For most people, this type of uncertainty is too stressful. But more than 4,000 volunteers have stepped up to take on a job no one asked them to do: welcome the expected 90,000 national and international choirs, families and visitors to Cincinnati for the World Choir Games.
Of these volunteers, 46 are organizing more than 700 foreign language speakers and translators who will assist our international guests as they traverse the unknown in Cincinnati.
At the core of these foreign language volunteers is the Cincinnati USA Sister Cities Association, the result of a program created by President Eisenhower to promote relationships between American cities and those in countries across the world. The city’s first official partnership was with Liuzhou, China in 1988, followed by Gifu, Japan; Kharkiv, Ukraine; Munich, Germany; Harare, Zimbabwe; Nancy, France and New Taipei City, Taiwan.
Last year, Sister Cities President Bob Stevie, Kraeling and others in the organization began soliciting more than 2,000 choirs to participate in the World Choir Games with the help of these Sister Cities. Stevie explained that not only were they able to spread the word to potential participants, but all of the information was available in their language. The Sister Cities program also created a base of translators, some of which are traveling thousands of miles to Cincinnati in order to help, at their own expense.
Two other main sources of translation volunteers, Stevie explained, are the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University, along with the World Choir Games’ volunteer site. Finding hundreds of locals who are fluent in another language is pretty remarkable, considering Cincinnati’s significantly low number of bilingual residents. For a city its size, “Cincinnati has the smallest number of people who speak a foreign language at home,” Stevie said, “only 5 percent of local families.” In comparison, cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago have a 20-50 percent rate.
Assembling a group of translators of this size was only half the battle. While working with Chinese students from UC, Stevie discovered that many of these foreign students were not familiar with the downtown area. “After seven or eight months (of living on campus), many of them did not know where Fountain Square was,” Stevie said.
An additional mission became clear — the volunteers themselves would need to learn the urban terrain in order to guide choirs from venue to venue.
It’s important to keep in mind that the Sister City Association, like the individual volunteers, offered its services and organized with the World Choir Games not because that was part of the job description, but simply because it needed to get done. There must be foreign language speakers available to help people who have never been to the United States. That being said, there are simply not enough resources for Sister Cities to organize a “Downtown 101” for hundreds of people unfamiliar with the city. Individual leaders from various language-speaking groups planned trips to downtown and walking tours within themselves to help each other prepare for their final test during the Games.
“Our goal is to make sure these people have a good time,” Stevie told volunteers.
“You’re the ones (who are) going to be in contact with these choirs. You’re going to be the ones telling them what’s available in the city. You’re going to get the questions, and it’s your knowledge of the city that’s the most important part of this whole piece. As I’ve said a hundred times, when they leave here we want them to feel they’ve had a hug instead of a handshake. They’re going to go back and send their friends, make friends here and come back themselves.”
To aid in this goal, Metro offers free shuttle service around downtown to Choir Games participants and has translated bus schedules into several languages. Krohn Conservatory has extended its international butterfly show, On Wings of Harmony, featuring butterflies from around the world, through July 15 and will have self-guided tours in 16 languages (thanks to help from Sister Cities organization). Many volunteer translators have even arranged to take their groups to a Reds game and other local attractions — again, going above and beyond what anyone has asked of them.
And while the number of volunteer translators is pretty remarkable for our predominantly unilingual city, our visitors cannot have a guide with them at all times. Yet, as a city, we still want to encourage these guests to explore Cincinnati as an English-speaking visitor would. Enter Globili, the locally-created QR code translating tool, from Bill Donabedian and Ran Mullins.
A co-founder of MidPoint Music Festival, Bunbury Music Festival and former managing director of Fountain Square, Donabedian gained interest in translating public signage on the Square in 2009. With the local landmark being such a premiere destination for foreign visitors, Donabedian couldn’t believe the signs are only in English. “You can hear people there, not speaking English,” he says.
That year, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls encouraged the addition of Spanish signs in city facilities, but to create new signs in just one additional language would cost $4,000. Donabedian began creating a tool for cell phones that would translate signage and then text users in their own language. After a couple years of raising capital and looking for a partner, he reconnected with friend and entrepreneur Mullins in spring 2011.
“It was kind of like I designed a car without the engine, Ran put the engine in and made it look better,” Donabedian says. By his last day working with Fountain Square, Globili was underway. The mobile service offers QR codes people can scan, which translate text into more than 50 languages. Because there isn’t a digital space limit like there is on a public sign, the translation can include supplemental information. For example, if a visitor scanned a Globili code on Fountain Square, the signage might say “No swimming in the fountain,” but the translated text could also include a summer event calendar for the Square, which would even be of use to English speaking visitors and locals alike. “Translation is just one of the benefits,” Donabedian says. “It’s really about providing more relevant information to that person.”
Globili goes beyond public signage, too. Codes can be applied to restaurant menus, museum pamphlets and even packaging, which means Globili can and will be used globally, beyond the World Choir Games.
Not only does the tool provide a welcoming service to visitors from across the world, but “from the back end, content owners can see what’s being scanned understand who’s using it,” Donabedian says.
Globili subscriptions are free through July 15 and codes can be found at dozens of area attractions, businesses and restaurants including the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Tavern Restaurant Group and the Cincinnati Art Museum.
As Stevie described it, the World Choir Games has “brought the city name to the national stage.” Just as area residents might have difficulty naming a city in Indonesia, many participating choirs and visitors had never even heard of Cincinnati before the World Choir Games. The event has raised the level of global awareness of the city. And while this week through July 14 is Cincinnati’s time to shine, the result of everyone’s unsolicited work has potential to benefit the city long-term. Local residents who have never ventured outside their neighborhoods will get to see downtown in its best shape in years, full of buzzing businesses and guests from across the globe. Cincinnati’s core can potentially become a more welcoming place for visitors and locals for years to come.