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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.

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.”

Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at jforetek@insidenova.com

Reporter

Jared Foretek covers Prince William County Public Schools, the city of Manassas and transportation news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at jforetek@insidenova.com

(15) comments

Lynne June

“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.” This May be so, but not all human translators are accurate, either. To be sure, some are outstanding but many us in NoVa know enough Spanish to know when the meaning of what has been said is innocently changed by the translator because of their translation abilities.

Brad London

Secure the borders. Force people to go through our legal immigration process. Require as part of that process they are able to speak English. Will save us millions. But of course democrats do just the opposite thinking they can get the illegals to vote for them.

John Dutko

How bout this:

1) Prosecute those that employ illegals.

2) Get rid of "Green Card" status as that is the easiest way to bypass immigration laws.

3) Since all of the menial jobs are now empty, get rid of unemployment and force people to work for crap wages, there is no excuse now.

4) Bring back Debtor prisons and have people work for free.

Popular Misconception

True facts: 1.) To be successful in the USA (and many other parts of the world, for that matter), you most likely need to learn English. 2.) To increase the socio-economic condition (and quality of life) of our county, we want people to be successful.

So, while I agree with Greene's point wholeheartedly, it came across short-sighted. There need to be incentives (both positive and negative) for learning English. The city and county could certainly sponsor a world-class English learning program, providing the opportunity for people who want to take advantage of it. This would greatly increase the likelihood of them being able to enjoy all that the US has to offer. Conversely, those who would choose not to participate would not enjoy the same benefits - but it is their choice. No need to force people. But there needs to be an honest effort to help these folks learn English. It would be an economic win for the county, and a humanitarian win for the non-native population.

John Dutko

If you want to be successful, you need to read the room. Demographics of a particular region should dictate the predominate language, as language is tied to a persons culture.

By mandating a particular language to be spoken is akin to erasing a national heritage.

See Russia to the Eastern Bloc, China mandating Mandarin, British virtually erasing Gaelic, etc...

These Spanish speakers pay taxes all the same.

Bob Roberts

How about setting up free/affordable English language classes? That would benefit everyone, open up new employment opportunities, etc.

Bob Roberts

How about free/affordable English language classes to assist? That not only would solve this problem, but also open more opportunities for employment.

John Dutko

Greene needs to realize that demographics change. When over 40% of your area speaks Spanish, you might want to invest in translation services. Even from a political standpoint, the ability to communicate to a subsection of the populace will garner more votes instead of estrangement.

Even her comments are tone-deaf.

John Rockefeller

This is a parking matter? Surely the Manassas City Police Department has fluent officers they could spare for such a meeting. They have to being able to speak to citizens in such a way that it is legally admissible anyway, and they're already salary/on county payroll.

Dick Grayson

Enablers at taxpayers expense!

John Dutko

This you?:

Dick Grayson Jul 25, 2022 12:08pm

Well the Latino vote pushed Youngkin over the top! Hopefully those who want to actually go to work and contribute will turn out in droves in Nov, only took a single generation for the Latino immigrant to fogure out which is the party of family, business, education and morality. Dependency of the other minorities on crumbs from the plantation master unfortunately may continue the cycle of failed Dem policies. Just Vote Vega…your life may depend on it!

Man, you guys are quick to backstab.

Dick Grayson

Backstab? Not a chance, those Hispanics that voted for Youngkin are: 1) citizens, unlike the illegal voters in NY, Ca and IL 2) in many cases speak better or mor proper English than other recent and non-recent arriving minorities 3) have a love of hard work, family, God and adopted country. In other words they ARE American.

Wake up! Leave the Dem Plantation of idiotic group think and sheer stupidity!

John Dutko

Then there should be no issue providing translation services.

George Lawton

Here’s your solution ready…wait…learn how to speak English then you wouldn’t have a problem, or move to a Spanish speaking country. This is VA, no where near a border area or Spanish speaking country. If you don’t like it, you’re free to leave at any time. The whole world isn’t your complaint box.

John Dutko

Here's what we are gonna do: copy+paste your comment and show up to all of the Republican campaign stops.

You reflect the current sentiment of Republicans against Hispanics.

I love that you agree that Virginia is "no where near a border area or Spanish speaking country" so we can finally put that immigration argument to rest.

Welcome to the discussion.

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