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Madison Civil Rights Department Takes on the Language Barrier

03/09/2018 10:09 PM | Thais Passos Fonseca

Madison Civil Rights Department Takes on the Language Barrier

By Manuela Francavilla, MATI Secretary

On November 6, 2017, at MG&E headquarters in Madison, the Civil Rights Department of the City of Madison and Mario García Sierra, a community advocate and Community Services Manager at MG&E, organized a meeting where translators and interpreters from the community engaged in a discussion of the city’s Language Access Plan (LAP).

Because “all ‘Public’ and ‘Private Entities’ receiving Federal financial assistance are obligated under Title VI” (City of Madison, Civil Rights Dept. website) to offer free translation and interpreting services to their patrons, and also because community advocates had expressed their concerns about the full accessibility of Limited English Proficient (LEP) residents to city services, the City of Madison has been working on the foreign language issue for some time.

In fall 2016, the city’s Common Council adopted Resolution No. 34666, which not only prohibited the use of translation machines but also assigned the Civil Rights Department the task of developing a plan to address the language barrier problem. Since then, the department has been working on the draft of the LAP. During these months, they met and talked with many interested groups and also decided to host the November 6 event in order to introduce the draft to language professionals in the community and get their feedback “before the city moves forward to the next phase,” as García Sierra stated in his invitation.

At the meeting, all participants were supportive of the initiatives described in the 30-page document, including: training all city employees about existing translation and interpretation services; prohibiting city staff from relying on minors, friends, and volunteers “whose competence [in translation and/or interpreting] has not been assessed”; and calling for the future hiring of a pool of full-time translators and interpreters.

During the discussion, language professionals eagerly shared their thoughts, comments, and advice, all well received by city representatives. For example, in order to evaluate the language skills and knowledge of translators and interpreters, some suggested looking into the many Master’s programs in translation and interpretation offered by universities all over the country, as well as the certifications issued by associations such as the American Translators Association and language assessments by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. In order to ensure the use of consistent, exact vocabulary throughout the city website and in city documents, speakers underlined the importance of preparing glossaries with technical terminology specific to each department. Lastly, in order to track the progress of the LAP, others recommended including a detailed timeline of its goals and phases (the plan has no timeline to date).

For more information on City of Madison and Civil Rights Department efforts on this matter, please go to

Manuela Francavilla is an Italian native speaker, translator, and language instructor living in Madison, WI. She has been a member of the Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters since 2011 and in June 2017 was elected Secretary.



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