When a family arrives in a new country, often the children are first to pick up the new language – and inevitably, they become the family translators. Researcher Dr Humera Iqbal describes what it’s like to be a child responsible for dealing with doctors and landlords, bank staff or restaurant suppliers.
“Baba! Baba!” calls out the driving instructor. Thirteen-year-old Jiawei sits at the back of the car while her dad takes his driving lesson. Father and daughter exchange confused glances, then burst out laughing. The instructor, who has heard this Chinese word during one of Jiawei’s father’s previous lessons, looks puzzled.
“Doesn’t ‘baba’ mean ‘move forward’ in Chinese?” he asks.
“No,” says Jiawei. “It means ‘father’!”
Jiawei was in the unusual position of acting as an interpreter for her dad as he learned to drive. She took notes and repeated in Chinese exactly what the instructor said in English – things like “Turn left at the roundabout,” or “Slow down at the junction.” She’s proud that she helped her father pass his test.
“It was quite fun and I thought I was doing something to help my family,” she says, looking back. “I was also learning how to drive myself without knowing it, doing something that other kids didn’t get to do.”
A year earlier, Jiawei’s family had moved from China to the UK and while she had managed to pick up basic English at school, her father was struggling. Jiawei became a crucial link helping him find his way in a new country.
Thousands of migrant children in the UK translate for their families every day. My colleague Dr Sarah Crafter and I have come across child interpreters, some as young as seven, helping their parents communicate in shops, banks, and even police stations. It can be stressful for them, especially when adults are rude or aggressive.
“It is very visible and young people feel very noticeable,” says Sarah Crafter. “It is also an emotional thing, because if you are treated well you feel good – and if you are not treated well you feel bad about yourself and it really impacts on young people’s identities.”
Seventeen-year-old Oliwia, who has translated from Polish to English for her mother since 2008, is familiar with that feeling. She’s used to hearing xenophobic comments.
Find out more
Humera Iqbal’s radio documentary Translating for Mum and Dad is on the BBC World Service from 9 October
“Some say, ‘You’re in England, speak English,'” she says. “I hate that so much. People should be more understanding.”
In fact, her mother has tried hard to learn English, but is not yet fluent.
Once, when Oliwia and her mum experienced racist abuse on a bus, Oliwia was faced with the choice of either translating it or shielding her mum from the hateful words.
Translating at the doctor’s can be especially tricky.
Esmeralda, who is 16 and from Peru, was suddenly confronted with the word “cyst” after her mother’s minor surgery.
“I had no idea,” she says.
“I didn’t know how to say it in English. I was so confused and I was trying to communicate with the doctor to try and say something similar to it. I didn’t know what to say.”
She adds: “Sometimes I don’t want to go because my mum’s thing is really, really complicated.”
Professional translators are available for this kind of situation, but not all newly arrived families know about them or realise that they are free of charge (in some areas, anyway). And some just prefer to use their own family members. Moreover, in an emergency professional translators are not always on hand.
The rules say a translator should be 18 or over. But if the patients want their children to translate, and the children aren’t refusing, what should medical staff do? It’s an ongoing debate.
Like Esmeralda, 17-year-old Lesly, from Ecuador, has sometimes translated for her mother in hospital. At other times, though, people have tried to stop her.
“They say I am under 18, [but] she needs a translator and there is no-one else there. I continue talking and tell them what my mom tells me,” she says.
“They think we are minors so we don’t understand, but they underestimate us.”
At a school in London, Marian, who is 13 and from Bolivia, is translating from English to Spanish for her mum, Mary Luz, at her own parents’ evening.
Marian’s computer science teacher pays a visit to her table.
“Are you translating?” he asks Marian, who nods her head. He goes on to tell Mary Luz that she has reached her target grades.
A great start, and Marian calmly translates word for word without hesitation, her mother nodding earnestly.
However, this isn’t the end of the conversation and things rapidly take a different turn.
“While she is working well… she can be a bit chatty with Carolina,” he adds.
Marian’s eyes dilate slightly, and her cheeks rapidly turn a bright red. She pauses, takes a moment to think and goes on to translate the message.
“Oh Marian! I wasn’t aware you spoke during class!” Mary Luz says in Spanish, waving her finger from side to side.
Marian tells me it’s not a big deal and she can fix it, but her mum doesn’t look convinced.
I ask Marian if she thought about changing the message to soften the blow while she was translating.
“I was questioning whether I should translate it like, 100% or not! That’s why she is reacting like this! Also, my mum can read the face of the teachers, so it’s useless if I lie!” she says.
As the main English-speaker in her family, Marian has found herself in the middle of some difficult conversations. When they first arrived in the UK, they lived in rented accommodation where the heating did not work – and it was up to Marian to get the landlord to fix it.
She made countless phone calls and sent text messages, but her requests were ignored. Marian’s parents kept urging their daughter to show anger, in order to emphasise that the problem needed to be fixed urgently. But Marian resisted.
“I do not like confrontation and I did not have the anger in me to do it,” she says.
She was caught between an angry parent and a stubborn landlord – not an easy place to be for a 12-year-old. Her way out was to be doggedly persistent.
“I just texted him daily.”
A whole year later, the heating finally got fixed. For Marian, it felt like a huge accomplishment.
At the parents’ evening, her English teacher and head of year come to the table.
“She is doing very well,” the teacher begins. Marianne translates word for word.
“Her effort, behaviour and homework are all outstanding. She’s very respectful and participates and is enthusiastic. And it’s a pleasure to teach her.”
“Gracias!” Mary Luz calls out, patting her daughter on the back, her eyes glistening with pride.
Marian is herself proud of this and so she should be. She came to the UK four years ago with no knowledge of English and now she is reading, writing and speaking at an outstanding level.
During our research, Sarah Crafter and I have come across children who are translating not just between two languages but between three or more.
At her school in east London, 17-year-old Fatima has a band of friends who, like her, moved to the UK from Italy in their early teens. All are from South Asian families, so they speak Bengali, Sinhalese or Urdu at home, Italian with friends and now English, sometimes switching between all three languages.
Often the children were not pleased to be dragged from Italy to the UK; learning a new language and translating for their parents was a burden.
Fatima’s friend Rashani, for example, has to help her mother understand all the correspondence she gets from her workplace, a fried chicken shop. One text message she had to grapple with said: “Hello Team, please check what items are missing from last week – if you don’t understand anything, ask the team leader, they will explain we need to control all the missing items.”
“In the beginning it felt like it was all on me and I remember thinking this is so unfair,” Rashani says.
But since then she has become more aware of the upsides.
“Now I feel like I’m kind of head of the family, as I influence the decisions of my parents even though I’m young!”
Jiawei clearly remembers the day of her father’s driving test. She felt nervous, but translated carefully the driving examiner’s words, knowing she had to do this quickly without fluffing.
“It went really smoothly and we got through the test,” she recollects.
“I remember the moment the instructor said he had passed and I translated the good news to my dad. ‘You’ve passed the test!’ He was overjoyed and I was too. It was a moment in our lives we will share forever.”
Years later, and now an adult, Jiawei rarely translates for her baba as his English has improved significantly.
But perhaps her experience as a young translator has influenced her choice of career? After completing a PhD in medical sciences, she and her partner founded a start-up to develop technology that translates complex medical documents from English into Chinese.
She is now learning to drive herself, which has brought back memories of the time she spent with her father and his instructor. The basic principles of driving were already familiar to her, even before she started lessons.
Jiawei is looking forward to the day when she tells her baba she has passed her own driving test.
“Life has found a way of coming around in a big circle,” she says.
Dr Humera Iqbal is a lecturer in psychology at University College London
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