Full Sunnyvale city council seated behind the chamber dais during a meeting, with city staffers seated below.
Sunnyvale is piloting an artificial intelligence-based translation service upon request for public meetings. File photo.

Sunnyvale residents who don’t speak English have a new way to engage and participate in city meetings.

The city is piloting an artificial intelligence-based translation service upon request for public meetings through Wordly. The technology offers live translation in more than 50 languages. Using AI is more cost effective and efficient than human translators, according to city officials.

“We have such diversity from cultures as well as language that trying to make sure we can overcome those barriers … is a great step forward in showing what cities can do to include residents who in the past have been left out,” Mayor Larry Klein told San José Spotlight.

On its website, Wordly advertises its work with a handful of other cities, such as Gilroy. Residents attending a Gilroy government meeting in person can scan a QR code to access Wordly translations in more than 30 languages.

Sunnyvale’s use of Wordly differs in that it can translate between multiple languages simultaneously, Klein said, such as English to Spanish and Spanish to English. He added the benefits of the AI translation software outweigh the problems, including any concerns with accuracy, as the technology has an accuracy level similar to human interpreters.

Residents requested the technology be used during a Sunnyvale City Council meeting last week so Spanish-speaking attendees could follow along and provide public comment. City spokesperson Jennifer Garnett said residents can make accommodation requests through the city clerk’s office.

She said the city soft launched its use of Wordly last spring with the Human Relations Commission, which deals with equity and inclusion matters. One commissioner only speaks Spanish and another only speaks English, while the other three commissioners speak both languages. Garnett said the live translation has helped commissioners communicate without issues.

Local cities such as Milpitas also provide translation services on request. San Jose began providing in-person human translators at all city council meetings last year after an incident where Spanish-speaking residents were moved to a different room to listen to the meeting. The city also provides live translation to Spanish and Vietnamese over Zoom.

The adoption of AI translation is cheaper than hiring human translators. Garnett said the city pays $112.50 for every hour the service is used, and has so far paid about $4,308 for more than 38 hours of usage. Hiring an human translator would cost the city up to $400 per hour.

“This creates a much smoother dialogue than using live interpreters,” she  told San José Spotlight. “We likely would have needed two to four live interpreters to accomplish what we are doing with Wordly.”

Contact B. Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] or @SakuCannestra on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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