Springfield activists call for better translation services

A new coalition of community, labor, and religious groups in Springfield, Massachusetts, is calling for a new city ordinance establishing rules for how the police deal with non- or limited-English speaking citizens.  The coalition is called the Pioneer Valley Project, and members met with the Springfield City Council last month.

Springfield is typical of many American cities in which the non-English speaking population is  growing, but services for translation and interpreting are much the same.  Springfield his immigration groups from Russia, Vietnam, Latin America, Burundi, Somalia, and many other countries.  Over 50 percent of the students in the public schools are Hispanic. In 2006, the U.S. Justice Department filed a voting rights lawsuit against the city for inadequate translation of ballot questions during local elections.

The police claim that adequate services already exist: they subscribe to a statewide telephone translation line, they often use family members and neighbors to translate, and several officers are bilingual.

The coalition members point out that the system isn’t working very well and are collecting stories  from non-English speakers’ experiences: language and cultural barriers, improper translation, people calling but not able to communicate with the desk officers, and mistrust of situations in which family members and friends are employed in interpreting situations.

Maureen Turner published a long and well researched article on the conflict in the July 22, 2010 edition of the Valley Advocate. The goal, according to her, is to set up a system that provides fair and unbiased language services to the public and is easily accessed when and where the police need it.

Here translation studies research and education can be helpful. Studies exist on the methods currently employed in Springfield–using telephone lines, family members, and bilingual employees–which show that such as system is neither adequate nor cost-effective. Many cities, including New York City, have moved away from the older methods and have adopted more professional requirements, including mandatory provision of interpreting services and translated documents in the top six languages spoken in the city. National groups such American Translation Association (ATA) and the American Translation and Interpreting Studies Association (ATISA) are working on issues such as standards, ethics, community interpreting, racism, and equal justice.

The 1964 Civil Rights Acts guarantee equal rights to all people, regardless of race, gender, or country of national origin, which includes the right to translation and interpreting services in any institution that receives federal funding.  In many ways, translation and intepreting services are the civil rights issue of the new millennium.  Most police departments receive federal funding, and therefore are obligated to comply. Yet many questions remain as to what are the best methods to employ and how cost-effective are those measures.  The efforts by the Pioneer Valley Project in Springfield merit watching.

One Comment

  1. Laureen
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    I think this is a very good initiative: the US is a multicultural country and authorities should act to break down the language barrier. Providing people with reliable, good quality translation services is the first step to any improvement of the situation.

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