Human service agencies often use translated materials, notices, and applications to help facilitate communication with limited English proficient applicants. For example, "I speak" cards posted at the reception desk or language posters in reception areas help applicants identify which language they speak. Most of the sites have "I speak" cards or language posters; however, they are not always clearly displayed and usually only cover a subset of languages spoken by applicants. While these cards and posters do not help those who are illiterate in their native language, most workers reported that applicants are usually able to state the name of their native country or language. Overall, workers tend to view initial identification of the language spoken by the applicant, regardless of the presence or absence of "I speak" cards or language posters, to be the least problematic aspect of communicating with these applicants.
Public agencies — particularly welfare offices — extensively rely on written materials and notices for the vast majority of client-agency communication. Requests for documentation and changes in program requirements are often conveyed exclusively by mail. During the application process, providing written translation of even simple things like lists of required documents can increase the likelihood that applicants will comply with application rules and be determined eligible.
The availability of translated written documents is often a missing or undeveloped element of localities’ language access strategies. As documented in more detail in Chapter 4, even the basic integrated application forms are available only in English in half of the sites (Arlington, Raleigh, and Sedalia) and only a Spanish translation is available in Dallas. Separate Medicaid/SCHIP application forms had been translated into Spanish in all sites, although they were not available through New York City’s Medicaid/SCHIP facilitated enrollers at the time of our site visits.
To bridge this gap in written translations, staff may take it upon themselves to translate forms or find a staff person who can do so for them, but this appears to be largely an informal, ad-hoc practice. In Arlington, where forms are only available in English, one worker said little could be done beyond impressing upon LEP applicants the importance of keeping every letter with a government seal on it and finding a family member or friend who can translate it for them. Beyond the need for translated versions of written documents, staff and applicants also noted that illiteracy in the LEP applicants’ primary language is also a common problem.
Washington State has made the most progress in providing written translation of agency materials. The state welfare agency translates and provides all notices, integrated applications, and major agency communications in the seven state-supported languages (Chinese, Cambodian/Khmer, Laotian, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese). To serve those speaking less common languages, the state welfare agency contracts with private companies to translate written notices and major written communications into another 86 languages on an "as needed" basis. The extensive translation of materials does not extend to Medicaid/SCHIP applications, which are only available in English and Spanish.
It is estimated that about 3,500 to 4,000 agency documents are translated into 60 or 70 different "unsupported" (or non state-supported) languages each month. If the agency is unable to translate a written notice or major written communication into an unsupported language within three days, a notice to that effect is supposed to be sent to the applicant (or ongoing client) in English with a statement written in the client’s primary language informing the client to take the notice to a local office for oral translation.
New York City announced in Spring 2002 that FSP notices are now available in eight new languages (Arabic, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Vietnamese, and Yiddish). Translations in English and Spanish were already available. As a part of this effort, over 60 food stamp forms and notices were translated.
Even with these comprehensive systems, there can be glitches. For example, some local agencies reported that the average turnaround time for written translations ranges between seven and ten days, although the wait may be longer or shorter depending on the language requested. This delay may place applicants at risk of not meeting the post-eligibility interview ten-day application processing timeframe. In addition, advocates and outreach workers emphasized that the quality of the translated forms is not always satisfactory. Translations of technical terms can be extremely hard to understand and the reading level required to understand the translated material can be prohibitively high. Some workers pointed out that English speakers also often find the written materials (including application forms) difficult to read and comprehend, suggesting that poor quality translations are a reflection of a more systemic problem.
Increasing the Quality of Interpretation and Translation Services
The Washington State Example
In response to a settlement between the Department of Social and Health Services in Washington State and language-access advocates in 1991, the state developed a system to test and certify the language ability of interpreters and translators working for this agency. Under this system, the state agreed not only to provide and pay for interpreters and translators, but also to certify their language skills to ensure that high-quality services are provided to LEP clients. This level of quality control is unique in the study sites.
Workers are tested and certified in English and eight foreign languages (Chinese, Cambodian/Khmer, Laotian, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese). These tests are administered to different levels of workers, including: agency employees with bilingual assignments, licensed personnel providing services under contract, contracted translators providing written translation for the agency, and contracted interpreters providing oral interpretation in medical settings to the agency’s clients. In response to concerns about the quality of language services provided in languages other than the state’s eight most common languages, an English language test is now being administered to all interpreters and translato