E.g., 10/01/2023
E.g., 10/01/2023
Practitioner's Corner: Centralizing Translation Across Agencies Through Computer Assisted Translation

Practitioner's Corner: Centralizing Translation Across Agencies Through Computer Assisted Translation

By Peggy Liao

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Seattle undertook a significant overhaul of its language access program, which included an assessment of existing protocols and revision of citywide processes to create materials in languages other than English. Centralization was an important component of this change. To improve the speed, quality, and consistency of language services, the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs’ (OIRA) Language Access Team evolved to become the in-house hub that other city departments worked through to meet their translation and related needs. This Practitioner’s Corner details the changes and the new workflow.

Why did Seattle decide to centralize the translation of documents across city departments? How did the city go about centralizing translation?

On October 2, 2017, Seattle’s mayor signed Executive Order 2017-10 pertaining to language access. OIRA’s Language Access Team was tasked with providing strategic guidance about working with non-English speaking residents and providing departments with technical assistance for language services. Under the mayor’s guidance, city departments were required to plan, budget for, and provide language services using vendors of their choice.

With one in five Seattle residents speaking a language other than English at home, the pandemic highlighted the stark disparities in access to key services and information for immigrant and refugee residents. The crisis also presented the city with the challenge of creating a more resilient and robust translation system that all city departments can leverage to generate in-language content efficiently and systematically. 

At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the city of Seattle and Public Health – Seattle & King County (PHSKC) recognized the unmet need to quickly translate and distribute COVID-19 information to immigrant and refugee community members. To shorten the project turnaround time, OIRA’s Language Access Team and PHSKC increased translation capacity by forming a team of more than 50 professional translators from the local community. These community translators were able to translate materials into Seattle’s top 20 languages within 24 hours if necessary.

City departments such as the Office of Economic Development, Parks and Recreation, and Office of Housing soon also started working with the Language Access Team and began assigning projects to translators for COVID-19-related communications needs.

The pandemic also prompted city leadership to assess the city’s language service capacity and investment. The mayor and City Council worked to pass funding for a joint COVID-19 Disaster Relief Fund, which included $300,000 for the city’s evolving centralized language access system. With this more robust resource, the Language Access Team was able to add a full-time temporary staffer and subscribe to a computer-assisted translation (CAT) tool to facilitate and streamline the workflow.

How has the city leveraged computer-assisted translation to support these centralization efforts?

A CAT tool is not a replacement for professional translators. Rather, it helps optimize workflows to speed up the process, improve translation quality, and reduce cost.

Here is how OIRA’s Language Access Team manages projects and workflows using a CAT tool:

  1. Any city employee can submit a translation request in an online client portal developed by our CAT tool vendor. (The Language Access Team provides training and written instructions for using the CAT.) After employees upload their documents and specify what languages they want, the portal displays the estimated cost for the submitted project. Requesters can monitor the project process and download translated documents from the same portal.
  2. The Language Access Team assigns the project to translators using the main CAT tool platform, which connects with the client portal.
  3. Community translators log into the CAT tool platform to accept or decline the project. Translators directly input translations in the CAT tool, with translations automatically saved online. Translators and reviewers can work on the same project at the same time and communicate with each other if needed. 
  4. When translating, the CAT tool presents translators with translation memories, term bases, and machine translations to help them quickly translate with quality.
  5. Once translators and reviewers complete a project, newly translated content is added to the translation memory.
  6. Twice a month, the Language Access Team generates invoices for each department. Departments make payments to the CAT tool vendor, and the vendor pays the translators. With this consolidated payment structure, translators are not responsible for generating invoices for various projects to different departments each month.

What have been the benefits of centralizing the translation of written materials for city services?

The key benefits of working with a centralized translation system and CAT tools include:

Ensuring true access: Language access is about creating equitable access to information and services, not just about the volume of translated documents. The Language Access Team not only provides translation services but also strategic outreach and engagement guidance about immigrant and refugee communication. Before processing a project, we always work with project requesters to ensure communication quality by asking these basic questions:

  • Can the English content be simpler and more readable?
  • What’s your call to action? How should the audience engage with you?
  • How will you distribute in-language information? Do you work with trusted messengers?
  • How can the audience give you feedback or ask questions? Can you include contact information on the flyer that will allow community members to get additional information and clarification in-language?

Achieving consistent and professional in-language communication: A CAT tool saves translated content in a single database, or what is called translation memory. We also develop term bases, which are collections of pre-translated phrases and terms. When departments submit a project similar to one they have done in the past, the system will remind translators of previously translated content. Both the translation memory and term bases make in-language written communication consistent and professional.

Reducing duplication and unnecessary cost: With translation memories and term bases, departments will not need to spend on content that is already being translated by another department, which over time helps reduce translation costs and increase language services to underserved communities. 

Supporting local workforce: We work with local translators who bring cultural relevancy to the translated material. Translators are a part of Seattle’s immigrant and refugee communities, so working with them means directly investing in the local workforce and building community capacity.

Based on Seattle’s experience, what suggestions do you have for policymakers or agencies interested in centralizing their translation of written materials and/or using CAT?

Every locality is different and will have a different vision of how their agencies provide language services. From my experience as well as discussions with Language Access Leads in other places, I see a growing trend of local governments strengthening their language access on both strategic and operational levels.

If you are thinking about bolstering language access programming in your organization, here are steps to consider:

  1. Hire a full-time staffer for language access policy. The staffer can be embedded in the mayor’s (or county executive’s) communications team, or in your own offices dedicated to immigrant/refugee/equity issues. This position should be empowered to convene a network of department/office language access representatives and can start generating momentum for positive change.
  2. Build term bases. To start, you can use Excel spreadsheets to document a list of terms that you want translators to use, such as proper translations of your department/office names, so that these can be used consistently.
  3. Get to know local professional language service providers. Local service providers offer cultural relevancy and understanding of local immigrant and refugee communities. Establish contracts with service providers and help them get familiar with services and programs provided by local municipalities. You can start with contacting interpreters who are certified to interpret for state courts or contact local American Translation Association chapters or affiliates. Alternatively, you can hire translators as full-time staffers to provide translation services.
  4. Do not be afraid of technology but use it with discretion. Think about how much you want to centralize translation services internally and what that process should be like before obtaining any technology tools such as machine translation tools with editing functions, CAT tools, or a translation management system.
  5. Join the Municipal Language Access Network (MLAN). The network was created to directly link the work of municipalities across regions who are engaged with language access. MLAN members actively share language access resources and best practices. Network membership is limited to government and quasi-government staff who are primary point persons for language access services. You can fill out the form to request to join the network here: https://forms.gle/18huaMepaZHFmfoY7.

Peggy Liao is the Language Access Program and Policy Specialist for the city of Seattle.