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Translating with the future in mind

  • June 02, 2021

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lourdes Sánchez-López, Ph.D., professor of Spanish in the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, received an unexpected invitation.

Lourdes Sánchez-López, Ph.D.Lourdes Sánchez-López, Ph.D.During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lourdes Sánchez-López, Ph.D., professor of Spanish in the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, received an unexpected invitation.

At the time, public health experts and campus communicators across UAB were working swiftly to share information about the emerging pandemic with faculty, students, staff, and the community. The effort — now known as UAB United — was instrumental in raising awareness of the pandemic and prompting people across UAB and beyond to take measures to limit risk and exposure to the virus. That said, the team behind the campaign recognized one substantial gap in its communications assets — everything was in English.

Sánchez-López is an avid proponent of making Birmingham a more equitable and inclusive community for Spanish-speaking residents. So, when UAB reached out and asked for her assistance in translating the COVID-19 messages for those residents, she did not hesitate to offer her expertise and support. She, along with her colleague María Antonia Anderson de la Torre, Ph.D., translated the website content and signage in a relatively short period of time and learned a lot along the way.

COVID TranslatedThrough this experience, Sánchez-López was inspired to take a broader, systems level view of the issue presented by the UAB United campaign. As she contemplated future translation projects, she looked to her service learning courses (FLL 333 – Foreign Language Service Learning and SPA 485 – Spanish for Leadership in the Workplace) in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. Historically, the courses included significant capstone projects where students worked alongside nonprofit organizatiosn to address a challenge or opportunity — clearly, there was a need to reimagine the capstone component of the courses during the pandemic.

"I knew students could not be in the community due to COVID-19," said Sánchez-López. "I decided to ask my students to help nonprofits that serve the Latinx community and translate their website content, therefore addressing the disparity in our linguistic landscape."

Emma Kate Sellers was one of the students in Sánchez-López's Foreign Language Service Learning class and is also pursuing her Spanish for Specific Purposes Certificate. For her capstone, she translated content for the 1917 Clinic at UAB, the largest HIV health care unit in Alabama and one of the country’s leading HIV clinics. Sánchez-López encouraged Sellers to work with the 1917 Clinic because she knew the institution aligned with Sellers's interests and passions. Her project was entitled, "Improving Access to HIV Care for Spanish-Speakers at UAB's 1917 Clinic," which she presented at the 2021 UAB Expo and garnered her the first place award in the service learning category.

"Service-learning allows students to apply the content we learn in the classroom to real-life situations, which is what I was able to do by working with the 1917 Clinic to translate their website," said Sellers. "In class, we covered the importance of translation and interpretation in making healthcare more accessible to non-English speakers, which I was able to apply through my service-learning project."

Other students in the Spanish for Leadership class partnered with nonprofit organizations outside of UAB, including the Coosa Riverkeeper, Cahaba Valley Health Care, and the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese.

For each student, Sánchez-López aimed to illuminate potential career pathways.

Through the capstone projects, some students, including Sellers, actually discovered they do not wish to pursue careers in translation, which, according to Sánchez-López, is a valuable insight to uncover before graduating and entering the workforce.

"While I do not want to be a translator in the future, this course did solidify my passion for health equity and collaborating with community partners, and I am grateful that myself, the clinic, and patients all benefitted from this partnership," said Sellers.

According to Sánchez-López, these first-ever website translation projects deepened relationships with community partners and catalyzed long-term change for Spanish-speaking residents in Birmingham and the community’s linguistic landscape. "It's a sustainable approach," said Sánchez-López.

Visit the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures website to learn more about the Spanish for Specific Purposes Certificate.