Client Talk: Bowling Green, Kentucky

When do people who buy (or should buy) language services say professional translation is worth it? By talking with clients outside of a sales environment, we seek to uncover what’s really important to them.


Leyda Becker is international communities liaison for the City of Bowling Green, Kentucky — population 65,234. If you think a town that size doesn’t have many language needs, think again. Bowling Green’s foreign-born population is growing so quickly, US Presidential Advisor Kellyanne Conway put the city at the center of the Bowling Green Massacre tale she told February 2, 2017, on MSNBC’s Hardball: “…two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized, and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre. Most people didn’t know that because it didn’t get covered.”

The press didn’t cover the massacre because it never happened. Conway had her facts wrong. But with 13.9% of residents born outside the United States, Bowling Green does have a substantial Iraqi community. Arabic is the third most commonly spoken language in town, after English and Spanish. 59 languages are spoken there total; every city department routes language purchasing through Becker’s office in neighborhood and community services.

How much do they spend?

For fiscal year 2018, Bowling Green’s international program budget is $113,307. But this has to cover staff salaries, community event costs and any other office expenses, not just translation and interpreting. That’s 31% more than last year’s budget, but need still outpaces spend. Costs are also higher than they could be, as the city’s current language provider doesn’t offer translation memory (TM) discounts. As a result, Becker says, “We haven’t done much translation with them.” Over the last five years, Bowling Green has translated 240 documents: “Applications to publications to event announcements to e-newsletters.” Were quotes more affordable, she adds, the city would translate more.

The client’s solution

Becker is originally from Merida, Venezuela, so she does most of Bowling Green’s Spanish translations herself. Since translation costs are prohibitive, service for the other 58 languages are handled via over-the-phone (OPI) interpreting.

It’s worth noting, though, that price isn’t the only reason certain content doesn’t get translated. “We still have a lot of communities that are preliterate,” Becker explains, “especially communities from Burma that regardless of whether we translate the material into their own language, they may not be able to read it or understand it.” Burmese and Karen — another Myanmar language with a subliterate population — are the fifth and sixth most spoken languages in town. Speakers’ literacy, she says, “gets taken into consideration, definitely.”

“We translate on an as-needed basis,” Becker says, “but we also realize that translation is very costly. We have to measure when translating a piece or document whether it’s going to really have an effect to the consumer or to the patron.” The town’s most recent project, for example, was a brochure promoting a new city program, translated into nine languages.

So 1-5, how important is professional translation?

5: Becker believes language access “just becomes a common sense policy to implement when you have such a large foreign-born population and you have such language diversity.”

Our emerging pattern

Bowling Green is happy with its current solution, taking pride in its ability to outclass larger towns. Becker says, “We have been leading the way on how to provide language access across the city and across the state. Even our counterparts like Lexington, Owensboro and Louisville [Kentucky] don’t seem to have the same resources across the board.” These resources are so widespread because Becker led a two-year charge to train every city employee on language access. That’s more than 700 people, but in the end, it resulted in a completely consolidated program with no rogue spend.

“Even though [translation] is based out of one department, it’s still functioning as a support to all the departments,” she explains. For staff who’ve started after training was complete, Becker says a module on when to provide interpretation — and how — has been added to the city’s new employee orientation.

Bowling Green Mayor Bruce Wilkerson and the city’s board of commissioners created her position, and today she oversees a translation task force with “a point of contact from every department.”

It’s a level of managerial support many corporate clients in this column would covet. But like others profiled, substandard tech use holds Bowling Green back. Government documents tend to be highly repetitive, so TM would address the city’s affordability concerns. Yet again, we find a client that needs our industry to connect them to existing technology.