Skip to main content

Found in Translation: Students in UK Spanish Course Serve Nonprofits Through Translating Documents

By Jennifer T. Allen 

Group photo
Students in Heather Campbell-Speltz's SPA 423 translation course with the nonprofit partners they worked with during the Spring 2024 semester.

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- When Reagan Sutton, an English and Spanish double major, registered for an advanced Spanish translation course, she didn’t realize how much the work would impact the community.  

“It’s really easy to feel disconnected in your schoolwork, but this is something that touches real lives,” Sutton said. “I’m passionate about language and connecting with different populations. This course made me feel like my major serves a purpose outside of only getting me into law school. Through this class, we got out there and talked with people and are helping with projects that have impacts on people’s lives.” 

Sutton, along with 12 classmates, spent the spring semester in Heather Campbell-Speltz's SPA 423 course working with campus partners to translate documents for nonprofits in the health, education and legal fields.  

“I feel strongly that one of the things our students really need is an idea of how this skill can translate into their greater community and their workplace,” said Campbell-Speltz, associate professor in the Department of Hispanic Studies. “We want to cultivate the reputation of doing excellent work when our students are heading out into the world.”  

During the semester, Campbell-Speltz connected with three nonprofits at the University of Kentucky:  

  • The UK Rosenberg College of Law Legal Clinic. 
  • A conference for teachers in Guatemala through the College of Education. 
  • Shoulder to Shoulder Global in Ecuador through the International Center.  

For the UK Law Legal Clinic, students worked directly with law students to translate intake/interview materials and other legal forms and to help create do-it-yourself materials so clients can advocate for themselves.  

“Having documents translated ahead of time shows a level of preparation and is also about respect,” said D’lorah Hughes, professor of law and director of clinics and externships in the UK Rosenberg College of Law. “It demonstrates that you have been thoughtful about somebody, not that you have just hired someone to interpret, but you have taken the time to figure out what people may need. That respect translates to lots of other benefits in the relationship, such as trust and a better understanding for those folks that you are trying to help.”  

The DIY materials included name change forms and instructions for the LGBTQ+ community and housing case intake documents. A grant through the Fayette County Bar Association and a partnership with UK Cooperative Extension mean the housing materials will be used in live presentations conducted in Spanish and Swahili on renters’ rights.  

“This transdisciplinary experience is good for all of us,” Hughes said. “If students get inspired and decide to go into the health or the legal fields, they will then understand what it is like to be on both sides of a case. They will understand what it is like to be an interpreter or a translator as well as the doctor or the lawyer. The professional respect, the understanding of expertise, and knowing where the ethical lines are -- I think they are seeing the importance of these issues through this work.”  

The benefits of the program extend to the community and community partners beyond the documents they have translated.  

“It’s great for these nonprofits and outreach organizations to know what our students can do and to learn about how our students can be a resource for the university,” Campbell-Speltz said. “It also helps them understand a little bit more about the importance and the complexity of language access.” 

Joe Mattingly, a Spanish language and linguistics senior, has been working on the translations for the UK Law Legal Clinic this semester and now plans to attend law school at UK this Fall.  

“I think translation is so interesting. It’s a science, but also an art. For me, this project solidified my desire to go to law school. Seeing the real world impact the legal field has on people’s lives has been meaningful,” Mattingly said. “Being able to communicate in vulnerable situations and being able to communicate in your native language is really helpful. I want to be part of that solution.”  

Jennifer Grisham, a professor in the College of Education, co-founded a preschool and children’s home in Guatemala called Hope for Tomorrow. Along with students and colleagues from Grisham’s Education Abroad program, they will hold a professional development conference for preschool teachers in Guatemala City this summer. Cameron Tyrrell and Emily Webb, both doctoral students in the College of Education, are working on a project to evaluate the conference and needed documents and questionnaires translated.  

“It’s a nice example of collaboration of research, service, teaching and education abroad all coming together. This is what the university stands for,” Grisham said. “Translation is so expensive, and we don’t have funding for the research we do down there, so if we didn’t have a service like this, it would be impossible for us to be able to do the research.”  

Being able to collaborate with students from other areas on campus has been a highlight for Tyrrell.  

“It’s sometimes hard to remember when you are siloed in your area of study that we have this depth and breadth of existing talents and resources on our campus,” he said. 

Craig Borie, project manager of the Office of Global Health Initiatives, needed help translating clinical protocol and government policy documents for the Shoulder to Shoulder Global Ecuador program.  

“What this means for us is also part of what we want students to learn with service learning through Shoulder to Shoulder. We want students to be able to apply the skills they learn working with us in life here at home in Kentucky. This program does that,” Borie said. “Students learn they have valuable skills that are useful and that someone will want to hire them for. This is giving them career readiness and confidence as they apply it in the real world.”  

The benefits of the course extend beyond translation skills. Students also must work in groups, deal with unanticipated variables, communicate with clients and stick to a schedule.  

“It's not just learning new vocabulary,” Campbell-Speltz said. “It’s also learning research skills, project management and terminology they may not be familiar with. It’s about being able to effectively utilize a wide range of skills.” 

Service learning is widely recognized as one of the most effective high impact education practices we can offer students and Campbell-Speltz points out that, specifically for Hispanic Studies, there are a wide range of opportunities for service learning. This translation course is one of the ways students can engage with the greater community in Lexington, the state and beyond.  

“This generation of students that is coming through right now really feels a sense of social obligation,” Campbell-Speltz said. “So it feels really good to them to utilize their expertise in a way that is going to be useful for people.”