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Making Sure No One Gets Lost in Translation

The Boyle Heights Chronicles


The "Popol Vuh Heart of Heaven" Puppet and Mask Making Workshop.

Photo by Ryan Miller

Estela Garcia at the Popol Vuh "Heart of Heaven" Puppet and Mask Making Workshop at The Shop in Boyle Heights.

Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

When we first developed our Boyle Heights programming three years ago, we laid what would become the foundation of our work at a community engagement strategies brainstorming session. One of the many lists we made was titled “Barriers of Participation,” alongside another list of solutions for said barriers. One of the first items we listed was “language.”

The Barrier

In Boyle Heights, the majority of the residents are Latino, almost everyone speaks Spanish—and not everyone speaks English. According to Census data gathered in 2013, 32.3% of people in the three Boyle Heights zip codes (90033, 90023, and 90063) reported that they “speak English not well or not at all,” compared to 17.1% of people across the city of Los Angeles. Early on, we made it a priority to create an inclusive environment where everyone who wanted to participate could do so regardless of their language.

The Strategy

This priority meant coming up with a number of strategies for overcoming the language barrier. We decided to always have someone in the room who could translate for those who needed translating. And we would hire bilingual artists to lead the workshops whenever possible. Center Theatre Group’s The Shop team members who didn’t speak Spanish participated in Spanish language lessons to help them better communicate with the participants. We also hired a pair of professional translators to translate all flyers, online content, and hand-outs so that information could be shared with everyone.

I volunteered to be the designated translator at our workshops. It was both exciting and nerve-wracking! I learned Spanish from my parents, and we mostly talked about food, school, or stories from back home in Mexico. Nowhere in our conversations did we talk about “stamp pad foams” (“hula espuma”), “fine grit sand paper” (“papel de lija”), “methocel” (“methocel” in Spanish as well), and definitely not “crystalline-silica free alginate” (“alginato sin sílica cristalina”), all of which are used in the technical area of theatre and would be part of our workshops. To be honest, I don’t even know what some of these things are in English, let alone Spanish. Luckily, our professional translators are well versed in theatre terminology in addition to Spanish from Mexico, Argentina, and the United States. This is important because there are slight variations in meaning of certain words across North America. Their translations are my cheat sheets.

In Action

At the top of each workshop, we ask people to raise their hands to help us identify the Spanish speakers. If the workshop is made up of all bilingual speakers—which rarely happens—we continue with the workshop in English, and I become another assistant in the room. But usually, I stand near the lead teaching artist, and we work in tandem, taking turns to give instructions in English then in Spanish. The teacher speaks, and either we find a natural pause for me, or I interrupt before too many sentences pass.

Although I have no formal training in translation, I turned out to be a great candidate for translator because I speak Spanish, am an artist, and teach. I am knowledgeable enough about the the material to translate as well as answer questions and assist with the art-making while the instructor might be busy helping someone else out. It also helps that I grew up in a bilingual home. It’s easy for me to translate on the spot something very formal to something informal, which is a great way to make people laugh and create a sense of ease in the class.

What We've Learned

It wasn’t as easy to come up with this format as it might seem. Originally, we asked Spanish speakers to huddle in one section of the room, and I’d speak directly to them. At one point, we considered using audio description listening devices like the ones Center Theatre Group’s ACCESS program uses for patrons who are hearing impaired or hard of hearing at our shows. These devices would allow our participants to get translations instantly to their ears. This sounded exciting! But it dawned on us that it might create an awkward session and classify our Spanish-only participants as different from everyone else. We realized that both these methods were efficient but not inclusive. We instead teach in tandem, and this feels right.

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