Rise in Ohio immigrants fuels interpreter demand

OLIVER ORTEGA The Columbus Dispatch Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- About decade ago, Elena Tsinman's agency began getting requests for interpreters who could speak Oromo, Tigrinya and Agaw -- all east African languages she had never heard of.

"At that time, in the middle of Ohio, it was very strange," said Tsinman, a linguist from Russia.

Since then, her Columbus-based company, ASIST, has expanded to offer more than 240 languages on a 24-hour hot line and 150 on-site interpreters, covering widely used languages as well as the most arcane.

As Columbus' immigrant population has grown, local nonprofit groups and agencies such as ASIST have been crucial in helping the city's foreign-born residents obtain services and assimilate.

Recent immigration from all over Asia, Africa and Latin America has created a need for interpretation and translation in scores of languages for law enforcement, courts, hospitals and social-service agencies.

"If they don't know the language, they can't get jobs or communicate with medical providers. It's essential to have an interpreter," said Angela Plummer, the director of the Columbus-based nonprofit Community Refugee and Immigration Services, or CRIS, which began offering an interpreting service a decade ago.

Nine percent of Franklin County residents are foreign-born, triple the rate in 1990, according to recent U.S. Census figures. Plummer traces this growth to the recent resettlement of Nepalese and Iraqi refugees in central Ohio, as well as steady influxes from eastern Africa and Latin America the past two decades.

Franklin County Municipal Court calls upon interpreters for thousands of cases a year, said Adriana Fonseca, coordinator of the court's interpretation services. Demand is so great that the court uses three agencies in addition to CRIS and ASIST, at a cost of about $115,000 last year, court administrator Emily Shaw said.

Besides knowing the language, court interpreters need to be trained in jurisprudence, Fonseca said. "It protects people's rights through accuracy; due process is preserved."

The demand for Arabic interpreters at the court has quadrupled in the past four years, reflecting the growth in the Iraqi community, Fonseca said.

In the medical field, language gaps can lead to errors ranging from inconsequential misunderstandings to fatal misdiagnoses, said Milly Valverde, the director of interpreter services at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center. The hospital has contracts with ASIST and three other agencies, in addition to having its own staff of interpreters.

The hospital has posters asking patients in 28 languages to show staff members which ones they speak. Additionally, the OSU medical center and other hospitals share interpreters when there's a shortage or when a language that rarely appears pops up, Valverde said.

Franklin County Children Services has been translating its website and other agency literature into Spanish and Somali for the past few years, said Deborrha Armstrong, the agency's director. Children Services has a three-year, $450,000 contract with ASIST.

In addition to knowing a language, interpreters should have an understanding of their client's culture, Tsinman said. For that reason, she employs mostly native speakers.

For instance, doctors in African and Asian cultures sometimes refrain from telling patients they have cancer, unlike American doctors, Tsinman said. And in the business world, a move considered disrespectful in one party's culture can sour a deal.

Plummer said translation is essential for immigrants who have to contend with finding work and raising their family in addition to learning English.

"Newcomers and refugees very much want to learn English, and they're studying," she said, "but it takes time."