Breaking Down the Language Barrier
- By Tracy Mayor
- Oct 03, 1999
By default, the city's World Wide Web site comes up in the predominant language of the region, but with a click of an easy-to-locate button, viewers can switch to a version of the site in another language. Relevant city data-including information on municipal services, the city budget, the city council and economic development-is maintained seamlessly in two languages. City managers say the bilingual site fulfills their civic responsibility, increases tourism and creates an attractive business climate-all with an added expense too small to bother measuring.
Is this Los Angeles? Miami? New York? San Diego? Guess again. The site belongs to Gatineau, a modest-size metropolis northwest of Ottawa that is just one of many Canadian government entities to offer Web-based services in French and English. Gatineau has had so much success in boosting the city economically with little extra effort, said communications director Jean Boileau, that the city soon may add Japanese-language pages to attract even more visitors to its Hot-Air Balloon Festival, an annual tourist favorite.
Down in the Lower 48, things aren't quite so linguistically progressive. An informal survey of a dozen city and county sites in ethnically mixed areas of the country makes it clear that "multilingual" is still a foreign word in the United States. The five counties with the highest Hispanic populations in the nation, according to U.S. census figures, maintain Web sites with no obvious Spanish information anywhere. Official city-sponsored sites in Miami and New York serve up not one word of Spanish or any other language that can be easily located by a non-English-speaking citizen online.
Other cities offer random translated pages amid hundreds of English-only pages. In Phoenix, for example, citizens are told in Spanish how to report graffiti infractions but not how to file a hate-crime complaint or apply for affordable housing. On the Los Angeles site, citizens can read about domestic-abuse assistance in Spanish, but they can't find out about minority business opportunities in any language except English. The irony is particularly pronounced in Los Angeles-a city that prints its electoral ballots in seven languages, maintains a written legislative policy statement on universal access to telecommunications, and, according to 1997 U.S. census figures, is home to the largest and fastest-growing Hispanic population in the country.
When a region supports a "large group of the population whose first language is not English, it's not asking too much for their government to let them know what services are there," said Frank Ortiz, chief of staff at the Houston-based League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC, whose Web site, incidentally, is English-only). "They pay taxes just like everyone else." Why aren't more cities and counties in the United States even attempting to maintain dual-language sites? Whatever the barriers, technology isn't one of them, according to Webmasters who offer at least one alternative language on their sites. A Web server doesn't know or care what language individual pages are written in, several managers pointed out. And in all but the smallest IT shops, serving up extra pages isn't a hardship.
"The cost for [maintaining] extra pages is inconsequential," said Greg Binder, a project manager with Phoenix's Information Technology Department. Other than fixing a tilde occasionally, his office isn't affected by the few city departments that choose to maintain pages in English and Spanish.
Translation can be a no-brainer or a burden, depending upon the cultural climate in a particular government office. The government of Ontario, which maintains a fully dual-language Web site, either receives material already translated from individual government departments or sends documents to an in-house translation department, according to Veronica Cooper, a manager with the Public Access Services Branch of Ontario's Management Board Secretariat.
Because dual-language government is mandated by law, translation costs are built into each department's budget.
In Tucson, Ariz., managers have turned the translation process into a positive. As part of the Tucson-Mexico Project, a multimedia campaign to promote tourism and business-to-business interaction between Tucson and Mexico, parts of the city's Web site are maintained in English and Spanish. Supporting two languages is somewhat more work, said project director Augustine Garcia, but it gives his department incentive to hire bilingual employees. The project has "raised the value of people who are bilingual. I can go out and look for talented people, people who can do the regular [Web maintenance] job, plus have the additional skill of a second language," Garcia said.
The success of the Spanish-language Web pages is spurring other city departments to consider following suit, Garcia said, and it even prods current employees to hone their language skills. "We've raised the consciousness about the quality of [translation] work that's being done. People have been more interested in improving their Spanish."
A similar kind of higher calling inspired the Phoenix Public Library, whose 100 dual-language Web pages puts it near the top for U.S. bilingual sites. As part of a long-range plan drawn up last year, managers said the library's broad mission is to foster an informed community. "Our goal is to reach the diverse communities that use us," said Amy Williams, community support coordinator for the library. Between 1980 and 1995, the library experienced a 12 percent increase in Spanish-speaking visitors, she said. As a result, the library is committing more resources to Spanish-language books, periodicals, software and Web pages. Two translators from an outside agency convert the library's pages from English to Spanish, but only after all text changes have been made and all required departments have signed off on the English text. That way, Williams explains, translation is kept to a one-time process for each page.
In Los Angeles County, public affairs director Judy Hammond, who oversees the county's home page, has found translation more of a project. Hammond is in the process of translating into Spanish a 200-page citizens' guide, which she plans to post online. She looked at automatic-translation tools and found them lacking (see "Que Pasta, Baby," at right), then sent the guide to the school district for translation.
Hammond plans in the next few months to post other pages in Spanish and said the idea is a good one, but she pointed out that she can't speak for, or direct, the site as a whole. Like many other county and city sites, the Los Angeles County site is an amalgam of departments' online contributions. The site's commitment to other languages is only as good as each contributor's initiative.
Without a clear policy directive or legislative requirement, dual-language sites haven't made it to the top of anyone's to-do list, several analysts observed. "Once Y2K is out of everyone's hair, issues such as multilingual Web sites will start to be addressed," said Janet Caldow, executive director of the Center for Electronic Communities at IBM's Institute for Electronic Government in Washington, D.C. "And as legislators begin to take a more active role-like requiring a certain percentage of [government] services to go online-it's a very real possibility that we'll see mandates emerge for multilingual sites."
"It's on people's radar, but it's not the first item on the list," said Dale Bowen, director of online services at Public Technology Inc., the technology arm of the National League of Cities, National Association of Counties and the International City/County Management Association. He, too, said he believes the language situation will change if and when the issue attracts the attention of local politicians. "Elected officials are strongly involved in all the most successful government sites we've seen," Bowen said. "If they're not hearing about it, it won't be filtering down to the public information level." (See "L.A. Story," Page 33, for a take on how one local group of politicians responded to the suggestion.)
In the end, the almighty force of the marketplace may prove to be the final arbiter in the matter of multilingualism online. "Cities and states and counties are going to be dragged into it kicking and screaming because they're going to follow the commercial market," said Narciso Cano, managing director of DCCI Inc., a San Antonio Web developer that runs the Hispanic-Dot-Com (www.hispanic.com) Spanish-language portal. "The market will make it happen. Places that ignore it will ignore it at their peril."
Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology.
Unlike bilingual education, which has become one of the great political footballs of the late 20th century, bilingual government World Wide Web sites seem to have few detractors. But neither do they have many passionate advocates, which may be why multilanguage sites haven't debuted in any large number.
An informal e-mail poll of Los Angeles' 15 council members asked for comment on the dearth of other languages on the city's site. It revealed widespread support for broad access to Web services and a technology-savvy climate where a multilingual site could thrive. But no one had quite gotten around to pursuing the idea of alternative languages online.
Laura Chick, councilwoman for the 3rd District, said she is overhauling her own site to accommodate Spanish readers. Nate Holden, councilman for the 10th District, posited that the Web site eventually could support as many languages as does the city ballot--seven.
Fifth District councilman Michael Feuer's office pointed out that the city's Web site changes constantly, making it more difficult to "trap and translate" information into Spanish and other languages. Feuer and 8th District councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas are among several officials working on 311, the city's nonemergency citizen information system, which will include Web and telephone components and support non-English speakers.
But it took Cindy Miscikowski, councilwoman for the 11th District, to coalesce all those good intentions into an executive directive. Three days after receiving e-mail soliciting comment, she filed a motion directing the city's Information Technology Agency to find ways to make the Los Angeles city Web site more accessible to the area's non-English-speaking population.
The motion gives the ITA 30 days to suggest ways in which the city's Web pages can be upgraded to provide information or, "at the very least," links to information in other languages. The motion also instructs the Los Angeles ITA to work with key city agencies-including the police, fire, housing, aging and community development departments-to identify which information should be translated into which languages to best serve various constituencies.
- Tracy Mayor
Languages (or Their Lack) Online
You can find government sites dabbling in alternative languages at the following locations:
Gatineau, Quebec -- www.ville.gatineau.qc.ca
Los Angeles -- www.ci.la.ca.us
Los Angeles County -- www.co.la.ca.us
League of United Latin American Citizens -- www.lulac.org
Miami/Dade County -- www.co.miami-dade.fl.us
National Telecommunications and Information Administration's Digital Divide study -- www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/digitaldivide
Hispanic fact sheet -- www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/digitaldivide/factsheets/hispanics.htm
New York City -- www.ci.nyc.ny.us
Ontario Government -- www.gov.on.ca
Phoenix -- www.ci.phoenix.az.us
Phoenix Public Library -- www.ci.phoenix.az.us/library.html
Tucson, Ariz. -- www.ci.tucson.az.us
Que Pasta, BabyThe desire may be strong to offer online documents in other languages, but many World Wide Web managers feel they have no time, staff or budget for translation. But with language-translation software packages getting better all the time, it seems they'd be a perfect fit for government Web sites.
Although some sites-notably, Bakersfield, Calif.-are taking translation software for a test run, many other government organizations are not, at least for now. "We have looked at features that would translate documents into Spanish online, but none do a good enough job," said Judy Hammond, public affairs director for Los Angeles County.
Companies as large as IBM Corp. and Lotus Development Corp. or as specialized as Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products and Transparent Language Inc. market language translation tools. The tools do a good job at translating technical documents but, as Lotus literature acknowledges, are less accurate for things such as poetry.
Apparently, to many civic Web managers, online government documents hew closer to poetry than technology. In particular, managers are wary of crude or inaccurate translations that could wind up offending or misleading the citizens they were designed to assist.
"I cringe at the thought of those translation packages," said Paul Saunders, Web editor with the Public Access Services Branch of the Ontario government's Management Board Secretariat. No matter how sophisticated the package, the software simply isn't able to tailor the nuances of the language to the particular audience. "You don't want things coming out as funny jokes. When you're talking about public information from a government source, you don't want to risk any mistakes."
- Tracy Mayor