In October 2020, Branch had been invited to speak at a local meeting of the Korean American Coalition. Just 5 months earlier, Branch had launched our flagship product — a free, nonpartisan website that walks voters through what’s on their ballot and where the candidates stand on key issues. The Korean American Coalition had seen the success of our June launch which prepared over 17,000 Georgians to cast their vote in the Primary Election.
During this meeting, one of the members wondered out loud, could Branch be made accessible in their parent’s primary language of Korean?
In 2016, the U.S Census Bureau released an updated list of counties required to provide voting materials in languages other than English under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. This list of counties is determined based on a 5% minimum threshold for foreign language speakers in a community’s voting population. In 2020, DeKalb County became the first county in Georgia to voluntarily offer voter information in Korean, despite not being obligated by law. This year, Gwinnett County passed a $4.4 million dollar budget which allocates funding towards expanded election services. Residents anticipate the expansion of voting services and election materials into Vietnamese, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese, the official languages for 60,000 members of Gwinnett’s population.
Having to read through complex political information in your non-native language can be challenging and overwhelming. This can discourage new citizens from participating in the democratic processes in their new home. At Branch, we’ve always been passionate about making state and local government approachable to everyone. How was this any different?
Taking on a translation project which started with Korean and scaled up to include Spanish & Chinese has taught us humility and patience. To give a fair representation of the size of this project, we’re talking more than 100,000 words per language. Another huge challenge comes from the political nature of the source text. Finding equivalent words for a text thick with political jargon and culturally specific terms is like solving a puzzle. A good translation is not just easy to read, but it fundamentally makes sense. Political systems can vary widely across cultures, so forming a good translation requires innovation in how we unify humans and machine software to put the pieces together.
Fast forward to May 2022, the Branch team has profiled over 1,000 candidates running for office in Georgia, and announced the addition of Spanish, Korean, and Chinese language access sitewide. And what does that kind of initiative look like, you ask?
Branch’s translation process occurs in three primary steps. We begin by working with professional translators to identify and define the best way to translate political terms, such as “Mayor” or “City Council.” Depending on the language, these terms can be very difficult to translate. For example, in Korean and Chinese, the concept of “state” in the term “Secretary of State” needs to be clarified. Some terms, like “diversion program”, don’t have a counterpart in Korean, so transliteration (phonetic spelling of the English word) is used instead. These translators create our very first, basic outline of a translation.
We then utilize machine-learning translation software, which is able to intelligently translate the over 100,000 words on our site into the various languages, while relying on the up-front translations performed by our professional translators. The final step in this process returns back to the people. Through crowdsourcing, over 20 people in the Georgia community contributed by reviewing content in their respective language(s). With their input and edits, we even further improved the quality of our 3 languages now available on www.branch.vote.
Through this three step process, we’ve pioneered new techniques to reliably translate political information. This translated content is already being used by local voting advocacy groups, including GALEO, the Latino Community Fund, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Atlanta. As these techniques improve in the future, we hope to share our technology with other political and governmental entities so that multi-language materials can become better, more cost-effective, and more commonplace.
In the weeks leading up Election Day we’ve felt a morale boost seeing already over 7,000 voters relying on our site to get informed about their ballots. We’re enthusiastic that those numbers will continue to grow as our service becomes more readily open to the diverse voting population of Georgia.