She can’t quite pinpoint when and where she fell in love with the Spanish language, but Jessica McCullars has embraced it through much of her life.
That affection started in elementary school and continued through high school and into college, where she ended up earning a double major in Spanish and International Business at Auburn University.
The Columbus-born McCullars, 35, who grew up in nearby LaGrange, Ga., eventually took her language skills to another level, venturing beyond high school teaching and part-time Spanish instruction at Columbus State University. It was nearly five years ago she started a business focused on translating and interpreting Spanish for businesses and the legal sector.
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The Columbus company, called ALMA Spanish Language Solutions, also offers marketing services for businesses to include website development. She staffs it with a handful of independent translators and interpreters, with her future goal to specialize more in various areas while also landing more contracts and adding personnel.
It’s a sound move, with the Hispanic population growing in the United States and the number of immigrants who want to live and work in this country very steady, with the exception lately of those from Mexico. Thus, services to bridge any English-Spanish language gaps between individuals that can and do occur in everyday life will be needed.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also sees the occupation of interpreters and translators as one that is expected to grow “much faster than average,” with 11,400 additional people needed in the field by the year 2026. That’s to go along with the 68,200 individuals already working in the profession, with median pay of $46,120 a year or $22.17 per hour. A bachelor’s degree is the typical educational necessity.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with McCullars recently about her job, how she got into and why she enjoys it so much. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q. Tell us about your staff?
A. Everybody that works for ALMA Spanish are independent contractors because most people don’t want to to interpret or translate full-time, because both are pretty strenuous on you mentally. So we have two people translating, up to four if we need them, and three pretty steady interpreters.
Q. You’re always looking for more?
A. Yes, it’s difficult to find interpreters here. I think part of it is the fact that lots of people speak Spanish, but to actually know English and Spanish equally is very tricky to find. Also, you have some pretty strong dialects. Some people have grown up, we call it ‘heritage speakers,’ where their family spoke Spanish at home, but they spoke English in school. A lot of times their Spanish is very centralized in one region and most of the time they are not used to writing and reading it. It’s more conversational, and not with legal terms and medical terms and things like that. It’s hard to find people who are truly bilingual.
Q. Translation is speaking and interpretation is writing?
A. Right. I actually love to write, and most people don’t like to sit in front of a computer and type stuff out. But I love that. We do a lot of forms for people to get through the immigration process. That has been a pretty big (focus) for us, although it has decreased the past two or three months. We’re starting to see a pickup again, but only from areas like Argentina and Colombia, not really any people from Central America or Mexico. But we also do websites for companies. We even had a huge project with TSYS a year or two ago where they had all of these documents for their Mexico office and they needed to be able to read them here. So it could be anything from general business to very legal stuff to all kinds of things.
Q. ALMA, what does that mean?
A. It literally means your soul, but it’s kind of the essence of something.
Q. Give us a sense of who your clients are?
A. I would say probably three-fourths of the interpreting business is in the legal field — depositions, client meetings and courts. The court situation is a little different because they have to show due diligence that they attempted to find someone who is certified (in translation-interpretation), and the closest certified legal interpreter to Columbus is in Macon, Ga., that is up until I recently was certified.
Q. What types of court cases are you involved in?
A. I don’t think I’ve been to interpret a deposition that was not related to an auto accident. I don’t know why that is, but for some reason that ends up being a lot of cases because someone has a client who doesn’t speak English well. In basic recorder’s court, it can be traffic violations. I don’t see a lot of criminal things, except a (good portion) of my time is spent at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. It’s a holding facility, and they have three or four courts there constantly seeing people. We meet attorneys down there quite a bit from all over the United States, because we’re the only company close to Lumpkin that has multiple people to send down there.
Q. That means sitting in the courtroom and translating back and forth, English and Spanish?
A. Right, it’s essentially just helping two people communicate.
Q. How about health-care business?
A. The medical side has been an interesting speed bump for me. What my experience has been over the past few years, it seems like in hospitals it’s very difficult for them to have a full-time interpreter. What happens a lot of times is a nurse that can speak Spanish will double up as the interpreter. If they are in a jam, there’s something called Language Line, where you can call over the phone and do it that way. It’s wonderful in a crunch, but the feedback that I’ve gotten is that most of the (medical) staff are not crazy about that. Everyone knows it’s more difficult to talk to someone over the phone than it is face to face, because you don’t get their body language, and you don’t really see if they’re understanding and all of that.
Q. So you don’t do much medical business?
A. No, the only medical stuff has been some worker’s comp cases where they legally are obligated to provide an interpreter, although a lot of times people don’t actually need an interpreter. But you have to go out and be there.
Q. Is there a growth area for your services?
A. I definitely see the legal side growing, growing, growing. That has a lot to do with immigration changes and all of that. You have a lot more people being exposed to law enforcement, I guess, and maybe that’s part of the issue. I feel like there will be an increase in the medical side of it, but it’s a tough thing for them. They’re busy people and have a lot going on, and they just need you when they need you, and it’s hard to call somebody at the last minute if you’re in the emergency room and you need to communicate with this person right now.
Q. They also want to watch their expenses?
A. Exactly, very much so.
Q. How did you get into this?
A. When I graduated from graduate school, I went to an interview at a high school simply for the interview experience, to be honest with you. I had no intention of teaching. We had to teach as part of the graduate program. I planned going into the business side of Spanish. But (there was) the ambiguity of not knowing which route to take in business. That can be a tricky part. So I went there (to teach) and actually fell in love with the place and thought I’ll just do this for a year or maybe two. Six years later, I left.
My family moved here. I actually was born in Columbus, but grew up in LaGrange, and I have a lot of family here. So this was not a foreign place … And I just said I’m going to do it. I’ve wanted to do this for years and years, and I’ve been translating on the side and interpreting for different people. (When coming to Columbus) I looked up a company that was here and thought this is great, I’m going to see if I can work for them. The place looked like it was still open online, but it wasn’t. So I started a business, instead of doing translation as an individual, to have more potential for growth and credibility and you’re easier to find.
Q. Is there a typical day for you on the job?
A. No. That’s the exciting part, but it’s also a little hectic. Normally during the daytime hours I spend the majority of time either making appointments, getting new contracts or interpreting. I typically do translation at night because I have a 6-year-old, and after he’s asleep that’s when it’s quiet and my brain is quiet and I know I’m not getting any phone calls. That’s normally when I will translate.
Q. Why did you become attached to Spanish specifically?
A. I think that’s probably the biggest question I get, and people just assume that someone in my family speaks Spanish or that I have Hispanic family somewhere. But, no, I have no Spanish lineage at all. I really don’t know why. I just gravitated toward it when I first started taking it in sixth grade. In high school, I liked it and did well in it. And, really, in college I had no intentions of majoring in it, but it seemed like I would take a Spanish class and it would offset some of my business classes, the grades. It was easy for me, I enjoyed it, and I was interested in it, so I just continued in it and ended up doing a double major.
Q. So you really enjoy conversing in Spanish?
A. Very much so. My dad just went to the Dominican Republic for an FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) trip and all I asked him to bring me back was a newspaper. (laughs) It seems kind of nerdy, I guess, but I like constantly learning and seeing new words. That’s the beautiful thing about Spanish, in my opinion, is that there’s no way you can possibly learn everything in your lifetime because 22 countries speak Spanish officially. And each country has different terms that they use and different accents and dialects. It’s pretty fascinating to me.
Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of your job? Is it the dialects?
A. I would say so. That is a huge thing with Spanish interpreters, not just me in general but obviously myself included. There are different regions, the terminology they use, and a lot of times I may use a word and they’ll use a different word. As an interpreter you have to learn several different words … there’s always this conflict with, no, it’s this, and I’ve never heard of that. So you do a lot of explaining. That’s probably the biggest struggle is just trying to constantly learn different terminology and slang and idioms from these countries that are constantly changing, because language evolves.
Q. Finally, looking forward, what do the next two or three years look like for you as a translator-interpreter and, of course, the business?
A. In my mind, at least, my plans would be to expand by having more contracts where we tailor to certain areas and certain companies moreso than on a need-to-need basis. What we’re seeing is the need to need is growing and growing, but it would be great to have some more permanent places that we are, and to have some people in which that would be their area (of specialization).
Hometown: Born in Columbus, but grew up in LaGrange, Ga.
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 2000 graduate of LaGrange High School; earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and International Business from Auburn University in 2004; earned a master’s degree in Hispanic Studies from Auburn in 2006; certified in 2017 as a Spanish/English legal interpreter through the University of Georgia
Previous jobs: Upper school Spanish teacher at Donoho School in Anniston, Ala., and currently is a part-time Columbus State University Spanish instructor
Leisure: Enjoys spending time with her 6-year-old son, Peyton, and likes to take yoga classes at NOVO Fitness Studio
Of note: She studied abroad in Spain in 2002 and 2005 and has taken groups there in 2007 and 2011; she chairs the diversity committee at SHRM-Columbus and is a board member at The Family Center