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Lowell is breaking language barriers ahead of fall election

Khmer-speaking residents comment on the translation project at the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association.Sovanna Pouv

In an effort to welcome its large immigrant community to the ballot box, Lowell has rebooted a $10,000 grant project to disseminate City Council meeting information in Spanish and Khmer, the language of Cambodia.

The Lowell City Council Interpretation Project was developed by the city of Lowell, Working Cities Lowell Initiative, and Lowell TeleMedia Center (LTC) to educate the city’s Latino and Cambodian population on civic issues preceding the city’s election this fall.

One Khmer- and one Spanish-speaking translator review City Council summaries and record an audio version of what happened in their respective languages. LTC then broadcasts the audio on two local cable channels and posts them on Youtube two days after the meeting.


Sovanna Pouv, the executive director of the city’s Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, noted that language can isolate residents from political decisions that affect them.

“Khmer Americans have been living in this city for such a long time, about four decades,” Pouv said. “It’s about time something like the City Council meetings are being interpreted.”

According to the US Census’ 2013-2017 American Community Survey, 44 percent of Lowell’s residents speak a language other than English. Forty-four percent of those speaking Spanish and 56 percent of those speaking Asian and Pacific Island languages said they spoke English less than “very well.”

Working Cities Lowell decided specific programs should be implemented to include its diverse community. With existing ties to the city’s Cambodian population, the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association located the Khmer translator, Tooch Van. The Lowell TeleMedia Center found the Spanish translator, Maria Jose Orgeira.

Shaun McCarthy, the initiative director of the Working Cities Lowell Initiative, said he hopes the project makes bilingual residents feel informed enough to vote in the city’s 2019 election. Ballots will be provided in English, Spanish, and Khmer.

“Translation is a huge thing and we’ve been pushing from day one,” McCarthy said. “We want to have our partners include our residents in decision-making because they are the ones who are being served.”


Tooch and Orgeira use blog posts by Lowell resident Richard Howe for their translations. Howe’s blog is renownedfor its summaries of Lowell City Council meetings and history.

Howe, the Middlesex North Register of Deeds, said explaining politics in other languages could boost participation in elections.

According to a Salem State University report using 2010 US Census data, voter turnout was low for Khmer- and Spanish-speaking residents in Lowell because of “linguistic isolation.”

Howe said, “Far fewer people vote in local elections because they don’t feel like they have enough information.”

According to Wendy Blom, the executive director of LTC, City Council meetings in Khmeraverage 50 views and council meetings in Spanish average 20 views on YouTube so far.

McCarthy saidorganizers hosted focus groups recently that demonstrated growing interest in the project among these populations.

“It opens the door to more trust,” McCarthy said. “A lot of people speak English, but really being able to explain themselves eloquently, it’s easier for them in a different language, no?”

Still, feedback from Cambodian and Latino focus groups revealed to project leaders the need to further tweak the product.

Written translations also aren’t ruled out for the future; McCarthy said audio summaries were chosen initially because residents may not be literate in Khmer or Spanish.

“We’re trying to find the best format,” McCarthy said. “It’s just getting it to be a good product that people are going to listen to ... It’s not exciting subject matter.”


The project required significant patience from its organizers to get off the ground. Eastern Bank Charitable Foundation gave LTC the grant two years ago, but several road bumps along the way quickly halted progress. The project didn’t start again until December of last year.

Initial attempts were also found to beinefficient and costly, according to Blom. The grant pays the translators per meeting and also pays an administration fee to LTC, and already the project is running over budget. Without additional revenue, the project may end permanently.

“We can’t go over the initial grant,” Blom said. “We’re going to have to stop.”

Annika Hom can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @AnnikaHom.