Translating a pandemic: LSSND interpreters key in educating New Americans on the virus

Imagine being brand new to a country, where the culture seems so different from what you know, you hardly know anyone and you barely understand the language.

Now imagine that you are expected to do all the paperwork and whatever else is necessary to enroll your children in school.

Scary, right?

On top of all this, imagine that a pandemic has broken out, and so the rules on sending kids to school seem to keep changing. Maybe your son has asthma, which makes him more vulnerable to the virus. And, to make matters worse, you’ve heard so much rumor and speculation about this pandemic that you don’t know what to believe anymore.

Some New American parents faced that scenario this fall.

But since early last spring, when it became clear that coronavirus had traveled to North Dakota, 3H Interpreter Services at LSSND have worked quietly behind the scenes to make sure information on the virus is reaching non-English-speaking residents. 3H has been dispatching interpreters – usually virtually, in keeping with the times – to help New Americans understand pandemic policies in schools, help contact tracers communicate with non-English speakers and translate important health guidelines on COVID-19 for international communities in North Dakota.

The goal is “to fill a gap between New Americans and any other parties,” so language barriers can dissolve and understanding can begin, says Amar Hussein.

Amar is team lead of 3H, which offers written translation, on-site interpretation, message relay and telephone/conference calls in more than 30 languages, as well as American Sign Language.

About 40 percent of 3H’s workload involves translating documents for area schools, Amar says, especially for the department’s most in-demand languages, Arabic, Somali and Nepali. Like any other family, New American parents are concerned about whether it is better for their children to go to school or try to learn at home right now, especially if their child has a condition that makes them high-risk.

Some parents, who didn’t yet have contacts at school, would even turn to Amar to ask them what they should do.

“From my experience, I’ve learned not to give any advice,” Amar says. “So I’ll say, ‘OK, we can direct your question to the right people at the school, like a counselor, social worker or teachers.”

Earlier this year, Amar’s team was mainly devoted to helping contact tracers communicate with non-English speakers. His Spanish and Somali interpreters worked in tandem with LSSND’s New American Services staff, who were trained in contact tracing to help track infection spread in those populations. Typically, the interpreter, the contact tracer and the person interviewed met via Zoom to exchange and explain information. In April and May, Amar says his interpreters sat in on an average of three such meetings per day.

Amar and his team also translated and assisted in distributing numerous health guidelines and fact sheets on COVID-19 to help educate New Americans on how to stay safe and avoid spreading the virus. “We are helping as best as we can,” says Amar.

Questions about our interpretive services can be directed to

Tammy Swift

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