New York City, in Translation

Maria Cornelio, director of Hunter College's Spanish/English Translation & Interpretation Major Concentration (Photo by Gustavo Martínez Contreras for Voices of NY)

Maria Cornelio, director of Hunter College’s Spanish/English Translation & Interpretation Major Concentration (Photo by Gustavo Martínez Contreras for Voices of NY)

When Maria Cornelio inaugurated the Spanish/English Translation & Interpretation Major Concentration for the B.A. in Spanish at CUNY’s Hunter College in 2006, the first of its kind in the city, only seven students enrolled for the first semester. Over the past eight years, the numbers have risen steadily.

Translating NYC“This semester we have some 30 students formally registered, and I have also met with about 12 more who have fulfilled the requirements to enroll,” said Cornelio, one of the country’s foremost experts on translation in health care. “Sometimes we have to turn applicants down because they don’t have the required knowledge.”

More importantly, her students are finding jobs easily. Hunter has a list of about 30 placements where it sends its students for internships – from private companies to government agencies or hospitals. “Many of them end up being hired, sometimes even before graduating,” explained Cornelio, former director of the Hispanic Resource Center at Columbia University Medical Center.

The translation and interpretation business – in New York and across the country – is booming, fueled by a heavy influx of immigrants and national and global economic trends. As a series of investigative reports by Voices of NY will reveal, in New York the demand for such services has also been buoyed by city and state laws and mandates that have quietly transformed the level of access to language services for millions of non-English-speaking New Yorkers over the last decade.

“If you want a city that works for everyone, then language barriers are something we really need to tackle; it affects people in the really core matters of life,” explained Nisha Agarwal, commissioner at NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA). “If people don’t get languages access they may not be able to get food support that they need, or may not be able to access housing programs they may need.”

For Agarwal, a founder of advocacy group Immigrant Justice Corps, it’s been an issue she has fought for since she started her career as a lawyer. “I represented a mother who was giving birth to her child in a hospital and she wasn’t getting language services, and it actually affected the delivery of her kid,” she explained.

This situation is not supposed to happen today, since two statewide mandates require hospitals and pharmacies to offer free language assistance services for Limited English Proficient (LEP) New Yorkers. Indeed, a series of laws and mandates adopted under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and later expanded by the de Blasio administration have enshrined the right to such assistance [see timeline immediately below].

Millions in contracts

Nearly 40 percent of the city’s population is foreign born, and it’s estimated that about 1.8 million people have limited proficiency in English. For those people, some city agencies now routinely provide translations of all sorts of official documents into the nine languages most used by LEP families – Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Urdu. Today ads in Creole for pre-K can be seen on the website of The Haitian Times, for instance.

A review of contracts posted at the CheckBook NYC and NYC Transparency Project websites shows that over the past 13 years city agencies have signed contracts totaling $130 million with external Language Service Providers (LSP) contracts – including providers of sign language interpretation. For an explanation of the data, click here.

Most of the city funds go to large companies, rather than some of the smaller mom-and-pop style translation companies that got more business a decade or so ago. These larger companies specialize in over-the-phone translation and interpretation. In particular, the California-based Language Line has provided services for New York’s 911 and 311 call centers since 2006. The city has paid the company more than $54 million in 130 contracts signed with the company since 2002, 41 percent of its total expenditure on language services.

Meanwhile, other large language services companies are being drawn to New York, seeking both to land contracts with the city and benefit from its multicultural workforce. Last summer, Arizona-based CyraCom International opened a call center in Flushing, Queens, their first in New York City and their sixth nationwide. The company is expecting to hire as many as 300 full-time translators.

“At this center, we are looking for Asian languages: Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Korean, Cambodian, Nepali, Bengali, Burmese…,” explained Operations Recruiter Josué Rubio during a recent job fair held at the company’s gigantic 23,000-square-foot call center, located at Flushing Plaza and still populated by empty cubicles. “The only language we are not currently hiring for is Spanish,” he added, pointing out that those services are offered from their new Tampa, Florida, offices.

A relative newcomer, CyraCom started working with New York City in 2013 and has since secured nearly $10 million in contracts with several agencies and hospitals through its affiliate, Voiance Language Services. The company said that employees at the Queens site get a three-week training, and will answer calls from clients in all 50 states.

“We are able to work in different types of services like medical interpretation, legal, financial, utility companies, even police departments, emergency, 911, insurance and hospitality companies,” said Rubio.

In New York, these new jobs will be added to the hundreds of translators already working for some of the world’s leading translation companies, including TransPerfect – the largest privately-owned language services provider – or the England-based thebigword, which signed a $6.5 million contract with the Department of Education in 2012.

But those ever-larger companies come with baggage. Just last December, Language Line was forced to pay fines after the U.S. Department of Labor found out that it violated federal labor laws and underpaid its workers. Other large translation companies have been accused of hiring low-skilled workers, paying them low wages and forcing them to work long shifts, among other unscrupulous practices.

Cornelio said that although the bigger companies can be good places to get experience, she usually prefers to send her students somewhere else. Her colleague at Hunter, Adrián Izquierdo, said that “translation has become a huge business and underpaying is common,” something he attributes to the fact that “owners and CEOs of big translation agencies are not translators or language specialists, but businessmen.”

Also, he added, “like in other areas, big corporations are destroying the smaller translation businesses as they get the most lucrative government contracts.”

According to CareerBuilder, the translation and interpretation industry will be one of the fastest-growing professions in the next five years, while the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a growth of 29 percent in the 2014-2024 period in that niche. The average for most other occupations is 7 percent.

Nationally, the translation and interpretation industry was worth $33.5 billion in 2012 and is slated to reach $37 billion by 2018, according to market research company IBISWorld. Meanwhile, translator salaries in New York are estimated to be more than 30 percent higher than the national average of between $46,098 and $63,520.

The city’s initiatives

Although the city did not provide total numbers, several agencies have also hired full-time translators and interpreters. The Department of Education, for example, has its own Translation and Interpretation unit, a large office in Long Island City devoted to translating all kinds of school documents to the nine languages most used by LEP families.

“When it started in 2004 it was a one-person operation, and we’re up to 41 staff members now – 29 of them are translators,” explained the unit’s director, Kleber Palma, who created it after directing a similar office in Los Angeles. Palma added that its operational budget is approximately $3.4 million.

The DOE’s language access initiatives also include about $6.2 million that the agency distributes to schools every year for this purpose, including the ongoing training of hundreds of language access coordinators (about 900 since the end of 2013) who help parents know what resources are available.

The city has also created several posts of languages access coordinators, as well as retraining bilingual staff and developing volunteer programs through the NYCertified initiative.

“Through greater outreach and recruitment, more than 1,200 city employees now form the New York City Volunteer Language Bank (VLB),” explained a MOIA city official, adding that they have also recruited and certified 125 bilingual New Yorkers specifically for interpretation.

The road ahead

The city’s road to providing language services has not been smooth. Activist groups like Make the Road New York and the New York Immigration Coalition, whose advocacy has been instrumental in pushing the city to enact such laws, have routinely issued reports pointing at gaps and deficiencies in language access.

News of the brutal killing of Deisy García and her two daughters after her pleas to the NYPD went untranslated for months shocked New Yorkers two years ago. A similar situation drove six Latina women to sue the NYPD and the city in 2013, and there is another lawsuit against the Human Resources Administration (HRA) on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for being denied access to vital benefits, such as food stamps and Medicaid due to language barriers.

The city’s Law Department spokesperson declined to comment, while litigation is pending, on the legal liability the city may face when it does not meet its own translation service requirements. What remains clear is that more needs to be done.

“Language access laws have had a transformational impact on the ability of Limited English Proficiency New Yorkers to access government services. However, gaps in the laws, and implementation of existing laws, still remain,” said NYC Comptroller Scott M. Stringer. “Last year, we stood with community groups to urge New York state to improve language access in housing court. We also called on the city’s Department for the Aging to ensure that its services were meeting the needs of all communities by examining how it determines when and where certain linguistic services were offered.”

The Comptroller’s Office noted that since the first Language Access Policy (Executive Order 120) was signed in 2003, the office has issued eight audits concerning agency compliance with EO 120, including two from Comptroller Stringer in 2015 focusing on the Department of Probation and the Office of Chief Medical Examiner. “These two audits found that those agencies had complied with EO 120, but made recommendations about how to strengthen language access.”

“We’ve come a long way, but more needs to be done,” said Stringer, “including examining how city agencies use Language Line services to interact with the public. At a minimum, the city should be working to ensure that all staff that work directly with the public know how to use the tools they have at hand to ensure equal language access.”

For her part, Agarwal stressed the importance that now New Yorkers can call 311 and register complaints if they haven’t received the language services they need. “There will always be a need for more outreach and more communication with New Yorkers about the fact that they have a right to interpretation services,” she added, pointing out that at last week’s State of the City address there was interpretation provided in multiple languages for the first time.

“It not only allows the people to participate in events like that but it also sends a signal that this city is for you, and that from the mayor’s big speech to smaller community events you should be participating.”


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