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What do you do as a U.S. city government trying to communicate with 8.5 million constituents where almost half (49%) of the residents speak a language other than English at home? That’s the question of the day for the City Council of New York. And one Bronx Councilman, James Vacca, is moving forward to find a solution. As the chair of the City Council’s Technology Committee, he proposed a resolution for all New York City websites to have an automated translation tool to reach non-English speakers. Edit: Direct link to legislation text here.

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Councilman James Vacca (D-Bronx)

The tool will have to support translation from English to the other six most-common languages of the Big Apple: Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Italian, and Haitian Creole. It also mirrors the 2008 Bloomberg administration mandate for over 100 city departments to offer help services in these six languages, and over 14 years since a Federal-court-approved settlement required the city to be more inclusive in providing services to minorities, such as food stamps.

While today’s resolution doesn’t cover the city’s 100,000+ Yiddish and Hebrew speakers, nor the 100,000+ who speak an Indic language (Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, etc.), it does go a long way to make the city more inclusive and responsive. A related city council proposal requires accessibility features for those with disabilities.

The city already does offer a great deal of information and services in translation, and some are in fact beyond the bounds of Councilman Vacca’s proposal. For instance, the NYC Department of Education has a Translation and Interpretation Unit that already offers outreach in Spanish, Chinese, Creole, Korean and Russian, but also offers Arabic, Bengali, French and Urdu. Also, the NYPD Foreign Language Outreach program stresses the need to communicate in the broadest possible manner to the community, boasting support of 75 different languages.

This bill will most likely be an opportunity for most city departments to review and standardize their content offerings and their policies. It will also be an opportunity for New York City to observe and learn the lessons of other municipalities and even national governments in terms of selecting and rolling out tools for translation. For instance, we recently wrote about the issues surrounding the roll-out of the Portage system for the Canadian Translation Bureau.

Even if you are working on a scale far smaller than a city the size of New York or national government like Canada, every organization has its own challenges and goals in reaching out to its multilingual audience. What are yours? We’d love to hear from you! Send us your thoughts to [email protected], and we’ll let you know how we can help.