Lawmakers advance bill to require state documents to be translated into 15 languages
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Teresa Ruiz, advanced out of a Senate committee Monday along party lines, but has not yet moved in the Assembly. (Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office)
When Gretal Rodriguez emigrated from Honduras at 4 years old, she was put into classes in kindergarten to help her learn English and assimilate into American culture.
As she grew up, she helped her parents translate eviction notices, rental agreements, utility receipts, and other important documents while her dad worked as a building superintendent, she told lawmakers during a hearing in the Statehouse Monday.
Parents like hers should get more help, she said.
“There is a tremendous need for language services in diverse immigrant communities, and solidify the fact that communication and resources should not be restricted because of limited English proficiency,” said Rodriguez, now a pre-law student at Rutgers University-Newark.
Rodriguez was one of dozens who testified in support of a measure (S2459) that would require state agencies to offer documents and websites translated into the 15 most widely-spoken languages in New Jersey. That would include Spanish, Polish, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, Hindi, Gujarathi, and Arabic.
Advocates ranging from domestic violence support staff to pro-bono lawyers argued a language barrier is excluding some New Jersey residents from accessing benefits and services at the state level. Some state websites use Google Translate, which can often mistranslate phrases.
Marleina Ubel of progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective offered the pandemic as an example of why residents need to be able to communicate with their government during a crisis. Instead of helpful medical and health care information, she said, people were receiving unintelligible text messages because the messages were mistranslated by Google Translate.
Over 150 languages are spoken in the state, and about 40% of households speak a language other than English at home, according to Census data. About 12% of residents say they don’t speak English very well, and nearly a quarter of all residents are immigrants, state demographic data shows.
Under the legislation, any state department, agency, commission, board, bureau, division, or office would be required to provide language access services and interpretation services.
Required translation and interpretation services would be implemented on a rolling basis under the bill. Agencies would have one year to translate vital documents and website language into the 10 most common languages, and another year for the next five most common languages. If applications or forms haven’t been translated, someone must provide an oral translation.
Within 90 days of the bill’s signing, state entities would be required to publish a language access plan and update it every two years. The plan should include what the entities provide, how they will notify residents of new translations, the number of multi-lingual people on staff, training plans, a list of all translated documents, and monitoring compliance, according to the bill.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), advanced out of the Senate committee Monday along party lines, but has not yet moved in the Assembly.
It’s not clear yet what the bill would cost to implement, but it would use funds from the federal American Rescue Plan. The current state budget also includes $500,000 for language access.
While some agencies offer documents in Spanish — or are already required to translate certain documents, like the Motor Vehicle Commission and Department of Human Services — that leaves out a large portion of the population that speaks other languages.
Jennifer Austin, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Rutgers Newark, conducted a study across the three Rutgers campuses and found that undergraduates reported speaking 125 different languages.
“We understand the importance of people needing medical information to make decisions about their health, their safety, their protection. And that can only be done if they have it in the right language and in the right format,” said Stephanie Rodriguez, director of the translation program at Rutgers.
New Jersey’s bill would be one of the most expansive in the country by requiring 15 languages. Language access laws in California and New York both require translations into the 10 most common languages.
Domestic violence victims can face extra barriers if they don’t speak English and don’t have anyone in their lives who can help translate, said Anjali Mehrotra of the National Organization of Women. Mehrotra said she’s seen many women in scenarios where the abuser is the sole wage earner and also the only one who is English proficient.
“The survivor is feeling further isolated and does not have access to services, so I think it is really important to recognize that when somebody is reaching out for any kind of service, they’re already in a situation where they’re facing trauma or stress,” Mehrotra said. “I think that’s something we can take care of here.”
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