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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis November 4, 2011
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Translation Keeps Transit Agencies, Riders Speaking the Same Language
BY SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor

Suppose you’re visiting a country where you don’t speak the language, and you’re trying to navigate an unfamiliar public transportation system without being able to read the signage in the station. Where can you turn?

For many U.S. transit agencies, the answer is a translation service that helps non-English speakers find their way to their destination. They can take any of a variety of approaches, such as translation software programs on their web sites, employing multi-lingual personnel, or contract with a live translation service. Transit agencies, which follow local and federal guidelines in providing outreach in languages common to their service area, provide translations that range from the common (Spanish, Chinese) to the surprising.

For example, few people outside Fort Wayne, IN, may know that this Midwestern city is home to the largest Burmese population outside Burma, an influx that began with church-related political refugee resettlement efforts and now includes federal immigrant/refugee programs. Citilink, a service of the Fort Wayne Public Transportation Corporation, provides specialized services to this community including, most recently, a Burmese-language version of its 18-minute video, “How to Ride a Citilink Bus.” (The video is also available in English and Spanish.)

“The Red Cross MIX Program had translated some of our materials into Burmese,” said Citilink spokesperson Betsy Kachmar, “and I had made some travel training presentations—with translation—to newcomer groups. However, it was suggested that more hands-on training and a visual tool would be helpful, as many refugees do not know how to read the Burmese language and there are many dialects.”

A bilingual instructor at the Burmese Advocacy Center leads the transit travel training, Kachmar said, but the video takes the training to another level.

“We had a great time making the video,” she continued. “The Burmese community provided willing passengers to ride on the bus while the cameraman—who works for the county/public library and public access TV—and I tried to figure out what we wanted to shoot and how to show them what to do. The Allen County Health Department provided technical support, and the Red Cross MIX Program [also] translated the Spanish version. I am the English narrator. All of this happened without any money. All effort was donated by the parties involved.”

Creole in South Florida
Another part of the country, another language challenge: South Florida has a sizable Haitian population that speaks Creole, in addition to a large Spanish-speaking population. Many of these people are migrant workers who use public transportation to travel to work, but have little grasp of English. To give these riders the help they need, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority/Tri-Rail (SFRTA) in Pompano Beach uses a translation service to provide essential information in both Creole and Spanish.

“I usually have in my call center the capability to answer questions in those languages. I specifically employ staff to be able to do that the majority of the time,” said Bonnie Arnold, SFRTA director of marketing.

Arnold explained that SFRTA decided not to use an automated translation service for its web site because of possible problems with the tone of the responses and the fact that many transit-specific terms are difficult to translate. She said the agency is considering whether to add the web site to the responsibilities of its translating contractor.

Outreach to Visitors
Cosmopolitan cities such as San Francisco, New York City, and Los Angeles are centers of both commerce and tourism, meaning that public transportation agencies must provide greater outreach to meet the needs of the riding public often not fluent in English.

For example, both the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) and, across the bay in Oakland, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) follow government guidelines regarding communication with people for whom English is not the primary language.

“Federal regulations require that recipients of federal funds take reasonable steps to ensure meaningful access to their services and benefits for persons with limited English proficiency,” said Luna Salaver, public information officer for BART. “Under these regulations, programs and activities normally provided in English must be accessible to persons who have a limited ability to read, write, speak, or understand English and whose primary language is not English. To that end, BART has developed a Language Assistance Plan for people with limited English proficiency, offering free language assistance upon request to assist customers in riding BART.”

BART provides bilingual transit information representatives at the Transit Information Center; they provide guidance in Spanish and Chinese to speakers of those languages who are not proficient in English. Employees at each BART station also have immediate access to Language Line Services, which provides interpreters for up to 170 languages over the telephone. BART makes its Basics Guide and Safety Guide available in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, German, Italian, and French editions, and basic system information is available at the web site in Japanese, Chinese, German, French, Italian, Korean, and Spanish.

SFMTA spokesperson Kristen Holland said that, as a San Francisco city department, her agency must follow both municipal and federal requirements about offering alternative languages to its residents. The agency provides transit information in Spanish and Chinese, she said, and supplies additional information to the city’s 24-hour customer service phone center, 311, “which is able to provide an even greater depth of language services.”

Holland emphasized: “We have large immigrant populations who would have limited use of our services without information in their languages. We also have a large tourist population, many of whom travel here with multiple language skills, and it’s nice to be able to communicate with them quickly and easily.”

Los Angeles Metro provides both Spanish and English versions of its news releases on the same page of its web site, under the News and Information tab.

Gayle Anderson, a spokesperson for the agency, pointed out that Los Angeles Metro also provides “pocket guides” in English and 10 other languages in PDF format as part of its limited English proficiency outreach plan. These guides, updated annually, include essential information for riders on such topics as fare information, hours of operation, and prepaid passes. The languages, selected to meet the diverse needs of the population, are Armenian, Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai, and Vietnamese.

The DART First State web site, covering public transit services throughout Delaware, offers a translation option of web pages into Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, through Google. The agency’s customer service representatives also have access to live translators by phone and use this service about five times a month.

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) consulted existing demographic data before deciding on its linguistic outreach approach. As part of the redesign of CTA’s transitchicago.com web site that launched in December 2008, the agency began providing select bus and rail service content in Spanish, Polish, and Mandarin Chinese, all spoken by sizable numbers of the region’s population, to improve the customer experience while also making public transit and pertinent service information more accessible. CTA reported receiving positive overall feedback since the implementation of this translation service.

Vancouver, BC—described by TransLink spokesperson Drew Snider as “a multicultural city that’s more mosaic than melting-pot”—flags certain customer service alerts in Chinese, Punjabi, and Korean. Employees of the SkyTrain system have access to the on-call Provincial Language Service, which provides interpretation services in 150 languages.

Probably the most linguistically diverse city in the U.S. is New York City, so New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) went with a service that provides web site translation into more than 40 languages—ranging from Afrikaans and Albanian to Welsh and Yiddish—at the click of a button. Google Translate is a free, pre-packaged service, according to MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan, which means that all users have access to all the languages it offers, and new languages automatically become available to users as they are added.

“We also liked that Google Translate allows native speakers to suggest alternate phrases in a situation where the generated translation is not quite correct or stilted,” Donovan said.

He summed up the importance of translation to public transit operations in a multi-lingual city: “It is no exaggeration to say that the population of New York City and its region can be viewed as a microcosm of the world, with languages from across the globe being spoken every day in homes and on the street. In addition, millions of travelers from around the world visit the city and region each year. Many of them may learn about our services via the web before they get here, and we want them to be comfortable using our system. In order to better serve all of these diverse populations, the MTA needs to make sure it can communicate effectively in as many languages as possible.”

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