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Blog Post

Lives in Translation: Language Access Plan and Training Program

By Stephanie Rodriguez and Jennifer Austin
November 15, 2023
Lives in Translation: Language Access Plan and Training Program

Lives in Translation (LiT) is a community-based translation and interpreting program founded in 2016 by faculty members from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Law School at Rutgers University, Newark (RU-N). The program was created with a seed grant from the Chancellor's Office with the goal of developing the language skills of our bilingual students at RU-N to allow them to provide language services to limited-English proficient (LEP) community members who are in need and seeking legal support. Since then, LiT has expanded its service learning opportunities to provide interpreting and translation support for many national and local nonprofits including the ACLU, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and Rutgers Law Clinics. We have also created a minor in Translation and Interpreting Studies that offers a comprehensive curriculum of theory and practice. The vision of our program is to cultivate our students’ language use and knowledge, promote community engagement, and provide language access to our community.

Operating out of one of the most diverse public universities in the country, in a city where 45% of the population speaks a language other than English at home, LiT has been pivotal in eliminating language barriers and providing access to resources for LEP members of our community. Currently, over 850 Rutgers students and alumni who speak more than 50 different languages have enrolled in our program as interns or volunteers. Through our community partnerships, students examine the language services industry through real-life, unique experiences and act as cultural mediators, all while having a significant impact on our city. In the summer of 2020, our students aided the city of Newark’s contact tracing efforts by providing language services to individuals who had been exposed to COVID-19, assisting exposed asymptomatic persons with isolation, referring symptomatic persons to appropriate testing facilities, and following up with exposed persons until they had been cleared to cease isolation. LiT interns made significant contributions to a statewide COVID-19 initiative by joining the contact tracing team of the Newark Department of Health. They played an active role in monitoring approximately 2,800 contacts, demonstrating their commitment to public health and community well-being.

Academic Offerings

The minor in Translation and Interpreting Studies was designed to expand curricular offerings beyond theory and the traditional classroom to allow our students to experience collaborative practical learning through interdisciplinary course work. In these courses, we incorporate technology, which empowers our students to become tech-savvy language professionals who can leverage the latest tools and technologies to deliver high-quality language services. The courses, workshops, and internships we offer deepen our students’ understanding of diverse cultures, social and political issues, and the importance of fair access to information and resources, thereby promoting civic engagement and social equity. Through the minor, students are prepared to pursue careers as professional translators, interpreters, language specialists, or localization project managers in a wide range of industries, such as in government, health care, or medical settings.

In Spring 2022, LiT was awarded a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a certificate program in translation and interpretation in the Spanish & Portuguese Studies department and to develop its curricular, service-learning, and language-documentation training components.

Students from Professor Austin's and Professor Rodriguez's class participating in the Endangered Language Alliance's Language Documentation workshop. Image courtesy of Lives in Translation.

Through this award, we hosted our first Language Documentation workshop on how to collect, describe, and archive samples of minority and endangered languages in our community, which was a resounding success. The workshop, which was led by Dr. Ross Perlin, the co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance in NYC, attracted a diverse group of participants from across our RU-N departments, from Rutgers University-New Brunswick, and from the wider Northern NJ community. Over the course of the workshop, participants learned about a variety of techniques for recording and documenting endangered languages. By providing training in language documentation, the workshop is helping to ensure that the linguistic diversity of our community is preserved for future generations.

Students from Professor Rodriguez's Legal Translation and Interpreting class outside the Essex County Superior Court in Newark, NJ. Image courtesy of Lives in Translation.

Beyond the classroom

One of our most popular courses, Legal Translation & Interpreting, which prepares students for a career in legal translation or court interpreting, takes an annual academic field trip to shadow a NJ Court Interpreter at the Essex County Superior Court in Newark, NJ. Students are provided a unique opportunity to observe Criminal Courts proceedings, speak with the Interpreter’s Division Supervisor, and learn the process of becoming an NJ Certified Court Interpreter and the Ethical Canons of Court Interpreting. By observing court proceedings and speaking with court interpreters, students gain a deeper understanding of the important role that language professionals play in the legal system. The field trip also helped students to develop a greater appreciation for the ethical considerations that are essential for providing high-quality interpreting services.

Going beyond the classroom has inspired us to include creative new approaches to learning as the program grows and develops. LiT has partnered with ALC Bridge, an organization dedicated to connecting language professionals and students to identify, explore, and attain job placement in the language services field. Through this partnership, we have hosted a speaker series every fall semester, which offers students the opportunity to hear from experts and connect with professionals in the industry. The design of this collaboration is to support students who are interested in or learning Translation & Interpreting Studies and to build a foundation for their academic excellence and professional success.

In support of language advocacy and access, Jennifer Austin and Stephanie Rodriguez, along with student Gretel Rodriguez Ramos, had the opportunity to represent LiT and testify before the New Jersey State Senate in support of Bill S2459. The bill, which expands the state’s language access services, is advancing to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. Under this legislation, the requirement for translating and interpreting services will include the top 15 most-used languages in New Jersey: These languages are Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Korean, Portuguese, Gujarati, Arabic, Polish, Haitian Creole, Russian, Hindi, Tagalog, Italian, Vietnamese, Urdu and French. All 15 languages are available through our student volunteer program.

New Jersey’s language access mandate will be the largest program of its kind in the U.S. The passage of this bill will increase accessibility of public services for limited-English-proficiency New Jersey residents. The bill was passed by the Senate and referred to the Assembly State and Local Government Committee on March 20, 2023.

Jennifer Austin, Stephanie Rodriguez, and Gretel Rodriguez Ramos outside the NJ State Senate in November 2022. Image courtesy of Lives in Translation.

Exhibiting Lives in Translation

LiT, in collaboration with the Design Consortium at RU-N, presented A Feeling Of Itself, an exhibition that engages the audience through a set of multimedia audio-visual experiences that express the value of living in translation. The exhibition was based on cultural exchange and the concept of what in Spanish we call “arraigo,” which roughly translates to “a sense of belonging because of one’s roots.” The title, A Feeling Of Itself, is a phrase from one of the recordings — the brother of an LiT student sharing his unique story of life between languages, and the feeling of expressing and communicating in two or more languages at once.

The design of the exhibit, created by Professor Chantal Fischzang and her students in the Arts, Culture, and Media department at RU-N, centers on the concept of “language layers,” which involves text clouds that are formatted to hover within the framing of a background image, photo, or environment. The narrative is based on excerpts of insights on bilingualism from the interview recordings, and they are presented in two colors to address translations. Text is layered over photographs, captured by Professor Anthony Alvarez's photography students in the Arts, Culture, and Media department at RU-N at SHINE Portrait Studio, of LiT students conducting interviews, shown as quotes in two languages.

This exhibit is an ongoing project aimed at inspiring students to continue contributing to the conversation, as their voice matters. By doing so, we will embark on the dialogue of exploring translation as a powerful conduit for cultural exchange, fostering effective communication, and promoting mutual understanding and global dialogue.

The current selection of interviews is a set dedicated to celebrating Latino heritage and language, represented by our Lives in Translation students Alma Garcia-Constanza, who recently graduated from RU-N as a Translation & Interpreting minor and Biology major, and Jennifer Carpio, also a recent graduate who studied Criminal Justice and Translation & Interpreting. The interviews were conducted in Spanish and Tlapanec.

Students from Professor Chantal Fischzang's class visit the exhibition at the Newark Public Library. Image courtesy of the Design Consortium.

Jennifer reflects on her experience with language, stating that “multilingualism brings a richness of experiences, connections, and cultures that I cherish and to be bilingual is to make yourself a habitant of two distinct worlds.”

Portrait of Alma Garcia-Constanza on the day of the A Feeling Of Itself exhibition unveiling at the Newark Public Library. Image courtesy of Lives in Translation.

Alma shared her feeling that “to be bilingual is to possess a gift that others can be part of while opening a more comprehensive range of opportunities in everyday life and the professional field.”

The current exhibit is displayed at the Newark Public Library until the start of January 2024.

More than 67 million Americans (22%) speak a language other than English at home, with 25.5 million (8%) speaking English “less than very well.”1 Our project aims to celebrate the increasing linguistic diversity of the Rutgers-Newark community and beyond and builds upon this strength by training our students to acquire expertise in a specialized field of translation and interpreting. We believe that by nurturing students' expertise in translation and interpreting, we can cultivate a generation of language professionals who will play a vital role in promoting effective communication and language access across various sectors and communities.

Stephanie A. Rodriguez is Director of Lives in Translation and Instructor of Translation and Interpreting Studies courses at Rutgers University - Newark. She has 10 years of experience as a professional medical, legal, and literary translator, court interpreter, and localization specialist. Additionally, she is a Ph.D. student in Bilingualism and Second Language Acquisition in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Rutgers University - New Brunswick. Her research intersects with various topics of translation and language use, ranging from the cognitive aspects of machine translation to the development of translation pedagogy, the study of bilingual language development and language access advocacy.

Dr. Jennifer B. Austin is a Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Rutgers University, Newark, co-founder of the Lives in Translation program, current faculty advisor of the Lives in Translation program, and advisor in the Bilingualism and Second Language Acquisition Ph.D. program in New Brunswick. Dr. Austin has extensive research experience in the United States and Spain and has numerous publications on child and adult language acquisition.

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