How centralizing translation services can help build more inclusive communities: a City of Seattle case study

This article is a summary of a case study originally published on the Migration Policy Institute’s website. The author of the case study is Peggy Liao, Language Access Program and Policy Specialist at The City of Seattle.

When we talk about language access, we often think about providing interpretation services to help people with limited English proficiency (LEP) communicate with government staff and participate in civic life. But translation is just as important – if not more so.

The City of Seattle learned this firsthand when it revamped its language access program during the COVID-19 pandemic. The City had long relied on a decentralized approach to translation, but decided to centralize it to ensure true access for immigrant and refugee residents.

In this case study, we’ll take a look at how the City of Seattle centralized its translation services, what benefits it has seen so far, and what steps other cities can take to improve their own language access programs.

The pain: a decentralized approach to translation

Before centralizing its translation services, the City of Seattle had a decentralized system in which each department was responsible for contracting out for language services as needed. This piecemeal approach was inefficient and often resulted in duplication of effort and inconsistency in quality.

Due to a lack of a central database where all translations are stored, various departments could end up translating the same document multiple times. Besides increased costs, it could also mean that the same term might be translated differently across departments, which could confuse and frustrate LEP residents.

As the City faced unprecedented demand for translation services during the pandemic, it determined that it needed a more streamlined and centralized approach.

The solution: a centralized hub for language services

The first thing the City of Seattle did was to centralize the translation of documents. To do this, it established a team of more than 50 professional translators from the local community to translate materials into Seattle’s top 20 languages. The Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs’ (OIRA) Language Access Team became the hub for translation services.

Second, the City decided to use a computer-assisted translation (CAT) tool to support its centralization efforts. After reviewing several options, the City chose Smartcat, a cloud-based CAT platform. Its online nature made it easy for the City’s distributed workforce to access, and its many features – such as translation memory, glossaries, and quality assurance tools – helped optimize workflows and speed up the process while maintaining quality. The platform also allows paying out all the suppliers in one go, which streamlines the procurement process.

If previously different departments could end up translating the same document multiple times, now there would be one central repository for all translations, so that any department could access and reuse them as needed.

“When departments submit a project similar to one they have done in the past, the system will remind translators of previously translated content,” says Peggy Liao, the City’s Language Access Program and Policy Specialist. “Both the translation memory and term bases make in-language written communication consistent and professional.”

The process: from request to translation to payment

“Smartcat’s Supplier Management feature alone has saved us about 1,000 hours of yearly administrative and project management time (equivalent to 1/2 of an FTE) by automating our paperwork and payment to the more than 50 linguists that we engage regularly from our local community,” Peggy adds. “Smartcat’s automatic translation technology, Smartwords, enables us to easily reuse previously translated content and has reduced our translation expenses by 17%. For a city government, these numbers make a huge difference in our resource allocation to better serve our communities.”

With the new system in place, the Language Access Team could now handle requests for translation services much more efficiently.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Any City employee can submit a document to the Smartcat portal. They can see the cost right away and later on track the progress.
  2. The Language Access Team sees the project pop up in their Smartcat workspace and assigns it to community translators.
  3. The community translators log on to Smartcat and see a tabular interface where the original text is split into sentences, represented as rows. They see the original on the left and enter the translation on the right.
  4. If there are multiple translators working on the same document, they can see each other’s progress in real time and leave comments. The same goes for any reviewers or editors who need to check the translation.
  5. In the process, the translators have access to translation memories — i.e. the database of previously translated content. They don’t have to search it manually either — whenever Smartcat “sees” a translation that they’ve done before, it will pop up as a suggestion.
  6. The translators can also access terminology bases, aka “glossaries,” where they can look up specific words or phrases whose translations have been approved as standard.
  7. Once the translation is complete, the Language Access Team can see it right away without the need to upload or receive files through email.
  8. Twice a month, the team will prepare an invoice in the platform covering all the completed translations for the month. After the invoice is paid, Smartcat distributes the funds to the translators accordingly.

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The benefits: a more accessible city

So far, the City of Seattle has seen a number of benefits from centralizing its translation services in various ways, such as:

  • Equitable access. By consolidating all language services in one place, the City has been able to provide equitable access to immigrant and refugee residents. Now outreach and communications can be conducted in a more coordinated manner, with all departments working from the same bank of translations.
  • Consistent communication. The City’s use of translation memories and terminology bases has helped ensure consistent and professional in-language communication across all departments. Translation memories and glossaries help ensure that the same term is translated in the same way every time, so there is no confusion or frustration for LEP residents.
  • Efficient workflows. The use of technology has helped optimize workflows and speed up the translation process while maintaining quality. As all departments now have access to the same pool of translations, there is no need to duplicate effort or worry about inconsistency.
  • Local workforce. By partnering with community translators, the City has been able to support the local workforce. This way, immigrant and refugee residents not only have better access to City services, but also the opportunity to work for the City and contribute to their community.

The takeaways: what other cities can learn from Seattle

The City of Seattle’s story is by no means unique. In fact, many other cities and municipalities are facing the same challenges when it comes to language access. This is especially relevant in the current geopolitical situation, when hundreds of thousands of refugees and immigrants are migrating to cities around the world.

The City of Seattle’s experience can help other municipalities improve their own language access programs by taking these five key steps:

  1. Single point of responsibility. By appointing a full-time staffer for language access policy, the City can ensure that the program is given the attention it deserves.
  2. Standardization. By building terminology bases and using translation memories, the City can ensure that its translations are consistent and of high quality.
  3. Local communities. By partnering with local professional language service providers or community translators, the City can support the local workforce.
  4. Technology. By using technology judiciously, the City can optimize workflows and speed up the translation process while maintaining quality.
  5. Sharing best practices. By joining a regional language access network, the City can share best practices with other municipalities and learn from their experiences.

Thanks to localization solutions offered by Smartcat, cities can take a more holistic and coordinated approach to language access. By centralizing their translation services, they can ensure equitable access for all residents, efficient workflows, and consistent communication across all departments.


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