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Google Translate Law: What federal guidance says about the use of online translation software.

If you think you can just use Google Translate, you might want to think again

The Internet and iPhone apps are alluring examples of technology.  They offer seemingly limitless opportunities, plus exciting tools and toys to enable further exploration.

These online tools include the language translation applications and devices that offer short-cut, potentially easy answers to language barriers. Indeed, how many times have you heard – “I’ll just check Google Translate.” “I’ll use the app on my iPhone for translation.” “ I don’t need an interpreter – I’ll just look online.”

Such temptations have long raised concerns about the accuracy and reliability of the translations provided by online tools and related sources of information. These concerns implicate much more than just making mistakes in casual conversations. More significantly, they involve possible violations of federal law and federal non-discrimination prohibitions.

Federal Guidance on the Use of Online Translations

In 2015, the federal government stepped in and provided new guidance confirming the legal risks involved with online translations.

On January 7, 2015, the U.S. Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Education released Guidance that addressed many topics.

The Guidance provides perhaps the clearest statement yet from federal agencies that Internet translations should NOT be used without the review of a trained, qualified HUMAN translator.

“Some school districts have used web-based automated translation to translate documents. The Departments caution against the use of web-based automated translations; translations that are inaccurate are inconsistent with the school district’s obligation to communicate effectively with LEP (Limited English Proficient) parents.

Thus, to ensure that essential information has been accurately translated and conveys the meaning of the source document, the school district would need to have a machine translation reviewed, and edited as needed, by an individual qualified to do so. Additionally, the confidentiality of documents may be lost when documents are uploaded without sufficient controls to a web-based translation service and stored in their databases.” (U.S. Department of Justice – January 7, 2015)

Google Translate Law: What the courts say

DOJ’s Guidance on using Internet-based translations and federal law compliance are legally binding and are applicable to all covered organizations, including hospitals, courts, airports, public transit, municipal, county, state, and other local governments.

It is well-settled federal law that a federal agency’s interpretation of its own regulation is “controlling” unless plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation. Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452, 461 (1997). DOJ coordinates and enforces federal law compliance nationwide.  DOJ’s interpretations are entitled to special deference. See: Executive Order No. 12250, 45 Fed. Reg. 72,995 (Nov. 2 1980), Consolidated Rail Corporation v.Darrone, 465 U.S. 624, 634 (1984), and Andrus v. Sierra Club, 442 U.S. 347, 357-58 (1979).

The next time you reach for a translation app or click on an online translation website, think twice. Remember, you need a trained, qualified human being to make sure your web-based translations are accurate and comply with federal law. Have more questions about online translations? Just ask the Department of Justice, law enforcement agency for the United States of America.

Read some of Bruce Adelson’s other blog posts to learn about more developments in language access law, and be sure to contact us if you’re interested in a consultation about your own organization’s compliance with federal language access law.

© Bruce L. Adelson, special for Bromberg.  2017 All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only.  No legal advice is intended or conveyed.

Bruce L. Adelson, Esq, CEO of Federal Compliance Consulting LLC is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise concerning many federal laws.  Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Senior Attorney. 

Mr. Adelson teaches cultural and civil rights awareness at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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