Lost in Translation: Kids as Translators have so Much to Lose

Young Latino with father's hand on his shoulder

Casting young children in the role of interpreters for their family puts too much weight and responsibility on their shoulders.

Go to any bank, clinic, school or grocery store in California and you’ll run into this more often than not—kids translating for their non-English-speaking parents. While it may seem a benign gesture for kids to step in and help their parents ask where a certain food item is located in the grocery store, the practice has far-reaching implications that are often overlooked for the sake of convenience.

Patients at a hospital or clinic have a basic right to interpreters so that they may receive care in a language they understand and so that they may be active participants in the decisions being made about their treatment. While health care providers strive to provide adequate interpretation services, many times it falls on the young kids to speak for their parents. Put yourself in the position of being a child or teenager with the responsibility for communicating life and death information to your parents. How would it impact you to have to explain to your mother that she has cancer? Or perhaps inform your father that his insurance won’t cover a much-needed procedure. How do you broach the subject of sexual practices with your parents when the doctor or nurse is taking their medical history? What kind of pressure would you feel knowing that not finding the right word or phrase with which to interpret could lead to misdiagnosis or worse?

It’s too much to expect from children, regardless of the age. Yet every day children of immigrants are thrown into these situations and are forced to grow up all too quickly.

While many of us might have enjoyed our childhood years without the worries our parents dealt with on a daily basis, this is not the case for children of immigrants. These children are the cornerstone of most decisions made in the household. They’re the ones translating all financial, immigration and medical documents as well as interpreting most interactions their parents have with the outside world. Consequently, they are privy to everything that is going on—from financial struggles and looming home foreclosures to possible evictions and employment disciplinary actions. Every worry, stress and decision most parents try to shield their kids from is funneled through these kids’ young minds.

With all the stress and anxiety caused by these experiences and their accelerated maturing, how will these kids be impacted in school, in social interactions or even in interactions with authority figures with whom they’ve seen their parents have negative interactions? What about the role reversal that occurs when parents become dependent on their children? This is not an attempt to justify negative outcomes. It’s merely an attempt to understand how a young mind may be impacted and shaped by being placed in these circumstances and what long-term effects that might have.

And while some kids may find the opportunity to interpret or translate for their parents at school a benefit, particularly when it comes to selecting what details to share with their parents about behavior or grade issues, it also has long-term negative effects. How likely is it that children will translate all the details about them goofing off in class or not turning in their homework? Ultimately, the parents do not get the information and understanding they need to work with their child and the children don’t receive the help they need to be successful in school.

Is there a solution? Some would simply say “learn English,” but that’s not a realistic solution, particularly for recent immigrants. Immigrants’ children do in fact effectively acculturate and learn English…which is why they’re the ones translating. Perhaps service providers, be it health care, financial services, government agencies or other applicable services, should strive to better meet the needs of immigrant populations. This means having materials available that are written in the right languages, having interpreters available who can help out, and, by all means, if you see that a child will be interpreting sensitive information for his or her parents, step in. If you can interpret in their stead, please do so. If you can’t, then stress the need to find a suitable interpreter. Encourage providers to be prepared to offer those needed services. And above all else, let kids be kids.

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