Lost in translation

Northern Nevadans learn to cope with language problems, sometimes even between parents and children

From left, Katherine Nuñez, Blanca Avalos and Bianca Nuñez pose in front of their home.

From left, Katherine Nuñez, Blanca Avalos and Bianca Nuñez pose in front of their home.

Photo By Amy Beck

* Phrases in Italics have been translated from Spanish to English or vice versa.

Fifteen-year-old Katherine Nuñez sat on the old-fashioned sofa in the living room of her family’s tidy house. A painting of the Virgin Guadalupe faced the door, welcoming all newcomers into the casa. An El Salvador emblem was nailed into the pared just above the mantel, which was decorated with treasures and trinkets from the family’s native country.

These material possessions were just a part of Katherine’s everyday life and represented her heritage. But she was not concerned with these symbols of her nationality. Instead, Katherine dwelt on other things—nothing physical or even emotional, but rather the things that she had lost.

It has been 12 years since Katherine’s family immigrated to the United States. Her mother, Josefina, and four older siblings, Sandra, Jose, Juan and Johanna, came from Chalatenango, El Salvador, in 1999—seven years after their father, Oliverio immigrated to Reno.

Katherine was 3 years old and spoke only Spanish at the time. She began learning English when she started kindergarten at age 5.

Her mother, Josefina, speaks only Spanish.

The pair communicates in Spanish, which often proves difficult because Katherine prefers speaking in English. Katherine is unable to articulate some thoughts in her first language because English has been the dominant language in her life.

“It gets me aggravated, because if she spoke English, and if she had learned since we got here, I think her relationship with me would have been way better,” Katherine said.

Although Josefina hasn’t learned English yet, she still recognizes that speaking another language is a great opportunity and blessing.

It is a great benefit, one who has two tongues,” she said. “To speak one language and translate for another is very good.”*

Sarcasm, tone of voice and teenagers

Despite the typical problems parents and their teens encounter, the Nuñez family experiences additional challenges because of language barriers.

“Many things get lost in translation,” Katherine said.

Katherine is a sophomore at Hug High School and often experiences translation problems. She speaks both Spanish and English with ease but feels that an idea’s meaning is frequently not communicated correctly in translation.

Mary Ann Robinson is the English as a Second Language (ESL) coordinator for the Washoe County School District. Since she immigrated to the U.S. from Bolivia, she understands the hardships many students, parents and teachers experience when dealing with multiple languages.

“Just learning languages is complex,” she said. “Teenagers have problems anyway, and regular growing up is difficult. Then you have problems that immigrants have that are so much different than other teen problems.”

Robinson said that the source of these differences is based in language and culture because students and their parents don’t see things the same way. Generation gaps and language barriers cause unfortunate miscommunications within families like the Nuñez’.

A typical teen, Katherine argues with her parents about many things, like her tone of voice, going out with friends, or schoolwork. As Robinson mentioned, the latter issue becomes the most complicated because many things are misunderstood.

Communication mishaps are unavoidable in Katherine’s situation because she suffers from iron deficiency anemia, a disease where the body has fewer healthy red blood cells caused by lack of iron. She gets sick easily and misses a lot of school.

Josefina attends many parent-teacher conferences so they can work out missing homework and class-participation issues. Most of Katherine’s teachers don’t speak Spanish. Every time Josefina goes to the school to talk to Katherine’s teachers, someone has to translate. What might have been a minor problem regularly turns into a major complication and misunderstanding among Katherine, her teachers and her mother.

When using a translator, Katherine feels she is being underrepresented and at times put down.

“It’s hard because if we look for a translator at school, they are going to make it sound bad and horrible because that’s how you translate it,” Katherine said. “The idea gets lost, and everything sounds more serious.”

Two major differences between Spanish and English that Katherine mentioned are tone of voice and atmosphere. One of the most difficult differences between the languages for Katherine to deal with is sarcasm. She said that sarcasm comes out differently in English than when translated into Spanish.

She enjoys being sarcastic and feels it is something she can’t do in Spanish. She said sarcasm frequently causes miscommunications when translating because her mother doesn’t always know what to believe.

Katherine said she doesn’t always know what is appropriate in Spanish versus English. She is extremely sarcastic with her friends but not with her mother. Sometimes her sarcasm is translated, and she said it sounds horrible. The message is skewed, and Josefina gets frustrated. Katherine said they constantly argue about sarcasm.

“Estoy bromiendo,” Katherine will say to her mother to ease tension.

But Josefina doesn’t think sarcasm is a joke. Despite her daughter’s claims to be “just kidding,” the message changes drastically when translated to Spanish.

“Spanish is so serious,” Katherine said.

Sometimes, though, Josefina will be joking with her daughter in Spanish, and Katherine will miss the punch line.

“I’m just so used to everything in Spanish being serious that I don’t expect my mom to start being sarcastic or funny,” Katherine said.

But Josefina said she doesn’t feel the same frustration as her daughter. She has accepted the fact that her daughters speak English at school while they are expected to speak Spanish at home.

“I feel normal because they speak Spanish,” Josefina said. “Between the girls, well, they speak all in English. They like to speak English, but there are things in Spanish that they don’t understand and that they can’t say because they have learned more English.”

Adult vs. student translators

Although some schools provide translators, Katherine said she prefers to translate because she can communicate the proper message. Translators are not aware of the individual circumstances or situations involved with the students, she said. That’s why the message at school gets lost.

“I prefer to go and translate myself because I can give all the details instead of just having them come from their work and only do the basics,” Katherine said.

Many schools have translators available for parents who don’t speak English. Eddie Lopez, a parent involvement facilitator at Grace Warner Elementary in Reno, has a different view of translation than Katherine. Part of his job is to translate for parents at the school.

He said that when kids translate, teachers run the risk of the kids selecting what they want to recount, resulting in withheld information.

“We’ve come to find out that a lot of kids won’t fully translate so they need somebody that actually translates what they are saying,” Lopez said.

But often it’s not the child’s fault for not being able to translate correctly. Sometimes he or she might not have enough vocabulary to translate exactly what was first said.

Lopez acknowledged that language barriers have many effects on the learning ability of students. One of those effects is that students often misunderstand what a parent or a teacher asks of them.

“[Students] don’t do homework correctly because they don’t understand the language well enough,” Lopez said. “It makes it harder for the student to comprehend what teachers want.”

Marilyn Marshman, an ESL teacher at Grace Warner Elementary, has been teaching for the past 10 years. She understands the issues of learning two languages simultaneously.

“Because a lot of my students are bilingual, some of the vocabulary is really difficult for them,” Marshman said.

Like any child learning how to speak, Katherine had trouble with vocabulary when she was younger. This was one of her biggest struggles when translating for her parents and speaking English at school and Spanish at home.

ESL coordinator Mary Ann Robinson, left, and Denise Reyes look over stats for Reno schools at Libby Booth Elementary.

Photo By Amy Beck

“I’ve been translating since I was little,” she said. “It’s a lot of pressure, actually, because I remember sometimes I couldn’t find the right words to translate, and my dad would get really frustrated. So would my mom. They would tell me that I needed to learn more because I wasn’t at the level I was supposed to be. … I was too young to translate, and they would get aggravated and make me learn more words,” Katherine said.

The Nuñez family is only one of more than 16,000 families in the Washoe County School District that speak Spanish at home. Each Spanish-speaking household has students who possibly translate for their parents. Schools provide some translation services, but children frequently end up translating instead.

Sixty percent of Hug High School students, where Katherine attends, are Hispanic. Despite the availability of translators at the school, each student’s situation is unique. Adult translators who are unaware of individual circumstances may lose just as much information as a student who picks and chooses what to tell his or her parents.

This impacts many schools because not all teachers speak Spanish. Therefore, the need for translators grows as the language is spoken more in Washoe County. Staff who speak Spanish might be asked to drop what they are doing to translate for a teacher or parent. Children are also signed out of school to attend appointments and act as translators for their parents.

New perspectives

Katherine’s adopted sister, Bianca Nuñez, is a sixth grader at Rita Cannon Elementary School. She came to the United States from El Salvador with her biological mother, Blanca Avalos, six years ago. As sisters, Katherine and Bianca speak English at home. Bianca is 12 years old. Avalos, 29, lives with the Nuñez family even though her daughter was adopted by Josefina and Oliverio a year ago.

Although Avalos is not considered Bianca’s legal mother, she continues to lead an active role in her daughter’s life. Avalos does not speak much English, but her attitude toward Bianca is drastically different than Josefina’s toward Katherine.

Bianca is tall for her age and soft-spoken, with a slight accent when she speaks. Although she has lived in Reno for six years and is more comfortable speaking English, she still has problems with pronunciation. But she doesn’t feel any separation from her mother because of language barriers. Instead, Avalos always tries to learn English with Bianca.

“I want her to speak English so that I can learn from her,” Avalos said. “I want her to tell me things in English.”

Avalos sees the importance of speaking two languages and speaks in fragmented English when she can.

Despite her desires to learn English, she is grateful that “there is always a translator.”

However, Bianca said it has been hard to speak Spanish at home and English at school.

“I don’t really like speaking two languages,” Bianca said. “Now that I’m learning more English, I’m forgetting Spanish. I don’t want to forget it because some people have to talk in Spanish.”

Robinson, the ESL coordinator who also immigrated to the U.S., emphasized the importance of maintaining the first language at home. Although it is hard for children to focus on schoolwork presented in another language, Robinson said that students should still be practicing vocabulary in both languages so they don’t forget either.

“We don’t want parents to start speaking English at home,” Robinson said. “We want them to maintain their first language. That’s important.”

When families speak their native language at home, it allows them to preserve their culture and traditions.

“It’s harder for the kids because they take homework home, and the parents can’t help,” Robinson said. The important thing is that students develop at least one language. Then they can build upon both as they learn the second.

Direct and indirect translations

Eleven-year-old Araceli Marquez knows she is expected to translate when her mother or father attends parent-teacher conferences at school, but that doesn’t mean she enjoys it. She is a fifth grader at Glenn Duncan Elementary School and has been translating for her parents since she can remember.

“I guess it’s OK,” Araceli said. “I don’t like it, but I don’t really hate it. I just prefer to say it straightforward.”

Araceli, like many other children who translate for their parents, said the meaning and feeling of certain phrases gets lost in the translation.

“Sometimes what you want to say gets changed,” she said. “It doesn’t happen too often, but it does happen. I try my best to change it so that it’s the same.”

Araceli began learning English when she was 4 years old. She picked up phrases from her older brothers and learned to read and write English at school. Even though Spanish was her first language, she prefers to speak English because she can communicate with greater ease and a broader vocabulary. But to communicate with her parents, she must speak Spanish.

One challenge Araceli faces when translating is not knowing enough Spanish vocabulary to communicate phrases or words that she understands in English.

“Sometimes my teacher makes us use big words in sentences, and I can’t explain those words to my mom,” she said. “I’d rather talk in English.”

Fourteen years ago, Maria and Miguel Marquez, Araceli’s parents, came to Reno from Guanajuato, Mexico, with their four children. Their boys attended ESL classes and learned to speak both English and Spanish. There are now seven children in the Marquez family, and all are fluent in English.

Maria and Miguel, however, have not found time to learn the language. They both work at Circus Circus, one as a dishwasher and the other as a housekeeper. They pick up key phrases at their jobs, but they do not know enough English to communicate with their children’s teachers. They rely on their children or others to translate.

Even though some schools don’t offer professional translation services, Spanish-speaking parents like the Marquez’ are able to find ways to speak with school administration and faculty.

“There is almost always a person or child who can translate. We just ask them to interpret for us,” Maria said. “If it is something simple then we can take care of it, like giving information, but often we will look for someone to translate. When our kids go to conferences with us, they will translate.”

Maria said it is hard for her when a small request, like asking for a piece of paper, gets misunderstood.

“I can’t say all the phrases, but I can say I need paper,” she said.

With her thick accent and low confidence in her ability to say the English words “I need paper,” the message is lost.

“Then I think to myself, ‘Oh, it was a such a small thing, but they didn’t understand me.’ I feel bad because sometimes I understand one thing when they want another.”

Even though Araceli and her siblings face challenges when translating for her parents, she doesn’t believe this has hindered her academic excellence. When she needs help with her homework, she goes to her brothers.

“It makes me feel kind of bad for my mom because she can’t help me when she should,” Araceli said.

However, she is able to complete all of her homework without the help of her parents.

“I’m one of the top smartest in my school,” she said. “This year I got invited to this program that is for gifted and talented. I’m on the waiting list, though, because a lot of people are already in there. But they think I might make it.”

Learning curve

Although both the Nuñez and Marquez parents want to learn English, they have not yet been able to because of various circumstances, like work and a lack of resources such as books or other materials.

Maria frequently thinks to herself, “Oh my! I should learn English.”

The only time Josefina said she has felt frustrated over not speaking English was the first day she came to the U.S. When she arrived at Los Angeles International Airport, she didn’t know where to go, what to do or who to ask.

“Do you speak Spanish?” she asked, using the only English she knew with a thick accent.

“I do not speak Spanish,” the flight attendant responded.

Although not knowing English in a new country frequently causes miscommunications, Josefina has not yet learned it. She said she was too busy working for 12 years and couldn’t dedicate the time. However, she is now unemployed and wants to begin.

While communicating through various languages is better than no communication at all, Katherine, Bianca and Araceli show that the meaning is often lost. El sentido del mensaje está perdido por la tradución.