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  • Writer's pictureJace Norton

9 Key Questions To Ask When Choosing A Provider For Mayan (And Other Indigenous) Language Services

A notebook with notes on how to find Mayan language interpreters

With the increasing number of migrants and asylum seekers who speak Mayan and other Latin American indigenous languages coming to the United States, finding interpreters for indigenous languages is more important now than ever.

However, it seems increasingly common for those seeking interpreters in indigenous languages to be so relieved to finally find someone who supposedly speaks the language that they don’t ask any further questions. Working through an interpretation agency should mitigate that, but, unfortunately, most agencies simply don’t have the capacity to evaluate the language proficiency of the resources they have. 

So how do you actually find the right provider that has sufficient resources, and how can you evaluate the quality of its interpreters? 

The trick is to get straight to the source by working directly with a niche agency and then asking the right questions to ensure they have adequate resources and that they are able to provide the necessary quality assurance for those resources. 

In today’s blog, we’ll go through the four main players involved in Mayan language interpretation and the eight questions you should ask any provider before working with them. 

Whether you're a healthcare provider, legal professional, or a childcare organization seeking support for unaccompanied children, these questions can help you determine whether an interpretation provider is experienced, reliable, and committed to making Mayan and other indigenous languages more accessible.

What Are Mayan Languages?

Mayan languages are spoken by indigenous communities primarily found in Mexico and Guatemala. 

With over 30 distinct languages and dialects, it is one of the most linguistically diverse in the world. Some of the most commonly spoken languages are Q’eqchi’ (Kekchi), K'iche' (Quiché), Kaqchikel, Mam, Q’anjob’al (Kanjobal), Akateko, Ixil, Chuj, Tzotzil, and many others. 

Derived from the ancient Proto-Mayan language, all Mayan languages share the same foundation. However, apart from having some similar words, they are all distinct from one another and are not mutually intelligible (think Arabic vs. Hebrew, or Spanish vs. Romanian).

There are roughly estimated to be around 7 million speakers of Mayan languages, the majority living in Guatemala and Mexico. Mayan speakers can also be found in Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. 

Aside from the Mayan languages, there are many other non-Mayan indigenous languages from Mexico and Central and South America, such as Nahuatl, Mixe, Mixteco, Quechua, Aymara, and others. 

However, nowadays Latin America isn’t the only place where you will encounter speakers of Latin American indigenous languages. 

Growing diasporic Maya communities have sprouted throughout the United States over the last few decades. Oakland, California, for instance, is home to a large Mam community; Indiana houses a large community of Chuj speakers; and Kingston, NY is now home to more Q’eqchi’ speakers anywhere else outside of Guatemala and Belize.

Why Indigenous Language Interpreters Are Important

Despite being from Spanish-speaking countries, many Central and South American indigenous language speakers are unable to speak or write in Spanish. Even if they have attained a high level of fluency in Spanish, there’s a decent chance that they might not feel confident enough to use it in a credible-fear interview (I speak 3 other languages, but I know that I would certainly prefer to do anything important in my own native language). 

Many asylum seekers are unaware of their right to an interpreter in their native language, or incorrectly assume that it would not be possible to obtain an interpreter in their indigenous language, and thus settle for a Spanish interpreter out of fear or desperation. Many of those working with indigenous individuals also incorrectly assume that no interpreter can be found for these indigenous languages and opt to try and muddle through interviews and appointments in Spanish. Thus, many individuals who speak indigenous languages from Latin America go “under the radar”, with those working with them often incorrectly labeling them as Spanish speakers. 

Moreover, these cases are usually very time-sensitive. If an interpreter is not found in time, court hearings could be delayed. In the worst-case scenario, an asylum seeker could be deported, regardless of how valid their asylum claim is, if an interpreter is not provided in their indigenous language. I have personally seen instances in which serious misunderstandings arose in immigration hearings due to not having a Q’eqchi’ interpreter. (Make sure to check out next week’s blog post!)

The demand for Mayan-language interpreters goes beyond immigration courts and asylum hearings. As the amount of Mayan-language speakers increases in the U.S. interpreters are also needed to assist them in accessing essential services like hospitals, schools, and government assistance programs.

Interpreters can be a literal lifeline for many people. They enable vulnerable populations to have the basic human right to be able to understand and be understood in society. The consequences of not having interpreters for indigenous languages are varied, and can even be fatal. Without interpreters in these indigenous languages, these already vulnerable populations will not be able to integrate into society and access the rights to which they are entitled.

Guatemalan Mayan women in traditional clothing

Language Access for Indigenous Languages - Key Players

Currently, there are several types of organizations that provide some level of indigenous language interpretation services. While this is potentially a step in the right direction, many of these organizations are under equipped to provide the services needed to increase language access for indigenous languages on a national scale.

Here's a look at the four main types of organizations that can potentially provide language services in indigenous languages:

Big Language Service Providers (LSPs)

Big LSPs strive to provide their clients with an all-in-one solution for interpretation and translation services. With such a broad approach, it’s difficult to meet the needs of rare and Indigenous languages, and they often lack the specialized knowledge to do so. More often than not, they end up outsourcing Indigenous language interpretation to small, niche LSPs, or they simply have very few of their own resources. Because they have fewer resources for indigenous languages, they often cannot provide on-demand interpretation services.

These large providers also tend to lack the resources and expertise to evaluate Indigenous language speakers' proficiency and interpretation skills. I have personally worked with a wide variety of larger LSP’s as a Q’eqchi’ interpreter, and I can attest that almost none of them actually had me do any kind of language proficiency evaluations. 

Community Development Organizations

Community development organizations (CDO’s) do excellent work in connecting communities with resources and ensuring their welfare. They also provide interpretation services for members of their community and can partner with local organizations to provide interpretation services. However, interpretation services are only a portion of their work, not their primary mission, resulting in inadequate resources and infrastructure to handle nationwide demand. 

Often, CDO’s are limited to the languages most commonly spoken by members of their community, and they may not have the resources to handle languages beyond that. 

Government Contracting Agencies

Language services are often included in government contracts, which can typically be subcontracted out. These contracts typically involve multiple levels of subcontracting that can ultimately jeopardize interpretation quality and consistency.

Similar to big LSPs, these agencies are generally not equipped to evaluate interpreters' skills or offer on-demand services. Another problem is that certain government contracting agencies may “horde” resources. For example, I have seen certain government contracting agencies hire indigenous language speakers full-time, but then primarily only use them for Spanish-English interpretation, resulting in poor resource allocation and a potential shortage of interpreters in other fields.

Each of these three types of organizations can, albeit unintentionally, create barriers to true language access for indigenous languages. Each time a client is unable to connect with an interpreter when they need one, or is provided with an interpreter who doesn’t actually meet the standard of language proficiency needed, or is provided with the wrong language, it creates misconceptions about the accessibility for these languages. This often leads the end users to adopt less-than-ethical standards, such as continuing interviews or appointments in Spanish or using a family member as an interpreter. 

Small, Niche Agencies

Small, niche language service agencies specializing in indigenous languages should have extensive experience and specialized knowledge about the set of languages they service. Thus, they should be able to provide actual language proficiency evaluation and quality control, and can navigate the nuances of working with indigenous languages. Because of their smaller size and more focused approach, they should be able to provide more responsive services, such as on-demand interpretation. They should also offer the widest variety possible for the set of languages in which they specialize, not just a handful. 

Overall, a small, niche agency offers the best combination of expertise, cultural sensitivity, and service quality when it comes to indigenous language interpretation. However, simply claiming to be a niche expertise agency isn’t enough. Even those who claim to be niche interpretation agencies can create barriers to true indigenous language access if they don’t meet the necessary standards. 

9 Questions To Ask When Choosing A Provider For Mayan and Indigenous Languages

As mentioned before, small, niche agencies typically will be your best bet for Mayan and other indigenous language services, thanks to their specialized expertise, cultural sensitivity, and more in-depth focus on indigenous languages, but that doesn’t mean you should just go with the first one that you find. 

Whether you plan to work with a niche agency or a big LSP, to find the best Mayan language interpretation provider for your needs, you should be asking these 8 key questions: 

1. Are these languages handled in-house or outsourced?

Outsourcing can affect the quality and consistency of services. If an agency has to outsource its indigenous language services, typically it does not have the capacity to find or evaluate its own resources, and thus is not qualified to provide services in those languages. An agency with its own resources is more likely to maintain high standards and deliver quality services.

2. How does this provider evaluate and qualify language proficiency in Indigenous languages?

The way an agency evaluates its interpreters speaks volumes about their quality. A comprehensive evaluation process typically includes intensive testing and certification to make sure that interpreters are both linguistically proficient and culturally knowledgeable. Very few actually have the resources to be able to provide language proficiency evaluations in indigenous languages. 

3. Can they provide on-demand services or only scheduled appointments?

Find out if the agency can provide interpreters on short notice or if they only take on scheduled appointments. Only being able to accommodate scheduled appointments usually indicates that they have a shortage of resources.

4. What are the organization’s core values?

An agency that prioritizes language access and social justice over profit is more likely to deliver a reliable, respectful interpretation experience. 

5. Do they have a number that can be called to talk about their services?

Being able to call and speak to someone directly about the services they offer indicates that they care enough about their clients to offer them the opportunity to learn as much about their services as possible from the start. It also indicates that they aren’t overwhelmed by incoming requests and new clients, and that they have the proper infrastructure to accommodate new clients

6. Can they support all of the languages from the region in which they specialize, or only some?

An agency that purports to specialize in Mayan languages, for example, should ideally have the ability to service all of the various Mayan languages, not just a handful. Additionally, they should be able to accommodate all of the dialects within those languages, and should be aware of which languages can commonly have variants so that they can determine the right interpreter from the start. Having only a few languages within a group of indigenous languages indicates a lack of resources and scope necessary to truly increase language access for indigenous languages.

7. Can they provide interpretation services directly into English for most or some of their languages?

Latin American indigenous languages can be interpreted either into Spanish or English. While there are some languages of extremely low diffusion where it will be much less likely to find interpreters that speak English, for the majority of the Latin American indigenous languages, there are English resources available. If an agency is primarily only able to provide indigenous language to Spanish interpretation, they likely don’t have adequate resources or their resources are primarily based out of the US. 

8. Do they provide language services in all fields in both the private and public sectors? 

An agency's service offerings can provide a lot of insight into its expertise and experience. If an agency can provide interpretation in a wide range of industries, both public and private, it’s more likely that they are experienced and have a larger network of specialized interpreters.

9. Do they understand and explain the nuances of written translation in indigenous languages? 

Many organizations are often tasked with producing written translation of materials into indigenous languages, such as letters from an attorney, consent forms, training manuals, etc. Translation providers who don’t specialize in indigenous languages will simply take these requests and outsource them. However, it’s extremely important to understand with indigenous languages that they are very commonly not taught in schools, and thus not widely used. This means that the person needing it would most likely not be served at all by having the document or translation in their native language. Those who actually specialize in indigenous languages will make sure that their clients understand this challenge and offer alternative solutions, such as .mp3 audio recordings or sight translation. 

Asking these 9 key questions will help you assess any potential providers for indigenous language services (from any region), and will help ensure that the standard for indigenous language access is equal to the standard of language access for more commonly spoken languages.

Maya Bridge - A Leading Advocate For Mayan And Indigenous Language Access In The U.S.

Since 2021, Maya Bridge Language Services has been advocating for increased access for Mayan and other indigenous languages. Maya Bridge is a mission-driven, niche interpretation agency offering 24/7 on-demand services for over 40 Indigenous languages from Latin America. The majority of our interpreters are US based and authorized and speak English. Unlike other agencies, we are actually able to assess our interpreters’ language proficiency and interpretation ability. Serving clients in all fields, in both public and private sectors, we work tirelessly to ensure that indigenous communities all over the US are able to understand and be understood, wherever they are. Our core values are improving Indigenous language access in the U.S. and giving back to the communities we serve. 

Contact us to schedule a meeting or call us anytime, day or night, at (801) 753-8568.

About the Author

Jace Norton is a Q'eqchi' interpreter and linguist, with an extensive background in the Q'eqchi' language. Norton lived and worked among the Q'eqchi' people from 2010-2012, created a language learning guide for Q'eqchi' in 2014, and worked in Q'eqchi' translation and interpretation from 2017-2021. In 2021, Norton founded Maya Bridge Language Services and is now a leading advocate for Mayan language access in the US.

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