City to Consider Improving Spanish Translation Services

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City Council discusses the SA Tomorrow comprehensive master plan on Aug. 11, 2016. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

City Council discusses the SA Tomorrow comprehensive master plan on Aug. 11, 2016.

No entiendo” – I don’t understand – are words no one wants to hear at any public meeting, but many probably have.

For the City of San Antonio, that might be about to change.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) wants to provide Spanish interpretation and translation services for all public meetings concerning City issues.

If approved by Council, the City will add a paid, full-time Spanish interpreter/translator to oversee the City’s translation services strategy, coordinate with City departments, and provide on-site interpretation at all City Council A and B sessions.

In addition, on-call interpreters will still be provided by the City if requested at the Building Standards Board (BSB), Board of Adjustment (BOA), Planning Commission, and Zoning Commission meetings for Development Services.

The City’s Neighborhoods and Livability Committee voted Monday to endorse the proposal.

Treviño, who chairs the committee, said that it will be one of the line items included in the 2017 City budget proposal on Thursday before it goes to City Council for approval on Sept. 15.

“It’s kind of one of those no-brainers,” Treviño told the Rivard Report Tuesday. “For a city that is two-thirds Hispanic, there’s a feeling that you are excluding a certain population. It makes people feel awful and left out. I want to thank Assistant City Manager María Villagómez and City Manager Sheryl Sculley for jumping on it.”

Although the City does provide certain translation and interpretation services, Treviño said its reach is limited. The proposed enhancements aim to expand the translation of key documents such as agenda packets for City Council sessions, accompanying memorandums, and City press releases.

“Our website is not translated, our agendas aren’t translated, and we don’t have on-site interpretation at City Hall,” he said. “If you need somebody, you have to call 48 hours in advance, but not everybody knows that.”

Treviño made a Council Consideration Request (CCR) after he and his staff talked to constituents and noticed a lack of on-call translators at City Council sessions and other public meetings.

Miguel Calzada (center) hugs Councilmember Roberto Treviño (D1) in City Council Chambers while his daughter, Anabel (left), looks on. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Miguel Calzada (center) hugs Councilmember Roberto Treviño (D1) in City Council Chambers while his daughter, Anabel (left), looks on.  Photo by Iris Dimmick.

He mentioned the example of Miguel Calzada, a humble homeowner whose Beacon Hill residence was issued a demolition order by the BSB in 2015 after it was classified as uninhabitable. Calzada appeared before the board to negotiate a compromise, but as a native Spanish speaker, he needed an interpreter – a service that wasn’t available at the time.

(Read more: #SaveMiguelsHome: Making Progress On a Deadline, Save Miguel’s Home: The Human Face of GentrificationCity Approves ‘Compassionate’ Building Demolition Procedures)

“Calzada is one of multitudes. I have personally seen many more,” Treviño said. “We started talking to people and saw the result of presenting things to people in a language that wasn’t necessarily their primary language. They think they understand but they don’t fully understand.”

“We need to make sure that (the services) are not just at City Council meetings, but the zoning meetings, the budget, the pipeline plan, and anything that is written so people are able to read (the information),” Esperanza Peace & Justice Center Director Graciela Sanchez told the Rivard Report Tuesday. “I’ve had to translate for people when their house is going to get taken down.”

Sanchez said that the monolingual Spanish community has grown by leaps and bounds over the years and she has seen firsthand when people go to meetings and complain that they can’t understand. Although the new efforts spearheaded by Treviño are positive, Sanchez thinks there is still a lot more to be done and that the City must continue to recognize its residents’ political and cultural heritages, which involves the Spanish-speaking community.

“You look back at the alcaldes in the 1800s where there was probably Spanish and English, and then somewhere along the way we decided Spanish was not important,” she said.

San Antonio is at the brink of celebrating its 300th anniversary, Sanchez added, and that if it wants to be a world-class city, it must provide for its citizens.

Treviño said that Spanish translation and interpretation services are important for understanding and inclusion. The Councilman’s business card is in both English and Spanish. One need only flip it over for their desired language. This is something that everyone involved in government should do, he said.

“Everything that we produce in this office and everything that we do, I want to (be able to) tell people that we produce it in Spanish (too),” he said. Treviño is confident that the services will become a reality.

“It’s inevitable. It passed in Neighborhoods and Livability Committee already and there’s not gonna be a person on Council that’s gonna disagree,” he said.

Treviño understands the complexity and nuance of language, and is aware that providing translation services is of utmost importance for this city to reach all of its residents. When he first came to San Antonio, Treviño was happy to learn that there was a street bearing his last name right across from City Hall, except the letter “n” didn’t have the tilde.

“When I got here I said, ‘Look I’ll pay for it, but please change it because that’s just not how you spell Treviño,'” he said.

The newly updated Treviño Street sign now includes the tilde over the letter n. Photo by Scott Ball.

The newly updated Treviño Street sign now includes the tilde over the letter n. Photo by Scott Ball.

Treviño was successful, and the old, incorrect street sign now sits in the window of his office at City Hall. It has a Lyft mustache placed atop the letter “n” – a reminder of the long way we have come and have yet to go.

“It’s those little things, ” he said. “It matters … a translator said to me the other day at a meeting: ‘Translation is not about translating words, it’s about translating meaning.'”


Top image: City Council discusses the SA Tomorrow comprehensive master plan on Aug. 11, 2016.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

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Honoring Don Emilio, San Antonio’s Spanish-Language TV Pioneer

A&M-SA Brings World Class Spanish Classes to San Antonio

City Approves ‘Compassionate’ Building Demolition Procedures 

6 thoughts on “City to Consider Improving Spanish Translation Services

  1. Waste of money, everyone needs to speak English. If I move to Mexico do you think they will allow me to talk in English, NO…..

    • Bert:

      Thank you for your comment. I can understand your point of view, but I think it’s important to think deeper on this issue and go back in time. For a city like San Antonio, it’s important to remember that this land used to be a part of Mexico. One can’t just erase history and ignore the cultural and political remnants of that– for many Hispanics in this city, the border crossed them all those years ago and they have remained here for generations. Spanish was the first non native language spoken in the region and used primarily by the first Mayors of San Antonio during its first 100 years of municipal government.

      Although there are those that have only just recently moved to the U.S., there is still a large population of individuals that have always lived in Texas but continue to speak Spanish.

      Inclusivity makes us all more human and strengthens the political process.

  2. Good for Trevino. They should consider hiring a native Spanish speaker with a high level of education in Spanish. As a former city employee I know the consultants do a very poor translation job. Whoever is VIA’s translator is very good

  3. This is great news. I was actually in a downhill meeting and witnessed a case in which a San Antonio resident did not speak spanish, so after he presented/ defense his case – in spanish- the Major had to point out that she had not understood, and asked if some one could translate. I was surprised to see that the City did not have an assigned person to do this considering the % of hispanics. Luckly one lady (that seemed to work for the City) jumped in and helped.

  4. Great reporting Rocio as usual! Spanish and actually German are part of south Texas roots. Everybody came to Texas from somewhere else except the Natives of course. If we are to become a World Class City, than we cant just have everything in English because we haven’t ever really been English or from England.

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