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The Human Cost of Bad Translation

My mother is not fluent in English and this fact counted heavily against her on a call to an insurance company recently.

The call was about an important question relating to my mother’s account, so I joined her to make the call. The person on the other end of the phone said they had to verify my mother’s identity, and so they needed her to speak, not me, her daughter. The operator asked what language my mother speaks, and put us on hold while they found a Farsi interpreter.

Within a couple of minutes, the translator joined the call and translated between my mother and the operator. The interpreter was from Afghanistan and spoke a dialect of Farsi called Dari. My mother did her best to answer the questions as I listened alongside her. The person asked for her name, phone number, address, and that all went well. Then the translator asked for my mother’s zip code, using a Dari word that my mother did not know. It was painful.

As a certified translator, I know how scary it can be when people don’t understand what is being said to them. When my mother did not respond, the operator informed us she was dropping the call because my mother couldn’t get the zip code right.

My mother needed her question answered right away, so it became my job to find a suitable translator that wouldn’t be accused of “coaching” my mother by the insurance company.

This was a very small thing: a zip code. Five digits. I understand that identity theft is real, and that the process was designed to actually protect my mother, but I think this is an example of someone in an interpreting position that was not fluent in the language they claimed to be.

For translators, getting certified is important because it is a guarantee that they are fluent. Right now, the lack of certified Farsi translators is hurting Farsi speakers in the United States and Canada. If you or a family member are in need of a Farsi translator, make sure the person is a native speaker, and genuinely qualified to speak your specific dialect. Then, I would talk to them to make sure that you understand each other.

In order to make certain of the qualifications of your translator, contact The Farsi Translation Center.

Sepideh Moussavi, MSSepideh Moussavi, MS

Farsi Translation Center
(212) 304 – 4400

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