By Amina Huda
Many municipalities have a volunteer language bank made up of bilingual staff who are called upon to provide translation and interpretation services. In most instances, volunteers self-identify as bilingual (or multilingual). While it is cost effective to use in-house volunteers compared to a paid vendor service, it may be more challenging to ensure the quality of the language services provided.
For most language banks, there are no skill requirements to volunteer. The volunteer’s language proficiency is not verified, and there is no standard set on the level of training or skill. Assessment of volunteers’ language proficiency is important, and they should be given basic training on how to provide translation and interpretation services.
Using an unskilled and/or untrained volunteer translator or interpreter could result in serious consequences, such as a breach of confidentiality or poor or incorrect communication. In response, New York City created a program called NYCertified that tests and trains bilingual employees in providing interpretation and translation services.
Reasons to test and train language bank volunteers:
Components of the NYCertified program:
Assess volunteers’ skills to ensure that they are qualified to provide interpreter services
Provide training to prepare volunteers
Create a database of volunteer information
Employees commit their time and language skills outside of their primary job responsibility to the language bank on a voluntary basis. Employees must gain approval from their supervisor to participate, with the understanding that their primary job responsibilities will not conflict with their volunteer work. Since they are volunteers, they can always decline any translation or interpretation request.
When can you use a volunteer translator or interpreter?
It is important to make the distinction of when an agency should use a volunteer from the language bank versus a paid vendor service. Going through a proficiency assessment and one-day training does not make a volunteer a certified translator or interpreter. NYC agencies are strongly encouraged to use a professional vendor to provide the majority of language services. The volunteer language bank should be used only to supplement and enhance these services. Volunteers should never be asked to translate a medical or legal document. Instead, volunteers can be used to, for example:
Over the last three years, more than 1,000 bilingual volunteers have gone through the NYCertified program speaking 40 different languages, ranging from Arabic to Tagalog. With the commitment from these volunteers, Limited English Proficient (LEP) customers are able to obtain quality interpretation and translation services when applying for or receiving City services or benefits. NYCertified helps address challenges related to language access implementation by ensuring quality in the services provided by the volunteer, lowering the costs of citywide language access, and bolstering the spirit of volunteerism throughout the City. NYCertified is a program that can be used as an example by cities or municipalities looking to meet the need for efficient language assistance policies that provide quality customer service to LEP customers.
Amina Huda is a Policy Advisor at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Operations, where she focuses on providing language access tools and resources to over 30 city agencies, helping them comply with Executive Order 120. Ms. Huda holds a master’s in public affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.