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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Accurate interpreters, clear translations crucial to serving diverse populations

This news article from Utica, N.Y. reminded me of an effort I took part in several years ago across the country in Washington state. While working in local government communications, I helped develop a county policy for translating public materials from English into other languages, as required by a U.S. presidential order. 

During the process, I successfully advocated for building plain-language principles into the policy. I also led an effort to create an "international symbol" meaning "interpreter" for use on our agency's public materials.

Writing for the Utica newspaper, Sarah Tracey describes a problem that hospitals, the judicial system, transit agencies, health departments, and other public and nonprofit organizations are facing:

Imagine a Russian man going to a doctor and trying to explain that he has angina.
The doctor might see that as a heart condition, but in Russian, it means he has a sore throat.
With ever-increasing numbers of refugees and immigrants in the area, navigating language and cultural differences in ethically complicated settings, such as a hospital room or as a defendant in a courtroom, can be a challenge.
Tracey's article highlights the importance of accurate, responsive interpreters,  but the message also applies to accurate, responsive translators.

Where I worked, we strongly supported the need to translate documents. But we also wanted to make sure the policy allowed flexibility for effective, responsive alternatives to translating documents. 

Interpreting English for customers: To help gain that flexibility, I led a graphic design task in my agency to support use of our existing alternative. It's built on the agency's use of interpreters to aid customers with limited English proficiency when they phone the customer information office. 

We developed an "international symbol" for use on our materials. Besides the word "Interpreter" in English, the symbol contains Interpreter translated into the most common foreign languages in our county or the most common languages in targeted distribution areas. It also provides the phone number for our customer information office. People who speak any language can call that number and, when needed, get connected with an interpreter.

Translating in plain language: In addition, as an editor concerned about clear, concise writing, I wanted to build plain-language principles into the translation policy. If county writers follow those principles, I urged, our materials would be easier and less costly to translate into other languages, with fewer errors.

Doing that would also benefit readers with limited English proficiency who are learning English as a second language. As an important side benefit of the effort, our materials would be easier for literate English speakers to understand and use.

For my local government, I prepared guidelines that highlighted plain-language principles especially pertinent to meeting the needs of readers with limited English proficiency and people who translate English documents. I've incorporated those guidelines into Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide

My guide describes seven steps for creating clear, concise documents:
  • Focusing on your reader and purpose
  • Organizing your ideas
  • Writing clear, effective paragraphs
  • Writing clear, simple sentences
  • Using suitable words
  • Creating an enticing design
  • Testing for clarity.
The Utica article is featured today, March 14, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

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