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Translated City websites soon to make sense

By Pat Murphy

September 8, 2006

Translated City websites are slated to finally make sense for Chinese and Spanish readers, members of The Mayor's Cultural Competency Task Force announced yesterday.

Current 'machine' translations churn out "nonsense, gibberish, an embarrassment," acknowledged Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Newsom convened the task force six months ago to develop means for uniform and accurate translation.

City Assessor Phil Ting, chair of the task force, explained the process.

"What we really tried to tackle in this task force was to provide people with a roadmap for success, not just to criticize people, but really just provide them... a pathway to achieving this goal," Ting stated.

"We talked to the private sector, we talked to other cities, to other agencies. We came down with a number of recommendations.

"The first is that we can't use machine language alone - we can use it if we have somebody edit and translate it... we wanted a sole source, a one-stop shop where this would be tasked."

City Administrator Ed Lee's department initially will house translation for affected City websites, Ting said.

'Machine' translation refers to a software program instituted by the City ten years ago.

A local editor revealed software shortcoming, Newsom recalled.
"A number of years ago I received a call from an editor of Sing Tao newspaper who said that he would be willing to offer some help in translating.

"I said, 'Well, I don think we need help. We have this great computer program that automatically translates things into Cantonese.

"He said, 'Well, can I ask a reporter to visit with you so that I can show you what you're translating?'

"To my astonishment and dismay I saw what we were translating on our websites - complete gobbledygook, complete nonsense, gibberish, an embarrassment if ever there was one."

Initially nine City department websites will be upgraded for Chinese and Spanish translations. Departments were chosen on the basis of daily website page hits and present ability of departments to incorporate upgrades, Ting reported.

They include the Rent Board, the Municipal Transportation Authority, the Department of Public Works, the Police Department, the Recreation and Parks Department, the Mayor's Office, the Assessor-Recorder's Office, the Office of the Treasurer, and the Department of Human Services.

Other languages, including Vietnamese, Russian, and Tagalog, will be added as the City moves toward implementation on all City websites, added Newsom, and eventually to translation in all languages spoken in San Francisco.

Enormity of the project was explained by Chris Vein, director of the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS).

And DTIS task is to deliver accurate translation beyond websites, Vein noted.

"What the mayor has done is task me with figuring out how technology can provide improved customer service across the board," explained Vein.

"We're doing amazing things, whether it is the 311 Call Center which is coming online and will be available next year, the new WiFi system the City and County is putting in speed access, or... cultural competency with respect to the City's websites.

"That's clearly going to happen with the 311 Call Center," he stated.

City websites include 50,000 pages and receive 20,000 page hits daily, according to Vein.

"You're going to see cultural competency as the core of everything we do. If people don't understand what we're saying there is no point of having a website at all."

In San Francisco 85,000 residents speak Spanish as a first language and 125,000 primarily speak Chinese. Some 8.1% of City population speaks no English, the study found.




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