For the growing immigrant communities in southern New Hampshire, the language barrier poses many challenges, from schools to public transit. The city of Nashua has come up with a novel way to help city bus drivers communicate with passengers with limited English abilities.
That's how, on a recent weekday, bus driver Kevin Boyle managed to talk with a Spanish-speaking passenger who only knows a few words of English.
Boyle asks the woman where she's headed. A second or two later, a tablet computer, perched next to the fare box and equipped with the Google Translate app, pipes up.
The app also displays the Spanish text, and the woman, standing with her little boy, reads the screen.
There’s been lots of talk lately about how smartphone apps like Uber are “disrupting” traditional modes of transportation. Nashua offers the case of an old-line transit agency embracing an app for its own purposes. It allows drivers and non-English speaking passengers talk to each other, in a way, through the app’s almost real-time translations.
And it’s not just a matter of convenience. Nearly all public transit agencies receive federal funding and are therefore required to comply with federal laws prohibiting “discrimination based on race, color, and national origin.”
Kristi Gillette, Nashua’s transit operations supervisor, says Federal Transit Administration rules require agencies to provide translation services.
"We have to do our best to make sure when they get on the bus, we have an option for them, we can meet their needs," Gillette says. "Before we had Google translate, the city had a translator; we had one available as a dispatcher and we we had the translation services available to us. but there’s a time delay with that.
Gillette was joined on a recent ride-along by Raymond Blethen, the general manager for First Transit, the contractor that runs the system.
The idea of using Google Translate came from Blethen, who had used the app in his own travels. Tablet computers are already installed on all Nashua city buses — so it was just a matter of downloading the app.
“It doesn't fix everything," Blethen says. "You still need to have those other resources, translators. But it’s another source to help you do the translation and communicate with people you may not be able to normally.”
There have been reports of Google Translate being used in all kinds of settings, from business meetings to emergency rooms. But its official use by a transit agency appears to be a new one. Nashua doesn’t have any kind of formal relationship with Google. The tech giant did not respond to an interview request.
Of course, the app isn’t perfect. But Kevin Boyle, the bus driver, says it generally gets the job done.
“It’s a amazing. when it translates from the Spanish to the English," Boyle says, "it picks it up perfectly. But English to Spanish, with the slang, they way we talk with our English, some us from are from Boston or New York or wherever we’re from, we tend to have to slow down a little so it understands what we’re saying."
Blethen says he thinks the translation app — or another like it — could become fixtures on buses. He recently spoke about Nashua’s use of the app at a meeting of the New Hampshire Transit Association.
"I was talking about it with some of my colleagues there," he says. "And I think some those transit systems, they thought it was a very good idea. They were kind of shocked they didn't think of it themselves. I think they’ll all be adding it in the next couple months, all the ones that have tablets on the buses.”
So Google Translate could be coming soon to a bus near you. Or for the Spanish-speakers out there:
“La aplicación podría estar llegando a un autobús cerca de usted."