As Bay Area Cities Adopt Real-Time AI Translation for Public Meetings, SF Abstains

Community groups say San Francisco needs to improve language access at City Hall

At a City Hall meeting in San Francisco, an interpreter helps a resident make a public comment.

Zhe Wu/San Francisco Public Press

Without AI-translation software, San Francisco provides human interpreters like this one, right, who helped a Cantonese speaker communicate with English-speaking city officials at a recent public meeting.

Imagine that you speak little or no English and want to join a public hearing about issues affecting your neighborhood. In a growing number of Northern California cities, this is how that works:

You walk into the meeting and, at the entrance, use your phone to scan a code displayed on a placard. It warps you to a website where you select your language — suppose that’s Brazilian Portuguese — and presto! A live transcription of the meeting, now in Portuguese, begins flowing on your screen. You can keep reading the translated dialogue or plug in your headphones so a robotic voice can read it to you.

San Jose, Millbrae and other cities are experimenting with this artificial intelligence-powered software to make local government more accessible through real-time translation. Napa County, the most recent to try it out, launched the service this week.

“I don’t think we can afford not to do it, given the needs of our population,” said Millbrae Mayor Anders Fung, the first Asian American immigrant to hold that office. About one in five Millbrae residents is not proficient in English, according to U.S. Census data.

“We need to serve the people in a way they could understand,” Fung said.

The technology has the potential to bridge communication gaps in San Francisco, where nearly 147,000 residents are estimated to be less than proficient in English. Members of the public can struggle to access city-provided human interpreters, who verbally translate what’s said during public meetings. But officials say they have no plan to introduce this service, out of concerns about its accuracy and cultural competency. Local community groups share those concerns, but also say they are interested in the technology’s potential to make public meetings more accessible.

Sign up for our newsletter to stay on top of issues affecting immigrant communities

Neither human nor machine is flawless. Staff from those local groups said that city-provided interpreters are not always culturally competent or accurate. And the San Francisco Public Press’ test of AI-translation software revealed numerous shortcomings — like translating “budget” into “butter” when the speaker pronounced it poorly — though overall the product worked.

Tech company Wordly, based in Los Altos, launched its AI-powered translation service in 2019 and initially marketed it to industry conferences and companies doing global business. But the company quickly found one of its fastest-growing uses in local governments, including in the Bay Area, said Dave Deasy, chief marketing manager. The product can translate 58 languages, including Arabic, Italian, Russian and Japanese.

Companies offering similar AI-powered real-time translation products for meetings and events include Interprefy, based in Switzerland, and KUDO, in New York. Both launched their products more recently than Wordly, which appears to lead in adoption by local governments.

Helping officials talk with each other, residents

Before embracing Wordly, Millbrae provided interpreters at public meetings to people who requested them in advance — San Francisco has a similar policy. But officials realized a year ago that they needed the AI-based tool, Mayor Fung said, when an attendee made a public comment in Mandarin. Fung, who was not mayor at the time, said he was the only councilmember who understood the attendee because no one had booked a Chinese-to-English interpreter.

By using Wordly, Millbrae residents can skip that step.

“The beauty of our product is that it’s on demand and you don’t have to plan ahead,” Deasy said.

In the city of Sunnyvale, the newly formed Human Relations Commission uses Wordly, enabling monolingual Spanish- and English-speaking commissioners to deliberate more easily and quickly.

“This creates a much smoother dialogue than using live interpreters,” city spokesperson Jennifer Garnett said.

San Jose began using Wordly for its city council and committee meetings in April. A month after launch, City Clerk Toni J. Taber said public feedback was positive and the city planned to extend its use to other departments, according to news publication Government Technology.

In Modesto, officials made initial plans during the COVID-19 pandemic to offer Spanish subtitle service, but adopted Wordly in 2022 instead in hopes that it would help engage communities that spoke other languages.

Wordly says on its website that it is less expensive than human interpretation, in part because it translates dozens of languages; providing that service by conventional means would require hiring several people. Reports from some cities support this. San Jose budgeted $400,000 per year for eight interpreters. After the city adopted Wordly, the annual cost fell to $82,000, the San José Spotlight reported. In Gilroy, a two-hour meeting used to require two interpreters and cost at least $500, but using Wordly has dropped that cost to $300.

Wordly offers various subscription plans, with the hourly price of translation ranging from roughly $100 to $300.

Accuracy problems common with AI

The Public Press conducted a 15-minute trial of Wordly, using it to listen to a Cantonese version of a Modesto City Council meeting about the city budget. Overall, the product achieved its goal of accurately reflecting the discussion about this complex topic, including when exchanges were dense with numbers.

Hand holding phone that shows Wordly translation.

Zhiwei Feng

Cantonese translation, by AI software Wordly, of English dialogue from a recent Modesto City Council meeting.

But initial translation accuracy was low, with words out of context and incorrectly sequenced in a manner more akin to English than Chinese. As a speaker kept talking, Wordly overwrote its prior output with a more accurate translation. For example, in a discussion about the city’s budget, Wordly translated someone’s statement about cars as a reference to “marine” vehicles, like boats, before quickly correcting itself.

Translations were often too literal. When a councilmember said, “So moved” — a procedural declaration about a government’s item of business — Wordly mistranslated it as “所以感动” which means “so (emotionally) touching.” When a speaker presented financial projections and referred to a square visual element in a table of figures, Wordly sometimes called the element a physical box.

Wordly lets users click on translated sentences to read them in the original language. That could help some people piece together a speaker’s meaning during or after a public meeting.

When users have Wordly speak the translated text, the audio stops if the phone’s screen turns off. That could vex less tech-savvy people whose screens automatically time out.

SF government, community skeptical

San Francisco officials said they were open to using AI but did not have plans to adopt Wordly or a similar tool.

“We believe that there’s no better interpreter and translator than the human, who can capture the essence and cultural nuances in language better than any type of machine translation,” said Jorge Rivas, executive director of the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs, which oversees implementation of the city’s language policy.

Staff at various community groups told the Public Press they were interested in technology that would make public meetings more accessible in more languages, but they expressed general concern about AI products. Some declined to comment on the record about Wordly because they had not tried it.

Sandy Jiang, a community organizer at the Chinatown Community Development Center, said she worried about Wordly’s accuracy and usability, especially for seniors who struggle with smartphones. She often helps residents by interpreting their comments into English during public meetings.

High-quality translation and interpretation require more than word-for-word replacement, and benefit from cultural competence, Jiang said. In Cantonese, for example, the name for Grant Avenue isn’t a direct translation, which would be 格蘭特大道. Instead, the Chinese community knows it as 都板街, which translates to Dupont Street, its name before the 1906 earthquake. And while “Chinatown” is generally translated as 唐人街, San Francisco locals better recognize it as 華埠, which means “Chinese wharf.”

Here, Wordly might actually have an edge over some human interpreters. Its translations can incorporate local terms for people, places or organizations that a client city specifies, Deasy said, as well as block profanity and other unwanted language. Jiang and other sources said they had witnessed city-provided interpreters use local terminology that was not culturally competent.

And while Wordly would not be able to clarify a speaker’s meaning with them in real time, some human interpreters also fail to provide that service. Members of the public have frequently felt misrepresented during public comment, said Vanessa Bohm, director of family wellness and health promotion programs at the Central American Resource Center, a nonprofit serving the Bay Area Latino community.

Bohm also expressed concern that AI tools could reduce demand for good interpreters and leave them with less work.

Bohm and Jiang both said that a service like Wordly could be a backup when human interpretation was unavailable, but that top-shelf interpretation should always be the priority.

“Interpretation means for the person to understand what you are talking about,” Jiang said. “The important part of providing interpretation is not just having a service, [it] is actually having the service that works.”

Don't miss out on our newest articles, episodes and events!
Sign up for our newsletter