San Jose lags on language translation services
San Jose is facing criticism for its inefficient system for offering in-person language translation services at public meetings. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    San Jose provides translation services for public meetings for those who ask for it, but those who don’t may find themselves relegated to a separate room.

    That’s what happened at last week’s San Jose City Council meeting during a budget discussion. Lucila Ortiz, political director at the advocacy nonprofit Working Partnerships USA, criticized the city for not providing any in-person translation services for Spanish speakers at the meeting. The city responded by opening a nearby room to display the council meeting on Zoom, where Spanish language translation is available for every public meeting.

    Ortiz said five people were in the Spanish-speaking room—all of whom shared frustrations with the makeshift solution as they waited for the city to get the livestream to work.

    “It felt like segregation,” Ortiz told San José Spotlight. “To show up and be treated as second class citizens is totally unacceptable. It only feeds into this fear immigrants have that they don’t have the right to participate in these meetings.”

    City Clerk Toni Taber, who is responsible for setting up translation services, said she didn’t provide translation because it wasn’t requested, but understands why people were upset with the room change. She noted it was a last minute solution—not a permanent one. Right after Ortiz raised the concern, Mayor Matt Mahan asked Taber to determine the cost and resources needed for in-person translation services at all public meetings.

    “I’m working with the mayor’s office right now for the next fiscal year, to bring in-person translation regularly and determining the cost as quickly as we can,” Taber told San José Spotlight.

    City data shows roughly 60% of San Jose residents speak languages other than English, with the most common being Spanish and Vietnamese.

    Based on initial estimates, it would cost at minimum $300,000 annually to provide two in-person translators each for Spanish and Vietnamese speakers at every public city meeting. That estimate doesn’t include the rental or purchase cost for headphones and other translation equipment needed, Taber said. This year San Jose has spent $55,000 for translation services. In 2021-22, the city spent almost $116,000.

    Ortiz said full time in-person translation is a step in the right direction, but she doesn’t want to wait months for the city to acquire and approve the funds. There are residents who want to participate now, especially as the council continues to discuss the upcoming budget.

    “The onus shouldn’t be on residents to ask for these services,” Ortiz said.

    Sarah McDermott, also political director at Working Partnerships USA, shared a video of the Spanish-speaker room on Twitter and it elicited negative reactions. McDermott said she shared the video because she was disappointed by the city’s solution.

    “There’s smaller cities that have figured out how to do this and make sure that it’s not on the public to request translation. Why can’t San Jose?” McDermott told San José Spotlight.

    Gilroy uses a program where residents can pick from 30 different languages and listen to the meeting live through headphones connected to their phones. San Francisco has in-person Chinese and Spanish translators available at every city meeting. But Taber said most cities in the state have similar setups to San Jose, where residents can request translation services ahead of time.

    Ortiz said asking residents to request translation services ahead of time may have been a good solution more than a decade ago when San Jose first started taking requests, but the city should do more. She said the city should also make it easier to access documents such as council agendas in different languages as well.

    “There are a lot of gaps that San Jose needs to fix,” Ortiz said. “But this is one of the easier fixes.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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