A crowd of people in the audience in the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors chambers
Monolingual Spanish-speaking residents at a Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors meeting on the closure of Regional Medical Center's trauma center did not have interpreters to translate from English to Spanish. Photo by Brandon Pho.

In a region that speaks roughly 100 languages, non-English speakers often find themselves unable to follow Santa Clara County government meetings. That might finally change.

The problem was on painful display last week, when the $11 billion agency had no one on hand to simultaneously interpret the April 16 Board of Supervisors discussion about the closure of East San Jose’s only trauma unit at Regional Medical Center. The hospital has been a lifeline for uninsured Latino residents on the east side, many of whom only speak Spanish. At the meeting, county doctors and hospital leaders only spoke in English about the life-threatening consequences of the trauma center’s closure.

There was an interpreter translating public comments from Spanish to English during the meeting, but monolingual Spanish speakers could not understand the discussion among officials because the county requires a formal request for that service.

Community organizer and San Jose resident Gabriel Manrique said the county was inexcusably unprepared.

“The county knew there were going to be people at the meeting who didn’t speak English or were monolingual, especially from the east side. A lot of community members had asked for a day off from work to come and speak because they know the trauma and stroke centers are essential,” Manrique told San José Spotlight. “They were lost when the supervisors were having their discussion.”

The issue prompted a public apology from Board President Susan Ellenberg, who acknowledged the county “dropped the ball” that day.

Ellenberg and other supervisors have questioned the county’s lack of simultaneous translation at meetings for years, but said it’s never come up for formal board direction.

“When I was a trustee at the San Jose Unified School District, we did have simultaneous translation at every meeting,” Ellenberg told San José Spotlight, adding she was surprised the county didn’t offer the same. “I just neglected to pursue more aggressively the importance of having that same service at the county. One supervisor or another has raised it at least a couple times every year. The most likely answer is it has not come as specific board direction or assistance.”

County leaders say they’re working on changes.

Curtis Boone, acting county board clerk, said his team is looking at recent technology, as well as some examples from other jurisdictions.

“We have some work to do,” Boone told San José Spotlight. “My team is already exploring options to see how we can best meet the language needs of the community and expand access and participation in our board of supervisors meetings.”

The county isn’t alone in improving its translation services. San Jose began providing in-person human translators at all city council meetings last year after an incident where Spanish-speaking residents were moved to a different room to listen to the meeting. The city also provides live translation to Spanish and Vietnamese residents over Zoom.

In Sunnyvale, the city is piloting an artificial intelligence-based translation service upon request for public meetings through Wordly. The technology offers live translation in more than 50 languages. Using AI is more cost effective and efficient than human translators, according to city officials.

Boone said while the county explores long-term options, he plans to have simultaneous interpretation available at upcoming county board meetings in the short term to encourage participation from residents.

As a result of language barriers, Manrique said the community that most relies on Regional’s stroke and trauma services has no idea what’s about to happen.

“There’s also a huge Vietnamese community that doesn’t speak English, so they’re not informed either,” Manrique told San José Spotlight. “A lot of people have to work during the day and would have to request a day off to speak at these meetings, but most of them can’t afford to take a day off.”

Better translation means better civic engagement from communities that typically trust government or turn out to vote and have their voices heard, Manrique said.

“Having interpretation — working harder to inform people — will make that connection,” he said.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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