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U.S. Government Seeks English-to-English Translators
Posted by Nataly Kelly on August 25, 2010  in the following blogs: Business Globalization, Best Practices, Interpreting, Translation and Localization
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Yesterday, CNN and other news outlets reported that a U.S. federal agency sent memos to translation providers requesting their help in locating nine translators. The language pair needed: African-American English (AAE) into North American English. Is such a thing really necessary? And, how likely is it that the government will actually be able to locate such translators?

The answer to the first question is a resounding yes -- it's not only necessary, but a good idea. The federal government already reportedly has agents who assist with translating from AAE into North American English (the variety spoken by the majority of Americans and Canadians). But, the agency has been encountering increased demand for this language pair, thus its request for contractors to make sure it has external support in place.

In reporting the news, mainstream media was quick to pounce on the need for supposed "Ebonics translators," using a racially and politically-charged term for a variety of English that the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) has long recognized as legitimate. As the LSA aptly puts it, "the distinction between 'languages' and 'dialects' is usually made more on social and political grounds than on purely linguistic ones." Or, as the saying goes, "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy."

As for how easy it will be to find experts in converting AAE to North American English, that's another story. While we've published advice on recruiting for languages of limited demand, African-American English into other languages is not a request we've come across before. It isn't as if you can rely on ProZ, TranslatorsCafe, or the American Translators Association to locate specialists for this particular language combination -- at least, not yet.

However, in the language services industry, it's common practice to request individuals with subject matter expertise, cultural knowledge, and specific language varieties. Freelance translators are often awarded jobs for familiarity with a variety of a language, such as Ecuadorian Spanish. Given that there are approximately 34.8 million black Americans (source: U.S. Census) and only about 13.5 million Ecuadorians (source: World Bank), population size would seem to indicate that there should be an even greater demand for dedicated language specialists for AAE than for Ecuadorian Spanish, especially when one factors in spending power.

Marketers have long used AAE to sell their products to target demographics within the United States -- including but not limited to black Americans. Perhaps if government agencies were equally interested in providing translation in the other direction -- from North American English into AAE -- communication between the government and its constituents would improve even further. Yet, this is unlikely to happen, since views about language in mainstream American society are saturated in culture, politics, race, ethnicity, and yes, socioeconomic status.

In summary, is it warranted for the government to seek out translators for specific regional varieties of languages, including AAE? Mo def.


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