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Volunteers lend language skills to foreign travelers

By Greg Gelpi

Arriving from foreign lands, they converge at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport speaking an array of languages, which may not include English.

Filing out of international flights, visitors to the world's busiest passenger airport often pack everything necessary for the trip overseas, except a translator.

Greeting these travelers as they enter the airport terminals are members of the Hartsfield-Jackson Host Volunteer Program, a program of about 100 people equipped with well beyond a dozen languages ready to assist airport visitors, said Raj Nayar of the airport's customer service office.

Lena LaPlace, a Ukrainian native, said many arrive at the airport surprised to find someone who speaks their native tongue. Along with Ukrainian, she's also fluent in Russian.

The ability to speak the same language transforms uneasy, troubling times for passengers into gratitude and smiles, she said, recalling a recent incident.

"It was a terrible situation," LaPlace said, describing the Russian travelers in need of assistance. "Their English was very poor."

But, she said, after the "big mess," their worried faces turned to smiles.

"After the big mess, I saw their smiles," she said. "You should have seen their faces. They were almost in tears."

Mac Macyowsky, 70, an aviation buff, is from Berlin and has lived in the United States for 46 years.

Volunteering as a German translator, Macyowsky said that most of the questions he receives involve passengers trying to find their way around the airport, locate baggage or grab a taxi.

More unusual questions, though, include asking if the airport has baby-sitting services or a beauty shop, he said.

"Most of the time you get through without even knowing the language," Macyowsky said, pointing to a brochure-sized map of the airport.

Planes unload and passengers are left to navigate the airport, he said.

"The passengers travel from all around the world," Patricia Chinchay, 38, of Peru said. "They expect to be able to communicate in their own language. I meet a lot of Spanish people so they are happy to see me."

Te'Yon Price, 23, served for years in the military in Japan and became fluent in Japanese.

Price said that Japanese travelers are also happy to see him, although they are surprised that the black American is a Japanese translator.

"I'm not your typical Japanese," he said.

The program volunteers perform an important function at the airport, Nayar, who speaks four languages herself, said, and the need for translators is increasing as the airport expands its international concourse.

"To have multilingual translators here makes this airport very user-friendly," Nayar said. "Whatever knowledge or background we have from our own country we try to bring in here so that we can be best utilized for the passengers of the airport."

When it comes down to it, though, she said, Hartsfield-Jackson isn't big, it's just busy, and translators assist travelers in negotiating that busyness.