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Speaking in Tongues

How the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank Stays Afloat in a Sea of Languages

March 7, 2019

There are 350 languages spoken in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In fact, 20 percent of the people in the United States speak a language other than English in their home. For an organization like the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank, it means being prepared for anything.

 “Death eventually touches everyone,” explained Robert Austin, the eye bank’s manager of public and professional relations, “and that means we have to be prepared to communicate with the family of an eye donor in whatever language they are most comfortable using. The very nature of our work can bring us in contact with just about anyone, anywhere.” 
As an international eye bank, it’s even possible that a donated cornea could be transplanted anywhere in the world. Since its creation in 1982, the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank has placed corneas for transplant in over 30 different countries. 

So, how does an organization like this handle multiple languages? It gets expert help.

“Our telephone interpretation service offers us access to interpreters in over 200 languages in less than a minute,” Austin said. When it comes to written communications, the eye bank uses a variety of services, depending on the context of what needs translated. 

“If we have a letter written by a transplant recipient in Japan to her donor’s family in Wyoming,” Austin said, “then we may use a generalized service with a quick turnaround time.” Yet, for technical documents meant for customs officials or that are full of ophthalmology terms, the eye bank turns to translation services that have experts in those subjects. Some services also have rigorous quality measures in place to ensure accuracy for regulated documents. 

Yet, despite its ability to respond rapidly in just about any language, it was only recently that the eye bank managed to offer Spanish content on its website. Spanish is the second most spoken language in the United States and Austin said the change was a long time in coming. “It is something that we simply took too long to do,” Austin admits. “We have always had resources available for Spanish speakers. For example, we have Spanish-speaking staff members. We have Spanish resource materials for both the families of eye donors and transplant recipients. We regularly translate letters between donor families and transplant recipients at no cost.” Yet, what the eye bank didn’t have was all of that in a place accessible without having to go through the public relations department. 

So, when the eye bank began redesigning its website last fall, part of that design included Spanish language content. “We waited until we rebuilt the website so that we could think about the Spanish content in a thoughtful way, rather than just sticking it in where we could.” As a result, Spanish speakers now have access to the same information and resources on the eye bank’s website that English speakers do. 

“Our goal,” Austin said, “is to make sure that we are communicating effectively, compassionately, accurately, and with cultural sensitivity with all the people we rely on to fulfill our mission.”  That is true no matter where in the world they are or what language they speak. 

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