Technology of language; County expands electronic interpreting service

Mower County Correctional Services Director Steve King shows how his office's ELSA translation unit works Thursday in his office in the Mower County Jail and Justice Center. The county now has three of the units, which connect county employees electronically to a translator. Jason Schoonover/

Mower County Correctional Services Director Steve King shows how his office’s ELSA translation unit works Thursday in his office in the Mower County Jail and Justice Center. The county now has three of the units, which connect county employees electronically to a translator. Jason Schoonover/

Mower County is taking another step toward technology when it comes to meeting its interpreting needs.

The county recently purchased two more ELSA interpreting units, which allow staff to access an interpreter electronically via a black, cellphone-like device. The county now has a unit for Correctional Services, a second for the Sheriff’s Office and the jail, and a third for Health and Human Services. Other departments can borrow the units as needed.

“When you don’t have an interpreter around, it works nice,” Corrections Director Steve King said.

ah.07.21.aThe county is still in the learning and trial stage with ELSA, but staff is looking to see if the units can fill a bit bigger role after the county’s interpreting partnership with the Welcome Center recently ceased, largely due to insurance costs and liability.

The county has one interpreter on staff, but County Coordinator Craig Oscarson estimated about 24 hours a week is taken up by court duties, leaving about 16 hours a week for the needs of other departments. A few other employees speak Spanish, and while interpreting isn’t necessarily part of their duties, they’re able to help with quick questions and the small, day-to-day things that come up.

While the county is in the early stages of discussing whether to hire part-time interpreters, ELSA will help meet the need.

County Attorney Kristen Nelsen first bought an ELSA unit about a year ago to test it out, but she recently gave it to King’s office, where it will be used a bit more frequently.

The other two units, which cost about $300 each along with yearly and per-minute fees, arrived recently.

King’s unit is relatively simple. It has three buttons: two for volume and a main button to request a translator — it’s pressed once to connect to a Spanish interpreter and twice for all other languages.

ELSA features more than 100 languages, which Health and Human Services Director Lisa Kocer said is beneficial because she’s seen a vast variety of languages represented in her office, from Vietnamese to French.

“You just never know who’s going to come to the window,” she said.

 A specific purpose

King and Kocer agree the units are filling a specific purpose for the county, largely helping with quick, stop-in questions and business.

“Once you filter through exactly what you need, it’s very user-friendly,” King said. “The people on the other line are very patient. It’s a nice system.”

Kocer estimated Health and Human Services’ 80 employees generally need interpreters up to three or four times a day, and Welcome Center interpreters had been in the office on a daily basis.

“For a big department like this, there’s a need; it’s used a lot,” she said. “It’s not like once a month.”

For Corrections, King says the need is less frequent — a couple times a month — but other offices use the unit as needed.

In the past, county offices used the Language Line. King said ELSA’s prices are comparable, but it’s a bit more convenient, more mobile and a little easier to operate. But county staff have found a few issues with ELSA, like some extended waits for certain languages.

 Changing demographics

In recent years, the county’s interpreting needs have changed.

They’re seeing more Sudanese and Karen residents, which can make for some tough situations when there’s a language barrier — and that’s where the county hopes ELSA will help.

“A lot of times, you’re punting and that’s a terrible position to be in when you can’t understand each other,” King said. “As it goes, we do our best — no doubt we do our best — but we aren’t rich with interpreters for those languages.”

While most county leaders agree the bulk of non-English speakers coming to their offices speak Spanish, there’s been a shift in recent years toward more Sudanese and Karen dialects. Oscarson and King said that’s because many Spanish-speaking families have been in the U.S. long enough to have learned English.

“It’s certainly on a downward trend on the Hispanic language interpreter need and upward trend on the newest immigrants to Austin, which would be Sudanese and the Karenni,” King said.

Those languages also feature varying dialects, which can make it more challenging to find an interpreter — whether it be in-person or electronic.

Kocer said she’s seen the demographics of people coming into the office changes drastically in her 28 years with the county, noting there were many Vietnamese-speaking people early in her career. While Spanish-speakers are still most common in her office, she too has seen more Sudanese and Karen residents.

She said ELSA can help them be ready for whatever comes in.

“It’s just the changing demographics, and we just need to meet the need,” Kocer said.

 Brief interactions

Thus far, county department heads agree the ELSA units work well, but only for brief interactions.

Health and Human Services will continue to use live interpreters for longer meetings like home visits.

“Those home visits can go anywhere from an hour to four hours and to have to pay per minute, that would be way more expensive than paying a live body,” Kocer said.

In corrections, King says appointments for a pre-sentencing investigation can be longer than an hour and also require a live interpreter.

“[ELSA] is just for short meetings, short conversations, and it does not and should not fill the need for a face-to-face interpreter,” King said.

Corrections will continue to schedule interpreters for the longer meetings, and the office contracts with an agency for Sudanese and Karen languages. Some have come from as far away as Winona, and King said they pay for their commute time, too.

“You might need them here for an hour, but you’re paying for five hours of transportation, so ELSA is certainly cost effective,” King said. “And our local interpreters that we can get that don’t involve mileage are also cost effective.”

 ‘Wave of the future’

Oscarson described technology services like ELSA as the “wave of the future.”

Kocer agreed, noting that she was at a regional meeting recently where other directors said their offices are starting to use similar services.

“Technology’s going everywhere,” she said.


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