update: how can I convince my boss I don’t speak Spanish?

Remember the letter-writer who was being asked to serve as a Spanish translator for clients, despite not speaking fluent Spanish (#3 at the link)? Here’s her update.

I am the OP who wrote to you a few months ago about being asked to work with a client who speaks Spanish—when I’m nowhere close to fluent. I tried to follow your advice and spoke with the county referring worker, then went back to my manager with information on a variety of interpreter services and was told that we simply don’t have the money for it in our budget. Instead, she suggested I work with a neighbor or another community agency to provide interpreting services. I attempted to do this, but didn’t get very far (turns out it’s hard to convince other people to provide interpreting services when it isn’t their job). I have managed to organize it so I do most of my work with the kids (who are fluent in both English and Spanish) so at least I am able to communicate confidently with them. [Side note: it is considered to be bad practice in my field to have kids provide interpreter services for parents, since the subjects we discuss with parents are of a very personal nature and often not appropriate for children to hear, depending on their age and maturity level.]

Anyway, I have still felt extremely frustrated and upset about this case and about what my agency was asking of me. As some of the commenters guessed, I did indicate that I had basic Spanish skills on my resume, although I was completely honest in my interview that I could not speak Spanish on a professional level. I have since updated my resume and removed it completely, since I don’t want to end up in this kind of position again.

I did discover a silver lining, however! In the last month or so, two additional people have been hired who each speak another language. The director has told me that each of them were told in their interview that the position may require them to provide interpreter services on occasion and both of them agreed without issue. (I was not told nor did I agree to this in my interview, so there’s more evidence that it wasn’t part of my job description). The program director confirmed that I was not comfortable speaking Spanish with clients and then said that our agency needed to hire someone who was fluent. Obviously, I agreed.

In all, although I am still working with this family and communication is still an issue, it seems that I made enough of an impact to create some changes and I doubt that I will be asked to speak Spanish with clients again. Hooray! Thank you again for your advice and all the advice in the comments. It really helped me feel grounded and focus on the big picture.

{ 19 comments… read them below }

  1. Amy

    For future reference:
    interpreter/interpretation – is speech. voice.
    translator/translation – is text. the written word.

      1. Amy

        The OP doesn’t know what he is talking about. I’ve worked in the translation industry as a Project Manager for 14 years.
        Translation – text
        Interpretation – voice.

          1. The Real Ash

            There’s no need to be rude about it though (i.e. “doesn’t know what she’s talking about”). It is possible to be informative without being insulting. Try it sometime.

  2. Not Fiona

    If people know you are Hispanic/Latino and speak some Spanish, they will often assume you are fluent. The bar is higher, so to speak. Good luck!

  3. Ruffingit

    This is so weird to me still. I remember the original letter and I thought then that this was messed up. I worked for a divorce attorney once who had the kids translating for their mother, who was the firm’s client. Talk about awkward. I hated that my bosses (owners of the firm too) did that. But the one in charge was so money hungry she would take any and all clients. There’s just something very, very wrong about having minor children translating for their mother when she’s divorcing their father. Sick.

      1. Ruffingit

        It really was. The woman I worked for was a horrible person for many reasons. Unfortunately, this is one of the better stories about her. She did things that were a lot worse. It’s one of the two jobs I’ve quit without another one to go to. The abusive environment wasn’t worth my sanity.

    1. Fai

      My husband is fluent in English and Spanish, and his parents only speak Spanish, so he always translated for them as a kid. He considered it pretty normal, but he didn’t enjoy it, and definitely wasn’t equipped as a kid to translate the things he did (banking, contracts, etc.)

      But what else were his parents going to do? They weren’t wealthy enough to hire a translator for everything, and his mom isn’t even well-educated enough to read beyond a second-grade level in her first language. They used the tools they had available (a son educated in English) to make their lives better—my husband’s life included!

      I can see how it seems messed-up for a kid to be translating for their parents’ divorce, but really, a divorce is often in a kid’s best interests as well. So if there’s no other option available, maybe it’s their best option in the long run. Companies generally aren’t required to provide translation services.

  4. Jennifer

    Yeah, you probably shouldn’t mention anything about languages on a resume if you don’t actually want to use them in a job.–good idea there. I’ve studied three languages and am terrible at all of them, so the OP has my sympathies.

    1. Anonymous

      It could be that the OP’s Spanish would be quite good enough to have a basic conversation with Spanish-speaking clients that would make them feel comfortable and give them basic directions on how to access services, or something (I don’t know what the job is). The kind of work described sounds like it would require a high level of fluency and an understanding of linguistic subtleties, ideally.

      But yeah, you have to be careful putting languages on your resume. I never use the word bilingual for that reason, even though I’m qualified for many jobs classified as bilingual – you never know how someone we will take it.

      1. Anonymous

        It’s this. I speak basic Spanish, and it’s a skill that the offices (public defender) apply to find valuable, because it means I can set appointments or decode a phone message or write a letter or greet A client or give basic directions- basically, i can fill the gaps while we wait for an actual interpreter. I’m very clear that I don’t speak Spanish fluently (I actually dumbed down my level on my resume), but people who don’t speak any other language simply refuse to believe me she I tell them my Spanish is not that good.

  5. Rocky

    Just last month there was a case in NZ of a father whose 14-year-old son had been interpreting at his doctors’ appointments. The GP kept prescribing paracetomol. Turned out the father has lung cancer (now progressed to incurable). The father, understandably, hadn’t wanted his son to know how bad the pain was. OP, I’m so glad you stuck to your guns on this.

    1. Anonsie

      Having a family member interpret is a Big Fat No in my hospital. You’re not even allowed to use a language you know unless you’ve been tested and certified as an interpreter– it’s quite serious.

    2. Kiwi

      In this case, there was a free interpreting service available, but the patient chose not to use it.

  6. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

    So – I can totally see why you would feel uncomfortable here, and I’m glad that your boss seems to have taken your concerns on board. What I thought was missing from the exchange is that the culture and position of nonprofits sometimes means that you help people the best that you can, even if it’s not ideal. It may be that the alternative is that the person gets no service at all. Now, if you were performing heart surgery, or deciding whether to place the kids in foster care, this would be horribly unethical. But the reality may be that it’s you or nothing, and depending on the situation, that there is little risk of harm. Would you consider asking for your boss to pay for some Spanish classes for you? They are usually quite affordable at the local community college. There are also classes now called “Spanish for Heritage Speakers” (I can’t remember if you are of Hispanic origin) for people who learned some Spanish at home as a child but got their education in English.

    I can certainly understand why you feel uneasy here. However, see if you can learn more about the alternatives for this family – you might be a pretty good option right now. Also, you can share your concerns with the family, and encourage them to let you know if they are feeling uncomfortable or misunderstood. You might also check with your local college or university to see if there are any students looking for service hours or who are Spanish major who might be willing to give their time. The local Red Cross also may maintain a “language bank” of volunteers who can help with many languages.

    And above all, good for you for not letting children interpret. They often misunderstand, are exposed to information beyond their maturity level, or suffer psychological harm from feeling that they are relied on by their parents to meet basic family needs.

  7. Miss Evy

    At my first job, I was asked to interpret for my job even though that was not in the job description, and I stated clearly that I only had basic, conversational fluency – that is, I could communicate with some of our clients and subjects, but in no way whatsoever was I qualified to be an interpreter.

    My boss asked me to interpret/explain an informed consent form for a big clinical study to our non-English speaking clients, because he didn’t want to pay to have the form professionally translated. When I flat-out refused, he “outcasted” me to our second office down the street and he asked another girl, whose Cantonese was even worse than mine, to do the interpreting instead. To my appall, she actually agreed.

    Needless to say, this was pretty much the last straw on top of a whole string of other things that had proven the place to have bad management, and our managers to have horrifying ethics. I immediately started looking for another job and was out of there less than a month later.

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