When Language is Legal: Are You Mandated to Translate?

Author: C. Curley Date: January 09, 2012

Understand labor laws for small businessesWhen you receive federal assistance, you may have to provide certain translation or interpretation services to people with limited English skills.

Generally directed at federal agencies, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act—which prevents discrimination based on national origin—also applies to private businesses that receive federal funding.

The rule applies if there’s a significant non-English speaking community in your area. It generally relates to grant recipients, not subsidies intended to keep a business afloat, says Bruce Adelson, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Federal Compliance Consulting, who helps organizations comply with Title VI.

How It Applies

The mandate lasts for the duration of the grant, and no translation may ever be necessary. Still, “If you receive federal financial assistance in one part of your organization—let’s say for training or maintenance—it applies to your entire organization,” Adelson explains.

The law doesn’t mandate any specific service, just that you “provide meaningful access to members of the public in a language they can understand,” says Nataly Kelly, Chief Research Officer at Common Sense Advisory, a market research firm in Boston. Due to the law’s vagueness, it’s up to you to decide what works best in your organization.

RELATED: How to Address Language Gaps with Customers

What to Provide

Kelly recommends taking three steps to provide access to people with limited English proficiency:

1. Document the language skills of your employees in case an interpretation is necessary.
2. Translate vital documents such as consent forms, and post multilingual signs letting customers know the forms are available in their language.
3. Create an account with a telephone interpreting company like Language Line Services in case you ever need the service. Kelly says the services typically are inexpensive and available in several languages.

Potential Consequences for Non-Compliance

“The odds of the Justice Department coming down on a mom-and-pop business is very low, absent some egregious situation,” Adelson says.
But a complaint could cost you time and legal fees, if not actual penalties, and Adelson says companies aren’t always aware of funding they’ve received. Contact an attorney who specializes in Title VI to find out more about compliance issues.

RELATED: Managing Non-English-Speaking Employees

Other Language Laws

If you do business in Canada or Europe, you may be subject to still other translation laws.

“Products sold into any part of Canada require French and English [text],” says Bob Clark, president of 24K Marketing in Chester Springs, Pa. He says he pulled out of Canada because providing bilingual package labels was cost-prohibitive.

Many states have their own language requirements, so familiarize yourself with your state rules.

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