City of Boise looking to strengthen translation services

Boise City Hall
Posted at 10:35 AM, Feb 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-05 12:35:31-05

This article was written by Margaret Carmel of BoiseDev.

Boise hopes to improve access for all Boiseans, including those that don’t speak English.

The City of Boise is in the midst of planning to develop a new policy to help Boiseans to access city services in their native language, either through translated documents or interpretation services. Community Engagement Director Maria Weeg told Boise City Council this week that while Boise is meeting the minimum for providing language access, there is a lot more the city can do to be more accessible.

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‘We need to go to the next level’

Residents who aren’t native English speakers currently have access to some materials, like a version of Mayor Lauren McLean’s State of the City Speech captioned in Spanish, some utility billing inserts printed in both English and Spanish and access to an interpreter service called Language Line. But, Weeg said there is room for improvement.

“We’re doing compliance really well,” Weeg said. “We’re doing a good job with the “I Speak Cards” and translating our documents, but we need to go to the next level and make sure we’re providing information in the languages and ways of communicating our community is asking for.”

As of the last Census in 2010, 89.9% of Boiseans spoke English. Spanish speakers made up 4.7% of the population along with 2.2% of the population from “Indo-European” languages. Even though these percentages are smaller than other counties in Idaho with larger percentages of people who speak English as a second language, Weeg said she expects the latest Census will show an increase in the population of people needing services in a language other than English.

The United States does not have a national language.

As part of this process, the city is also looking at how to make more services accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing, as well.

Weeg said the city is currently in the planning stages of an evaluation of what services to be offered in what languages, which includes asking city employees who deal most often with the public. She said preliminary conversations show the most in demand languages for more services are Swahili and Farsi.

A patchwork of services

When the needs assessment is done, Weeg said the city will develop a resolution for City Council to vote on laying out the city’s strategy for communicating with various communities who do not speak English.

Right now the city uses a variety of ways to help serve residents who speak a language other than English. Weeg gave a nod to bilingual employees who help out and a network of translators that assist the Boise Police Department, but she said there is not a cohesive strategy or policy in place for how language access services become available.

The City of Boise website has some information available in other languages, with the majority of the links in Spanish. However, to find the Spanish information it often requires navigating through pages printed in English. The City of Boise website homepage does not have any reference to services in another language, except for a “translate” at the bottom of the screen that will Google Translate the page in dozens of languages using the automated software.

Communicating with Boiseans who do not speak English became more urgent when COVID-19 hit in 2020 so all residents could stay informed and safe. Since then, Weeg said the city has translated the mayor’s health orders on COVID-19 and has created a page with a guide on the pandemic in eight different languages to help keep them informed.

What should be translated?

Last year, there was some funding in the budget to pay for some translation services. But, Weeg said the city realized this wasn’t enough to address the scope of the problem of how the community can access information. Another part of the evaluation on the need for language services is seeing what should be translated so it is the most useful to people who need it.

“Is it translating a city council agenda, or is it the services we’re continuing to provide on demand?” Weeg said. “Or making sure we have our forms in our most commonly used languages? We want to make sure we’re responding to what people really need, really use, and will most improve their ability to engage with us.”

City Council President Pro Tem Lisa Sanchez, who speaks both Spanish and English, said the city should be aware of the extra burden on bilingual employees when they are asked to translate on top of their usual work.

“Yes, as an organization we’re able to provide improved services to our community, but it can have an adverse effect on the employee if that is not the specific job they were hired to do,” Sanchez said, speaking from personal experience. “What if they’re not meeting their other goals or are we willing to offer a pay differential to compensate folks who are bringing that added value to what we offer at the city of Boise?”

Weeg said the plan is to gather feedback from employees and the community to update the language access policy every three to five years to ensure it’s working properly.