A World (Language) of Help

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG)  |  By Michael Cella

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG) - “Buenos días!  Lamentablemente, tienes diverticulitis. Debe comer alimentos ricos en fibra y estará bien.”

Imagine knowing no Spanish, yet trying to understand your doctor delivering your test results this way; maybe over the phone. And maybe it’s for a family member, and you’ll have to do your best to explain.

Understanding the language your health care provider speaks is a key component in the outcome of your treatment, according to a landmark 2002 study by the Institute of Medicine.  The study was requested by Congress in 1999 in order to assess the extent of disparities in the types and quality of health services received by U.S. racial and ethnic minorities and non-minorities. It concluded that more interpreters should be available in clinics and hospitals to overcome language barriers that may affect the quality of care.

That’s where Language World Services Inc. comes in. An interpreting and translation agency that supports over 200 languages, Language World Services employs over 200 people at locations throughout California, as well as a twenty-person call center in Carmichael.

It all started eighteen years ago in a garage.

Language World Services CEO Bill Glasser’s life had inadvertently prepared him for this career, though it wasn’t always evident. Glasser was born in Spain and raised in LA, where he worked in the heavily Spanish-speaking restaurant industry. Having later moved to Sacramento, Glasser found himself laid off from his job in the Sacramento Bee marketing department, and looking for something to do.

Glasser’s friend, who was renting a room from him, had been volunteering as an interpreter at Schreiner’s hospital on Stockton Boulevard. Despite being called in to volunteer more and more frequently, his friend’s requests for real full-time work from the hospital were consistently rebuffed. That’s when the then-unemployed Glasser recognized the need and started his interpreting business. “We didn’t have any standardization of protocols back then,” Glasser said of the industry.  “It was the wild west.”

The majority of Language World Services’ work is in health care and human services. “There isn’t an unimportant call,” says Glasser. “You’re getting a cancer diagnosis, learning your child has a birth defect. As a human being you deserve the right to know what’s going on with your body.”

Immigration naturally plays a huge role in the industry. Glasser’s experience in this realm goes as far back as 1986, when he served as an interpreter for a group of lawyers helping to legalize families when President Reagan passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Things can get especially tricky in this current climate. Individuals and their families’ stories can be heartbreaking, but interpreters are carefully vetted and trained to not take sides. Still, the human element is always a factor, and Glasser is proud of one example where an Indian family was detained at the border and the detention center called for a Punjabi interpreter – a rarity. Plenty of Spanish-speaking interpreters were provided by other agencies, but Language World Services was the one agency able to supply the Punjabi-speaking family with one. Language World Services has also started a program called Language World Serves, which offers volunteer services for ICE detainees and pro bono attorney work.

Technological advances have also altered the translation landscape, though not entirely.   Much of the process around the interpreter has become automated, but the actual work is still very low-tech. “A person who speaks two languages brokers the communication,” explains Glasser. While technology companies are dropping millions to create AI that can do the work of the interpreter, speech-to-speech recognition, “The delicate and nuanced electronic activity that the human brain does may not get there,” Glasser maintains.

And there are plenty of problems that technology can’t solve. For instance, Hmong interpreters are harder and harder to come by as they age out of the industry and find new work. Glasser identified young Hmong translators and interpreters as a source of need, and he is always looking to bolster the stable. From first employing form 1099 translators that weren’t tested or trained to now fully vetted employees as staff members at places like University of San Francisco and Children’s Hospital Oakland, Glasser’s focus has always remained on human connection and simplifying the industry. “You understand someone’s language, you have the person,” says Glasser. “My perfect view is to make interpreting professional, to make it not such an exotic boutique service business, but to make it as simple as calling the geek squad.”

Perhaps they can call it the Speak Squad. Then they could tell you, “Good morning! Unfortunately, you have diverticulitis. But if you maintain a high-fiber diet, you’ll be just fine.”

Language World Services Inc. is located at 7220 Fair Oaks Blvd, Carmichael. Call 916-333-547 or visit languageworldservices.com for more information.