Forget the challenges of drafting a city budget or decoding zoning regulations. In Southern California, even picking the language to use at a public meeting can be a sticking point for local government officials.
Consider the choice facing Pico Rivera Mayor E.A. “Pete” Ramirez at a community meeting concerning train noise. Looking out at an almost entirely Latino audience, he started out in Spanish.
But a few minutes into his presentation, he noticed a reporter and asked if she understood. She didn’t.
Ramirez had a dilemma: Should he speak Spanish, which clearly served the majority of the 100-person crowd in the elementary school auditorium? Or should he choose English, which could potentially reach thousands of constituents through the reporter?
Ramirez chose English. And in a speech lasting about 45 minutes, he couldn’t translate back into Spanish for risk of boring his audience.
At the end of the meeting a sheriff’s deputy asked how many Spanish speakers hadn’t understood. About a fifth of the audience members raised their hands.
It’s a conundrum difficult to navigate. State and federal law gives cities a mandate to provide “appropriate” translation when they have “substantial” numbers of non-English speakers. But what do “appropriate” and “substantial” mean?
The law doesn’t provide much guidance, say government experts. Nor does the law have very sharp teeth.
“The way the law was written was without specific consequences,” said Sandra Michioku, spokeswoman for the state attorney general.
The Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act was enacted in 1973 to bring translation to state and local government services. Local government can fulfill its mandate in various ways, from printing bilingual forms to providing bilingual staffers to translate what is said at public meetings.
“The laws have been on the books for a long time, but they are not truly implemented until cities decide what, if anything, they are going to do,” said Luz Buitrago, director of the Law Center for Families, an Oakland organization that helped bring an ordinance to the city requiring the hiring of bilingual workers.
A state survey assessing the law’s effectiveness was released in April. Researchers found that only two out of every 10 state agencies, which the law targets more directly than city governments, were aware of the act.
For cities, even smaller ones, producing documents in other languages can be relatively simple. But public meetings are trickier. Some cities rely on volunteers--be they staffers, council members or even audience members--who offer to translate.
South Gate is a standout that has provided translation at City Council meetings for years. The job pays $100 to $175 an hour, and applicants must pass an oral and written test to be considered.
When the current translator, Gloria Uriarte, started a year ago, about five Spanish speakers attended each meeting. Now she regularly sees about 30 and sometimes more.
Uriarte tries to make the sometimes archaic language of city government accessible.
“You can’t use sophisticated words” in the translation, she said. “I try to figure out very basic words.”
At times Uriarte goes beyond a literal translation, offering commentary on the city’s famously raucous politics. “I sometimes ask, ‘Could you believe this is being commented?’ or ‘Can’t we all just get along?’ ” she said.
Balbina Sanchez, one of Uriarte’s listeners, was recently at a meeting in which one of the councilwomen was mocked by political foes who meowed when she spoke.
Uriarte interrupted her translation to explain that the foes think the councilwoman has a cat-like voice. Sanchez said she likes the perspective Uriarte brings to the sessions.
South Gate officials said they have received praise from residents for providing translations at public meetings, but the idea has opponents nationally.
Mauro E. Mujica, an immigrant from Chile, is chairman of an advocacy group called U.S. English. When he looks at a city like South Gate, he asks, “What about all the other languages? Many immigrants speak many different languages. Are you going to translate for all of them, too?”
Mujica said it “gets too complicated” when politicians institutionalize translation rather than keeping it informal and only for important city matters.
Some cities, such as Monterey Park, do not provide translations at meetings.
In a city where bilingual services are still in their infancy, some important forms and documents are beginning to be translated, but city officials said they don’t have the resources to move on to translating at meetings.
The documents are being translated by a group of volunteers from the city’s large Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking community for distribution at City Hall. Some officials want to do even more to serve the city’s non-English-speaking population. Councilman David Lau, who speaks Cantonese and Mandarin, said the city’s language services are inadequate.
“Right now, we’re only serving people who speak English,” he said. “We’d like to run City Hall like a business. We’re here to serve the clients. If half of the clients speak Chinese, we’d like to accommodate them [and] make City Hall more friendly.”
But for now, translating at public meetings will remain ad hoc.
Hillary Wu, an acupuncture assistant who emigrated from Beijing three years ago, takes English classes at a community college but said she still cannot understand the specialized language of zoning variances and tax increment financing.
“I don’t go because I don’t understand,” she said. “If I go, it’s as if I didn’t even go.”