In Garden Grove, a city where politics is often conducted in multiple languages, translation issues have at times been a point of controversy.
One-third of the city’s residents are Hispanic and another third Vietnamese. The city also has a large Korean American business community.
Yet officials have historically dedicated relatively scant resources to providing translation and interpretation services. The city currently relies on certified bilingual city staff to translate public notices and press releases into Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean, and interpret for members of the public when they come to city hall.
But non-English speakers who show up to city council meetings are often out of luck.
City Council members Tuesday made an effort to improve these dynamics with the approval of a $25,000 pilot program to provide Spanish and Vietnamese interpretation services at city council and commission meetings, provided residents give a 72-hour advance notice.
It is an issue that cuts multiple ways.
When large groups of Vietnamese American residents came before the council earlier this year asking them to sign a letter urging Riverside to drop a sister city relationship in Vietnam, many spoke only Vietnamese, relying on a member of their group to provide a loose translation.
A few times this year, residents have made comments in Vietnamese without a translator, receiving nods from the three Vietnamese council members, and blank stares from the other two.
These instances aside, translation problems seem to ebb and flow, said Community Services Director Kimberly Huy.
“I would say that the need for translation varies, depending upon the subject matter,” Huy said. “Sometimes we’ll go 4-5 months and there seems as though there’s no need for translation services…other times we can have 2-3 people at one meeting.”
Huy said the city typically recommends residents bring along someone who can translate.
“Or, if we had sufficient notice, we could ask one of our employees if they were available for translation or we would contact a private translation service,” Huy said, although the city doesn’t currently contract with any translation service for meetings.
“We rarely have situations where someone attends a City Council meeting and doesn’t have someone with them who can translate for them and we rarely have requests for translations through our City Clerk’s Office,” Huy added.
Nonetheless, a state law, known as the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act, requires local agencies that serve large non-English speaking communities to have enough bilingual staff or interpreters.
But it gives local governments a lot of leeway in determining when translation or interpretation is necessary, and they are only required to comply to the extent that they have funds available.
This might be why a 2010 statewide audit found that many state and local government administrators are unaware of the requirements of the law.
Of the 25 local agencies surveyed in the audit, nine weren’t addressing the needs of their residents with limited English. The audit identified 29 languages for which those agencies didn’t have enough bilingual staff or translated written materials.
Eight agencies identified the need for Vietnamese services, but only four provided translation of written documents, while the other four reported having staff and phone help available for Vietnamese speakers.
Santa Ana and Garden Grove were two agencies identified in the audit as lacking means for their residents to complain about the lack of services, prompting both cities to add a bilingual services complaint form to their website.
A city staff report comparing Garden Grove five other Orange County cities with similar language needs noted that only Anaheim and Santa Ana have Spanish interpretation available for public meetings, with advance notice.
Santa Ana currently contracts with an outside firm at $95 an hour for Spanish interpreter services, according to the staff report.
Buena Park provides Spanish interpretation services for public hearings only.
There are no interpretation services for public meetings in neighboring Westminster, where nearly 60 percent of residents are Vietnamese, according to the staff report.
Garden Grove, which currently has 25 certified Spanish-speaking staff and 12 Vietnamese speaking staff, has recently made improvements to public information access with a major upgrade to the city website.
The upgrade includes an automated Google Translate application available in 80 languages, although the accuracy of translations is limited.
The complaint form isn’t currently available on the upgraded city website, although city attorney Thomas Nixon said it would be added to the new site “shortly.”
The language barrier can also be used politically. At a council meeting in 2012, then-councilwoman Dina Nguyen was criticized for making a five-minute speech in Vietnamese , translating only after a community leader demanded it.
“It was obvious, the speech was never intended to be shared with the English speaking residents in attendance or watching TV or you would have translated verbatim. And as my city council member, I resent that,” wrote resident Maureen Blackmun in a letter to Nguyen, according to The Orange County Register.
Mayor Bao Nguyen, who brought up the translation policy at a meeting in March, said language issues have long been a barrier for city council regulars and monolingual residents alike.
“This is really a proposal that’s coming from the residents. The need is there,” he said.
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.