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Growing International Community Means More Demand For Interpreters

Creative Commons

When Jeanmarie Rouhier-Willoughby was a grad student she worked as a translator for Russian research on regenerative frog eyes.

That’s one of the many opportunities, ranging from working at the United Nations to parlaying with international horse buyers, that Kentuckians may be eligible for if they’re multilingual. U.S. News and World Report ranked interpreters and translators first in its annual "Best Jobs" ranking in the creative and media jobs category. Interpreters and translators were ranked 64 overall.

The jobs have a median salary of $44,190; flexibility is ranked high and stress level is average. No luck on upward mobility, however. The jobs are ranked below average in that sphere.

And the demand for interpreters is apparent to many in the commonwealth.

Medical Interpretation

One area that’s growing is medical interpretation. Carolina Fernandez is a team manager at Pure Language Services, Inc. in Lexington. And she wants everyone to know she’s hiring.

“We are always looking for interpreters," she said. "Particularly we’re looking for French, Swahili and Nepali."

The state’s growing immigrant and refugee populations from other parts of the world, including from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma and Bhutan, means Fernandez’s agency needs more speakers from these countries to keep up with growing demand in a critical field.

Many of her company's clients are clinics and other medical centers. And their interpreting staff ballooned from 18 to 60 when Pure Language Services landed a contract with the University of Kentucky in 2014.

Seventy percent of the requests they get are for Spanish services, but they also work in Arabic, Mandarin, Ukrainian, Russian and Swahili.

Fernandez said that the number of Spanish speakers settling in Lexington has created a robust application pool for Spanish interpreters.

“We are seeing the second generation of these families settled,” said Fernandez. “And these adults are fully bilingual and that has made it easier for us to be able to hire qualified Spanish staff.”

Learning a Language

Students in the U.S. have long been encouraged to learn a foreign language, and native English speakers can end up in translator jobs through that path.

But some educators believe not enough is done in U.S. schools to help non-native English speakers maintain their native language, which could make these students ready for future opportunities in interpretation and translation.

“We have plenty of English language learners in the district and I don’t think that they’re actually valued for the language that they bring with them,” said Jacque Van Houten, world language specialist at Jefferson County Public Schools. “And those languages are some of the most crucial languages in the interpreting field.”

She said some immigrant parents want their children to focus on speaking English. But students also still need help in their native language to get the true strength of literacy.

“If they at home can be working on reading with their children in the native language, writing with their children in the native language that would also help them," she said.

Van Houten said strategies like sending notes home to families asking them to help students in their native language can help English language learners become truly bilingual. This also has the benefit of making Kentuckians more attractive job candidates in the global job market.

Greater Louisville Inc, the Metro Chamber of Commerce, listed language learning as a priority for it's 2018 legislative agenda.

“Kentucky’s primary, secondary and postsecondary education institutions should adequately support English as a Second Language (ESL), foreign language, and global competency programs that make Kentuckians more competitive and competent in a world economy and that allow new Kentuckians to be educated and find adequate employment in the Commonwealth,” the report reads.

For Rouhier-Willoughby, the Russian professor at the University of Kentucky, America’s language deficit means that companies and government have to contract with language services agencies as opposed to utilizing staff they’re already paying.

“This deficit in our education system,” she said “is one that actually costs a huge amount of money." 

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.