NEWARK, NJ - Growing up with an Argentine father, Jennifer Austin spoke only English at home. 

It wasn't until she lived in Spain for two years after college that she became fluent in Spanish and Basque, a language spoken in Northern Spain and Southern France. 

Austin is now a professor of Spanish and Portuguese Studies at Rutgers University-Newark where she studies bilingualism.

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With the help of a team of colleagues from the School of Arts and Sciences and Rutgers Law School, she took her passion for languages and bilingualism a step further by recruiting undergraduates to serve as volunteer interpreters and translators to help immigrants who need legal aid. 

“New Jersey is an incredibly multilingual state and Rutgers-Newark has a high percentage of bilinguals. Roughly a third of our students speak a language other than the language at home,” said Austin, who had been teaching at Rutgers since 2002. “It's a gold mine for looking at multilingualism.”

The Lives in Translation Project proposal received a $40,000 grant from the Chancellor’s Office. In 2016, the program sent it’s first three students to volunteer with the Immigrant Rights Clinic directed by Professor Anju Gupta. 

Student translators worked with law school students and pro bono attorneys who were representing those seeking asylum in the United States. The IRC had won their cases.

Volunteers with the LIT project also worked with the Child Advocacy Clinic run by Professor Randi Mandelbaum, which represents unaccompanied minors that come to the U.S. from Central America. They also worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations that advocate for people who immigrate to the U.S. and those seeking asylum. 

The LIT project started with 100 volunteers in 2016, months before Donald Trump won the presidency, said Austin. Now, the volunteer database has grown to more than 600 students. So has the program’s demand for translation and interpretation assistance. 

New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice heard about the LIT project and had been working with students from the program since 2017. 

The nonprofit organization started an effort to inform the public by distributing “Know Your Rights,” cards but needed materials translated quickly and accurately. 

They needed Spanish, Korean, Arabic, French, French Creole, Urdu, Portuguese and Hindi. Lives in Translation was a one-stop-shop for all the languages they needed. 

Though there were no mass raids at the beginning of 2017, the organization prepared anyway. 

"Unfortunately, it's one of those situations where under the current administration, immigrant communities are being attacked every day," said Johanna Calle, director of New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.

The organization spent a lot of time educating people on their rights so that fewer people fall prey to raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

LIT student volunteers translated the “Know Your Rights” cards quickly so the organization could distribute them immediately. The free service and access to multiple languages saved time and the burden of draining a stretched organizational budget explained Calle.

Yesenia Leal-Reyes said she got involved with LIT because she wanted to do something meaningful, specifically with the humanitarian crisis at the southern border. She graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and is pursuing a career as an interpreter. 

Leal-Reyes was born in Mexico and immigrated to the U.S. with her mother during childhood. 

“There’s a big misconception that bilinguals are able to interpret and translate. I came to realize that being bilingual is not enough,” said Leal-Reyes, who translated documents and conversations. “You need to have extensive vocabulary in both English and Spanish. Specifically in legal terms.”

As part of the Lives in Translation initiative, Austin is starting both a minor and certificate program in Translation/Interpretation within the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies. 

A new director was hired to run the project fulltime and she says the curricular program should be up and running in spring 2020. 

During this fall, LIT will collaborate with Professor Chantal Fischzang from the Arts, Culture and Media Department to create an interactive web-based platform to visualize data visualization and make the process for organizations to reach out for volunteers easier.

“The response has been overwhelming. Our students have been incredibly generous, responsible and thoughtful in the way they have come forward and conducted themselves,” said Austin. “It’s been amazing to see.”