Why Educational Interpretation is the Field for Me

I truly believe life is a great journey, and it sometimes takes us places we didn’t know we would go. In my first interpreting position, I was hired as a staff medical interpreter, and after a few years interpreting in the real world and completing my graduate degree I decided to move over to the judicial field. But I never truly settled in. I knew I loved interpreting, but I struggled to find my niche. I moved back into medical, but little did I know it would be another few years before I finally found a home in educational interpreting.

Since then, I have been extremely fortunate to work for school districts and offices that support their educational interpreters. My first district in particular was a great introduction because the interpreters were separated into groups and were assigned certain schools to cover. This meant that we would be working with more-or-less the same people on a regular basis and would get to know their preferences and ways of phrasing certain things. In my experience, relationships help a lot with anticipation. It’s like being assigned to the same courthouse and being familiar with the way certain things are done. It puts the interpreter more at ease and certainly helped me to familiarize myself with what this field is all about.

Much more than IEPs

Another district I had the privilege of working for taught me that, while the world of educational interpreting can be in large part IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) and special education meetings, it can be so much more than that! So much so that in this particular district, the interpreters were part of the Communications and Community Engagement Department instead of the usual departments we typically see (Multilingual Services or Special Education). It’s a wonderful use of interpreters to involve everyone on matters that affect the entire community regardless of language barriers.

I’ve learned a lot on the job, but I am always glad I can draw upon my judicial and medical interpreting background. One thing is for certain, educational interpreting is not for beginners. It’s the sort of field that can shift from a one-on-one meeting exchanging pleasantries to a contentious meeting where emotions can start to run high in a matter of minutes. The interpreter must feel secure enough to speak up in case he/she needs anything. This is something that only comes to the interpreter once they know they need to speak up to ensure they are following their code of ethics. Otherwise, communication can break down fast. There is also the issue of medical terminology. I have been extremely lucky to have been a staff interpreter at a children’s hospital, where in the neurology department things as specific as VNS (Vagus Nerve Stimulation) therapy or as broad as autism-like behavior and speech pathology reports were often discussed. I cherish all of these experiences because they have helped me through some tough interpreting situations.

This is all easier to handle when interpreting programs teach how to manage the flow of conversation, or how to use other techniques to render the best possible interpretation. But it’s not easy if you essentially just “fall” into the job and don’t know it’s what needs to be done to interpret accurately. Unfortunately, because this subspecialty of community interpreting has stayed mostly hidden until recently, many people are still stepping into this world without much training. There are still so few training programs dedicated to educational interpreting that it’s very tough to get proper information. I would liken educational interpreting to medical interpreting in the early 2000s, when things started to professionalize for medical interpreters. However, things are starting to change and every year I see at least a few more educational interpreters at events like the ATA annual conference.

Professionalizing the field of educational interpretation

Recently, there has also been a movement to professionalize the field. There are even efforts to start associations and establish a nationally accepted code of ethics for spoken-language interpreters through the ITE (Interpreting and Translation in Education) Workgroup. We are still in our infancy and light-years behind our ASL counterparts, but all we can do is keep moving forward and learn from what our interpreting colleagues have done before in medical and court, hopefully without re-inventing the wheel. In the meantime, I can continue to learn new things, while at the same time drawing from my previous experiences. Educational interpreting is oddly familiar; like nothing else and like everything else I’ve known all rolled into one. And as more people find out about this field, I’m hopeful they will see it as a good place to call home.

Hopefully, I’ve been able to share a little bit about why I truly feel at home now. How about you? Do you feel at home in your career?

Luis F. Hernández is a Spanish-English interpreter, translator, and language access advocate working as Translation Services Supervisor for the Riverside County Office of Education in Riverside, California. He holds a graduate degree in Bilingual Interpreting from the College of Charleston and undergraduate degrees in Translation & Interpretation and Spanish with Emphasis in Translation from California State University, Long Beach. He also holds a CHI™ Certification through the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters and is an active member of the Interpreting and Translation in Education Workgroup Leadership Committee. In his time off, he enjoys hiking, traveling, and spending time with his family. You can also find him on Instagram @the_interpretologist or connect with him through LinkedIn.

12 thoughts on “Why Educational Interpretation is the Field for Me”

  1. Gracias, Luis. Me alegro que hayas encontrado el puesto para ti. Un abrazo a sana distancia. Jose

    1. Luis Hernandez says:

      ¡Gracias por leer!

  2. Hi Luis,

    Thanks for sharing this your experience. When I first read your title, I thought it is going to be about teaching interpreting not interpreting in educational settings. Now that I have read it, I believe we share similar experiences. After 25 years of practicing all sorts of interpreting, I guess remote simultaneous interpreting is my niche. Thanks again for sharing!


  3. Luis Hernandez says:

    Thank you for reading, Ahmad. Educational interpreting is gaining more visibility every day so hopefully we’ll be able to overcome the branding problems eventually. I’m glad you can relate and hope you’ve found your “home” as well!

  4. Carol RHINE-MEDINA says:

    Although my setting of choice is the courtroom, I have covered many Educational Interpreting assignments at charter schools in the San Francisco Bay Area & found this interpreting modality extremely challenging. All funded proceedings were IEP-related. Participants were almost never familiar with the role of an interpreter, therefore the first important hurdle became that of scouring a communications channel that was productive & not disruptive for parents & educators. I found that invariably all parties were extremely satisfied & grateful that their opinions were able to find a voice. I find Luis’ achievements in this field both amazing & rewarding & the fact that a school district has conferred creativity & scope to his role, nothing short of miraculous!

    1. Luis Hernandez says:

      It’s very tough because so much learning has to happen, from the staff, from the parent, even from the interpreter! But at the same time it’s good we can possibly teach from the beginning what best practices look like. Thanks for reading!

  5. Juan says:

    Great job, Luis! Thank you for your efforts in promoting T&I in the Education filed.

    1. Luis says:

      Thank you for reading, Juan! I’m glad I can shed a little bit of light on this quickly emerging specialization.

  6. Jared Clark says:

    Great article, Luis! I’m glad you’ve found your niche! We both ended up back in Southern California.

    1. Luis says:

      It’s great to hear from you Jared! Once this pandemic is over we should re-connect! Thanks for reading!

  7. Gerardo H, says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience working as an educational interpreter. Many interpreters who work in educational interpreting tell me it is more challenging than medical and court interpreting. I have also noticed that efforts to professionalize educational interpreting, like NAETISL https://www.naetisl.net

    in 2015, the University of Minnesota published a “Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice for Educational
    Interpreters of Spoken Languages” document, as a template for trainers to use.

    I hope these efforts lead to the establishment for a national certifying body for educational interpreters in the near future.

    1. Luis says:

      Hi Gerardo! I’m also glad there are efforts to professionalize. As a member of the ITE Workgroup’s Leadership Committee I know the workgroup is happy to connect to see where common goals intersect between the two organizations. ITE has indicated its interest in connecting and in my view, there is always room for collaboration. While I acknowledge that Minnesota’s publication is the first robust effort in educational interpreting to define a code of ethics, I am happy to report the ITE Workgroup is building off local and state efforts and, through our Job Tasks Analysis and Ethics committees, is in the process of developing a serious national effort to understand the full scope of what educational interpreters and translators do. This will hopefully lead in the future to a comprehensive national Code of Ethics for interpreters and translators in educational settings. If you’d like more information on our efforts, feel free to visit http://www.iteworkgroup.org. Thanks for reading!

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