After hearing that it would cost $1,300 to provide simultaneous translation service for a two-hour city meeting, Evanston aldermen this week asked the Equity and Empowerment Commission to come up with a recommendation on what to do about providing such services.

The City of Aurora earlier this year started providing simultaneous translation of City Council meetings into Spanish — with a bilinqual member of the city’s communications department doing the translation and headsets borrowed from a local school district giving Spanish-speaking resident access to the translation.

Evanston City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz says while Evanston has a number of employees who speak Spanish and have pitched in on occasion to do translations, none of them has strong enough skills to tackle simultaneous translation.

Professional services now can provide simultaneous translation with a translator in a remote location listening to a video or audio feed of the meeting and speaking the translation into headphones. The translator’s words then are delivered to meeting attendees listening through an app on their smartphones.

But as Bobkiewicz discovered, those services don’t come cheap. And having a professional translator on site is even more expensive.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said she’s seen simultaneous translation done with headphones at some District 65 PTA presentations and suggested city staff get in touch with the school officials.

She added that two professional translators she knows have told her they’re appalled at the quality of translations at some city meetings.

U.S. Census surveys indicate that 18.8 percent of Aurora residents say they speak English less than “very well.” The comparable figure for Evanston is 7.3 percent.

The surveys also say that 9.2 percent of Aurora residents live in “Limited English Speaking Households,” while in Evanston that number is 3.8 percent. 

In New York City a city council member introduced a bill earlier this year to require translation services at public meetings in neighborhoods where more than 10 percent of the residents speak a foreign language.

Providing translation services has also become a hot issue in California communities with large immigrant populations.

Perris, California, a town about the size of Evanston, announced on its website last year the hiring of a person to provide translation of all its City Council meetings into Spanish. The U.S. Census surveys indicate 22.6 percent of Perris residents speak English less than “very well” and 10.1 percent live in “Limited English Speaking Households.”

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. English translation

    I think it is about time all Hispanics learn English. 

    Some have been here far longer than I (I’ve been here 52 years) and still don’t know a word of English.  This means that they stand less of a chance, for example, to have access to good paying jobs.  And I think it is not a sign of “caring” or “equity” if we subject immigrants (and their children) to lesser opportunities than English speakers have, by what amounts to encouraging them not to learn the language. By translating everything.  By accepting that they live in a more segregated – and therefore less complete – world of Spanish speaking, where they need translations for meetings that are important to them, or to do special transactions in banks… or so many other instances.

    Because truly, by “helping” them with translations what we are doing IS encouraging them not to learn English. We are happy to submit them to a life lesser than ours. In fact we put them DOWN below us by showing them that “we understand…you are not ABLE to learn English.  Not like the Chinese, and others who can learn quickly.  We know you are not so endowed…..  But don’t worry, we’ll help you…..” 

    What we do is… discriminate!   I am Hispanic and I RESENT THIS deeply!

    They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions and this is one road that we paved with presumably “good” but which turn out to be, racist intentions. Intentions that diminish the individual.

    My 46 year old son is working in Germany.  Everybody knows that Europeans, especially Germans, know English well.  Yet after two years he is able to more or less converse in German.  He found out that some needs and services are provided by people who are not so proficient in English and resent being spoken to in another language.  Even in Academia (where he works) there are some who don’t speak English very well.  

    Furthermore, immigrants who don’t speak German after a certain amount of time (and who perhaps plan to settle there) are not so well considered because they are seen as not willing to identify with the host people; in fact, as rejecting the culture.  

    I suggest we end the “caring” and “equity” dishonesty and instead help every immigrant to learn the language of the country. If we do this we will be helping them rather than creating obstacles for their success in this country.

    Remember the wise saying: “Give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish and he will eat for the rest of his life.”

    1. Thank you for saying what needs to be said


      Thank you for saying what I suspect many of supposed beneficiaries of these policies are feeling.  I generally agree with you. I would say there is a case to making accommodations for recent immigrants, and there are many who are Spanish speakers.  That said, if only 3.8% of households in Evanston have limited English language, then only some of those are Spanish speaking, and only a fraction of those are recent immigrants, and only a fraction of those would watch City Council meetings.  So how many people would actually benefit from real-time translation into Spanish?

      Unfortunately, there are too many people who claim to want to be helpful and charitable in government affairs and education, but their actions are patronizing.

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