Herndon explores ways to boost options for Spanish-speaking residents

Town of Herndon government offices (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

The Town of Herndon is exploring ways to offer more translation and interpretation services for Spanish-speaking residents.

Town staff are considering two contracts of up to $10,000 for one year to hire an interpreter who will be present at all town council public hearings and a translator for translating town publications, like the newsletter, flyers and other materials specific to the Spanish-speaking community, according to town spokesperson Anne Curtis.

The idea was discussed at a Herndon Town Council meeting on Aug. 2 in response to the town’s public engagement on the issue and its communications platforms.

Curtis said the town will evaluate the effectiveness of the services and determine future funding in fiscal year 2025, which will start on July 1, 2024.

Feedback from focus groups, particularly those for whom Spanish is a primary language, found that translation and interpretation services are needed to make town information more accessible to others.

“This is the area that we want to and need to focus on,” Curtis said, noting that the town has already begun posting flyers in laundromats, clinics and other areas.

Councilmembers Keven LeBlanc and Pradip Dhakal said the town could also explore using artificial intelligence for translation services.

“There are other tools that are pretty good at translation,” LeBlanc said.

Dhakal said he was pleasantly surprised by how accurately a derivative of the popular AI-tool ChatGPT translated content in his language.

Curtis noted that Google Translate has stopped servicing governments — with the exception of schools.

The costs would likely be covered by contingency funds, according to town manager Bill Ashton II.

Ashton II said the town could learn from how larger jurisdictions like Fairfax County are using AI for translation services.

Most jurisdictions comparable in size to the Town of Herndon do not offer dedicated translation services, Ashton II said.

The Town of Vienna has no formal policy for translation and interpreter services. Falls Church City and the Town of Leesburg offers ad hoc translation services. The City of Manassas hired a full-time individual for translation and interpretation services in fiscal year 2022.

More than 70 employees in the town are fluent in a language other than English, and the Herndon Police Department has a language advance pay-step for sworn officers. Human resources staff are working on a language premium policy for non-sworn town staff.

The effort comes after the town completed a major redesign of its website earlier this summer.