The Trump effect

How do the ever-shifting immigration policies of the US President impact on the country’s translation industry, asks Terena Bell

On 27 January 2017, the US President Donald Trump signed an executive order putting a 90-day hold on visas for people from seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. It’s easy to see how this might affect translation. This executive order promised to keep out the ‘terrorists’ by banning immigration from countries that pose the greatest security threat to the United States, according to the Trump Administration. Of course, it could also keep out everyone who understands what potential terrorists from those countries might be saying, as the languages spoken in these countries – Maay Maay Somali, Sudanese Arabic and so forth – aren’t frequently taught in American schools. As if to prove the point, a US Army interpreter was among the people who were en route to the United States while the order was being signed and were detained after landing.

Ask industry leaders, though, how Trump’s ever-shifting immigration policies might impact on interpreting and translation in the US, and the message seems to be ‘nothing to see here; move along’. Nevertheless, the day the order went through, members of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) did step up, providing free services to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorneys representing detainees. The Iraqi Arabic interpreter Hameed Khalid Darweesh, who interpreted for the 101st Airborne for 10 years, was released on 27 January (the day he was detained). 

At the request of Red T, a non-profit that works to protect interpreters in high-risk areas, the NAJIT co-signed an open letter to the President on 31 January: “As representatives of the national and international community of translators and interpreters, we are greatly alarmed at the implications of your Executive Order on immigration for our colleagues who work in conflict zones.”

Rob Cruz, NAJIT’s Executive Director, added: “At the present time, there is a great deal of concern about possible impacts of some of the new administration’s policy on immigrant groups, but how that would affect interpreters is a speculative matter and the NAJIT board does not have comment on that speculation. There seems to be a great many ‘what-if’ scenarios.”

Meanwhile David Rumsey, President of the American Translators Association (ATA), which also co-signed Red T’s letter, commented: “ATA is also interested to see how the new administration’s position on travel and immigration will affect the work of translators and interpreters. Early indicators are pointing to significant interest in the ATA conference, which is being held in Washington DC Oct 25-28th 2017 [sic], where some of these issues may be discussed.”

The Association of Language Companies (ALC) and the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) were even less forthcoming. The GALA does not sign single country letters, and according to its Executive Director, Laura Brandon: “We do not have a position statement about Trump’s immigration policy.” According to ALC President, Doug Strock: “The ALC doesn’t have a statement. We were asked to sign a joint letter, but the wording was such that I felt we were better off not signing it.”


Should translators be worried?

In truth, Trump’s immigration policies – many of which, including the 27 January order, have been struck down by state courts – may not affect our industry. Cruz, Strock and Brandon knew of no direct impact on members, good or bad. If companies have experienced difficulty finding human resources or meeting demand they aren’t talking about it. Gio Lester, Chair of NAJIT’s Public Relations (PR) Committee and a legal interpreter, believes that cases are now moving faster, although she has not experienced a heavier workload herself. However, since interpreters are paid by the hour, faster cases don’t equal more business – just a busier day.

Hearsay does seem to be the basis of most of the industry analysis, as client-side there is no change either. After reaching out to multiple firms and issuing a call for information, I found just one law firm – in Houston, Texas – which indicated that Trump’s immigration policy had impacted its interpreting purchases, although this had created no major problems.

The best practice of keeping language services local may be the industry’s saving grace. On the translation front, Stephanie Harris from localisation provider Venga says, “As we use in-country linguists for our translations, we do not have to worry so much about the travel ban.” In any case, translators can usually work remotely, even from other countries.

For an American market, though, quality interpreting usually requires the professional to be physically present. The battle to find trained, competent professionals working in the languages spoken in the countries targeted by Trump’s immigration policies is nothing new. Presidents come and go, but the quest to find a reliable Somali community interpreter goes on.

“Is it going to make that situation that’s already pretty challenging worse?” asks Bill Rivers, Executive Director of the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL) and the National Council for Language and International Studies (NCLIS). “We’ll see.” He adds: “Don’t panic… The fundamentals of globalisation – that’s not changing,” pointing out that Trump’s campaign promise to break the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) didn’t cause the decline in Chinese translation purchasing that many companies feared. Similarly, recent threats to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) did not disrupt the French or Spanish translation markets. “Keep calm,” he cautions, “but be ready to react”.

Perhaps that’s why a select number of American schools have finally started to teach the languages of limited diffusion spoken in so-called ‘terrorist’ countries: because, linguistically, the United States is anything but ready. As the American Council for International Education completes its census of foreign language instruction in US high schools, Rivers comments: “We’re seeing some growth in Arabic in high schools. There are places that are teaching Somali as a language. I believe they’re starting a programme in Portland, Oregon. This is driven by community interest… and by school leaderships – school boards – recognising that language is a powerful tool.”

Of course, these developments must have begun long before Trump took office, due to the time it takes to bring such measures to the classroom. So perhaps, as far as the translation industry is concerned, there really is nothing to see here. Only time will tell.


3 weeks 4 days ago
2 months 2 weeks ago
3 months 2 days ago
5 months 12 hours ago
5 months 1 week ago