Despite slump, interpreters flourish in U.S. Babel

Tue Dec 23, 2008 6:40pm EST
 
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By Tim Gaynor

TUCSON, Arizona (Reuters) - When a group of Chinese illegal immigrants were picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol in southern Arizona late last month, the challenge for the arresting officers was how to talk to them.

"As an agent I don't speak Chinese, so it's very hard. Usually, the only word they understand is 'passport,'" Border Patrol agent Mike Reilly said of the eight migrants nabbed on November 24 near the border town of Sasabe.

Like a growing number of clients -- from U.S. law enforcement agencies and the courts to hospitals and financial services firms -- the agency reached out to an interpretation service to help make themselves heard through the Babel of an increasingly polyglot world.

To pierce the barrier of incomprehension the duty agents processing the Chinese nationals put in a call to Language Line Services, the largest of several U.S.-based firms offering on-demand interpretation either by telephone or on site, around the clock.

The California-based firm has 5,200 interpreters on hand speaking 176 languages, from relatively common tongues such as Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Polish and Vietnamese to several more obscure dialects spoken by some African tribes and even Mayan villagers from Mexico.

The firm helps clients swiftly evaluate what language the individual speaks -- either using a trained operator or language ID cards. Often, Language Line and other rival firms manage to put an interpreter on the telephone in under a minute to get people talking.

"We have to open a case, and we have to find out how they got to the United States, and for that we need an interpreter," Reilly said.

INTERPRETERS NEEDED   Continued...

 
<p>Interpreters and customer service professionals at Language Line Services' telephone call center in Monterey, California. The California-based firm has 5,200 interpreters on hand speaking 176 languages, from relatively common tongues such as Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Polish and Vietnamese to several more obscure dialects spoken by some African tribes and even Mayan villagers from Mexico. REUTERS/Language Line Services/Handout</p>