State agencies to expand translation services

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By JANELLE JAMES 
Capital News Service

LANSING –  Advocates are pushing for ballots to be in several languages and for more translation services at state agencies and other initiatives to expand language access in Michigan. 

The budget for the state fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, includes $700,000 to make it easier for non-English speakers to access state services and an additional $260,000 to hire coordinators to oversee the expansion. 

Expanding language access would allow immigrants and residents whose first language isn’t English to interact with state agencies in the language that they are most comfortable. This could mean offering ballots in several languages and giving people the option to use the language they are most comfortable with when they are at state agencies. 

Advocates for the change recommend that the money be spent on hiring more trained state translators and interpreters who are proficient in multiple languages, and training for staff at state agencies on how to interact with people with limited English proficiency. 

“What we see a lot of right now is people just entering things into Google Translate,” said Jungsoo Ahn, the interim executive director of  Rising Voices, an organization that advocates on the behalf of Asian Americans in Detroit. “Even within language access there is a cultural competency that needs to be addressed.” 

Nearly 300,000 people self-identify as having limited proficiency in English, said Simon Marshall-Shah, a policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy. The most popular languages spoken by people whose first language isn’t English in Michigan are Arabic, Spanish,  Chinese, Hindi and other South Asian languages, he said. 

Many state agencies, like the Secretary of State offices offer translations, for over a dozen languages on their websites. Other agencies have adopted their own protocols for language access but statewide standards for language access don’t exist, Marshall-Shah said.

“For immigrants to participate in our systems and to actually feel like this is an inclusive democracy, it is absolutely essential that everything is in language” that they understand, Ahn said.

There is also a push to have an advisory board to oversee the implementation of the program to track and report language access needs and address complaints, according to the League for Public Policy.  

Hawaii is one of the few states with an advisory council that does such a thing, and the only state to have two official languages: Hawaiian and English.  

While new spending will expand access at the state level, organizations like Rising Voices and Voces,a nonprofit organization serving the Hispanic/Latino community in Battle Creek, would like to see language access expanded in schools and hospitals as well. 

“If somebody needs a Korean translation for a parent teacher conference, there might not be translators available so we need to make sure that there is a pool of translators available for such things and that there are translators available to translate the materials that go out to families,” she said.  

“People in our community also have really, really complained about how insufficient language access has been in hospitals,” Ahn said. It is already difficult enough to care for a loved one in the hospital or to grieve, but to do that and not have accurate translation is even harder, she said. 

Jose Orozco, the executive director of Voces, agrees. 

A lot of school districts don’t provide translation during their school board meetings, so many parents ask for our help to get their kids in programs that they saw at the meeting, he said. 

“The schools are also recognizing the importance of hiring bilingual staff members to be able to diversity and meet the community with those various needs,” Orozco said. 

Ahn said expanding language access can be beneficial for immigrants as well as the economy.

“It creates more jobs, more opportunities and more capacity within our system. It creates a much more thriving society and better outcomes in health care, education and in the legal system,” she said.