NEWARK, NJ — At the Hahne & Co building in downtown Newark, graphic design, social advocacy and shared data are part of a new model for how multilingual cities might provide interpretation services to its residents going forward. 

Express Newark, an arts- and culture-focused coworking space at Hahne & Co, recently granted a $5,000 Third Space Award to the Lives in Translation (LiT) project, a two-pronged a student language translation program at Rutgers-Newark that’s collaborating with the university’s Design Consortium to visualize and build an accessible online database of volunteer interpreters. 

Originally initiated in 2016 to meet the growing language translation needs of the university’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, LiT is currently comprised of a student internship program and volunteer program database that has expanded to serve multiple legal clinics and organizations throughout New Jersey and New York.  

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“It was difficult for the law students and the clinic to communicate with the clients, and they were always looking for interpreters,” said Anna Dichter, former program manager for LiT. “In the legal field, you really want to have an objective interpreter. Clients often bring in family members or a friend, which can cause problems due to the sensitivity of some of the topics.”

Through a $40,000 Chancellor’s Seed Grant awarded to LiT, Dichter, then a Rutgers Law student, developed a program to recruit and train multilingual students to provide interpretation services to legal clients for academic credits. From there, she also built out the database, which today boasts nearly 500 student volunteers speaking 48 languages, all eager to provide their services in an era of shifting immigration policy and legal uncertainty for undocumented individuals. 

On its own, LiT’s volunteer database has provided assistance for pro bono attorneys conducting know-your-rights workshops and DACA clinics in Northern New Jersey offered by the American Friends Service Committee, the ACLU, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, and many others. The database’s volunteers have also interpreted numerous client intakes, medical examinations, court appointments, asylum interviews and hundreds of pages of legal documents.

The database is on the precipice of an exciting new phase, according to LiT Director Jennifer Austin. While the program is still focused on providing interpreters for legal translation purposes, she said that what has emerged from LiT’s work over the past three years is the potential for the infrastructure she and her colleagues developed to serve multiple sectors of the Newark community, 45% of which is multilingual. LiT’s research has also helped pinpoint where the need for translation lies throughout the city, providing an opportunity for the program to fill in the gaps as it grows.  

“We’ve received requests for Arabic translation from a food pantry. The Newark Board of Education has a need for interpreters for their work as well. There is a huge need across the lives of the individuals who aren’t yet proficient in English, and we’re trying to meet them as much as we can,” Austin said.  

With the visualization expertise of the Design Consortium, a student-faculty creative studio and resident partner of Express Newark, the initial phases of the platform for the database are underway to serve the city’s growth and wellbeing through shared access to LiT’s research. 

Organizations or individuals with a need for translation services would register for an account, which would then be vetted by the LiT team before it grants permission to search for student interpreters through filters like location, language and availability. The platform would then generate an automated message to volunteers who fit the search criteria to connect them with the client. In turn, the site would support LiT’s programs by automating a school-wide sign up to expand the volunteer database, according to Chantal Fischzang, co-director of the Design Consortium.

She added that the platform would help the LiT program meet the growing demand for its services and ensure its future viability. Fischzang and her students are in the process of narrowing down designs before incorporating web developers in the later stages of the project. 

Fischzang approached Austin with the idea for the platform based on their programs’ shared interests in issues like immigration, multiculturalism and language. Although the platform is still in its infancy, both professors see it as a promising way for Newark to leverage its own diversity to meet the needs of its citizens. 

“The data paints a portrait of our community that hasn’t been painted yet,” Austin said. “Finding out how many languages our students speak has been incredible. This is an aspect of our identity that hasn’t been accurately represented.”