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Mohamed Sheik Nur shares language skills with Rochester community

By Randy Petersen
Wednesday December 7, 2022

IMAA interpreter saw need and professional opportunity when he arrived in the United States and continues to help people communicate in Rochester.

Mohamed Sheik Nur, an interpreter for IMAA, on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, in Rochester.Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

ROCHESTER — Mohamed Sheik Nur moved to Rochester to be an interpreter.

After coming to the United States with a business background in 2010, he started helping people navigate language barriers at an adult learning center in Atlanta, when an instructor suggested he turn his English, Somali and Arabic language skills into a profession.

“It started only as volunteering, and then I realized how much need was there, and that's how I got started,” he said of a decision that led to training and work with Connecting Cultures Inc. in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

The provider of medical interpretation services helped Nur get started as a professional interpreter, but the stay in Wisconsin was short.

“We were living in Green Bay for about eight months, and we did not have any family close,” he said, adding that visits to Rochester led to a desire to move in 2011 and he reached out to Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association.

“I decided to apply to IMAA even before I moved, because I was looking for an interpreting position. … When I was hired, that’s when I moved here,” he said.

He’s been a contracted IMAA interpreter since 2011, but joined the staff two years later. He worked in employment services and building technology for the agency and managed IMAA’s language services before taking his current position as the organization's billings and technology manager.

Nur recently provided the Post Bulletin with some insights into how interpreters operate and the local need.

PB: What type of requests does IMAA see for interpreters?

Nur: The need for language services is always there. We see social services, we see medical, we also see legal. I do, especially now, interpret legal services, because it is quite challenging and newer interpreters do not feel comfortable to interpret legal situations, so that’s what I take on nowadays. …. You can interpret any situation: financial related, court cases or mediation.

The specialized legal language must add to the challenge.

Exactly, we have a really big challenge when it comes to that. Not only are those fancy medical or legal terminologies hard to interpret, but also some languages are not as rich as English or not as old as English.

For example, I interpret Somali most of the time, and there are a lot of terminologies that we have in English that we don't even use in Somali. It’s not part of our dictionary, because some of the language was written only in 1972.

How do you overcome that?

When you are trying to interpret English, which is one of the main spoken languages in the world, it is really difficult. So most of the time, we ask the providers to use everyday English, which can be understood by everybody.

At the beginning of each appointment, we remind them to avoid very fancy terminology that is difficult to understand, even for somebody whose first language is English.

That's really one of the biggest challenges. The English language uses a lot of phrases that we do not have in Somali or Arabic, and if we interpret them exactly, it will not make sense. A lot of meaning will be lost in that, but we as interpreters try to keep that, so we try to find an equivalent interpretation that will make it closer to the meaning of the original.

Sometimes it is hard. Sometimes it will not make sense to the other person, so that's why we encourage providers to not use idioms, to not use phrases or things like that. That will always be a challenge, and it has been forever.

How can the English speaker help in the process?

We do provide training for providers. I personally at IMAA teach how to work with interpreters. Working with interpreters is also a needed skill.

The biggest challenge is that providers sometimes forget that they're working through an interpreter. … Most of the time, providers find it difficult to maintain the tone of the interpreter and the person. Sometimes they can come across as intimidating, and then as an interpreter, we have to match that tone, and then it creates confusion.

Once a provider goes through training, they will immediately understand what they were doing wrong or why an interpreter is speaking at the same level they are speaking.

Since interpreters are speaking on behalf of both parties, they use first person, such as I instead of he. Does that create confusion?

That happens a lot. We direct the conversation, mostly that happens with the providers, because when you start talking to them in English, they will start talking to you, instead to talking to their client.

They will tell you ‘Tell him to do this’ or ‘Ask her if she can do this or if she has this issue.’ Then, we redirect them to address the clients, so we can interpret. They have to directly talk to the clients, and we will interpret.

When providers say, ‘Why are you here today,’ we don’t say, ‘He or she asks why you are here.’ We say, ‘Why are you here today.’

Before the pandemic, IMAA offered services with 40 to 45 languages, but fewer interpreters are available today, offering approximately 20 languages. What happened?

The workforce changed. Many of the folks prefer to do another job than interpreting, because it is not a stable job for them.

Does that mean there is no help available in some languages?

Yes, but even before the pandemic, there were certain languages that we call exotic languages that we needed at least a month's notice to schedule, because we were requesting people coming from Mankato or some other area.

Are there languages that see more or less need for interpreters?

We see some languages carrying high demand, and some languages are dying down. … Language needs increase only when waves of refugees come into the states.

For example, recently we had the need for Arabic interpreting increase because we had Syrian refugees, and we had a lot of Iraqis resettle here, so that’s why the demand went up.

The languages that are dying down are like the Bosnian language. They came in the 1980s, and there are no new refugees coming from Bosnia, and the younger generations do speak English, so the only people we translate for are the elders.

It’s the same with the Cambodian language, because they came in the ‘80s and the younger generations speak good English.

How to become an IMAA interpreter

Nur and IMAA Advancement Manager Susan Haskamp said new interpreters are always being sought to fill needs.

IMAA interpreters are required to complete three hours of code ethics training, 12 hours of continuing education on medical terminology, and 40 hours of the National Program of The Community Interpreter.

An online application is available at imaa.net/service-programs/interpreting-translating , and more information regarding services can be obtained by calling 507-289-5960 or emailing [email protected].

Asked & Answered is a weekly question-and-answer column featuring people of southeastern Minnesota. Is there somebody you'd like to see featured? Send suggestions to [email protected] .


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