the first half of 2016. One thing I got a kick out of the most were all of the really bad translations from Chinese to English in restaurant menus. I could go from restaurant to restaurant finding reasonably priced “roasted husband” or “characteristics of mouth-watering” and other endlessly appetizing dishes (characteristics of mouth-watering actually turned out to be my favorite go-to. Kind of a chicken-type dish I think). For the most part, menus had pictures along with these translations, so it wasn’t too big of a deal.

The lack of quality available translators for immigrants became a much bigger deal when I got sick. Flying back from Hong Kong after a weekend trip, I came down with a debilitating cold. Both of my ears were completely plugged, I couldn’t breathe through my nose, my head was pounding, and my throat felt like I had just swallowed an entire cup of scalding New Year’s Eve company party hot chocolate. I was out of order, essentially. The scariest part was that I had just recently moved to China and spoke about enough Chinese as the 3-year-old kids I tutored. I didn’t know where to go! I frantically Baidu searched for a Beijing hospital that served English speakers and came up with one that was about a 45 minute metro ride away from me.

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I came to find, unfortunately, that “serving English speakers” was a generous classification. I walked around the hospital campus for about 20 minutes desperately trying to find any kind of in English, asking workers if they spoke English met with concerned expressions. Finally, a glorious arrow faded on the floor: “expat wing.” A worker flagged down the one designated English speaker there who helped check me in and I had a total wave of relief wash over me. I didn’t realize how scary it was to be unsure if there would be a medical professional there to understand me and get me the help I needed.

 I didn’t realize how scary it was to be unsure if there would be a medical professional there to understand me and get me the help I needed.

This is something many immigrants in the United States experience on a day-to-day basis. Sure, menu items or shopping are for the most part easy to figure out. When it comes to medical coverage though, how likely is it that any of the staff or doctors at the closest hospital speak fluent Amharic, Chinese, or Spanish? When immigrants need to apply for government assistance programs, do they have access to the materials and information that they need in their native language? Sure these basics might be covered, but what about enrichment programs? The possibilities are endless.

By creating language accessibility for non-native English speakers living in and visiting the United States, you lay the foundation for a community that thrives, not just survives. 

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