Report from the Front Lines: Multilingual Training-of-Trainers for Refugee Interpreters

Originally presented with Sharon Neumann Solow at the Conference of Interpreter Trainers annual conference, Minneapolis, MN October 2002.

Holly Mikkelson
Sharon Neumann Solow
Monterey Institute of International Studies
Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation

Before a new client is brought into the room, clean and disinfect all surfaces that may have been contaminated during the last procedure-including exam and surgery tables, counters, instrument carts, trolleys, and light handles. ... First, make sure the surgical/procedure site has been cleaned with soap and water. ... Apply antiseptic and gently scrub the skin in a circular motion-beginning in the center of the site and moving out-using sterile cotton balls, cotton wool, or gauze sponges held by a sponge forceps. A sterile field is ... created by placing sterile towels or surgical surgical drapes around the procedure site and on the stand that will hold sterile instruments and other items needed during the procedure.

-(Engender Health, 2002)

We operated in old blood-stained and often pus-stained coats, we used undisinfected instruments from undisinfected plush lined cases. If a sponge (if they had sponges) or instrument fell on the floor it was washed and squeezed in a basin of water and used as if it was clean.

-Civil War surgeon (, 2002)

1. Introduction

Practitioners of a profession are often called upon in emergencies to take actions that violate the high standards that were instilled in them during their training. The authors of this paper, when teaching a training-of-trainers course for refugee interpreters, at times felt as if they were being asked to perform neurosurgery under battlefield conditions. The course was initially presented over a two-week period to ten speakers of refugee languages, many of whom spoke limited English and were recent arrivals to this country. None had received any training as interpreters, and some had never interpreted before.

Candidates for entry into the interpreting profession are often advised that they should have "at least a BA or BS degree," if not an MA or a PhD, and be completely bilingual before they even begin training as interpreters (Edwards, 1995, p. 4). Weber (1984) contends that interpreters cannot be trained "at any level but the graduate level" (Weber, 1984, p. 4), and "should be taught only by professional interpreters" (Weber, 1984, p. 8). He goes on to assert, "It would be professionally and morally dishonest to students to try and communicate to them the extremely difficult art of interpretation without having been extensively exposed to the practice" (Weber, 1984, p. 8 [emphasis in original]). Thus, offering a ten-day training-of-trainers course to individuals whose command of one of their working languages was questionable and who were not professional interpreters ran counter to all the precepts of interpreter education; but this was an emergency.

2. Background

Since 1998, an average of 82,000 refugees have been admitted each year to the United States, in addition to immigration by relatives of U.S. residents or citizens and foreign workers with special visas. The top ten countries of origin are Somalia, Ethiopia, China, India, Haiti, the former Yugoslavia, Iran, Liberia, Guatemala, and Russia. The refugees have been resettled in states that have never before received large numbers of immigrants, such as Georgia and Virginia; or states like Missouri and Minnesota, which have not had an influx of immigrants since the 19th century (U.S. Committee for Refugees, 2002). These communities are ill-prepared to deal with the myriad social and economic problems faced by refugees, not least of which is the language barrier. Consequently, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) has issued grants for a variety of programs, including the training of community interpreters (The Grantsmanship Center [TGCI], 2002).

Community interpreting is a term that has come into common usage in recent years to describe the kind of interpreting that enables residents of a community to gain access to public services when they do not speak the dominant language of the community. In other countries, this type of interpreting is also known as liaison interpreting (Australia), cultural interpreting (Canada), contact interpreting (Scandinavia), or public service interpreting (U.K.) (Mikkelson, 1996a, 1996b; Roberts, 1997). Most of what has been written about community interpreting refers to spoken language interpreting, but much of the work sign language interpreters perform also fits in this category (Roy, 1990; Roberts, 1997). Community interpreters often become involved in crisis situations, as when someone is sick or in trouble with the law. This is particularly true when they interpret for refugees, who in many cases have been traumatized by having to flee their countries to escape persecution, famine, or war. Some have been subject to torture or have seen family members killed, and as a result they tend to suffer more medical, social and psychological problems than other non-English speakers (U.S. Committee for Refugees, 2002).

3. First Training-of-Trainers Course

In August 2000, the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS) received a phone call from Mary-Carol Wagner of the Pima Community College Refugee Education Center in Tucson, Arizona, which had received a grant for interpreter training from the Arizona Department of Economic Security. She wanted to know if MIIS could provide a training-of-trainers course for community interpreters in African French, Albanian, Arabic, Bosnian, Farsi, Somali, Russian, and Vietnamese. The idea was to train instructors for a planned course in community interpreting to be offered at Pima Community College in the spring of 2001. Over the next few weeks, emails and phone calls were exchanged to discuss options for presenting the course, recommendations for ideal trainees, screening procedures, and course dates. It was finally agreed that the course would be presented to an initial group of 10 trainees who would come to Monterey for 48 hours of instruction over a two-week period in January 2001. More trainees were to be trained in different languages at a later time.

The grant received by the Refugee Education Center had been written without a full understanding of what interpreting really involves, and it called for a very ambitious program. During their two weeks in Monterey, the trainees were to develop the curriculum for the course they would be presenting in Tucson in the spring semester. They would then teach the course, identify potential trainers among the students in that course, and train them in turn to be future instructors. Thus, the program would be self-perpetuating, and the Tucson area would be blessed with a permanent supply of trained interpreters in all languages. Furthermore, any refugees with a smattering of English would obtain immediate employment either as interpreters or as interpreter trainers, thus taking care of their job search (the refugee resettlement program gives refugees one year of support and then requires them to find employment).

We tried to persuade the Refugee Education Center to scale back its plans somewhat, though we had to work within the constraints imposed by the grant. We felt that the best model for the course they had in mind was the one developed by the University of Minnesota community interpreter training program, in which plenary sessions are presented in English to a multilingual class, and lab work is done in language groups led by facilitators. We therefore relied heavily on the coursebook from that program, Introduction to Interpreting, An Instructor's Manual (Swabey & Sherwood-Gabrielson, 1999), in planning our train-the-trainers curriculum and in guiding the trainees as they developed their own curriculum.

The training opportunity was advertised (see Appendix A) and applications began coming in. Criteria for selecting trainees included a college degree, teaching experience, and experience as a community interpreter. Another requirement was that at least two speakers of each language be present for the training. Although we established the selection criteria for the trainees we would be teaching, due to time constraints the screening was done by the Refugee Education Center. Some of the most qualified applicants did not end up taking the course because they were not able to travel to Monterey. Finally a group of 10 speakers of Arabic, Bosnian, Farsi, African French, and Russian was selected. Because of delays in funding and the intervening holidays, we had to finalize the course curriculum without conducting a thorough needs assessment with the trainees.

We knew that teaching a multilingual group not necessarily comprised of ideal candidates would be challenging, but felt that bringing together a spoken language and a sign language interpreter trainer, both with vast experience teaching at all levels and in a variety of formats, would be a dynamic combination. The two of us had not taught together extensively and had never designed a curriculum together, but we discovered that our approach to teaching interpreting was very similar. Our teaching styles were contrasting but compatible (one of us is very animated and intuitive, while the other is more analytical and low-key), and we were able to work effectively as a team.

We designed our curriculum to be collaborative and learner-centered, with equal emphasis on theory and practice (see Appendix B). After an introduction to some basic pedagogical principles, the trainees would begin developing and presenting their own materials. Since we assumed the participants would have extensive experience as community interpreters, we included only a brief task analysis and review of the role of the interpreter, mainly to help the trainees identify elements to include in their curriculum. The bulk of the time was to be spent on the "how" rather than the "what."

The 10 trainees arrived in Monterey in January ready to begin work. On the first day, after introductions and a brief orientation session, it became apparent that while the participants were all very well-educated individuals, many with extensive teaching backgrounds, as a whole they lacked the English proficiency and the community interpreting experience on which the curriculum had been predicated. A few of them had interpreted in refugee camps or informally for friends and family, while some had never interpreted at all. Some of the trainees had lived in the United States for several years, but others had arrived only a few months earlier and were still adjusting to their new life as Americans. Each had a fascinating story to tell, though some had undergone terrible ordeals.

The participants had little idea what community interpreters do in the United States and were unfamiliar with the interpreter's code of ethics. In fact, a couple of them were employed by refugee agencies as "interpreter/case workers," which meant that their job was to help refugees find housing and employment, accompany them to appointments, and orient them to life in the United States. The "helper model" was definitely alive and well in their practice. They felt responsible for the refugees, whom they viewed as powerless individuals who needed every advantage they could get. One trainee told of his experience interpreting for refugees at the border of a European nation that would not grant asylum to anyone with mental health problems. He had advised one young man to lie about his medical history, knowing that being turned back at the border and being sent home was tantamount to receiving a death sentence.

Thus, after all the introductions the morning of the first day of class, we spent the lunch break radically altering our syllabus to spend more time discussing the interpreting process and the role of the interpreter, and less time covering teaching methodology. In view of the difficulties many of the participants had with reading and writing English, we relied less on assigned readings than we had planned, and we eliminated written exams as an assessment tool (see Appendix C). We had serious doubts about our ability to present a meaningful train-the-trainers course under these circumstances, but after considering the dire need for refugee interpreters, we felt we had to proceed.

In our planning, we had anticipated that the trainees, who had been educated in many different countries, would have different ideas about teaching and learning than the philosophies prevailing in the United States. Therefore, we set aside time for what we called "learner training" on the first day of class. We may have been guilty of a certain naïveté in assuming that a mere one-hour orientation session would bridge the culture gap. In fact, the majority of the students subscribed to the "teacher as God" philosophy, particularly those who had been teachers themselves. As dutiful students they learned to regurgitate the proper phrases about learner-centered, collaborative education, but in their practice teaching it was apparent that the idea of the omniscient professor and the passive, sponge-like student was deeply ingrained in them. The manual developed by Swabey and Sherwood-Gabrielson (1999) was also based on a learner-centered approach, with a lot of hands-on activities and open-ended discussion questions, and some of the trainees had difficulty performing or teaching the exercises. We realized that it would take some time for them to adapt to the American educational environment in which they would be teaching.

At the conclusion of the two-week course, we helped identify two trainees who would be best suited to serve as lead instructors for the plenary sessions, and the others were assigned to facilitate the language groups. The first community interpreting course was presented at Pima Community College February 20 through July 17, 2001 (see Appendix D). The Refugee Education Center obtained copies of the Swabey and Sherwood-Gabrielson (1999) manual for each of the instructors, and the syllabus closely resembled the one outlined in the manual.

Unfortunately, some of the newly trained instructors had to leave the course before it was finished because of work obligations, and enrollment was not as high as desired in some languages. In addition, the instructors felt that the curriculum needed some revision to better suit their teaching styles and to meet the needs of their student population. As a result, we made significant changes in our curriculum for the second train-the-trainers course.

4. Second Train-the-Trainers Course

Originally, the second course had been intended not only to provide training for interpreter instructors of different languages, but also as an opportunity for the first group of trainees to act as mentors and further enhance their teaching skills. We felt that the first group was not ready to mentor other trainees, as they were still grasping the basic concepts themselves. In fact, they expressed the need for further guidance from us, so we scheduled the second train-the-trainers course in Tucson while the community interpreting course was still ongoing so that we could attend one of their classes and provide some feedback.

For logistical reasons, it was decided to offer the second course over a period of two weekends, for a total of five full days (40 hours) of instruction. Thus, rather than traveling to Monterey for two weeks and receiving ten half-days of instruction and engaging in directed study in the afternoons, the second group stayed home and worked at their regular jobs during the week. A number of pre- and post-course assignments were given to provide for a total of 40 hours of directed study (see Appendix E). In addition, due to turnover in the initial group of trainees and to the lack of applicants in certain desired languages, the new group of trainees included speakers of the same five languages, plus Dinka, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese. The size of the group was increased to 12 participants. The second group was similar to the first one in that there was a wide range of interpreting and teaching experience and English proficiency.

The curriculum was again based on the Swabey and Sherwood-Gabrielson (1999) manual, of which each trainee was given a copy. The first day and a half were spent acquainting the trainees with the profession of community interpreting from the interpreter's point of view. The rest of that first weekend was devoted to teaching techniques and a review of the manual. Students were then assigned to prepare a lesson based on the points covered in the manual (which includes many sample exercises) during the intervening week. On Saturday morning of the following weekend, they presented their lessons and were given extensive feedback. The rest of the day Saturday and the following Sunday were spent reviewing issues related to professionalism and teaching principles. As a post-course assignment, the participants were told to spend 10 hours observing the community interpreting class (only one class session was left before the end of the term) and a community interpreter at work. They were then to write a report or journal of their observations and email it to us.

Once again, we identified trainees who would be suitable as lead instructors and those who would facilitate language groups. The community interpreting course was given again at Pima Community College, and only a few of the original trainees were available as instructors. By the third repetition of the course, none of the original trainees remained involved, and some of the second group had left as well. Many of them indicated that since they were not getting enough work as interpreters themselves, they did not feel competent to teach interpreting and wanted to pursue other opportunities. Some had practiced professions such as law or medicine in their home countries, and they considered interpreting a stop-gap to pay the bills until they could improve their English and obtain licenses to practice in this country. The lack of steady interpreting work was cited as a major obstacle to maintaining continuity in the community interpreting program at the college (M.C. Wagner, personal communication, June 30, 2002).

5. Third Train-the-Trainers Course

The lead instructors in the spring 2002 community interpreting course selected some of their students to be trained as language group facilitators and presented an instructor training workshop over two weekends in June 2002 (see Appendix F). We then returned to Tucson at the end of that month to wrap up the train-the-trainers workshop and provide guidance for the lead instructors. Again, some of the trainees had no experience as interpreters and were understandably anxious about being expected to teach a skill they had not mastered themselves. The lead instructors had done a remarkable job of presenting the community interpreting course, considering the obstacles they faced, but they still had a lot of questions for us.

The Refugee Education Project at Pima Community College will be offering another course in the fall of 2002 for prospective community interpreters of African French, Arabic, Bosnian, Dinka, Farsi, Somali, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese, assuming that speakers of all those languages sign up. The lead instructors will be teaching for the third time, and some of the language group facilitators will be on their third course as well. The trainees and the program administrators are all committed to sustaining a viable community interpreting course that will serve the needs of the Tucson area's refugees. Many of them would not meet the rigorous criteria that the established interpreting programs in North America and Europe impose on faculty and students--or, to return to the medical analogy with which this paper began, they could not compete with highly skilled neurosurgeons equipped with the latest technology--but they are struggling mightily on the front lines of the battle to ensure full communication between refugees and service providers.

6. Conclusions and Recommendations

Instead of allowing ourselves to be daunted by the shortcomings and constraints involved in this project, we chose to focus on the interesting challenges we faced as a sign language interpreter trainer and a spoken language interpreter trainer collaborating for the first time to present an intensive, multilingual train-the-trainers course to a group of recent immigrants. We found that the differences between signed and spoken languages were of little significance, whereas the similarities in the linguistic and cultural issues faced by all interpreters were marked. We discovered that the team teaching approach was very powerful in a class with learners of extremely varied backgrounds and abilities, especially given our contrasting teaching styles. The multilingual model has the potential to accommodate far more interpreting students than traditional language-specific interpreting instruction, and communities all across the United States will need to take this approach as they struggle to meet the language needs of their increasingly diverse populations.

We are concerned about the limited instruction the first group of trainees received before launching their course, and about the continued dilution of the knowledge we tried to impart as each successive group of instructors receives a shorter training session presented by instructors further removed from the original course in Monterey. We would still recommend that, if at all possible, participants in train-the-trainer courses be experienced community interpreters with complete oral and written fluency in English and their other working languages. We would like to see more mentoring of new instructors by veteran interpreter trainers as they teach their first course. To prevent high turnover of faculty, it would be helpful if the schools offering community interpreting programs actively promoted the hiring of professional interpreters in their communities so that both faculty and students would have incentives to remain in the profession and continue to hone their skills.

Given that there are many more training programs for sign language interpreters than there are for their spoken language counterparts in this country (Harris, 1997; Park, 1998; Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, 2002), it is likely that the faculty of sign language interpreting programs will be called upon to serve as curriculum designers, trainers, and mentors for the community interpreting courses that are springing up in refugee resettlement communities. We hope that our colleagues will be able to benefit from our experience.


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The appendices listed below were part of the original paper, but are not reproduced here. Those interested in copies of any or all of these appendices can contact Holly Mikkelson.

Appendix A: Job announcement for Adult Education Instructor, Community Interpreter Program, Pima College Adult Education.

Appendix B: The original course outline for the Training of Interpreter Trainers course presented by Holly Mikkelson and Sharon Neumann Solow at Pima Community College, January 8 - 19, 2001.

Appendix C: The revised course outline for the Training of Interpreter Trainers course presented by Holly Mikkelson and Sharon Neumann Solow at Pima Community College, January 8 - 19, 2001.

Appendix D: Community Interpreter Training Course Syllabus.

Appendix E: Course outline for the Training of Interpreter Trainers course presented by Holly Mikkelson and Sharon Neumann Solow at Pima Community College, May 31 - June 10, 2001.

Appendix F: Pima Community College Community Interpreter Instructor Training Agenda for course taught by Roberta Gottfried and Lara Kradinova June 14 - 23, 2002