The city of Manassas is looking for solutions to a growing language concern among some residents, and the city could be turning to translation software to improve communication at meetings.
Challenges arose at a recent town hall meeting when a number of Spanish-speaking residents from Georgetown South requested two-way translation to voice concerns over parking changes and to understand responses from the City Council and city staff.
A Spanish-speaking staffer without formal translation training did her best, but both residents and the council agreed that a more permanent and reliable system is needed. Not only was the translation difficult for some to understand, but the non-simultaneous way it was done slowed the meeting to a crawl.
“The fact that they don’t have a professional interpreter for the Spanish community is ridiculous,” Georgetown South resident Jennifer Perla said after the June meeting. “It’s an embarrassment.”
In a presentation to the council Monday night, Communications Manager Patty Prince laid out several options the city could pursue. In its budget for the current fiscal year, council appropriated money for a full-time Spanish-language communications staffer, but that person has yet to be hired and will mostly be focused on translating documents and other government-issued resources.
Eventually, that staffer will probably be able to provide Spanish translation when needed, but according to Manassas City Public Schools, the city has over 40 natively-spoken languages. Over half of the city’s students are considered English-language learners (meaning they’re not native speakers), with Spanish the most common non-English first language.
The 2020 census found that 42.9% of the city’s residents were Hispanic, a population that has grown rapidly in the past two decades. For some school division gatherings and School Board meetings, the school system uses headsets with for-hire simultaneous translation.
Prince said city staff will consider several possible technological solutions, including the same kind of headsets that connect with live translation services costing $800 for two hours, or automatic speech-to-text translation through Google or Microsoft.
City Manager Pat Pate said the city should continue to urge residents who want to broach concerns with their elected officials to bring someone who can help translate when possible.
Using Microsoft or Google would likely cover language needs for every city resident, but they’d come with the trade-off that speech-to-text translation is often far from perfect.
Still, Democratic council member Mark Wolfe said it was likely the best catch-all fix.
“There’s nothing that will be perfect because sometimes it’s difficult to understand someone speaking, but it’s pretty good,” Wolfe said, also suggesting that the city could explore purchasing tablets that could offer live translation at council meetings and town halls in a variety of languages. “I would certainly lean towards a technical-mechanical solution.”
No decisive action was taken Monday night, but Prince said city staff could give Microsoft or Google a trial run at the next council meeting and see whether that could be a viable permanent solution.
Republican council member Lynn Forkell Greene, who is seeking re-election to one of the council’s three seats on the ballot this year, said she has long supported better translation services, but she wants the city to try a free solution rather than sticking taxpayers with the bill.
“Having lived overseas, I recognize that it’s a partnership … to make sure people understand these meetings. So if you’re coming here and you’ve lived here a super long time and you still cannot communicate in English, I don’t know that our city’s taxpayers can afford to make sure that every language is accommodated,” Forkell Greene said Monday.
She added that communication services for the deaf were also being overlooked. “I feel like we definitely have to lean toward something that can give us the most bang for the buck.”