Gulf recovery hits language barrier

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Vietnamese-American fishermen want to be involved in the Gulf Coast recovery effort. But BP and Coast Guard officials are finding out that interpreters are few and far between? and some information isn't easy to translate into Vietnamese. Julia Kumari Drapkin explains.

MARCO WERMAN: The federal government has vowed to make sure BP foots the bill for the oil clean up in the Gulf. And this week BP said it would compensate people for legitimate and objectively verifiable claims from the explosion and spill. But President Obama and others want the company to explain exactly what that means. When it does, the company will have to explain it in Vietnamese too, as reporter Julia Kumari Drapkin found out in New Orleans.

JULIA KUMARI DRAPKIN: Father Vien Nguyen has been translating for three hours and he's . .

FATHER VIEN NGUYEN: Exhausted. Just switching back and forth, trying to find the words so that I can translate correctly for my people.

DRAPKIN: And his people are desperate for information. Around 200 Vietnamese fishermen have gathered in the Mary, Queen of Vietnam Church to get updates from the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and BP. They don't speak English, but they are America's shrimpers, crabbers and oystermen, peelers, shellers and shuckers.

NGUYEN: They are the one providing this country with seafood, 30% of it.

DRAPKIN: More than half of the Gulf coast's fishing vessels are owned by Vietnamese Americans, Father Vien says. Many Vietnamese came to the Gulf coast as war refugees in the eighties. When Katrina hit, they were the very first community to return and rebuild. Now the oil spill in the Gulf has indefinitely closed key fishing grounds in Louisiana. Father Vien says everyone is asking the same thing.

NGUYEN: What are we going to do about our jobs? Right now it's the immediate question.

DRAPKIN: BP has been hiring Louisiana fishermen to help with the clean up. BP spokesman, Hugh Depland, promised to provide the Vietnamese fishermen with the training they'll need.

HUGH DEPLAND: And BP will make sure that the training is there for you and we will pay for it.

NGUYEN: These trainings by BP are they going to be translated or is it going to be done by Vietnamese Americans speaking Vietnamese?

DEPLAND: I don't know that level of detail.

DRAPKIN: With so many problems in the Gulf, details like language access haven't been the top priority. BP has done one training session in Vietnamese so far, but it's the exception.

ED STANTON: I hadn't really thought of the problem of outreach to this community until I came here today. I think we need to address it right away.

DRAPKIN: Ed Stanton is the Coast Guard captain in charge of the oil spill recovery operations along the Louisiana coast. He's worked with the Vietnamese fishing community before. But this emergency requires a different level of communication.

STANTON: When I go back to the command post I'm going to ask, actually direct BP to hire Vietnamese translators so that they can access the system a little bit better.

DRAPKIN: Accessing the system is critical for making a legal claim for lost income. BP has set up an 800 number to make a claim, but there is a problem with it.

JOEL WALTZER: I'm told that when you call the claims line there will be no one for you to speak Vietnamese. That on an individual, case by case basis, they're going to have to come back at you after they find a Vietnamese translator and call you back.

DRAPKIN: Joel Waltzer is a local environmental lawyer. He's worked with the community on landfill issues after Hurricane Katrina. He doesn't speak Vietnamese, but his paralegal, Samantha Win does. She says navigating this disaster will involve some new vocabulary.

SAMANTHA WIN: You have medical, the environmental and then you have the legal. You especially, when you talk about environment, you know. Not a lot of people are knowledgeable about it.

DRAPKIN: And knowing isn't enough.

NGUYEN: To comprehend is one thing, to understand is one thing. But to articulate.

DRAPKIN: Father Vien says translating requires him to think not only about what is said, but also how his community understands it. Take the word dispersant in Vietnamese. Actually, he's using several words. He's translating dispersant as the chemical that breaks up the oil so it will sink to the sea floor.

NGUYEN: Because to say dispersant, our people, I can say that, but our people would say okay so what? So it just can't be word for word.

DRAPKIN: And in environmental catastrophes, there's sometimes just letters.

NGUYEN: You know like EPA, we can say that, but what does that mean?

DRAPKIN: The EPA knows translation is important.

NGUYEN: EPA hired professional translators. You saw the example, I had to step in.

DRAPKIN: Father Vien had to step in at the meeting because the EPA's translator struggled over many phrases, like aerial monitoring. Everyone in the room was grateful that he swooped in. That included the EPA official being translated.

MALE VOICE 1: I now have the world's best translator.

NGUYEN: Remember to pay me for that.

DRAPKIN: For The World, I'm Julia Kumari Drapkin, New Orleans.