News | Student Life

Plan to translate Barnard commencement falls short of student expectations

  • Jinq Qu / Senior Staff Photographer
    LOST IN TRANSLATION | Barnard's senior class Vice President Nikki Weiner (left) and President Stephanie Fernandez, both BC ’14, asked the administration to translate Barnard commencement addresses, but said they were unhappy with the compromise.

For the first time ever, Barnard’s commencement ceremony will be transcribed and translated into 57 languages online, but the students who led the initiative said they ran into administrative opposition in achieving their full plan.

Immediately after commencement, every commencement speech will be translated by Google Translate into a multitude of languages, but senior class Vice President Nikki Weiner and President Stephanie Fernandez, both BC ’14, said they asked the administration for other measures, including translating the speeches with faculty members beforehand to distribute during the ceremony and translating the commencement booklets distributed at the ceremony.

Weiner and Fernandez said that Swarthmore College was one of the first schools in the nation to offer a live translation of its commencement ceremony into Spanish in 2011. In 2013, Swarthmore also translated the ceremony into Chinese and provided guests with wireless headsets that allowed them to listen to the live ceremony in Spanish or Chinese.

Weiner and Fernandez said that the logistics of Radio City Music Hall wouldn’t allow for the same technology to be feasible at Barnard’s commencement, but they proposed several other options to “break language barriers” for families in attendance.

“The senior class council did some exploring as to whether or not Google Translate was going to be enough, and what we found is it’s a good first step,” Weiner said.

Still, Weiner added that Google Translate has its limitations.

“I’m a student who is majoring in Chinese and studied Spanish extensively here. Google Translate gives you the gist of things, but if there’s any nuances or certain rhetoric in the speeches, it couldn’t be translated word for word, totally correct,” Weiner added. “It’s more important to us to have two languages clearly translated, rather than 57 translations that are poorly translated through Google Translate.”

For more precise translations, Weiner and Fernandez proposed collecting the speeches, programs, and itineraries before commencement and then bringing them to language professors on campus to translate them into Mandarin and Spanish—the two non-English languages most widely spoken by Barnard students—and distributing printed copies at commencement.

A translation of the video recording of commencement was never considered due to the cost and the commencement venue’s logistics. Having an audio translation would require wiring the hall and arranging special seating for attendees who require the headset.

Barnard College Dean Avis Hinkson, BC ’84 and TC ’87, raised two concerns about the idea to translate the speeches before commencement. She noted that if the speaker chose to change the wording of the speech while delivering it, the hard-copy translation would be inaccurate. In addition, she felt that translating the speeches into only Spanish and Mandarin would not be inclusive of the other languages spoken by families attending commencement.  

“We support the Senior Class Council’s interest in making their Commencement more inclusive of non-English speakers. For the first time this year, we will be posting key speeches on our website and linking them to an online translation function so that graduates and their families can view the remarks in the widest number of languages available,” Hinkson said in an email to Spectator.

According to Weiner, Hinkson’s reasoning that the speeches shouldn’t be translated beforehand because of possible changes during the speech’s delivery was “sort of an all or nothing outlook.”

Weiner and Fernandez said they asked Hinkson for a compromise, offering to just translate the keynote speech, which will be delivered by Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood.

When Hinkson rebuffed them, they then proposed just translating the first pages of the commencement booklets, which include remarks from Barnard President Debora Spar. Hinkson agreed to put that proposal to the President’s Council this week and inform the senior class council of the decision.

“We want the student body—not just seniors, all students—to know, as graduating seniors and president and vice president of the senior class, this is a really important initiative to us,” Weiner said. “Unfortunately, Dean Hinkson hasn’t been receptive, and we want to acknowledge that. And we want to acknowledge what steps can be taken by future classes. We’ve been pushing for it for months on months. This is sort of the end of the road for our push,” Weiner said.

“This isn’t the day before commencement that we’re being told this is not going to happen. We were told at least seven weeks before commencement. For me it feels too soon to be shut down. So we want future class councils to take this on—to carry on this conversation,” Weiner said. 

Fernandez echoed Weiner’s words.

“We don’t want the conversation to end this year with the senior class council. We want, moving forward, the college to continue making steps and increase inclusivity during commencement for families,” Fernandez said.

“Commencement is such an important day. My dad doesn’t speak English. It’s a very important day for families,” Fernandez said. “If Barnard could take all possible steps so that it’s a special day, that’s what we’re looking for. We’re glad to continue the conversation at this point.”

“As seniors, we’ve worked really hard, and we don’t want to be told it’s not going to happen,” Weiner said, noting that several weeks ago she and Fernandez presented their translation proposal to the rest of the Barnard Student Government Association to request funding that would cover the cost of printing the translations and pamphlets. 

They received the funds they requested, but won’t be needing them now, since Google Translate is cost-free.

emma.goss@columbiaspectator.com  |  @EmmaAudreyGoss

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Anonymous posted on

Barnard is an American college. English is the language of instruction at American colleges. Barnard students are trained on how to think in English. If their concentrations are foreign languages, then of course they are trained to think in those languages in addition to English. So Barnard people, don't be like the Columbia College people. Let's lose the affectation, shall we? We get enough of that from the university president already. By now, near graduation time, you should already have learned that affectation impedes effectiveness. Just look at Bolly.

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BC '14 posted on

So, because they chose to send their child to an American university, foreign parents - many of whom pay full tuition - have forfeited their right to understand the graduation ceremony? God forbid we be kind to members of the Barnard community who aren't exactly like us.

As a member of the graduating class, I'm proud of Ms. Weiner and Ms. Hernandez for taking on this project. I wish that their plan to distribute translated brochures had been implemented, but hopefully their proposals can be implemented at future commencement ceremonies.

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oh okay... posted on

What rights are you talking about? Those parents chose to send their kids to Barnard, knowing well beforehand that they are not going to understand either the lectures or the commencement speeches. They chose to make an economic decision my friend. It is essentially the same as an English speaker buying a newspaper in, say, Japanese. He does not understand Japanese, but the act of buying does not give him any right to demand the newspaper to include an English translation.

Having a translation of the commencement speeches is a good idea, and I do think the college should do it. Just don't make up new rights please.

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Anonymous posted on

What rights are you talking about? Those parents chose to send their kids to Barnard, knowing well beforehand that they are not going to understand either the lectures or the commencement speeches. They chose to make an economic decision my friend. It is essentially the same as an English speaker buying a newspaper in, say, Japanese. He does not understand Japanese, but the act of buying does not give him any right to demand the newspaper to include an English translation.

Having a translation of the commencement speeches is a good idea, and I do think the college should do it. Just don't make up new rights please.

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Anonymous posted on

No, understanding a commencement speech isn't a right. But it would be wonderful if parents could, after having worked so hard to get their kids through schoool. Also, newsflash: not all Americans speak or read English. So basically your comment just swapped dickishness in lieu of logic.

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Anonymous posted on

What rights are you talking about? Those parents chose to send their kids to Barnard, knowing well beforehand that they are not going to understand either the lectures or the commencement speeches. They chose to make an economic decision my friend. It is essentially the same as an English speaker buying a newspaper in, say, Japanese. He does not understand Japanese, but the act of buying does not give him any right to demand the newspaper to include an English translation.

Having a translation of the commencement speeches is a good idea, and I do think the college should do it. Just don't make up new rights please.

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Anonymous posted on

The best things in life don't come easy

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Anonymous posted on

The best things in life don't come easy

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Anonymous posted on

As a Barnard alumna, I am very proud of the student council. I think that this idea encompasses what Barnard is all about. We value community and diversity, and let's face it, Barnard College isn't the same college it was, let's say, 10 years ago. Why should commencement stay the same? Our student body has not. We have grown to welcome races of all sorts. Where is it written that commencement must be in the English language? And for those that argue "this is the United States where English is the first language" then why is it that information distributed in this country is translated into numerous languages. When it comes to disseminating information regarding health, politics, instructions for any product purchased, and in many more instances, it is available in plenty of languages. So why should an important event; an important speech, or speeches not be translated? Frankly, I am very disappointed that Dean Hinkson is not being receptive. I definitely expected more from her.

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Anonymous posted on

"Weiner and Fernandez proposed collecting the speeches, programs, and itineraries before commencement and then bringing them to language professors on campus to translate them into Mandarin and Spanish" - If instead of "bringing them to language professors" they had organized graduating students majoring in a foreign language for four years and/or are native speakers of a foreign language to do the work they would have been more successful.

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