Three years after Maryland passed a law requiring the translation of state government websites, more than two dozen websites remain out of compliance, the law’s sponsor said last month.
“Normally, when you pass a law, you think, ‘Abracadabra,’ and it’s done,” said Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery). “After all these years, it’s disappointing that it’s not. It’s the law and it should be followed.”
In fact, coming into compliance just got more complicated. The 2016 law requires the translation be done for free, with a Google Translate button posted prominently, but Google stopped offering new access to its free translation service earlier this year.
The websites that remain in English only, or in English and Spanish only, include small agencies, authorities, public-private ventures, and quasi-governmental agencies such as the Maryland Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board and Maryland 529, formerly the College Savings Plans of Maryland.
Agency officials listed a host of reasons, from budgetary constraints and lack of resources to dedicate to IT issues, to concerns about the accuracy of translation, to ignorance of the requirement. Some of those same agencies are making other outreach efforts, such as offering live interpreter services.
If most of the hundreds or thousands of state government websites used by the public now have a Google Translate button, “does it matter?” that a few dozen do not, asked David Lublin, a professor of government at American University’s School of Public Affairs who studies Maryland politics and publishes The Seventh State website.
“Adding this button to their web page isn’t a top priority in the mission of any agency,” he said. “The idea is laudable, but it’s hard for me to assess the level of importance, particularly because everyone can put a webpage into Google Translate themselves.”
But Kagan believes the message is important: “In an increasingly diverse state and inter-connected world, Maryland must communicate our attitude of inclusion to attract tourists and international companies that might locate here,” she said. “So I think it’s short-sighted not to be in compliance with language access laws.”
An official with CASA de Maryland, an immigrants’ rights group, which supported the original law, said it is “disappointing some agencies have not taken this seriously.” But Julio Murillo, government and strategic relations specialist, also cautioned, “We encourage them when there’s a translation to ensure that it’s accurate.”
The “language access” law took effect July 1, 2016, and required that state websites be translated for free into languages spoken by 0.5 percent of Marylanders — currently Spanish and Chinese. Kagan said there was no cost to the state because adding the Google Translate widget was free. After disagreement about which agencies were covered by the law, the General Assembly passed and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) signed additional clarifying legislation the next year.
Before the law, 83 percent of state websites were only in English, Kagan said.
Maryland is one of the 10 most diverse states in the U.S., with residents from 160 countries who speak over 100 languages, according to the Department of Legislative Services. From 2010 to 2017, the Hispanic population increased by 29 percent and the Asian population by 23 percent.
In October 2017, more than a year after the law took effect, Kagan publicly complained that fewer than 40 percent of state agencies were in compliance. This August, Kagan’s office again surveyed websites for compliance with the law and identified about 30 websites that still do not offer the Google Translate button or make it difficult to find.
“I had to pass two laws to show we really, really mean it,” Kagan said. “It takes 10 minutes to put the Google Translate widget on a website.”
But some agency officials said it’s not that simple – and even “free” isn’t always free.
The Maryland Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board is one of the smallest independent agencies in the state and doesn’t have an IT department, said Julie Greene, executive associate. The website was built and has been maintained by the Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown, which was unable to add the translation capacity, Greene said.
Therefore, the board must pay the state Department of Information Technology to make translation available, and has put money in its 2020 budget to do so, she said. Greene said she contacted DoIT about four months ago and was told agency officials can get to it in spring 2020. She did not have budget numbers available for the cost of the request.
Others mentioned possible inaccuracy of the translation, a concern that has been raised by advocates who work with immigrants. The law exempts materials if an inaccurate translation could lead to denial of benefits or services.
A spokeswoman said Maryland 529 is concerned that mistranslation could run afoul of federal requirements and thus jeopardize services.
“Maryland 529 is still researching what website translators may be available, but is concerned that any translation which is not certified as accurate could risk misleading account holders and potential account holders concerning our products,” Michelle Winner, public relations and program manager, wrote in an email to Maryland Matters.
“If you look at the disclosures, terms and conditions, and other program descriptors on our website, you will see that those words are not easily translatable,” she said. “Terms like ‘weighted average tuition,’ which is a key term describing a benefit of the Maryland Prepaid College Trust, could easily be mistranslated given the language variations you can use for weighted – such as heavy.”
Mistranslation is a legitimate concern, Lublin said, especially when dealing with Asian languages that use many graphics. Translation software can be helpful when trying to figure out one or two words, he said, “but for something complicated like appealing your property taxes, it’s going to be tricky.”
A further complication is that, as of January 2019, the Google Translate widget is no longer offered for download, Winner said. She provided a link to a Google page that says: “We no longer provide new access to Google Translate’s Website Translator. This change does not affect existing use of the Website Translator. We encourage users looking to translate webpages to use browsers that support translation natively.”
That is the approach taken by the Maryland Stadium Authority, said Terry Hasseltine, vice president of marketing and communications. There is no “translate” button on the authority’s website, but the element is there if users look under the “settings” feature in their browsers, he said.
“This wasn’t a pressing website design element because the feature does exist,” he said, though in explaining how to find the translation option, he conceded it was “not as simple as I’d been led to believe.” Hasseltine said there is a work order in with the web host, but said, “We are technically compliant.”
The Maryland Health Benefits Exchange and Maryland Health Connection only learned of the state law through a communication from DoIT in May 2019, said Andrew Ratner, chief of staff for the exchange. From May through August, the agency has been unable to make changes to its website while transferring it to a new platform, he said. He noted the website offers a Spanish version, and said the exchange has had a telephone language line service that offers 200 languages since its creation in 2013. A full range of translations went up on the agency’s website in September.
Ratner said he was not aware that Kagan had complained in 2017 that the exchange’s website did not offer the Google Translate button, but said that of the 450,000 household applications currently active as of Sept. 2, about 13,000 were in Spanish, 700 in Vietnamese, 500 in Mandarin, 300 in Korean, 100-250 in French, Chinese, Arabic, and Russian, and less than 100 each in in 20 other languages.
“I agree with the senator that it’s important,” he said.
He added that the exchange is exploring doing social media posts in Haitian Creole and French for Prince George’s County for the next open season.
Some said DoIT’s instructions about government website requirements did not explicitly mention a translation requirement.
When the Office of the Public Defender redesigned its website last year, the deputy public defender, who maintains the website, contacted DoIT to ask what is required for state websites, said Melissa Rothstein, the Office of the Public Defender’s director of policy and development. While the DoIT guidance page listed “some pretty specific requirements,” such as accessibility for the disabled and branding elements, there was no mention of the translation requirement, she said. She noted that some of the agency’s website has been translated into Spanish, and that there is a grant pending from a private foundation that would pay for more materials to be translated into five languages.
Rothstein sent a link to the DoIT page, which made no reference to language access. It did include a link for “website translation” on the left side of the page at the bottom of a list of “reference links.”
In response to a Maryland Matters question about why language access was not mentioned, the department’s communications director, Patrick Mulford, wrote that the page had been “updated to reflect the change in policy.” It now lists the translation access requirement and instructions at the top of the page.
Asked why that information hadn’t been added sooner, given that the law took effect three years ago, Mulford replied by email, “The translation policy has been on our website. In an effort to streamline the availability of the information, DoIT added the policy to the guidelines for Maryland State government web sites web page. DoIT is doing everything in its power to help state agencies bring web pages into compliance.”
Kagan said it should not be the job of her office to enforce the law, nor should it take a reporter’s calls.
But Lublin said that, while she is correct, realistically it may be up to her.
“She’s saying quite rightly, ‘it’s not my job,’” Lublin said. “But if there is now a much higher degree of compliance, why not take ‘yes’ for an answer and send an official letter asking the agencies how and when they plan to comply. Create an expectation, it will be addressed.”
Lisa Nevans Locke is a freelance writer who has covered education, local and federal government, and other issues in the region for more than 25 years. She has written for The Washington Times, Bethesda Magazine, Scholastic.com, The74million.org and the now-extinct Montgomery Journal, and she teaches writing at Montgomery College.
She can be reached at [email protected].