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Chat with Language Advocate: Lola Bendana

Updated: Oct 23, 2021

A big part of our mission is to bring awareness to the general public about the language services sector and the vital role they play in keeping countless Canadians with limited proficiency in English or French informed and engaged with critical public services.

Can you tell us who you are and what organisation you work for?

My name is Lola Bendana, and I am a director of a business I founded, Multi-Languages Corporation, a translation and interpretation agency that has been operating for 22 years. I have also been on the Board of Directors of the Language Industry Association of Canada (AILIA) since 2006, and on the Board of Directors of the Ontario Council on Community Interpreting (OCCI), founded in 2012.

The OCCI was created as a larger stakeholder group to foster the professionalization of community interpreting. So the scenario here is that once we have the training and we have standards, created by OCCI collaborating with other organizations, AILIA in particular, the language industry, specifically the corporate sector, will have a standard to rely on. There are other associations in the field and all these associations, with slightly different mandates, have a similar mission and vision. At the end of the day, we want to reach the same outcome.

So that leads perfectly into the next question. What was it that motivated you to get into the language services space in the first place?

Many years ago, I graduated from university and one of my majors was language translation. And one part that I had to do before I graduated was to be a volunteer. I come from Nicaragua, and studied in Costa Rica, so I volunteered as an interpreter at the border, where refugees were coming from Costa Rica to Nicaragua during the war. And what happened was, obviously, the role was completely different from what we see today. And there were no standards or anything. But it was very impactful for me to see how people’s lives really depend on an interpreter. You need an interpreter in most Spanish-speaking countries, because in the refugee camps in Costa Rica, we had people from the UN who only spoke English. And then that's where, you know, it started for me. And when I moved to Canada, I started to see oh, my goodness, this is also saving lives in so many other areas, in health care, in hospitals, in courts, and how important and critical interpretation is, so I fell in love with it. And it is a life mission. So that's why I'm here.

And you've obviously played a big role in the Canadian context having made these changes. So when you first came here, there were no standards. What was that like? And how did implementing the standards change things?

I started here being a freelance interpreter myself and doing translations into Spanish and then some clients were asking me “Do you have these languages?”, and I started to expand them, then I formed the company and incorporated with other languages, but then I was confused. If I need to contract somebody else to help me do this work, what are the credentials they need to have? And there were no standards, no required credentials of any kind. Anyone could do interpretation without any kind of dedication, right? And there were no guidelines. So I asked, where is the guidance coming from? And then I realized, basically, we need to create something.

And there was another group of people thinking the same thing. And what happened back in 2002, there were silos, basic sort of groups, like the most active people were the ones in the hospital environment. So there was a project called the inter-hospital project. And there was also a project funded by the Ministry of Citizenship to support victims of domestic violence. So those people were having these same conversations or ideas that I was having, and then when I started to connect with people, and ask questions, for example, how come interpreters have to get training for each organization they were working with? So if they wanted to work with me, I was supposed to have training. I actually did a couple of training sessions for interpreters. And then if they go to work with Access Alliance, they have to get the training with Access Alliance or MCIS Language Solutions.

We all felt that we really needed to standardize this. And that's when we formed the Association of Canadian Corporations in Translation and Interpretation (ACCTI). And in 2003, we created roundtable discussions and at the very beginning, no one was connected, like it was a bunch of people, we didn't know each other, we didn’t know where we were going. We created committees; in the Education Committee, we decided we need one thing - a standardized curriculum, so we would know if we hired a person that this person would have certain skills and abilities to do the job.

That was the birth of the language interpreting training program, which was launched in 2006. Seneca College was the pioneer, though now nine or ten different colleges are offering the program. The Ministry of Citizenship gave us funds to create a curriculum. And there was an RFP process, of course, where we looked at different proposals. Next, we thought we really needed to look into accreditation.

There's a lot of talk right now about how society has been disrupted by the pandemic, and a lot of focus on how to foster a better, more equitable world. What do you see as the role of language services as we emerge from the pandemic?

Well, language services will be critical, they still are no matter what. With or without the pandemic, language services are needed and will continue to be needed. What we need to do as a group is adapt to the new technologies and adapt to the new reality. There are still certain scenarios that you still need an in-person interpreter, though. There are studies that show, if you have a pediatric encounter, if you have a psychiatric encounter, you definitely want to have an in-person interpreter, if at all possible. In some scenarios, though, there are other things that could be done even better with the video or the telephone. Sometimes privacy is protected by not seeing the person you interpret for, sometimes the language you need isn’t available locally, but is remotely. We need to know how to differentiate what is needed, and what brings us closer to the outcome of high quality and access to services. We need to train interpreters on how to best use these new tools, though. How do you use breakout rooms, for example, that's something that a lot of people get confused about. If there is an event, the client wants to have the main event and then three breakout rooms, one per room per language, there are many different areas that we can work with. Okay, any government does need to get familiar with that.

Canada is a bilingual country, and there’s an expectation that those who move here will learn one or our two official languages. That being said, why are language services still important in Canada?

We have around 200,000 immigrants coming to Canada a year, and they bring their own gifts, their own values. Many come here and work in the trades. They learn very basic English to basically work 20 years in a particular trade that does not require the level of English that will be required for a medical appointment or for them to go to court if they need to go to court. So it's not just a matter of going and learning English, it is a matter of also, you know, the Canadian vision of multiculturalism .

If we can learn the language, we integrate better, but that should not be necessarily a requirement, right? Because there are so many Canadians, or they bring their families as part of the immigration, they bring their parents and the parents become Canadian. And those parents may learn basic English and not necessarily what is required for a specialized appointment, which is basically part of their language and medical rights.

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