I’m learning Spanish. Now that I’m living in California, it seems a wise skill to pick up. One of the first things I accessed with my library card was their Rosetta Stone language subscription. I don’t aim for fluency, although who knows. One reason I started was because I was thinking about how to better support bilingual legal information needs in our law library.

That may seem strange since I just came from Canada, a nation that is “officially bilingual.” In practice, in nearly 15 years, the only time I interacted with bilingual French / English speakers was in Quebec. It never arose in a work context. Even within our workplace, bilingualism was not common.

That can cause problems when there are legal guarantees to be provided in service in both languages. In one memorable incident, a French speaker asked to be interacted with in French. The Anglo staff person – not in the library – responded using the output of a Google Translate interaction. Suffice it to say, the complaint that emanated from that interaction suggests the auto-translation was not sufficient.

I have also used Google Translate and Bing Translate over the years to understand what is going on in Russia, to communicate with Russian lawyers and other professionals who do not speak English. They’re not great. In fact, I’ve learned a little bit about Russian just from seeing how Bing retains word order, even though by doing so, it destroys the meaning of the sentence. The translation doesn’t make sense in English to an English speaker.

Without question, a law library providing services to a bilingual population needs bilingual librarians. This has a couple of built-in challenges. First, unlike in Canada, bilingualism isn’t a guaranteed right so there is no alignment between our required delivery standard and researcher expectations. Second, law librarianship already has a diversity problem. Our system of educating law librarians may be blocking the very people who have those bilingual skills from entering the profession.

Automated Translation Tools

What is a library to do, then? Some organizations have implemented auto-translation tools as a way to close the gap. The City of San Diego explains what they offer, which is site-wide Google Translate. They’re up front about the limitations: got a problem with the translation, check the English (which is the official version).

The Google Translate API is easy to implement and can be low cost if you have low foreign language demand and low traffic. Like most things, the best translation services will involve people and will be the most expensive unless you have so much demand that the automation costs outweigh a human translator on your content. But there are some tools that can fill the gap between a human translator and nothing.

Web Sites

Content management systems can support multiple language content. This doesn’t mean they offer translation support though. Some CMS will create multiple objects each time you create a web page, so that a single URL can go to a language-specific object depending on what the visitor’s language is. Each object is a translated version of the primary content.

Sitefinity offers a variety of translation tools, including one that sends content to an external translator you’ve hired as part of the workflow. Sites running WordPress won’t have built-in multilingual or localization support outwardly facing but, as always, there are plugins for that, like WordPress Multilingual. And WordPress is localized on the back end and has lots of support for apps that want to present multiple languages.

But none of these get you translated content unless you put it in the CMS. I’ve worked on a site that had bilingual support but you got French and English on both objects, because there wasn’t a translated copy. It is merely support for translated content to be placed in objects. If you want a bilingual law library web site, you still need someone to do the translation.

Or not. Both Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge have translators built in, making a site-wide Google Translate implementation unnecessary. You might be able to assume your visitors will come in one of those browsers, which may not be accurate. Unfortunately, even if you have an auto-translate function, you need to think about elements that are not text. Images with English-language text on them will not translate.

So if you use auto-translate, you probably need to ensure there are visible menu options to allow a visitor to trigger a language selection. Here’s a screen shot from our law library with a nice, visible localization option:

Screenshot of the San Diego Law Library web site responsive version
Screenshot of the San Diego Law Library web site responsive version, with EN and ES language options at the top right

and here’s another from the San Diego Public Library, which uses the API. You can select from a wider array of the Google Translate languages (which are fewer than the languages you can use on Google, although probably more useful than Hacker or Bork bork bork):

Screenshot of the San Diego City Public Library web site responsive version with the Google Translate icon that triggers a Select Language menu below
Screenshot of the San Diego City Public Library web site responsive version with the Google Translate icon that triggers a Select Language menu below

Bilingual support on the web will require more than automated tools, although they are a great cost-saver. Getting professional translations of all content is probably beyond the financial reach of many organizations. And the benefit of translation of web content is that it’s largely stable and generic, so you can get it right and have it work for many or most visitors.

I have not seen data showing whether it is better to offer a paid translation API service like Google’s or whether most visitors will be using a browser that auto-translates, probably using the same API. It begs the question whether law libraries should pay for a service if visitors are bringing their own tools to the site.

As you leave the web browser, though, you may find fewer options to auto translate. Ebooks in an ebook reader? In browser, an Overdrive ebook can be translated the same as any other web page. In an app? The results will depend on what the app supports.

Screenshot of an Overdrive ebook in a browser window translated into Spanish
Criminology for Dummies in an OverDrive web browser app window, translated using the Microsoft Edge in-browser Bing translation. If you jump through the book, the translation fails and you have to reapply.

But what about in-person?

Translate by App

I have used the Google Translate app periodically in the past. It’s great to aim at a sign or a menu and get some basic translation. But it was only when I got to California that I thought about it’s other uses.

In particular, I was taken back to an interaction I had with the owner of an Iranian restaurant near our house in Canada. He didn’t speak much English but we were able to sort out the food. But then he wanted to explain to me why his restaurant was decorated the way it was, as I waited for my kabob. It was Yalda Night, the winter solstice, and so there were a variety of nuts and fruits and things arrayed around.

He kept running into words that he’d not learned in English. So he held up his phone and spoke in and it translated the word. I’d heard of people doing that but hadn’t seen it done. It was handy and I could see, as a traveler, how I might use that even in countries where I know some of the language.

So I returned to the app to see how that worked. And found that there was actually a conversation option, not just a one-person voice recorder. You can flip to the conversation mode and hold the phone between you and the other person and talk in real time.

I tried this out with two of our staff, who were game to be guinea pigs. In both cases, the language processing is fast but it does not work conversationally. So you have to speak slowly and continually, as a gap will be interpreted as time to switch languages. And, like the auto-translate API for the web sites, it is most accurate with general language.

A screenshot of the Google Translate Conversation mode

In addition, as one of my folks pointed out, the translation looked for a certain type of language. It tripped up on words that might be considered slang or shorthand, more informal but also more common words. The example he gave me is “legal advice”, a term you can find all over the place on Spanish-oriented legal web sites (Google asesorias abogado). If you translate from Spanish to English, asesorias legal becomes “legal advice.” But if you translate “legal advice” from English into Spanish, you get consejo legal. It raises issues of understanding and clarity but also accessibility.

One obvious challenge is to keep it top of mind. I was walking to catch a trolley and was stopped by someone who asked if I spoke Spanish. I said I didn’t and apologize and walked on. And it was only 30 minutes later, riding the trolley, that I realized it would have been a perfect opportunity to use the Google Translate conversation function.

The app also struggled with terms of art, both legal and library. This meant that the meaning was literally lost in translation. Terms of art – like motion, for example – can be key to understanding what someone needs or is looking for in a law library.

Google Translate isn’t the only answer, it’s just the one I’ve experimented with. Skype calls can be translated in real-time too. I haven’t tried that but, if it’s like the auto-translate on YouTube or other video, then you need to speak very slowly and clearly for the translation to approach any kind of accuracy.

Getting Warmer

From an operational perspective, short of legal obligation, translated content is a nice to have. Fundamentally, unless the legal information – case law, primary legislation, etc. – is also translated, there will always be a language barrier. Even in officially bilingual Canada, librarians frequently made requests for a translated version of certain court decisions.

I don’t think auto-translated laws offer a reliable alternative – a small change in a legal meaning can change an understanding of one’s legal obligations. But it means that there is a last mile opportunity for us to get people as close to the law as possible before they have to switch. As the saying goes, meet people where they are with legal information.

To the extent laws avoid legalese or too many terms of art, it may present no greater challenge than lots of other information to auto-translate tools. It would be interesting to know if case law decisions have become more readable or more amenable to translation over time, as plain English efforts, including the Plain Writing Act of 2010, have increased.

The technology may improve too. Or, like virtual interactions, we may get more accustomed to the nuances as we start to use them more. Law libraries may not be able to invest any more in supporting translation but we can use them more regularly in our interactions to start finding out where obstacles exist and look for ways to remove them.

I mentioned to some librarians that I was studying Spanish and they laughed and said I could provide language support at the law library! I don’t think I have enough career left to get to that level of proficiency, and that would still only be one language out of many possible. It will be interesting to see how technologies improve that can help us to close that gap.