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Looking Beyond Your ESL Teachers for Translation/Interpreting Needs


It may be tempting to use your English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers to translate texts your school needs in another language, or to ask them to interpret for parents who don’t speak English well. However, it is important to note that unless they have a background as a professional translator or interpreter in the particular field you need, your ESL teachers are not those best skilled to handle this task.

Instead, it is better to place these jobs in the hands of a professional translator or interpreter to ensure that texts are translated correctly and without error and that everyone’s words are interpreted in the full spirit of the message they wish to convey. While it’s certainly easy to call on ESL instructors, here are just a few reasons why your ESL teacher should not be called in these situations.

Specialized terminology is a learned skill, not native intuition

We don’t all have the same language background. Consider your own native language. No matter what language you call your first, surely you are not familiar with advanced terminology in all categories of texts one might ask you to translate. If you studied medicine, you probably are not as familiar with terminology related to automobiles (unless of course you work on cars as a hobby, for example). If you are an accountant by trade, you probably cannot spout off terms related to construction. Although we are all native speakers of a given language, it doesn’t make us experts or qualified to translate texts in any field from our second language to our native one.

Your ESL teachers are the same. While many will have diverse backgrounds, they do not necessarily have the skillset to translate texts or interpret during meetings.

Topic competency is not the same as translation or interpreting experience

You school district vetted your ESL teachers vigorously to ensure it was hiring the right people to teach your limited English proficiency (LEP) students. However, knowing both languages and having experience as a teacher is not the same as being qualified to translate a text for a school or even interpret during meetings with parents who don’t speak English well.

Translation and interpreting are their own special skillsets. Just as you would not offer to build someone’s home simply because you had previously studied concepts about construction, an ESL teacher may not be the best candidate to translate school handbooks just because they are familiar with your school. Even though he or she is qualified to teach students whose second language is English, the two skillsets are very different.

Tip! Seek a professional translation team, interpreter, or agency for your documents, website and meetings. There are many linguists who are equipped with the knowledge to make sure your translation and interpreting projects are handled correctly from start to finish. This could make the difference between having it done correctly the first time, or having to get it translated professionally a second time (thus paying twice) in order to have a more accurate and professional product. It also helps to avoid potential miscommunications during meetings and having to meet multiple times to convey a message accurately.