Iowa Translators Persist Despite English-Only Voting Laws

As the 2020 election approaches, translators in Iowa are working against prohibitive laws to translate and distribute informational materials to multilingual communities across the state.

Iowa’s “English-only” law dates to 1918 after World War I, when Governor William Harding signed the Babel Proclamation into law, which made English the only language legally permitted in the state. Although it was repealed only five months after Harding signed it, former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack revived the English-only legislation in signing the Iowa English Language Reaffirmation Act into law. The act states that all official documents “on behalf of, or representing the state and all of its political subdivisions shall be in the English language.”

According to Yale Law and Policy Review, lawmakers said the act was meant to encourage assimilation to Iowa culture, and Vilsack said the law would encourage people to learn English. However, the Review outlined the eventual outcome that led to widespread disenfranchisement, stating, “As a result, eligible voters in Iowa who did not understand English were prevented from registering to vote in state and national elections.”

Some county auditors tried to respond to the problem by translating voter forms or providing multilingual how-to videos. In retaliation, Republican US Representative Steve King sued the Iowa secretary of state in 2007 for violating the law, arguing that if someone were a US citizen, they must prove English proficiency, eliminating the need for translation, according to King.

Despite the resistance from some lawmakers, however, many translators and voter-advocacy groups persist in translating voting materials to better serve Iowa’s non-English speaking communities. Iowa-based translator Iris Tun makes videos translating information from English to both Burmese and Karen, two of the languages spoken in Myanmar. EMBARC Iowa airs the informational videos in multiple languages. Tun also translates voter registration forms at her church for free.

“Even though they become a citizen, they got citizenship, they’re really scared because a lot of people, they talk about voters, if you do something wrong, you make a mistake, the police come and get you and you can go to jail,” Tun said.

Jan Flora and Terry Potter of A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy (AMOS), who translate voter forms into Spanish and distribute them to other organizations throughout the state, also expressed concern, especially going into an election during the pandemic. “In this COVID year, since it’s so complicated, and things have become so messy, what we’re trying to do is, first of all, make sure people are encouraged to register,” Potter said. “And then ultimately, that they vote whichever way they’re most comfortable with.”

“One of the terms that I found difficult to translate was the word ballot. In some dictionaries it has balota, but my experience in Latin America has said to me that didn’t ring true,” Flora said. “So we ended up with papeleta de voto, which is interpreted as a small piece of paper.”

Sue Lloyd, the county auditor for Buena Vista County, mentioned her county was notified in December 2016 of the federal requirement Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which stipulates “The law covers those localities where there are more than 10,000 or over 5 percent of the total voting age citizens in a single political subdivision…who are members of a single language minority group, have depressed literacy rates, and do not speak English very well.”

“I think there’s interest because I’ve been contacted by some other counties asking about the forms and what I’ve been told. And I tell them that we’re the only ones that can accept those forms for Iowa,” Lloyd said.

Jonathan Pyner
Jonathan Pyner is a poet, freelance writer, and translator. He has worked as an educator for nearly a decade in the US and Taiwan, and he recently completed a master’s of fine arts in creative writing.


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