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COVID-19 Highlights Gaps in Mass.gov Website Translation

Jocelyn Langer - April 12, 2020

On March 18th, members of Just Words Coop received a request from Representative Lindsay Sabadosa’s office to translate a tutorial on the state’s Unemployment Assistance application. Collaborating with volunteers from the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, translators quickly discovered that while the Department of Unemployment Assistance website is available in Spanish, the application form itself was only in English. To temporarily address this problem, the group translated the tutorial into Spanish but kept screenshots of the English application. The guide walks Spanish speakers through the English application process using text boxes and speaker notes in Spanish. The New Unemployment Claims Guidelines Spanish translation was released on March 22, a Portuguese version was released on April 3.


Unfortunately it is very common that websites including mass.gov offer translation on the surface, but then fail to actually deliver on crucial parts. Mass.gov offers an automatic Google Translate option, which is a sub-standard translation at best, but then links to other domains such as the UA portal are not automatically translated at all, leading to a series of dead ends for non-English speakers.

The same problem comes up for MassHealth applicants: The How to Apply page automatically translates, but the link to apply directs to masshealthconnector.org in English. Of course there is a MassHealth application available in Spanish, but it is not clear how to find it from the English home page. Similarly, masshealthconnector.org features a link to a Language Rights and Access page, with an address to file grievances for those who have not received adequate language access, but links and instructions are in English, so it is unlikely that a non-English speaker could find that information.

On the surface, this lack of full translation appears to be an oversight. On a deeper level, however, we need to question how it aligns with unconscious racism and xenophobia. To what extent is this lack of translation related to assumptions that Spanish speakers may be be undocumented, and the myth that undocumented workers don't pay taxes and therefore don't deserve benefits? (The Public Charge law that went into effect last month is another example of this sentiment.) In a climate of intense controversy around immigration, finding the political will and accompanying financial resources to have state websites fully translated may not be at the top of the government to-do list. In order for translation to truly serve the people, there has to be a conscious will for it to do so at every step in the process, not just a nod to linguistic diversity in the form of a Google Translate button at the top of the page.

Sarah Betancourt of Commonwealth Magazine published an article on March 27th exposing problems with the UI website's lack of translation and explaining the New Unemployment Claims Guidelines Spanish tutorial. On March 31st the magazine published a Spanish translation of the same article. The tutorial was also featured in an article by WBUR on April 7, at which point the UI website had posted the Spanish translation of the tutorial, but had still not made the application itself available in Spanish.

Finally last week, the actual Unemployment portal itself became available in Spanish, as reported by Betancourt in Commonwealth Magazine on April 11. The magazine reports that translations in several additional languages are set to be available in the coming days. This is an excellent step in the right direction, but replacing the English dead ends of partially translated government websites with fully functional translations will involve significantly more work, involving technology, language expertise, collaboration, and political will.

© 2020 by Just Words Translators and Interpreters Cooperative