Reaching Students' Families on Their Terms

Cultural differences complicate translations, says Diana Vergara, a Spanish translator for Fairfax County schools.
Cultural differences complicate translations, says Diana Vergara, a Spanish translator for Fairfax County schools. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

How do you translate "authentic assessment" into Urdu? "Stakeholders" into Spanish? "Paradigm shift" into Cambodian?

Translation is a notoriously difficult task, but in the world of education, which often employs a language all its own, the job can be even more daunting. After all, in education, parents aren't just parents, they're "stakeholders." A test isn't a test -- it's an "outcome-based assessment."

Increasingly, education is not just about how to reach students in the classroom -- it's about how to communicate and connect with their families outside of school.

"Immigrant families are the fastest-growing sector of the school population in the U.S.," said Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-director of New York University's Immigration Studies Program. "Schools in every corner of the country are facing this issue."

In Montgomery County, where students speak more than 140 languages, letters go home in five languages in addition to English: Spanish, French, Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese. Fairfax County officials translate student handbooks and notices into seven tongues: Spanish, Urdu, Vietnamese, Chin ese, Korean, Arabic and Farsi.

"There is so much educationese out there that even an English speaker doesn't have total understanding," said Cindy Kerr, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations, which has pressed for improved translation services in the county, where the number of non-English-speaking students increased 83 percent from 1995 to 2005.

During the summer, the Montgomery school system launched a full-time unit to focus on translations for the central office and the system's 194 campuses. The school system, which previously had used contractors and some staff members to do the work, is hoping to improve the consistency and quality of the work by bringing it in-house.

To help non-English-speaking parents understand the nuances of the U.S. school system, it's not enough to be fluent in English and say, Farsi. Translators must also understand the meaning of terms and acronyms that some educators have difficulty explaining in English.

Suarez-Orozco said that although the English "paradigm" can be translated into Spanish as paradigma , it's not commonly used. And, he said, when it comes to a word such as "benchmark" there really is no Spanish equivalent.

"You don't necessarily want a literal translation," said William Prather, who heads the translation unit for Montgomery schools. "There are so many institutions and concepts that don't exist in other countries."

And the task is growing more complex. For more than a decade, Fairfax County school officials have had a translation unit. Initially, it was staffed by a handful of folks -- some working on a part-time, as-needed basis. But as more students have entered the system from countries around the world, the demand for services has escalated. In the 2004-05 school year alone, workers translated more than 2,400 documents and did more than 12,560 interpretations.

Diana Jarrett, who oversees the unit, said that in the 1980s, documents were translated mainly into Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean. Today, the school system regularly publishes materials in those languages as well as Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and Chinese. To keep up with the demand, her office has created a database of frequently used documents -- invitations to back-to-school nights, notes about chicken pox outbreaks -- already translated. They've also created a glossary of education jargon to ensure that terms are used consistently.

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