When David Tweddell moved to Japan, he couldn’t read or speak Japanese. He relied on the only thing he could – body language.
On arrival, Tweddell went to a community office to register as a foreign resident and found a sign on the door when he arrived. The problem was, he couldn’t read it. Fortunately for Tweddell, a man on a bicycle helped him find his way and he soon discovered that the office had moved.
“We did it all through sign language,” Tweddell explained.
Since that experience years ago, Tweddell has moved on to become the chair of the board of directors at Across Languages, a non-profit interpretation and translation service in London. He also works full time at Research Western.
Across Languages currently employs 167 interpreters who provide services in 76 languages and dialects, said executive director Anna Hendrikx. The organization provides multi-language services “that reduce language barriers for whoever lives and works in our community,” she said.
Whether it’s interpreting for someone at a doctor’s appointment or taking witness statements for police after an accident, Across Languages provides newcomers with the support system they need to successfully settle in the community, Hendrikx explained.
As for Tweddell, memories from his time in Japan still stay with him through his work.
“Having had that experience of really not being able to navigate a culture or social service really had an impact on me,” he said. “It made me see what kind of value Across Languages provides to people who need it.”
This value is only increasing. As Canada becomes increasingly multicultural, services such as Across Languages’ are needed more and more, Hendrikx said.
While their work may be tough at times, that it is gratifying. “There are a lot of differences among the people who work here but we always gather and come together around a very common theme – the inclusion and respect of every person that lives and works in London.”
In 2006, Hendrikx joined Across Languages, which for her, is a great fit. “Languages were always an interest of mine,” she said.
Some of the most requested languages in the London include Arabic, Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin and Cantonese. However for some languages, like Khmer (the official language of Cambodia) or Karen (spoken predominantly in Burma), Hendrikx said it’s hard to find qualified interpreters.
“If you have a conversation at your dinner table at night, it doesn’t mean you can interpret for a neurosurgeon in that same language,” she said.
Hendrikx hopes students from Fanshawe College and Western will consider working as interpreters part-time, especially for those hard-to-find languages. “It might be something that a student is interested in doing aside from their studies,” she said.
Across Languages also provides training for interpreters. One of those interpreters is Christine Cheung, who started in 2008. While she continues to interpret occasionally, Cheung now works as Team Lead, with part of her job involving marking language tests.
Cheung said Across Languages’ interpreter training is important because it is not just about the language. For example, interpreters must learn how to how to mimic tone of voice as well as deal with confidentiality issues in the field, she said.
Cheung moved to Canada from Hong Kong in 1982, only knowing limited English when she arrived. Like Tweddell, Cheung understands how hard it can be living in a country and not knowing the native language.
Looking to the future, Tweddell sees Across Languages adopting new technology platforms – such as audio and video chat – into the interpretation process.
“I think it is a great opportunity and a big challenge,” Tweddell said.
It’s about getting the interpreter to the person who needs them as quickly as possible, he said.
“They’re the person for whom this service really matters.”