The Hawaii Department of Transportation plans to resume providing translations of drivers license tests in eight languages by the end of the year.

There is sure to be rejoicing in Tongan, Samoan, Tagalog, Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese, when speakers of those languages can once again take the exams in their primary language. Spanish speakers, too.

But community and faith-based groups are asking about sizable groups — the Marshallese, Chuukese and Ilocano — that are being left out, given our fast-growing Micronesian and Filipino communities.

On a concrete level, decisions like this raise questions about who will have access to mobility and who will be left behind, but the issue also reflects Hawaii’s ongoing challenges in incorporating its remarkable diversity into society.

“I did not learn to drive until I was 52, and if I did not pass the test I would not a get a job,” said Cornelia Soberano, a Filipino-Canadian immigrant to Maui whose native tongue is Ilocano. “Some people speak English very well, but to write English in such an important test that uses such big words, phrases and expressions, that is not necessarily understood.”

Soberano, who is the co-founder of the Maui Filipino Working Group that “advocates for progress and social change” in their community, explained that failing a drivers test can have serious consequences that include making it difficult, if not impossible, to hold a job or get children to school. And when you can’t drive, how do you get a sick relative to the hospital?

Translations By Christmas

In a state where immigrants make up 18 percent of the population, a coalition of religious organizations, social service agencies, tenant groups and labor unions, laments what it sees as inadequate translating.

A report by the non-profit group Faith Action for Community Equity — known by its acronym FACE — notes that “our state is one of only five that does not currently offer drivers tests or drivers manuals in any language other than English and prohibits the use of interpreters.” (The coalition’s report is reproduced below.)

Translations of the drivers test actually began in 2001, but were suspended several years ago after new state laws led to changes in the test, and the new version wasn’t translated.

In addition to the restored languages, the state formerly offered the test in one other: Laotian. Unfortunately for people from that Southeast Asian nation, it won’t be coming back.


Marshallese and Chuukese after delivering petition to the Maui DOT, April 30, 2013.

So what were the changes that brought a temporary end to the drivers test in other languages? Caroline Sluyter, the Department of Transportation’s public information officer, wrote in an email, “Approximately four years ago legislation was passed to include a question on the test regarding leaving children unattended in a vehicle. Since then, through legislation, two additional questions have been added.”

“The other two questions that have recently been added, through legislation, are one regarding yielding to blind pedestrians and another regarding distracted driving,” said Sluyter.

The questions were not added, however, to the translated versions, and so they could not be used.

Representatives of the FACE coalition met with Department of Transportation officials this spring to deliver petitions urging the addition of Marshallese, Chuukese and Ilocano to the tests.

Kim Harman, the director of the coalition’s policy and development, said FACE has not heard from the Department of Transportation since May 14, despite their numerous communications.

Various estimates put the Marshallese population in Hawaii at somewhere between 3,300 and 6,500, while the Chuukese (from the island of Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia) consist of 900 to 1,600 people here. Harman notes that estimates vary widely, and what most people familiar with the populations agree on is that the numbers are growing.

Partly that is because Marshallese and Chuukese immigrants come from Micronesian nations that are part of the Compact of Free Association, which means that they are permitted to legally travel to, and live and work in, the United States.

The DOT did not provide information about the cost of the translations, or offer any reaction to the petition for additional languages.

‘Flick Your Lights’

But Harman said many speakers of Marshallese, Chuukese and Ilocano fail the test because of the numerous unfamiliar English idioms that it contains. FACE literature points out that a driver might know the rules of the road and control their vehicle well, even if they don’t grasp the meaning of words such as “gazes,” “flick” and “abreast” that appear on the test, meaning that vocabulary can facilitate their failure. And the failure to get a license has consequences on employment, health care and education.

Harman cites one question in which a car is driving toward you with their brights on at night, that can be confusing to non-English speakers. “One option is to ‘Flick your lights,’ but they don’t know what that means. Another option is, ‘Teach them a lesson.’ One of our members said, ‘Teaching is always good’ — as if you are going to get out of your car and teach them! That phrase does not translate.”

Mrs. Soberano, the Ilocano speaker who has lived and worked on Maui and the mainland, said, “After all these years of speaking English, there are still parts of the language I do not understand. My husband laughs at me. But others could be impacted even more. Can you imagine what it would be like if they all failed (the test) and gave up?”

For local Ilocano speakers that could translate into a lot of people. Soberano said that a majority of the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in Hawaii — are Ilocano. Though Tagalog may be the national language of the Philippines, not all Filipinos speak it.

Required By Law

FACE has worked with the state’s Office of Language Access on the translation issue. The office is charged with providing oversight, coordination and technical assistance to state agencies and organizations that receive state funding regarding the implementation of Hawaii’s Language Access Law.

The law requires that those agencies provide written translations of “vital documents to limited English proficient persons” who want to access services, programs, or activities. The “limited English proficient persons” must constitute 5 percent or 1,000, whichever is less, of the population of persons “eligible to be served or likely to be affected or encountered.”

Rebecca Gardner, senior legal analyst with Office of Language Access, said state law mirrors federal law for agencies receiving federal funds. The federal law covers those seeking a drivers license.

She said the law “gives a lot of wiggle room” to state agencies, and that there are challenges in enforcing the law. But she stressed that agency officials need to be aware of the law and know that it requires agencies to have a language access plan.

Kikko Eram, a Chuukese working with FACE on Maui, conveyed why. “My friends and family, they tell me the test is very, very tricky,” she said of the English-language version.

“Let our test be translated.”

DISCUSSION: How many languages should the DOT translate the drivers test into?*

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