San Jose is expanding its language translation options in public meetings by using artificial intelligence.

The city launched its partnership with Wordly, an AI-based service that offers live translation in 50 languages. Translation will be available at all San Jose City Council and council committee meetings. City officials say it’s more affordable and efficient than in-person language interpreters, but advocates want to test the service before lauding it.

City Clerk Toni Taber said these services will encourage more public participation from non-English speaking residents.

“If you got used to the service not being there, why would you come to the meeting?” Tauber told San José Spotlight. “I think the more people realize we have the language services, the more people will utilize them, the more people will attend the meetings.”

San Jose has been working to improve its translation services since last year. The city began providing in-person human translators at meetings after an incident where Spanish-speaking residents were moved to a different room to listen to the meeting.

Taber said the city budgeted $400,000 for a year of utilizing four Spanish interpreters and four Vietnamese interpreters, two online and two in person.

In comparison, she said the city initially paid $82,000 for a year of Wordly’s services, including time setting up and training city employees with the software. That price may fluctuate depending on how many users the service sees and how many languages get used, and the city pays for the service per minute. Taber said even at higher rates of use, the program costs much less than in-person interpreters, which the city will provide until the end of the fiscal year.

Language access is just one barrier for residents hoping to speak at city meetings. Gabriela Chavez-Lopez, executive director of the Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley, said it’s hard for residents to attend public meetings in person when they have a job that overlaps with the meeting’s time, or have other responsibilities such as taking care of their families.

The AI translation service requires people to use their phone or computer, which Chavez-Lopez said could run out of battery during a multi-hour meeting. She also said literacy and access to headphones could be a barrier. Taber said the city could provide headphones, but the city’s headphones have cords and may not be able to plug into all devices.

“People should be able to show up and have what they need in order to participate,” Chavez-Lopez told San José Spotlight. “It’s meeting people where they’re at because (speakers) are already coming to City Hall, they’re investing their gas, their time. So the least I think that the city can do is provide the appropriate hardware.”

She added that while the AI translation improves language access, the service needs to be tested by residents in meetings to determine if it meets expectations.

In addition to audio translation, the city will display two languages on screen in the council chambers. Taber said the city plans to include English for people who are hearing impaired, in addition to Spanish as the most requested language. She said this will allow limited access for people without devices.

Lost in translation no more

South Bay cities have been tapping Wordly for public meeting translation for the past year. Sunnyvale began using the program in June for its Human Relations Commission and used it in a city council meeting in early April. Residents can request the service in any council meeting.

Santa Clara County has been working on providing simultaneous translation following a Board of Supervisors meeting in mid-April, during which public comment in Spanish was translated to English, but the meeting’s discussion in English was not translated to Spanish.

Taber said she hopes San Jose’s adoption of this technology encourages other cities to use it.

“We don’t have any plans to eliminate it, it’s not a pilot,” she told San José Spotlight. “I really think it’s a game changer for the public.”

Contact B. Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] or @SakuCannestra on X, formerly known as Twitter.

This story originally appeared in San José Spotlight.