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Life in Translation: Alhambra Considers the Language Question

Scott Chan, standing, confers with colleagues at a recent API Forward Movement planning session. Photo courtesy of Scott Chan


Alhambra , CA

 At a recent city council meeting, there was a rare occurrence during the public comment portion. Several speakers addressed the council members on a common theme in languages other than English. They were making the case that translation services should be more widely available so that non-English speakers could participate in public discourse.

This appeal came on the heels of an Alhambra Planning Commission meeting where both commissioners and members of the general public expressed concern about the level of outreach to non-English speakers to elicit comment on the draft general plan. The City Council eventually decided to expand outreach by mailing out flyers containing summaries of the document in English, Spanish and Chinese. 

All of this started us thinking: What are the best practices for public outreach in a community that is as diverse culturally and linguistically as Alhambra?

To be sure, this kind of outreach can be a costly proposition for municipalities. But it is not an unimportant question for Alhambra and other cities in the San Gabriel Valley as the 2020 Census approaches and a multitude of languages are spoken in the area. The census results will determine how large amounts of federal dollars are distributed to cities and regions.

 The Source  e-mailed Scott Chan, who is a member of Alhambra’s Planning Commission, for his thoughts on the subject.  A community organizer, Chan is also the Program Director for Asian Pacific Islander Forward Movement where he advances programs involving access to healthy food and healthy environments for API community members. Chan, who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley,  holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science/Asian American Studies from UCLA and a master’s degree in Public Administration from Cal State, Northridge. 

 This semester he is teaching Asian American Studies at Pitzer College in Claremont where he focuses on Past/Present of the San Gabriel Valley. He has also been an instructor on community health for the Master in Public Health program at Cal State, Fullerton. He lives in Alhambra with his wife.

Q.—What are the elements that constitute effective public outreach in a community like Alhambra with so many languages to consider?

A— There are several key elements. First, meet people where they are. This means going into the community to work with community leaders and community groups and begin working with them to reach their networks. A few examples could be partnering with local religious institutions, after school programs, or tabling at a popular local park. Meeting people where they are also means hiring locally because this means you have hired someone with local knowledge and connections.  Next translate all documents into the languages spoken in our community. The more languages we can add the better, but at the very least we must focus on the most linguistically isolated in our city, that means those who speak Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese. We also need to staff up to ensure that interpretation is readily available at all public meetings. There should be a culture in our city where public meetings are accessible in terms of scheduling time and that we hear everyone’s opinions. Language should not be a barrier.

Yes, these steps may mean extra expenses for the city but they would build a culture of increased engagement. Instead of conducting outreach and meetings that only capture a sliver of our whole city, these investments would be able to round out who is in our city, what they care about and how we should be planning for the future.

Q. —What are the factors you think of when translating an English-first document into another language? What age or grade-level are you trying for?

A.—Translating documents into other languages requires a bit of data collection and research. To be effective, translation criteria needs to consider the age, immigration history, level of schooling, and region of origin of the community you are working with. Age and immigration history can give you a better idea of when a community came over, and what historical context there may be with them immigrating here. For example, were they fleeing violence or government persecution? Did this lead to a distrust in government? If so, the wording in the translation needs to be careful in the manner in which it engages with this community.The level of schooling that a community member has is often overlooked when translating documents from English. Generally, I have seen documents translated word-for-word from English into Spanish or Asian languages. Much can get lost in translation. In the field of public health, there is a general rule of thumb to translate documents anywhere from a 3rd to 5th grade reading proficiency level. When documents are translated this way, they are much easier to understand and accessible to a much larger audience. The region where community members immigrate from is also important because that impacts what language you need to be translating. For example, Chinese is not just one written language; there is both simplified and traditional ways of writing it, which are different enough that someone who can read one, may not be able to read the other. It is important for those doing the translations to make sure it’s the proper one for the community members being contacted.

Q. —How should officials conducting outreach think about tabulating the responses? 

A. —Once data is collected, staff reviewing the answers needs to be competent in reading and writing the different languages contained in the responses.  There also needs to be intentionality behind how results will be shared. In my experience, I often see “helicopter research,” where academics, government and others, come into a community to collect data and then leave once they are done. In this helicopter approach, the researchers don’t come back to share their findings with those they collected data from. Sharing data with respondents is a vital part of the outreach process and is something those collecting data need to continually keep in mind.

Read the Planning Commission agenda for the Monday, May 6 draft general plan hearing.

General Plan summary flyer by Phoenix Tso on Scribd

The Alhambra Source encourages comment on our stories. However, we do not vet comments for accuracy or endorse links to posts in the comment section. The thoughts and opinions expressed belong solely to the author of the comment.

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