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Language Lessons

Student interpreters aid the community—in more than four dozen tongues


On April 4, a Vietnamese immigrant named Jiverly Wong held forty people hostage at the American Civic Association in Binghamton for three hours, killing thirteen and seriously wounding four before taking his own life. A small nonprofit devoted to helping immigrants resettle in the U.S., the association focuses largely on English instruction—but many of its clients still had difficulty communicating with service agencies in the wake of the attack. When Binghamton officials asked for help, a team of volunteers from the Cornell Public Service Center’s Translator Interpreter Program (TIP) made the hour-long drive from Ithaca. “We had to recruit thirty students in two days,” says Mandarin speaker Lisa Pan ’11, a TIP board member who was among the busload of Cornellians who went to Binghamton. “We contacted almost every language professor.”

Run by students, TIP offers translation and interpretation (the former is written, the latter verbal) in more than fifty languages, from Spanish and French to Khmer, Urdu, even Quechua. It provides its services pro bono to several hundred community agencies in Tompkins County and the surrounding area. In Binghamton, volunteers worked closely with counselors, law enforcement, and attorneys to provide interpretive services in more than forty languages—including Mandarin, Arabic, and Swahili—and in a variety of situations, such as helping people find relatives and facilitating recollections of the violence. “There wasn’t any TIP student who didn’t want to be involved,” says Joyce Muchan ’97, assistant director of student programs for the Public Service Center, who co-founded TIP in 2000 and serves as its adviser. “They have a tremendous commitment to the community and they understand the difficulties associated with language communication.”

Prayer vigil

Prayer vigil: Relatives of victims gather after the Binghamton tragedy, which spurred dozens of Cornell students to volunteer as translators.

Although the Binghamton event was particularly fraught, TIP volunteers often deal with charged situations, like domestic disputes or clients coping with mental or physical health issues. Students have taken on a range of challenging cases: facilitating communication between a young girl and a suicide-prevention hotline; identifying a suspect when a Chinese restaurant was robbed; helping firefighters ensure that no one remained inside a Mandarin-speaking family’s burning home.

TIP’s volunteers include about thirty language professors and between fifty and a hundred students, depending on the time of year. They’re trained in such issues as confidentiality, how to remain unbiased, and appropriate behavior in dealing with clients. Each undergoes a certification process during which professors test their written and verbal skills. TIP’s twelve-member student board organizes the lengthy list of volunteers largely by use of an online database, which allows most service requests to be answered within twenty-four hours. The organization recently produced a wallet-sized card and pamphlet for emergency responders, offering useful phrases to quickly identify a speaker’s language and ease communication. TIP also works to promote intercultural understanding, hosting the annual “Taste of Culture” event that showcases languages—and desserts—from a host of nations.

Plans to expand TIP were in the works until the economic crisis hit, says Muchan. Though it has garnered some outside funding and recognition—it was recently nominated for a civil rights award from the International Association of Chiefs of Police—the program, along with the rest of the Public Service Center, has seen a 5 percent budget cut. Muchan is also concerned about the loss of resources as a result of cost-cutting: Cornell recently terminated its courses in Dutch, Swedish, and English as a Second Language, and limited Turkish to video instruction. “If there’s some kind of emergency and we can’t find the language, it’s disappointing to us and whoever is in need,” says Muchan, who has been contacted by peer institutions such as Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia that are interested in establishing similar programs. In some languages, she adds, “we don’t have anyone to certify the students.”

Yoonki Kim ’12, another student who interpreted in Binghamton, was born in Korea and moved to Connecticut six years ago. A TIP volunteer since his first few weeks at Cornell, he often practices by speaking to his parents in Korean, creating mock situations over the telephone to recreate the spontaneity of interpretation. Pan also strives to ensure that her translations are as faithful as possible; she uses dictionaries, takes notes, and isn’t afraid to ask a speaker to repeat himself. “Remind both parties there might be a cultural gap,” Pan advises. “We try to find the most accurate or direct translation, but sometimes there is none. And don’t hurry—providing an accurate translation is more important.” 

—Molly O’Toole ’09