Holyoke City Council meetings will now be interpreted en español

  • Holyoke City Hall, as seen from Holyoke Heritage State Park, on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/2/2021 7:42:23 PM

HOLYOKE — When city residents tune into the City Council’s meeting on Tuesday, those watching on TV will have an option many say is long overdue: listening along in Spanish.

In a city where some 54% of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, according to census data, Holyoke’s municipal government meetings have long been inaccessible to the substantial portion of the city who have limited English-language proficiency. Beginning Tuesday, however, full meetings of the City Council will include the possibility of live Spanish-language interpretation via a secondary audio track for TV viewers.

“It’s something we should have been doing a long time ago,” said acting Mayor Terence Murphy, who also serves as Ward 2 councilor. “I’m very happy we’re finally getting to it.”

The city is using the services of TransFluenci, an East Longmeadow translation and interpretation services company with two decades of experience working with the state, private companies, hospitals, school districts, attorneys and many others.

Jessica Ridley, a partner in the firm and its operations manager, said the interpretation work is a first in western Massachusetts.

“For Connecticut we’ve done board meetings for some cities, but nothing on this scale have I seen done,” she said. “I am really surprised Holyoke hasn’t done this years ago … I know that they’re super excited over there.”

For now, only full City Council meetings will be interpreted — not committee meetings, where much of the nuts-and-bolts work gets done. Ridley noted, though, that the city has already sought her firm’s services for other recent meetings at the senior center and Holyoke Housing Authority.

“I think you’re going to find that this is just the beginning, and as this works well and brings the community together there’s going to be more times that there’s an interpreter,” she said.

Ward 1 Councilor Gladys Lebrón-Martinez, who has been on the council since 2011 and previously served four terms on the School Committee, said she and others have long expressed the need for meetings to be interpreted and documents to be translated.

One of just a few councilors who are bilingual, Lebrón-Martinez said residents would express frustration to her when they couldn’t understand what was happening in municipal meetings that affected them. She said residents should be able to fill out municipal forms — for a disability placard, for example — to speak during meetings and participate in other ways in Spanish.

“It takes years of advocacy to make things happen,” she said. “I walk away pleased from this, but we still have a long way to go … I’m excited it’s going to happen once and for all and I thank [Murphy] for his persistence.”

Murphy said that he filed an order seeking interpretation of meetings sometime last year, and eventually met with former Mayor Alex Morse to work out specifics of the funding for the interpretation. The money for the services will come from Holyoke Media, which receives its funding through the local cable franchise.

“Councilors had questions about the cost, councilors had questions about the exactness of the interpretation,” he said. “We’ve reviewed TransFluenci; they’ve got an excellent reputation.”

TransFluenci will provide two interpreters at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, who will be simultaneously interpreting the meeting from an adjoining room, where they can operate without distraction and ensure that they are not distracting councilors. Those tuning in can use “secondary audio programming” on their television to change the language on their television.

Ward 4 Councilor Libby Hernandez, another of the council’s Spanish speakers, said the interpretation of meetings will amplify critical information for a community that faces a significant hurdle to being involved in municipal affairs that impact their lives every day.

“It’s sad to know that the community is blindfolded, you know?” she said. “And that needs to change.”

Murphy praised City Council President Todd McGee and Ward 3 Councilor Dave Bartley for their work during the process.

“We should open up our Council meetings to as many of our residents as we can,” he said. “We need to become one community — it’s something I’ve been saying my whole life — for us to be successful.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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