VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — When a Chinese woman was brought to the Virginia Beach jail on prostitution charges this summer, she was so distraught that deputies thought she might need to be on suicide watch.
They tried to ask her questions, but she did not speak English.
“We were stumbling trying to figure out what to do,” Capt. John Vargas said. “We were trying to get an interpreter on the phone, and it was taking a long time.”
Sgt. William Fowler, who was watch commander that day, suggested they try Google Translate. The free app can be downloaded to translate text, speech, images and video into 90 languages.
“I had used it before when I was trying to figure out how to say something in Spanish to an inmate,” Fowler said. “I said, ‘If you’re willing to give it a shot, you can use my phone.’ ”
The sergeant downloaded the app on his cellphone, set it to translate from English to Chinese and handed the phone to Kevin Childs, a social worker who was trying to question the woman.
Childs used the phone to ask his questions and then handed it to the woman. She could listen to them in Chinese or read them. She answered into the phone in Chinese, and the app translated the responses into English for Childs to read and hear.
After asking her several questions, such as “Do you want to harm yourself?” the social worker determined the woman was not suicidal, just upset about having been arrested.
“She seemed a lot less stressed” once she was able to communicate with jail staff, Childs said. “She appreciated the effort and thanked us.”
The Sheriff’s Office recently purchased two iPads and downloaded Google Translate onto them.
One is kept in the intake area, where new inmates are processed. There, deputies can ask inmates whether they need to make a phone call or whether they understand their legal situation.
The other iPad is kept in the classification section, where staff members question a new inmate to determine where he or she should be housed. They usually ask, for example, “Do you belong to a gang?” Inmates in rival gangs are kept apart.
The staff has tested the app in Spanish, Chinese and Korean and has been amazed by its accuracy, Vargas said.
“It’s right on point,” he said.
But Jost Zetzsche, a spokesman for the American Translators Association and a translator for 25 years, expressed concern with the app being used in a jail.
“Language is tricky, and errors always happen,” Zetzsche said. “Google Translate is ingenious. It’s great when you’re traveling. But it’s not good enough to rely on when it is communication that’s really important.”
Virginia Beach Public Defender Cal Bain said he does not know enough about Google Translate and how well it works to know whether it is a good idea for jail staffers to use. But as long as inmates are being asked innocuous questions, Bain said, it’s probably not a bad idea.
“It’s certainly going to be better than drawing pictures or making gestures with your hands or playing charades,” he said.
The Sheriff’s Office has about 45 deputies and other staff members who speak a second language, spokeswoman Kathy Hieatt said. Most speak Spanish. Other languages include Korean, French, Thai, German, Hebrew and American Sign Language.
“The first approach is if there is someone on duty who speaks their language, we will get them, but if not, we will use the app,” Vargas said. The Sheriff’s Office can also use translators from The Language Group, a local business the city contracts with for translation services, Hieatt said.
The jail gets one or two inmates a week who speak little, if any, English, Hieatt said. Overall, it processed about 11,000 people in the first nine months of this year, she said.
Other sheriff’s offices in the area also rely first on deputies who speak other languages to translate when available. In Chesapeake, if there is no one around to translate, the office uses Language Link, a service it pays for monthly, said Deputy Jocelyn Cruz, a spokeswoman.
The Suffolk Sheriff’s Office uses Google Translate, spokesman Maj. E.C. Harris said.
And in Norfolk, the Sheriff’s Office also recently decided to start using the app when dealing with inmates who do not speak English, spokeswoman Karen Hopkins said.
“I guess it’s really catching on,” she said.
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com
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