A Path to Interpreting in Education: An Interview with Luis Hernández


One of the joys of interpreting work has been meeting colleagues, and then keeping up with them over the years, seeing them at events, and working together. I met one of those colleagues, Luis Hernández, in 2009 when we attended a train the trainer course in Phoenix, Arizona to teach the Spanish Bilingual Assistant program. I recently crossed paths again with Luis in his new role as the Translation Services Supervisor for the Riverside County Office of Education in Riverside, California. I knew that he’d have some important and interesting insights to share regarding his education, training, and work, and he graciously agreed to share his experience here.


I love the way Luis frames his career path as an adventure, and you can really appreciate the flow of how one experience or connection flowed to the next step, as it is for many of us. In this piece, Luis talks about his training, education, and experience in different settings, as well as the challenges of working in educational settings. He also has some insights into how we think about ourselves and our work as interpreters. Enjoy!


Luis, tell me about your experience working as an interpreter. I know you started in healthcare, and then did your master’s in legal interpreting. How was that transition? What are some differences between those settings, and how do you think your training prepared you for the work?



I started in Medical interpreting in 2007 as a staff interpreter for a Level I Trauma Hospital in Downtown Austin, TX. I had recently graduated with my B.A. in Translation & Interpretation Studies from Cal State Long Beach in CA, which touched on medical, worker’s comp and other settings, although it largely focused on court interpreting. The hospital was going through a transition where their Children’s area of the hospital was moving down the road and would take most of their interpreters, so the adult side was scrambling to find people. Most people had never heard of a B.A. in Translation & Interpretation, so I believe that was my “in” and I was hired almost immediately after graduation.


In 2009, after working in medical interpreting for a few years, I was offered the opportunity to become a trainer for the Spanish Bilingual Assistant program in Phoenix, Arizona and met some great and talented people, one of which was the Director for the College of Charleston’s M.A. Interpreting program, in Charleston, South Carolina. I decided the program would be a good fit, so I applied, was accepted, and about 6 months later, packed my stuff and was there for about a year-and-a-half focusing on legal interpretation, although that too included a lighter focus on medical.



Fast-forward to 2016, after having worked in the Courts in Yavapai and Maricopa Counties in AZ, being an OPI interpreter, working in another children’s hospital afterwards and focusing on educational interpreting since then, I’ve gone through a lot of field transitions! But I’ve always tried to learn from each experience and tried to apply it to the next adventure. I wouldn’t be in education, had I not been exposed to those neurology reports in the children’s hospital. I also wouldn’t have gone back to medical interpreting if I hadn’t realized that I did not like the adversarial system of the courts as much as I thought I would. The wonderful thing about my training, has been that the focus is on translation and interpreting first and foremost. I believe it was broad enough that I was able to take my skills in interpreting and translating and apply them to any specialized field. I still believe this should be the route most academic programs should take today.


Tell me about the work you’ve been doing in education. What have been some of the biggest surprises about this work? What are some of the biggest challenges?



I started in education working for a school district in Anaheim, CA. The interpreters were well-respected and supported and it was a great introduction to the field. Most work in educational interpreting is done in the realm of Special Education, working in IEP, SST, or 504 meetings. Some districts include their committee meetings as well. One of the things that did surprise me, when I went to my second School District, is that the focus can (and should) be on much more than that. Sometimes, districts take the initiative to hire interpreters as part of the Communications or Community Engagement Departments to interpret at parent workshops or district-wide events such as community input meetings. It’s an integral part of communicating with the communities, and some districts recognize the important role that language access has on community buy-in. I was lucky to work in a district that did this as well.


One big challenge in educational interpreting, is the challenge of acronyms. I purposely listed a few since the world of education relies heavily on them. This means that we, the educational interpreters, have to have set terminology for many of these ahead of time. If we don’t have these memorized and ready to go, we are quickly left behind.


Another challenge is that educational interpreting is so new, we are constantly asked to go beyond our role of interpreters, which means we are put in many ethically challenging situations. To top it off, since there still isn’t much in terms of training for interpreters in education, many people working in the field don’t feel empowered to deny certain requests that others may ask of them. In my current position, we are trying to change that by providing some basic training on what our role is as interpreters.


Do you feel that your training and experience working in healthcare and legal settings has helped in your work in education, in terms of how you solve problems, or how you interpret?



I believe interpreting in education combines some of the best and often most challenging parts of other interpreting fields. It can go from medical to legal to just talking about the family in a matter of seconds, and we have to be prepared for it! I do think the programs I took prepared me for this, ultimately. You’ll notice that while the main focus was legal for both of the academic programs I was a part of, they always included other fields that I would inevitably encounter. Even the names of the programs were not specific (B.A. in Translation & Interpretation and M.A. in Bilingual Interpreting), and I think that was to my advantage since the field I’m currently in, education, draws on so much of the other two.


In terms of my experience, yes, I believe working in healthcare and legal settings has definitely helped me in education. Having a background in an “adversarial” setting like court, helps with ethical issues because it makes me more self-aware of what could be seen as partiality. It also helps me with how I handle those previously-mentioned terms and acronyms. I would consider acronyms equivalent to “frozen phrases” we often hear in the legal setting. In addition, having a background in medical terminology and working with neurologists has definitely helped when reviewing IEP translations. That same medical terminology has helped me on other translations outside of the Special Education realm, such as interpreting for parent workshops specifically related to ADHD, depression, self-harm or other common things that can be seen in the school environment.


A while ago an interpreting colleague posted on his vlog that we shouldn’t consider ourselves legal interpreters, medical interpreters or conference interpreters and should instead consider ourselves interpreters above all (while specializing in certain topics, of course!). I wholeheartedly agree with that thought. I know that I wouldn’t be able to perform my job the way I do if I didn’t have the experiences I’ve been fortunate to have. I consider myself living proof that first and foremost we are interpreters, and we can always apply at least part of our experiences to new assignments.


Many thanks to Luis for being so generous with his time and sharing his experience. What about you? How do you think your training and education have influenced your interpreting practice? Did you train to work in one field, but end up in another? Or was your training more broad? Let us all know in the comments!



Luis F. Hernández is a Spanish-English interpreter, translator and language access advocate, working as Translation Services Supervisor for the Riverside County Office of Education in Riverside, California. Luis holds a B.A. in Translation & Interpretation Studies, a B.A. in Spanish with Emphasis in Translation from California State University, Long Beach, and a Master’s of Arts in Bilingual Interpreting from the College of Charleston in South Carolina. He also holds a CHI™ certification through the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters. In his time off, he enjoys hiking, traveling, and spending time with his family.


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