Best Practices II

Posting Web content in multiple languages offers advantages and poses challenges.

State Web Sites Go Multilingual
The number of multilingual state government Web sites has steadily increased in recent years. They offer new advantages — and some challenges.

Bob Violino

The state of Utah drew media attention earlier this year when the governor’s office shut down a newly launched state-owned Web site because information on the site was in Spanish. Some citizens complained that the site, a companion to Utah’s official Web site, violated a state law that makes English the state’s official language.

After a review by the governor’s legal counsel, a limited version of the site,, was back online. The site, which includes information on driver’s licenses and housing discrimination, is one of a growing number of state-government-owned Web sites that feature content in foreign languages to serve the increasing number of Americans who speak languages other than English.

It’s just one example of a steady rise in foreign - language state government Web content in recent years, and state IT executives should prepare for the move to multilingual Web pages to continue.

Language of the People

Why include additional languages on these government Web sites? Ross Romero, a Utah state representative who pushed for the reinstatement of the Spanish-language site, says the site should include even more information, such as tax requirements. “It’s very important for residents in our state to understand the functions of the government so they can be in compliance and follow rules and laws appropriately,” he points out.

In addition, Romero says, Utah has been trying to encourage tourism, and posting Web site information in Spanish and other languages could help draw visitors to the state. “It helps our global position, it helps our economy and it helps our connection with others if we can communicate in the most dominant language in the Western Hemisphere, which is Spanish,” he says.

Another state making a push to include more foreign-language content on its site is Michigan. In April, Michigan launched a foreign-language-content theme on its Web site. The state government is providing access to categorized online services and documents that have been translated into Spanish and Arabic.

While the Web site had already hosted subject matter and online services in up to 10 foreign languages for about three years, the new feature brings all the content together in one place, making it easier for users to access information. Michigan initially is consolidating only the Spanish and Arabic information because there is a large volume of online content in those languages. Content in other languages will be consolidated in the future when volume increases, says Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Information Technology.

Multilingual Content

The multilingual theme was developed by an internal focus group consisting of State of Michigan employees who work on providing critical state services to non-English-speaking residents. The focus group created an inventory of all foreign-language portal information and categorized the data.

The e-Michigan Web Development team at the Michigan Department of IT designed the multilingual theme based on results from the focus group’s assessment. A new navigation button was added to the portal home page, entitled “Foreign Language Content,” to facilitate navigation to subject matter that’s available in Spanish and Arabic.

Content posted in these foreign languages includes information about driving and obtaining licenses; employment and wages; utilities; taxes; laws and regulations; health care; and public assistance.

There are about 780,000 households in Michigan that include individuals who speak a language other than English, and there has been increased demand for online information in foreign languages, Weiss says. “We get requests all the time for foreign-language content, especially in Spanish,” he says. According to Weiss, the IT department also manages telecommunications for the state and has begun to incorporate Spanish messages in the voice mail system used by the state.

More Than Texas Twang

Texas, which shares a border with Mexico and has a huge Spanish-speaking population, has also made posting foreign-language content on the state Web sites a priority.

“We have received many comments from legislators, agency heads and others saying that people wish there were more information available” in other languages, primarily Spanish, says Allan Martin, a project manager at the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR), which owns and maintains the state government’s official Web site,

Recent legislation in Texas requires state agencies to make a reasonable effort to “ensure that Spanish-speaking persons with limited English proficiency can meaningfully access state agency information online,” Martin says. Although TexasOnline provides its pages and links in Spanish, the site links to many pages hosted by agencies or commissions that have not yet complied with the legislation, Martin says, adding that he expects more of that content to be provided in Spanish “as agencies have the opportunity to comply with the legislation.”

TexasOnline includes links to information about transportation, health care, taxes, natural resources, veteran’s affairs, and emergency procedures in both English and Spanish. “We build the site in English, then retrofit it and run duplicate sites [in Spanish],” Martin says.

Real-Time Translations

Some states are using a combination of direct translations and software tools for translation.

Tennessee’s IT department provides information in Spanish at state government Web sites via an e-government services company called NIC, which offers translation software at a nominal cost, says Bill Ezell, the state’s CIO. Tennessee’s main Internet portal includes a software-based feature that can be used to translate content from English to Spanish, but the state has held off using the software for translations into other languages because of reliability concerns, Ezell explains.

Others offer online translation with a caveat. Oregon has a link to a translation service called WorldLingo, with this disclaimer: “WorldLingo is one of the most respected and widely used automated translation services available. However, all automatic translations have limitations. Errors and inaccuracies can arise.”

In addition to using the translation software, some departments in the Tennessee state government have created static HTML pages in foreign languages, Ezell says. Each department is free to decide whether to provide content in foreign languages and which content to translate, he explains.

Government agencies in Tennessee, like those in other states, will probably add more foreign-language content as they offer an increasing number of services online.

Multilingual Content Increases

Although state governments have made progress in adding foreign-language content to their Web sites, they still have a way to go to make information broadly available in foreign languages, says a recent study.

Thirty percent of all government Web sites offer some type of foreign-language translation, according to a report published by the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University in Providence, R.I. That’s up from 18 percent in the 2005 report and just 4 percent in the initial report in 2000.

The center examined a variety of Web sites operated by each state and calculated the percentage of sites that include at least some foreign-language content. The percentages range from a high of 86 percent of sites in Delaware to zero sites in Hawaii, West Virginia and Wyoming. Other states with relatively high percentages include Texas (84 percent), North Carolina (60 percent), Washington (59 percent) and Indiana (55 percent).

“Generally, states are making a real effort to include foreign-language translations, and the states that rate highly are making serious efforts to increase the accessibility of material in foreign languages,” says Darrell West, director of the Taubman Center and a public policy and political science professor at Brown University.

Bob Violino is a freelance technology writer based in Massapequa Park, N. Y.

Oct 31 2006