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Provide an Interpreter, End a Bomb Scare

Friday, May 07, 2010

Passengers aboard a Greyhound bus traveling from Maine to New York last night feared for their lives amidst a bomb scare as a gentleman from Africa did not immediately exit the bus — not because he was a terrorist, but because he simply did not understand what the police officers were saying.

The nine-hour bomb scare ended within 15 minutes of bringing an interpreter to the scene. According to news reports, “The man was reportedly very cooperative once he heard his language.” After the interpreter enabled the man to understand what was going on, the New Hampshire police were quick to issue a statement to clarify that the incident was “not a terrorist event.”

Why did it take hours — instead of minutes or seconds — to get an interpreter? With telephone interpreting available instantly from anywhere in the world, it would have been possible to obtain an interpreter immediately.

The real problem is a lack of awareness of the importance of language access. In spite of noble efforts by the U.S. government to train first responders on cultural competence and the need to provide language assistance, and in spite of federal requirements to provide services in a language individuals can understand, people still cannot seem to get the idea into their heads that linguistic support is available anywhere, anytime, through a service that has been used for decades. Nowadays, it’s so easy to get an interpreter on the phone that there’s even an iPhone app for it.

Within a matter of minutes of an interpreter being provided, the bomb scare was over. So, for nine or more hours, taxpayer dollars were being wasted in order to bring police and other responders to the scene. The lesson is clear — it costs a lot of money not to provide competent and responsive language services — far more than it costs to have a telephone interpreting service on speed-dial.

We’ve made many recommendations for America to deal with its linguistic paranoia, boost its language preparedness efforts, or at the very least, prevent its Secretary of State from having to deal with embarrassing mistranslations. And, it wouldn’t hurt if the US$4.5 billion spent on language services over the past two decades had been used wisely. The example from New Hampshire makes clear that failing to have the necessary language access plan in place is not just a matter of compliance — it’s a matter of national security.

As Reported in the local news,
May 6, 2010 9:45 pm US/Eastern
N.H. Police: Bomb Scare 'Not A Terrorist Event'
Language Barrier Reportedly At Center Of False Alarm


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