In an earlier life, Xin Meng chased stories as a reporter for a Chinese-language newspaper in New York. Now he spends his days figuring out how to translate mysterious phrases like "empowerment school" and "English language learner" into Chinese.
"It can be very, very tricky," said Meng, one of 28 translators employed by the New York City Department of Education, as he stood in an office strewn with dictionaries and Korean newspapers. "I've certainly learned a lot about the New York City public schools."
Forty-two percent of the parents of children in the school system, the country's largest, are not native English speakers, and communicating with them about their children's education is an immense challenge.
That is especially the case at a time when the system is offering ever-increasing school choices, but is also requiring students to go through a complex admissions process for high school and certain programs.
So, prodded by advocates for immigrants, schools chancellor Joel Klein created a unit three years ago to translate a never-ending flow of school documents, like news releases, report cards and parent surveys, into the eight languages most commonly spoken in New York, after English: Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Bengali, Arabic, Urdu, Korean and Haitian Creole.
It has since expanded to an office with 40 employees and a US$4.5 million budget, and is the largest of its kind in any school system in the US, said Kleber Palma, the unit's director. In one respect, the office even surpasses the translation division at UN headquarters, which translates most documents into only five official languages other than English: Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish.
The school translators, who come from France, Russia and Bangladesh, and other countries, work in clusters: Korean speakers in one corner, Russian in another. Palma recruits them from language schools, trade associations and local ethnic newspapers.
Palma, who is from Los Angeles, California, gives the employees a chance to bond with monthly lunches that rotate among their native cuisines.
Hector Velazquez, an English-to-Spanish translator from Venezuela, said he and Nasser Larkem, another Spanish translator, frequently argue over the precise translation of a word.
"We go back and forth a lot," Velazquez said.
During the school year, the office receives 30 to 40 documents a day, which the employees translate and return to a school or to the Education Department office that needs them. Of the more than 1,400 public schools in New York City, about 450 used the unit's services last year and this year.
"It's mentally draining," Palma said of the work, which he summed up as "sitting in front of a computer and translating all day."
He said: "I always joke that if World War III would break out, it would happen here."
There are unusual management challenges.
"I can't tell the Arabic translator that he's doing it wrong, because I don't speak Arabic," said Palma, who said he speaks Spanish and some high school French.
He said he had learned to recognize the Chinese characters for the "Department of Education."
Even the graphics editor, Michael Kass, has to deal with translation problems. On a recent afternoon, he squinted at his computer screen, frustrated with trying to change the cover of a high school directory to read in eight languages.
"Spanish takes 30 percent more space to say the same thing in English," he said. "On the other hand, Chinese takes up much less space."
The New York City public schools have not always tried to accommodate non-native English speakers. In the 1950s, teachers relied on "children helpers" to act as interpreters for a wave of Spanish-speaking students who arrived from Puerto Rico. At the time, the Board of Education appointed fewer than a dozen teachers to smooth the transition.
More recently, the Education Department has depended on private vendors for translation and interpretation, a haphazard approach that forced most non-English-speaking families to rely on bilingual friends -- or their own children -- to translate.
Deycy Avitia, the coordinator of education advocacy for the New York Immigration Coalition, said she had heard complaints from parents for years.
"We have parents coming to us after a couple of semesters of their kids getting failing grades," she said. "They didn't realize it because the kids were doing the translating, and they would say that an `F' stands for fabulous."
Aside from reading report cards, non-English-speaking parents have trouble negotiating the enrollment and registration process, attending parent-teacher conferences, understanding disciplinary actions taken against their children and listening to the proceedings at PTA meetings.
Some advocates for immigrants have criticized the performance of the translation unit, saying it is slow and ineffective. The Immigration Coalition released a study in June about the unit's efficiency. The report called for the department to expand available services and communicate more frequently with schools.
Palma acknowledged that many principals have no idea that the translation office even exists, and that it typically takes a week to translate a two-page document.
"We have a lot of work to do," he said. "We are not the only solution to the problem."
But he is also contemplating what languages to add next. French and Albanian are both candidates, as is Hindi.
"Polish is very big right now," he said.
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