Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Separated by a Common Tongue

By MIRIAM JORDAN from the The Wall Street Journal:

For years, interpreter Yu Ching ended many calls by saying, "Congratulations. You have been approved," as she helped credit-card companies and mortgage lenders reach a growing share of the Mandarin-speaking market in the U.S.

But on a recent morning, the call-center interpreter didn't have the last word. "You're sending me off a cliff," shrieked a woman, after Ms. Ching relayed a bank official's refusal to let the woman avert foreclosure by selling her house for less than the value of her mortgage.

Ms. Ching, and legions like her, occupy unique listening posts in a changing economy. During boom times, these telephone-based interpreters enabled financial companies to push loans, mortgages and cheap credit to growing communities of Asian and Latin American immigrants. Now, as many of those bets have gone bad, interpreters are busier than ever helping the same banks try to collect.

"You need to have an iron heart," says Ms. Ching, a 33-year-old native of Taiwan who works from a cubicle in this central California town. Her company, Language Line Services, employs 5,500 interpreters, many of whom work from home.

As the translators' messages have changed, so has their job. While they once had to do little more than relay a standard sales pitch, now they must mediate in what is frequently a sensitive cross-cultural negotiation. Interpreters say immigrants on the other end of the call often feel a connection, asking them to plead for more time, try to arrange a lower interest rate or even help them find a job.

Other callers try to confide in the translator. Ms. Ching says she sometimes hears, "I'm telling you, but please don't tell the company that...'' She says she politely cuts the immigrants off.
All the interpreters are allowed to do is translate, word for word. Sometimes that includes insults. "You know where you can shove the house...," an exasperated homeowner told Spanish-language interpreter Yolanda Almader recently. "We tell our interpreters to interpret everything" uttered by customers, says Craig Wandke, interpreter-operations manager for Language Line. "Profanity is the only exception."

Some interpreters struggle with the new role because of the affinity they have for their cultural brethren. "One of the goals of an immigrant who comes to this country is a home," says Lucia Pelaez, a Spanish-language interpreter originally from Peru, who works out of her home in Texas. "You can't help but feel for people when you hear certain things on the line."

Until about a year ago, many lenders didn't inquire about household income, check employment information or perform a credit check, interpreters say. Even when they did, potential financial consequences may have been lost in translation.

Some of the foreign speakers "don't understand a lot of the terminology," says Ms. Almader. "It sounded very, very good to them when they got loans." Among the terms that she thinks the average non-English speaker didn't get: lump sum, variable rate, interest-only loan and balloon payment.

"Just by listening to the way they talk, I can detect that a lot of times they don't understand what the representative is telling them," says Ms. Almader, who immigrated from Mexico decades ago. "Sometimes I try to take initiative and ask the [loan] officer on the call what something is so that I can explain it to the borrower."

But translators aren't allowed to insert their personal feelings into the conversation. The company's code of ethics bars interpreters from making unsolicited comments, showing bias or volunteering explanations. "We have to remember at all times that we are word movers, not interveners or advocates," says Mr. Wandke, the interpreter-operations manager. He says the job is hardest on the "most caring individuals" because "they want to clarify above and beyond."


The company last month quadrupled its number of "stress debriefers" to 80. These are interpreters who receive training to help their colleagues unwind after particularly difficult calls. Nancy Belford, one of the debriefers, says she recently counseled an interpreter who had handled a call in which a lender declined to modify a mortgage for a man who was four months behind on his payments. "I have run out of options," the homeowner said, "There is nothing else I can do. I am going to take my life."

The bank representative hung up. The interpreter was distraught, not knowing the homeowner's fate. Following protocol, Ms. Belford informed her supervisor, who contacted the bank. They never found out what happened.

On a recent call, Ms. Pelaez says she "particularly identified with a lady in California who sounded like she may be my age." The woman, Ms. Pelaez says, was a working mother, whose hours had been cut back at a factory. She was seeking to refinance her mortgage because she couldn't keep up with payments. "She held herself together so well....She was trying to deal with it in a matter of fact way."

Ms. Pelaez had to relay the bank's decision: The home would be foreclosed on.
The caller then wondered aloud if her son, who had recently enrolled in a university, could stop studying and work fulltime so that they could keep the house. "She said she would call back. That is where it ended."

"You want to be able to talk to her almost on a personal level."

Unlike bank representatives, who may be assigned to a particular case, these interpreters have only fleeting exposure to individual customers and may never speak to them twice. Calls are routed randomly. They are monitored for quality control, and a Language Line spokesman says some interpreters have been dismissed for failing to stay neutral.

Ms. Ching, the Mandarin interpreter, says some callers try to make her feel guilty. "You're a bad person. You're not helping me," she says they tell her. "I take a deep breath and then I'm ready for the next call."

No comments: