I can’t remember what we were eating, but I do remember the pain in Peike’s voice. As we were catching up over dinner, she told me that she was stressed about her homework, since she had mountains of reading each week. While any student would feel stress over a reading-intensive course load, Peike had to get through 30 pages of reading a night in her second language—and each page took her 30 minutes to read and comprehend. Although she is fluent in English (passing the TOEFL test is mandatory to attend our university, the University of Massachusetts), it was her first year attending school in the United States, where she was expected to study, work, socialize and advocate for herself in her non-native tongue.
Seeing the exhaustion on her face, I realized the amount of energy students expend to not only exist, but also excel in spaces where their own language is not the language of power.
Like many native-English speakers in the United States, I had taken for granted the privilege I have of being able to go almost anywhere I want, and have other people accommodate to my language preference.
When my then–editor in chief Devyn Giannetti announced to the editorial board in September 2017 that we would cut down on print and turn our attention toward digital, I started thinking about the new opportunities for The Massachusetts Daily Collegian to serve the community. I was thinking outward, about what UMass students, faculty, and staff needed from us. I thought of Peike, and how the way the news is presented should not hinder anyone from staying informed.
The same evening, I asked Devyn if I could see if the Collegian could have articles in Spanish and Chinese, since those languages have large speaking populations on campus. She green-lighted my idea, and I got to recruiting.
By November, we were translating articles into Spanish and Chinese—and Vietnamese, Korean, Italian, and Portuguese. This was the start of the Translations Department.
In two years, the department has swelled to over 20 translators and editors who translate articles into 12 languages—soon 13; we’re working on finding a Hindi translator. Not only are we of a variety of ages, races, genders, religions, ethnicities, and nationalities, but we also have a variety of language and translation experience. Some are native speakers, some are heritage speakers (meaning that they do not have formal writing experience with the language) and others are currently learning the language at school. Together, we collaborate on how to best translate an article, or record a podcast (we will be starting a podcast this spring). In the United States, where more than 350 languages are spoken (around a third are indigenous American languages), but all except for English are labeled as “foreign” and taught to be memorized and regurgitated—rather than felt.
Beyond making news more accessible, I want students, faculty, and staff at my university to know that they are seen, that their identities matter and command respect. To see Malay editor Alif’s eyes light up and mouth widen into a smile when I tell him that we can begin to publish articles in Malaysian script, in addition to the Latin alphabet. To see Xenia, the German/Spanish editor, try to not smile too big when we show our long-form narrative class Xenia’s Spanish language article about an indigenous Ecuadorian environmental activist—the first Collegian article originally reported in a language other than English. To hear from one of the IT guys who fix the technical issues at the Collegian office that he’s been wanting to connect with their parents’ native languages—and will now do so by reading the Collegian in French.
At our monthly staff meetings, I look around a table filled with people who are not only fluent in at least two languages (many know three or four) but are also guided by empathy and driven by a commitment to serving the public. When I look around the table, I see not only a diverse newsroom but also the future of US community journalism.
A few other student newspapers, including the DePaulia and the Niner Times, have begun multilingual publishing, but I hope that, in a few years, we become the norm, rather than the exception. Our communities depend on it.
To learn more about the department and our methods, please click here to read the Collegian’s translations special issue.