I read this story about the bus accident in Arizona and how a boy, 11 years old, translated for paramedics and firefighters at the scene. In what was most likely total chaos and confusion, and despite his own injuries, this child translated for people who were injured so that the rescue workers could do their jobs. Wow!
Is translation that remarkable? I would say yes. Partly, because it’s hard to do (and partly because I’m not so good at it). But first, some terms. Although typically we think about both written and oral translation as translation, these involve different, related processes. Typically translation refers to conversion of one written language to another. And interpretation refers to listening to one language and producing what is heard in the other (more on these differences here).
So, this boy, Oscar Rodriguez interpreted at the scene. What does it take to be able to interpret? Memory for one. You have to be able to hold what is said in memory long enough to process it accurately. You also need to have vocabulary in both languages to be able to understand what is said and to produce it accurately. You need to know correct grammar in both languages so that the message doesn’t get scrambled. And, you need to be able to understand cultural meanings so that the intent is not lost.
This got me to thinking about the work that Valdés has done on translation and giftedness. In her research, she studied young bilingual children who translate for their families. In translating they have to navigate and help bridge two worlds: usually their home language, culture, and goals with the language, culture, and goals of the educational system. Valdes argues that the ability to do this well in children who have no training is a remarkable achievement. They need to be able to make rapid fast decisions and choose (among many options) the right words to convey an intended meaning. The ability to do this takes metalinguistic awareness that is consistent with features of giftedness.
Just like bilinguals tend to be overrepresented as having language impairment or learning disabilities, they are also underrepresented in the gifted category. Perhaps, as Valdés proposes, we should expand what it means to be gifted and look to the specialized skills that bilinguals can develop.