En Español Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Sun
Subject: Health Justice & Access
Type: Media Coverage

New York Soon Will Be Found in Translation

In
addition to English, city agencies will be required to communicate with New
Yorkers in the six foreign languages most commonly spoken in the city: Spanish,
Chinese, Russian, Korean, Italian, and French Creole, under a new program that
broadly expands the city’s translation and interpretation services.

An
executive order signed by Mayor Bloomberg yesterday establishes for the first
time a uniform language policy for all city agencies that directly interact
with New Yorkers, requiring that they provide interpretation services, oral and
written translation services, and the translation of essential public documents
in the designated languages.**

The
translation services could help a homeowner having trouble interpreting a city
code, for example, or a couple in need of assistance when applying for a
marriage license.

"This
effort is a critical part of improving customer service, which is a fundamental
concept in the business world, and should be just as valued in the
government," Mr. Bloomberg said yesterday at City Hall. "From now on,
New Yorkers with limited proficiency in English will be able to approach the
city with confidence knowing that we have the systems in place to respond to
their needs."

The
Language Access Executive Order builds upon the city’s existing translation
services. The city’s 311 information hotline began providing information for
callers in 170 different languages in 2003, and a law passed by the City
Council that same year required the city’s social service agencies to help New
Yorkers with limited English skills navigate city programs.

The
City Council speaker, Christine Quinn, joined the mayor at the signing.

The
New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella group that works with more than 200
immigrant and refugee organizations in the state, also is supporting the effort.

In
a statement, the coalition’s executive director, Chung-Wha Hong, called the
mayor’s executive order "a landmark step toward ensuring that all New
Yorkers – including those who haven’t had the opportunity to master English yet
– will have meaningful access to the vital services provided by New York City."

Nearly
half of New Yorkers speak a language other than English at home and a quarter
of New Yorkers speak a primary language other than English, according to city
figures.

The
new rules faced immediate criticism from the Conservative Party of New York
State. The chairman of the party, Michael Long, said the translation and
interpretation program would divide the city along linguistic lines, rather
than unite New Yorkers with a common language.

He
argued that immigrants who have come to America to participate in "the
American dream" have all had to learn to communicate in English.

"The
way to succeed here is to have every one speak the same language," he
said. Forcing government to communicate with people in their own languages only
ensures that those non-English speakers don’t have to learn a new language and
culture, he said.

The
outcome of the executive order will likely be tracked closely by supporters of
the program. In December, Legal Services for New York City, which represents low-income
clients, issued a critical report that found the city’s agency in charge of
distributing food stamps and Medicaid was violating the more limited 2003
translation law.

The
report stated that two-thirds of the city’s 69 Human Resource Administration
centers did not have documents available in the city’s most commonly spoken
languages, and 18% of offices did not have applications in Spanish.

Council
Member John Liu, who sponsored the 2003 translation bill, sent out a synopsis
of the report to his e-mail list yesterday, and called the Bloomberg
administration’s implementation of the 2003 translation bill
"lackluster" and a "cause of alarm for many advocates." In
a later telephone interview, he said he was pleased that the mayor signed the
executive order.

One
of the biggest difficulties Mr. Liu faced when attempting to push his
legislation through the council were concerns about the cost of mandating
translation services. Mr. Bloomberg would not say yesterday exactly how much
the executive order would cost the city.

"I
think this thing is something everybody can look each other in the eye and say,
‘This is something worth doing,’" he said. "Incidentally, it is also
a relatively small amount of money given the size of our budget and the size of
city government."

**This Executive Order reflects years of advocacy on the part of Make the Road New York and other immigrant advocates.