Maryland lost in translation

May 30, 2006|By JIM BOULET JR.

Ask people which states have a horrible language problem, and they are likely to name Florida, Texas and California. Maryland won't be mentioned.

It should be.

In 2002, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law requiring all state agencies to offer oral interpretation and written translation "into any language spoken by any limited English proficient population that constitutes 3 percent of the overall state population within the geographic area served by a local office of a state program."

Canada has two official languages. The United Nations has six. Because of the 2002 law, Maryland now has several official languages. The available evidence suggests that no one in Annapolis is quite certain as to exactly how many.

The Maryland State Board of Elections Web site offers translations into eight languages, two more than the United Nations attempts: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean and Chinese.

By contrast, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Web site merely offers translation into French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. The Maryland Department of Transportation's Motor Vehicle Administration Web site is solely in English.

The Department of Transportation is now being sued by CASA of Maryland and the Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund. Why? Non-English speakers must make an appointment in advance so that the time of the state's official translators is more efficiently used.

Previous generations of immigrants may not have learned English instantly, but neither did they file lawsuits when government officials failed to understand Polish or Yiddish.

This demand for an officially multilingual, multicultural America comes from professional ethnic activists, nearly all of whom speak fluent English. The people they claim to represent have other ideas.

A U.S. Justice Department-ordered postcard to foreign-born voters in Orange County, Calif., generated this response from a person with a Spanish surname: "We are in the United States. If you can't speak English you should not be allowed to vote."

These translations are not only divisive, they are also expensive. According to the General Assembly's estimate, Maryland taxpayers will spend at least $724,700 this year to comply with the 2002 law.

Needless expense is hardly the worst problem with mandatory multilingualism. All this linguistic rigmarole sends a dreadful message to immigrants: "Don't bother to learn English. Your translator will tell you everything you really need to know."

The record of translators is more mixed than the anti-English lobby wants you to believe.

In 2005, the Washington secretary of state's Web site translated Secretary of State Sam Reed's name into Chinese as "Swampy Weed."

New York City's Chinese ballot in the 2000 election translated "Democratic" as "Republican" and "Republican" as "Democratic."

Some errors are less amusing and more costly than others. A January 2003 study in Pediatrics, "Errors in Medical Interpretation and Their Potential Clinical Consequences in Pediatric Encounters," found that professional interpreters still make errors over half of the time. Every one of those errors is a potential malpractice lawsuit.

The official-English amendment passed by the U.S. Senate won't stop Marylanders from greeting each other in Farsi, Urdu or Spanish. It won't even guarantee an English-speaking clerk at your local McDonald's.

But if it becomes law, it will mean that the federal government is no longer forcing Maryland to be officially multilingual. That would be a victory for every Maryland taxpayer.

By Jim Boulet Jr. is executive director of English First, based in Springfield, Va. His e-mail is

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