Breaking down language barriers to make King County accessible to all

translation-interpretationImagine not understanding public service announcements or not being able to call an information line because they are not offered in your language. It is a problem that many King County residents face and something the Office of Equity and Social Justice (ESJ) and Customer Service Officers are trying to change.

An Executive Order already requires printed public communications pieces and vital documents for broad distribution to be translated into at least Spanish, but the Office of ESJ and county agencies have been developing and implementing new ways to interact with the community and provide information.

One approach is working with ethnic media, such as the local Spanish language Univision TV channel. Unlike many other forms of journalism, ethnic media, such as in Spanish or Chinese, are growing instead of shrinking, Director of the Office of ESJ Matias Valenzuela said. Working with media can create a greater trust in King County and help non-English speaking residents access the information they need.

Though certified translators and interpreters are already being used, King County is also increasingly involving members of immigrant and refugee communities to make sure the language and outreach approaches are appropriate. By involving community members, translations and interpretations can be tailored for the community, using the terminology or slang used in everyday life.

Meredith Li-Vollmer, Risk Communication Specialist with Public Health – Seattle & King County, said that it can be difficult to work with translation companies who sometimes outsource translation work. In one case, a company King County was working with outsourced the translations to Vietnam were it was translated in the current style — a style that is reflects Communism and is extremely offensive to Vietnamese speaking residents in King County, many of whom were Vietnam War-era refugees.

“If you provide poor quality work, it can weaken your ties with the community,” Valenzuela said.

That’s why King County works with both translation services and local community members when creating campaigns. Rather than directly translating a campaign into a different language, a team that includes native speakers will develop it to make sense in the culture, often borrowing from pop culture.

“Sometimes a catchphrase won’t make sense or won’t sound as good when it is translated,” Li-Vollmer said. “When we take the extra time to develop messages and campaigns especially for another community, residents really appreciate it.”

When developing interpretations and translations for public health emergencies, King County looks at language datasets, maps and community knowledge to understand which populations need translations. In the case of the 2011 tsunami off the coast of Japan, King County developed communication notices not just to the local Japanese population worried about friends and family overseas, but to local Ukrainians, who might have been worried that the tsunami might trigger a disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant like the one at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine years ago.

“We never try to assume which populations and issues will need translation,” Valenzuela said. “We know what the need is in terms of numbers of residents in our county, but we also have to have our ears to the ground so we know what people are saying and concerned about.”

King County strives to provide “no wrong door” services, Customer Service Specialist Mauricio Martinez said. He hopes to have King County accessible to everyone, no matter how they contact the County – whether it is calling a help line or using the County website.

“King County has lots of room for improvement, especially since materials are not translated or interpreted as often as they could be,” Martinez said. To help ensure that there is no wrong door, the Office of ESJ and Customer Service Officers are trying to increase awareness of the importance of translation and interpretation and how they lead to better outreach and services. They are currently providing trainings to County employees in translation, interpretation, and how to find language resources to help make their messages more accessible.

To learn more about the King County language access issues and resources, visit the website.