Mary Jayne McCullough oversees an interpreter training session. Image courtesy of Global Wordsmiths.

Imagine receiving treatment in a hospital where the doctor’s first language is not your own, and there’s no interpreter available to help you. Mary Jayne McCullough, who has worked as a professional Spanish interpreter for 15 years, knows quite well what can happen when details become lost in translation.

For example, McCullough says, smaller hospitals that lack full resources may use family members who accompany non-English speaking patients as interpreters. “The problem with that is they may not know that they’re supposed to interpret everything the doctor is saying, and may leave out important information,” she says, describing one scenario where a woman failed to relay postpartum medical advice to her sister-in-law after she gave birth.

To address the issue, McCullough created Global Wordsmiths, a startup that provides free or low-cost language interpretation services to nonprofits and agencies that serve immigrants and refugees. Founded last January, and based out of the Bakery Square coworking and business incubation hub Ascender, the company now staffs 37 interpreters specializing in more than 25 different languages spanning Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as well as American Sign Language.

“Big hospital systems or companies can afford translation and interpretation, but the small nonprofits on the ground who are actually working with immigrants and refugees really get priced out,” says McCullough. “What we’re trying to do is connect more people with language access.”

To achieve their mission, McCullough had to create a business model that was beneficial for their employees and for the people they serve. She emphasizes that one of the company’s core principles is to offer quality career opportunities for bilingual people. While interpreters commonly freelance on a case-by-case basis, Global Wordsmiths interpreters working more than 25 hours a week are converted to full-time status and given family leave and benefits.

“A lot of our interpreters are, themselves, members of refugee and immigrant communities,” says McCullough. “When they work as independent contractors there’s no job security, and a lot of them aren’t aware of their tax obligations, and they end up with these big IRS bills.”

The company also offers a volunteer initiative, which involves recruiting bilingual university students for internships offered during the academic year and summer. Students are given comprehensive interpreter training, as well as any clearances they need to work in certain situations, such as accompanying social workers during home visits. They then receive on-the-ground experience by volunteering for various Global Wordsmiths partner organizations.

Through this approach, McCullough estimates that Global Wordsmiths contributes around 1,500 hours of free interpretation services per year. The students are also compensated for their efforts with stipends and class credit.

While Global Wordsmiths operates out of Pittsburgh, they reach out to rural areas throughout Western Pennsylvania, including the counties of Washington, Westmoreland, Beaver and Butler. They’re also working to recruit interpreters in Erie.

The service comes at a time when immigrant and refugee populations in Western Pennsylvania have become larger and more varied. Currently, Pittsburgh is home to Bhutanese Nepali, Somali Bantu and Syrian refugees, as well as Congolese, Uzbek, Spanish and Arabic speakers.

McCullough says that while progress has been made to provide language access to non-English speakers, including through the Allegheny County Department of Human Services’ Immigrants and Internationals Initiative, the region is still struggling to keep up.

“The kind of diversity we’re seeing now is really new here,” says McCullough. “People aren’t really aware of what they’re supposed to do or how to do it.”

She adds that while “everyone is really trying,” people forgo using interpreter services either because they can’t afford it or because they’re not aware of when it’s necessary.

“The big thing we see is that people use a family member or bilingual people on staff or from the community and think that’s adequate,” says McCullough. “It’s not malicious . . . They just don’t know.”

To help people understand the needs of immigrants and refugees, McCullough plans to host free community-wide diversity and inclusion training programs. Open to everyone, the events would teach members of the public how to interact with immigrants and refugee populations and with interpreters.

They plan to expand their services by securing a fiscal sponsorship and applying for funding from local and national grants and foundations.

Are you bilingual and interested in serving local immigrants or refugees? Apply to Global Wordsmiths now.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.