Evanston aldermen, hoping to make the city’s operations more inclusive, learned Monday night that providing translations of city documents into other languages could be very expensive.

Equity and Empowerment Coordinator Pat Efiom said at the Human Services Committee meeting that she’s been told it could cost $1,200 to get just three pages translated into Spanish. “So we need a policy about what do we want to translate,” Efiom said.

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, suggested that rather than focusing primarily on translating written documents, it would be better to add staff members who could communicate directly with people using other languages.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the city previously had just one staff member who was tasked as part of her job to provide translation services for Spanish speakers who showed up at the Civic Center.

“But we need to have people in all parts of the organization to do that,” Bobkiewicz said.

“We want to be prepared to deal with everyone, that’s what we’re trying to do. But we need to balance the cost. Printed translation can be very expensive. It may make sense to have doing translations as a collateral duty for three or four different employees,” he said.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, suggested the city get in touch with Rotary International, which, she said, has a translation department in its Evanston headquarters.

Cicely Fleming.

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said, referring to the overall equity and empowerment process, “I’m trying to remain hopeful, but I’m losing some hope. It looks good on paper, but people have a lot of frustrations.”

“I’m really concerned as we go into the budget season,” she added, about making equity efforts a priority in the face of possible layoffs.

She also claimed that the city’s two school districts are “light years ahead” of the city in implementing such policies.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. A job for the equity coordinator

    It should have been a requirement for the Equity Coordinator job to be fluent in English and either Spanish or Chinese (the second and third most-spoken languages in town according to the Census).  Does she speak either of those languages?

  2. All residents should learn English

    It would be “empowering” for all residents to learn English….ASAP.  Otherwise, kindly provide your own translator.

    1. Great idea!

      Yes! And all blind people should kindly provide their own set of eyes that can see and read. But why stop there? Let’s remove wheelchair ramps so people can kindly provide their own ramps. 

      1. I believe those folks are

        I believe those folks are addressed by the ADA. Non English speakers are not…yet.     Comprende?

      2. You confuse

        Eye sight and physical handicaps are physical and something they have little control over.

        Learning the language of the country you live in, you have control over.

        Tourists, very aged and a few other have an excuse. Under 65 and living here for more than a year, don’t.

        It scares me how many drivers don’t speak or read English. Not only for obeying the laws but emergency problems or construction zones.  What do they do when pulled over by the police ? Do the police have to get a interpreter ? Does lack of communication lead to confrontations and dangers ?

        1. America!

          Lose your vision from fireworks? We got your covered because this is America and you had little control over that. Lose your ability to walk by basejumping or free climbing? We got you covered because this is America and you had little control over that.

          Just move here from a foreign country and want to access government services in a language you understand while you learn the incredibly complicated English language in between working jobs and supporting a family? Nah, kindly provide your own translator. I’m scared of other languages, so stay down and don’t access government services. 

    2. Civil Rights Amendment
      1. The USA has never declared any official language whatsoever. Maybe the English, French and Spaniard invaders should have learned Algonquin and Lakota?
      2. Civil Rights Amendment of 1964 stipulates parallel types of language access for Deaf and Blind as for non-English speakers. This is further codified in multiple Executive Orders and the Affordable Care Act.

  3. Translation service

    They are making this too complicated. Instead of hiring someone to translate just subscribe to a translation service. You call the service and they conference you in with a translator. You have translation service available on demand at a fraction of the cost. 

    1. Translation services are very

      Translation services are very pricey.  And running documents an internet translation site won’t produce usable output.

    2. Actually …

      … the city already has that sort of on-call, by-phone service, Christopher. It works for some situations — but it means every individual’s translation needs are a “one off” situation. Doesn’t scale very well or permit non-English speakers to have self-service access to information..

      — Bill

      1. I think you mean interpreting

        Interpreting can be done over the phone – not translation. Translation deals with the written word, not the spoken word.

    3. Translation by NU students [others] and Adjuncts?

      I would think NU students and adjuncts would love to do the translation.

      The city would probably have to vetting first but an interview and recommendation [NU prof]  should be enough.

      Even Obama said a path to citizenship would require proficiency in English. Yet in some some of the fast food places customers have/need to order in another language. Even some of the staff has problems with English if it is much beyond what is needed for ordering or common functions—I notice this when there is an important story on TVs and comment and get a blank stare.

    4. Translating vs Interpreting
      Absolutely! There are plenty of options these days for remote interpreting services, either over the phone or via the web.
      One thing to keep in mind, though, is that language professionals distinguish between “translation” (involving the written word) and interpreting (involving spoken or signed language). It’s always a good idea to make that distinction when requesting a service, because not all translators interpret and not all interpreters translate. While related, the two professions really do require different skill sets.

  4. $1,200 for a three page translation?

    It’s bad enough that 23% of Evanstonians speak a lanaguage other than English in the home the city has no coherent plan for dealing with it.

    But even more crazy is that Efiom claims it would cost $1,200 to translate a three page document to Spanish. Most of the rates I’ve seen by pro translators are between $0.08-$0.15 a word. A single-spaced sheet of paper in a normal font has about 500 words so that would be about $150 bucks.

    Efiom seems to be in over her head in terms of working with taxpayer money. Remember she wasted resources executing a non-scientific “survey.” Then her plan for insuring “equity” is by any reasonable definition, unattainable.  Now she is showing she has no clue about pricing for essential city services.

    I don’t blame her as much as I blame Wally for a) creating a job with no explicitly defined duties and b) hiring someone with no  government experience.

    1. translator…

      Well, this is totally confusing to me.  My neighbor has never had any problem with getting things taken care of  in Spanish at Crown center.   Does nobody know about this?  She specifically comes to register, etc., when the staff person is on duty.  No problem at all.   Judging by the large Hispanic population, I’d say she’s an asset….needs to get checked into by Efiom?  Wouldn’s she have already asked upon arrival, about city staff who can speak other languages?

      1. Translation

        We could have the AP ETHS language students do the translation–that would help the ETHS students prepare for the AP exam and also have them learn about our government.  Of course, we could have family members translate materials for interested parties that aren’t proficient in english.

        No reason to spend taxpayer dollars on this one.

    2. Agreed! Crazy cost estimate!

      I both do translations professionally and am sometimes a consumer of translations.  Even highly experienced translators for less common languages than Spanish or Mandarin/Cantonese will charge under 20 cents a word!

  5. Lost in translation, political patronage

    For decades the Chicago politcal machine has operated through a patronage system in which government jobs were created to reward family and friends of certain precint captains and ward bosses or community leaders and activists who carried the influence of a lot of Democratic voters and got them to vote.

    I wonder if the same concept is happening in Evanston but in a more subtle way and on a much lower scale. A few years ago when the economy was not so good Evanston officials created the 311 call system that hired about 20 unionized employees. I can’t help but to wonder about the value of this system. In many cases even if you call the number of a certain city department you will be rerouted to 311 who will then route you back to the department you were initially calling.

    Now we have this new six figure position – the Equity and Empowerment Coordinator – that was created on the eve of an oncoming budget crisis. This coordinator, who served as chief executive officer of the Ebenezer AME Church in Evanston (think voters), seems to be looking for new ways to create more government jobs, i.e. translators. And yes the city has laid off folks in the recent past but I betcha dollars to donuts those laid off were not full time union members.

    Let’s not forget the much touted sustainable programs coordinator, a position the city created in the smack dab middle of a Great Recession and budget crisis..

    Two years ago, Republican Guv. Bruce Rauner issued an executive order that requires the state to publish a list of all workers who end up on the state’s payroll, including a worker’s name, what agency they’re employed by and their title. The list of political employees eventually will be posted at This was done in light of the IDOT patronage jobs scandal under Democrat Guv. Pat Quinn. 

    Does the city of  Evanston post a list of it’s employees –  worker’s name, what department they’re employed by and their title? If not, maybe it’s time they do it.

    Perhaps Evanston should create a new position entitled Evanston’s Inspector General – a city watchdog that fights waste, fraud and abuse just like in Chicago.

    1. Inspector General Position

      As I recall, Alderman Miller proposed that the City establish the position of Inspector General. I believe that the was rejected at the highest levels and defeated thereafter by a moajority of the Council. Had it been a zoning avaiance, it would have sailed through. It’s a good idea, in my opinion, which makes it’s future adoption highly unlikely. 



    2. Great idea

      Great idea!   It seems that Wally and the 4th floor cronies are a huge money waster, and yet create new jobs.  The poor part-timers who REALLY need their salaries, are getting their hours cut…needed overtime gets cut, for important events and projects…yet the city manager always thinks of new jobs at outrageous salaries…to make him look good.  Poo on that!   Nobody is watching over the big-salaried people……it’s time to put the reins on that. 

      1. Curious — well aware that no

        Curious — well aware that no two situations are the same, but as a general metric, is 1 city employee per ~90 residents reasonable?

  6. Translate for who ?

    “She said the district’s demographics are changing due to a steadily increasing population of non-native English speakers. According to the district’s website, District 65 serves students who speak nearly 70 different languages, including Spanish, Mandarin, French, Swahili and Arabic.” Daily Northwestern 10/5/17


    This blog is probably about translation for adults, but as the quote above indicates [and the list is probably not complete] there are a lot more people who have a language barrier. Will City Hall produce documents/translations for all languages ? under what circumstances ?

    I’m surprised how many [I assume NU students] who are Asian have to have their order on their smart phone at Burger-King  and run into problems if there is a question. Yet I’ve never seen an Asian clerk at Burger-King to assist them [prior post listed Chinese as the third most spoken language in Evanston].

  7. Translation costs

    I’d be curious to know where the potential cost of $1200 for translating the three-page document into Spanish came from. I’m a translator, and a professional of the language services industry, and I’d say you may want to quote those three pages with another provider. I would also recommend that the city take into consideration any legal liabilities that may arise from individuals not having access to information in a language they can read, or from errors and mistranslations in any translated content provided by unqualified providers. Please visit the website of the American Translators Association for a directory of qualified translators. Your regional chapter of the ATA is the Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters, and they would be a great source of professional information for you as well.

    1. Translation Costs

      $1200 for 3 pages is not the goig rate for translation!! If it were, I could have retired long ago!!!

      For 12 years I was the coordinator of 2 state court interpreter programs where we provided both interpreters for proceedings and translations of frequently used documents. Translations were outsourced to 1099 contractors because there was not a sufficient volume to justify hiring a W-2 employee. 

      For translation it was always customary to get several quotes before awarding a contract. It is best practice to have official translations of frequently used documents because: (1) this ensures that every limited English proficient person sees the exact same information rather than a slightly – or perhaps even a very — different version rendered on the spot by an interpreter; (2) paying for a translation once is in the long run also cheaper than paying an interpreter every time a certain document is used. Thus the benefit of an official translation of frequently used documents is that this ensures uniformity and quality, plus it is more economical in the long run.

      As one comentator noted above, the American Translators Association has a very useful Translation Services Directory that is accessible to everyone free-of-charge, and advanced search functions allow the user to fine-tune their searche to language pair and direction (i.e.,English into Spanish, Mandarin into English etc.), translators who are certified in that paid & direction, subject matter specialties etc.


  8. Advice for informed translation consumers

    As the current President of the American Translators Association, I’m glad to read that Evanston is expanding the range of languages in which residents can access information. Equal language access is a requirement for many programs that receive Federal funding, and, as the Evanston aldermen pointed out in this article, multilingual materials allow cities to adopt a more inclusive approach to the services and benefits that they offer.

    As with many other resident services, Evanston could take a variety of approaches to purchasing translation services. It’s important to remember that translation errors can be both costly and embarrassing, that not all bilingual people are qualified to translate (written language work) or interpret (spoken language work), and that the best approach is to use a professional. Fortunately, you have the Chicago Area Translators Association right in your back yard: That would be a good place to find professional translators to help with this admirable effort!

    Corinne McKay, President, American Translators Association

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