Ways Cities Can Avoid Paying to Translate the Same Sentences Repeatedly



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Here’s how Philadelphia and Bowling Green, Kentucky keep their translation service costs down.

Sixty-six percent of a city’s translation projects are duplications. That’s the figure translation provider SDL gives in its Translation Technology Insights Report. Take "you have the right to an interpreter,” for example—one phrase used by multiple departments. The words never change, but every time they appear on a poster or a form, the city pays to translate them again and again.

But what if this translation could be reused? When purchasing is consolidated across departments, it can, allowing cities big and small to see the savings. The outcome is the same: Managed translation keeps costs down and constituent outreach up. But how it happens varies. Philadelphia, for instance, uses technology: The nation’s sixth most-populous city is currently onboarding software that remembers and reuses previous translation. But Bowling Green, Kentucky, with a population of more than 65,000 residents, takes a personal touch.

For those using tech, there’s translation memory software—often referred to as TM—that compares new words for translation against those already complete. TM is different from Google Translate, which essentially translates new sentences from scratch, using words translated by anyone who’s ever used the program. Translation memory only analyzes one client’s translations at a time, then makes suggestions for human translators to use or reject. Phrases are scored for similarity by percent: 100 percent means the exact same words have been translated in the exact same context before.

“You have the right to an interpreter,” for example, would be a 100 percent match across all new files. But “you have the right to an attorney” would be a lower match: The context changed. The higher the percentage, the deeper the discount. Some vendors even translate 100 percent matches for free. Translation memories don’t talk to each other, though, so if departments purchase separately, city-wide savings are lost.

This used to be the case in Philadelphia. But in May 2016, Mayor Jim Kenney signed Executive Order 7-16, an addendum to the city’s Home Rule Charter, requiring all offices and agencies to develop a translation plan.

Katelyn O’Brien, a talent manager at Globo, the translation provider Philadelphia selected from the order’s resulting RFP, told Route Fifty in an email that before, “city departments handled translation needs independent of one another” and didn’t have “any useful TM, either within a department or across departments.”

To manage its costs, Philadelphia created the Language Access Philly program, which strives to oversee translation citywide. Results came quickly.

“The development of a centralized TM produced an immediate, positive impact on the quality and consistency of the city’s translations, while reducing project costs and turnaround times,” O’Brien said.

These savings came just as costs had begun to rise. Language access program manager Orlando Almonte said that in the last fiscal year, Philadelphia faced a 10 percent increase in translation usage. This year, the city is on track for a 5 to 10 percent hike.

Less than a year after the program’s creation, Almonte said 10 departments are currently streamlined, “including public safety departments like police, fire, [licenses and inspections], prisons, and the office of emergency management.”

Law enforcement were first to strategically manage translation in Bowling Green as well. Over three years, the Bowling Green Police Department worked to improve translation systems internally. Their work showed the rest of the city how a well-run program would work.

Mayor Bruce Wilkerson and the Board of Commissioners then developed a city-wide plan, creating a full-time international communities coordinator, under the Department of Neighborhood and Community Services.

Leyda Becker, who serves in that role, told Route Fifty there’s no rogue or ad hoc purchasing in the city whatsoever: “Anything that needs to be contracted out, it goes through my office.”

Unlike Philadelphia, though, Bowling Green didn’t use tech to make this happen. Instead, the city took a human approach, training every employee across all departments in language access. “It took two years,” she said, to reach more than 700 people, but the work mattered: “We have the same expectations from city employees no matter where they are.” For those hired after training was complete, the city added a module on translation to its month-one orientation.

Why? Becker mentioned Bowling Green’s substantial foreign-born population, stressing how important it is for “all services within the city [to] provide accessibility”—16.9 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home, compared to only 8.93 percent in Philadelphia. Over the last decade, Bowling Green’s immigrant population has seen such explosive growth that presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway cited the town in her fictional Bowling Green Massacre last year.

To save costs, bilingual staff translate Spanish in-house, a move Philadelphia’s Almonte is also considering. Fifty-eight other languages are outsourced to a translation agency, which Becker said does not provide translation memory discounts. Without this tech, the key to keeping spending under control is approachability: “Even though [translation] is based out of one department, it’s still functioning as a support to all the departments,” Becker said. “We’re still a relatively small city. Pretty much everyone’s going to know that if they need anything related to language access, they need to contact me.”

Granted, the person-by-person model is nearly impossible for large municipal governments, but that’s not to say that once consolidation is complete, Philadelphia couldn’t include a note on translation in its employee training, too.

Smaller towns can teach big lessons: “We have been leading the way on how to provide language access across the city and across the state. Even our counterparts like Lexington, Owensboro, and Louisville don’t seem to have the same resources across the board,” Becker said of other cities in Kentucky. Bowling Green’s example proves that no matter what financial or technical resources a city has, there’s no excuse for not effectively managing translation costs.

Editor's Note: This article was updated to clarify information about city of Philadelphia's 10-percent increase in translation usage.

Terena Bell is a journalist based in New York. She is the former CEO of In Every Language, a translation company, and sat on both the national and international trade boards for translation providers.

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