Alumna and student bridge information gap for Vietnamese Americans

The Interpreter, created by USC alumna Cookie Duong and senior Jady Chan, looks to reduce language barriers for many Vietnamese Americans by translating news articles and op-eds from major news outlets. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

Scores of Americans have created resource guides and infographics in an effort to educate and promote civic engagement in the run-up to the 2020 election. However, for a significant number of Americans, including many Vietnamese Americans, language barriers make these resources inaccessible. Alumna Cookie Duong and Jady Chan, a senior majoring in computational neuroscience, are trying to change that.

In June, Duong and Chan created The Interpreter, a news aggregator website that translates news articles, op-eds and analyses from major international outlets into Vietnamese. Since its creation only five months ago, the website has since expanded significantly. It is updated regularly, with approximately three to six articles translated every day and is staffed by dozens of volunteer translators and editors. 

The website was created to bridge the information gap caused by language barriers by providing young people with Vietnamese-language materials to help them start difficult conversations regarding social justice, police brutality, solidarity and the history of racism in the United States.

Following the killing of George Floyd in May, Duong recalls attempting to have a conversation with her father about the Black Lives Matter movement. As a general voting bloc, Vietnamese Americans are the most conservative group within the broader Asian American community, and sharp divisions exist between the community’s older generation — often conservative  — and the younger generation — often progressive. 

Unfortunately, the conversation didn’t go as Duong had hoped it would. Her father’s general contempt for the movement remained firm, but Duong saw an opportunity to create change regardless. 

“I fell short,” Duong said. “So I thought if I can’t convince my dad, then maybe I can convince someone else. So the original goal was just to share a few articles — translated and edited by me on a website and created by me — to my friends.”

After receiving an overwhelming amount of positive feedback from her friends and hearing how needed a service like The Interpreter was, Duong created a GoFundMe page for the website and donations poured in. Amid the groundswell of support, Duong knew that the significance of The Interpreter necessitated expansion beyond what she had originally intended. 

“A lot of people wanted to connect with us … and I realized, this can’t be stopped in my circle, and it’s something that should be shared with the rest of the community,” Duong said. “So there was really no other option besides expanding and getting more hands on deck.” 

Along with Chan, who helped set up and refine the website after discovering The Interpreter on Instagram in June, Duong continued developing the resource’s online presence. What was once a collection of a few translated articles has become a substantial organization. The Interpreter now has an onboarding and application process for prospective translators and boasts a staff of more than 40 volunteers that span various cities, high schools and universities across the United States and Vietnam. 

One of these volunteers, Calum Nguyen, a junior at USC majoring in philosophy, politics and law and French, joined The Interpreter’s staff after discovering the website in September. Nguyen said he thinks The Interpreter has the potential to promote important political and social conversations within the Vietnamese community. 

“I hope it gives a source of knowledge for the people who care deep down about these issues [but don’t have] access [to translated] fact-checked articles,” Nguyen said. “They’ll be able to use The Interpreter as a resource to have more knowledge and a better understanding of the world around them, the political works around them, to have these conversations because we definitely need these conversations in the Vietnamese community.”

Nguyen also emphasized his hopes for greater change within the Vietnamese American community. 

“As of right now, the Vietnamese American community has the biggest disparity between the older generations and the younger generation in terms of political identity, and it doesn’t have to be this way,” Nguyen said. 

Working to create change within the community is difficult, Duong admits, but some of the surprises she has come across along the way have left her far more encouraged than disillusioned.  

“Being in this field has surprised me a lot because I didn’t realize how much we were up against and how difficult it would be to institute this sort of structural change in people’s way of thinking,” Duong said. “But I’ve also realized that we are kind of at this cusp of change as well. I’m not alone at all. There’s all these young people who are finding their ways back to their community, doing good and working at a grassroots level to help elevate their community and I’m so proud and so grateful to be a part of it.”

Jane Junn, a professor of political science and gender and sexuality studies who authored a book on Asian American political participation, underscored the potential reach and impact that the website could have for the Vietnamese American community. 

“What used to be the highly labor-intensive, interpersonal exercise of translation is now scaled up to the capacity that really anybody can read it,” Junn said. “That’s potentially enormously influential … I think any time people make politics and what’s going on in politics and society and culture more accessible to newcomers allows for us to understand each other, it allows for newcomers to better understand the world they live in. So I think it could be enormously influential.”

When it comes to the future of The Interpreter, Duong and Chan said they hope to continue to expand the website and have considered turning the organization into a nonprofit to potentially pay their staff and form a full-fledged newsroom. Duong also wishes, however, that her team’s impact might eventually be mirrored by the contributions of future organizations that bridge the gap between politics and other American immigrant communities. 

“So far we have gotten multiple messages from young people who have thanked us for providing the linguistic resources that helped them to make a case [to] their parents — whether it be [highlighting that] there are real injustice in the world or that they should not vote for Donald Trump — whatever it might be, we are making some impact in the community,” Duong said. “Obviously, it’s not one single battle, it’s a long fought war, so I’m hoping that this newsroom will be the first among many that are active in the hopes of pushing the community forward and bringing credible and fact-checked information to our parents and those who need it.”