San Jose takes pride in its diversity but has no in-house translators
Santa Clara County residents listen along to a government meeting through headphones, which provide simultaneous interpretation. Photo by Katie Lauer.

With more than half the households in San Jose speaking a language other than English, the nation’s 10th largest city doesn’t have full-time staff dedicated to translation and interpretation at City Hall.

Without full-time translators on staff, San Jose Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco, whose constituents include many monolingual Spanish speakers, has come to expect her own bilingual-certified team to fill the void.

“I know who we’re serving, so my expectations are high,” Carrasco told Lucescamaray Blog.

In a recent interview, the city's outgoing communications director said the lack of professional translation services in a city as large and diverse as San Jose is a major shortcoming.

“In a city as diverse as ours and as committed to equity and communicating well, it would be great to have those services in-house,” former city spokeswoman Rosario Neaves told Lucescamaray Blog.

But city administrators say they're taking other steps to ensure people with limited English language proficiency have access to critical information about what's happening at city meetings and events.

According to Lee Wilcox, the city manager’s chief of staff, San Jose has access to 14 contracted vendors for language interpretation and translation, in addition to more than 800 internal employees who have earned bilingual certification. Wilcox said utilizing city employees allows San Jose to reach the community directly and foster relationships, despite budgeting shortfalls.

For weekly City Council meetings, city policy requires staff to provide interpreters and translators if a request is made 72 hours in advance – the Saturday before Tuesday meetings. If specific agenda items are expected to require language translation, city officials said they request those services ahead of time.

Without a request, city staff and council aides step in to translate for meeting attendees — though those aides are not professional translators or interpreters.

That's why city leaders acknowledge there’s still room to grow.

Carolina Camarena, a spokesperson for the city’s Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services Department, has helped translate for the city for more than 20 years.

She said messages are better received by non-English speakers when she's mindful of cultural competency when communicating, in addition to avoiding government jargon. She said going beyond word-for-word English translation can occasionally make her nervous, even when she's speaking her native Spanish.

“We want to make sure that we're truly capturing the feedback that they're providing, the emotion and the intent behind it,” Camarena said. “It is our responsibility to make sure that we are hearing all of our community, regardless of language barriers or other barriers.”

As an example of multi-lingual outreach, Camarena pointed to the city’s COVID-19 social media updates, which are sent to San Jose’s 1 million residents in five different languages. More than two dozen city employees, who are certified in emergency management, are cycled through the Emergency Operations Center to help with everything from graphics to videos.

Camarena said “trans-creation” interpretation becomes even more vital when sharing life-saving information. When explaining the importance of wearing masks, she may emphasize its ability to protect the health of residents’ families, because of the cultural importance of family for to the Spanish-speaking populations.

“It's important for us as a city, and for me as a professional, to ensure that I'm trans-creating information so that it is heard accurately, and that it resonates and sticks with that community. It’s the same with our staff, but also with vendors,” Camarena said. “More is not less in this case. The more resources we have, the better able we are to serve our entire community.”

Alex Shoor, executive director of grassroots community engagement group Catalyze SV, agreed.

“I think whether or not the city does it in-house or hired folks, the important thing is that people should be able to feel like they can show up and participate in a meeting, no matter what their language or their language skills,” Shoor said.”

Shoor also said that opportunities may exist within the nonprofit sector and communities themselves for proactive engagement.

“Where we want to continue to push the city to improve is on the two way levels of engagement,” Shoor said, “and how they're really truly being inclusive and thinking about communication from that equitable perspective.”

Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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