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Community translation and interpretation to better support newcomers

As we are reflecting on language advocacy, it seems relevant to take some time to recall what community translation and interpretation are (CTI), why they are critical services and what we can hope for. CTI are language services from and to one immigration language to an official language, often time in the context of public services.

Why is there a need?

Canada welcomes several thousands of newcomers each year. While most of them arrive through the economic immigration program and have skills in one of the official languages, others arrive in Canada because they are fleeing their country at war, because their security is threatened, or to join their families already in Canada. So not all newcomers have the sufficient official language skills to communicate and understand essential information. While they follow language courses that will gradually allow them to communicate in most contexts, the process can be long. It is therefore crucial to support them so that they can access social and civic life in the same way as any other individual. Language should never be a barrier to accessing information or public services. The more newcomers will have the ability to engage in their new environment, the better they will adapt to their new life and start building their future with dignity.

What is the situation today in Canada?

Canada is a leader in language services in part due to its extensive experience with official bilingualism. Canada is also a leader in settlement services offered to newcomers compared to many other countries. However, community translation and interpretation, which are at the intersection of both these expertise, still need to be recognized and supported. Today, it is hard to find official numbers regarding CTI services. It is not systematically offered to newcomers with limited knowledge of official languages. French and English training is widely offered through settlement agencies supporting newcomers, and it is crucial, but community translation and interpretation services, which should be a complementary tool, are not. As a consequence, access to community translation and interpretation vary very much from one place to another, from one urban area to another, from rural areas to urban areas, etc. There is no consistency in service procurement. Some organisations are being incredibly active and efficient in some areas, mainly in larger urban settings, but it can sometimes be quite hard to find services in medium size and smaller cities. Needs are high. Another challenge is training. We need to train people. Whether they are volunteers or professionals, people must understand what is at stake with community translation and interpretation, and with working close to vulnerable populations.

As a result of these lacks, still too many newcomers cannot understand what is happening when in a hospital or at a doctor appointment, they can have a hard time following the course of a medical treatment, they cannot support their children through communication with schools, they have a hard time in legal settings, and the list goes on. These situations, where language has been an issue, can actually lead to more complex time-consuming problems to solve. Leaders and decision-makers have to realize that quality CTI services would actually allow for more efficiency and less complexities. They need to recognize CTI as a tool for settlement services and of public interest and take consistent actions.

Why should I care?

We should all care because as citizens, we have a shared responsibility to support minorities who do not always have a voice to express their needs. We should care because we are all part of the same ecosystems; my neighbours' well being affects me and all the other neighbours. I care because we must make sure no one is left on the margins because of language skills.

Anne has recently finished her doctoral studies and is now an adjunct professor at Universite de Moncton, New Brunswick, where she teaches translation. She has been in the language industry for over 25 years as a professional translator/reviewer, language instructor, volunteer interpreter. She currently leads research projects on community translation and interpretation, i.e. language services facilitating newcomers' access to public services. She is also involved in research projects on translation training and higher education pedagogy.

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