Austin is home to nearly 1 million people, and about 10% of those residents report they don’t speak English very well, the city’s demographer says.
In 2014, the city established a translation and interpretation policy to give people equitable access to programs and information. But a recent audit found the city is not adequately meeting the goals of the program, leaving people to try to navigate these systems alone.
Neha Sharma, who managed the audit, says this is the third time the city auditor’s office has taken a closer look at the language access policy.
“And in all these projects we found that the city may not be meeting the needs of people who have a limited English proficiency,” Sharma said.
Mistranslation leads to mistrust
That gap is a problem especially during emergencies — like an excessive heat wave or a historic ice storm that knocks out power across the city.
Esther Diaz is a translator and interpreter trainer in Austin. Her main languages are English and Spanish, but she trains interpreters in multiple languages, including those commonly spoken by refugees and asylum seekers.
Diaz says while Spanish translation is pretty well established, there are barriers for speakers of other languages, like people who come from Afghanistan, Nicaragua or Honduras.
“They don’t know how things work here,” she said. “Maybe in their country they call the police for everything. Or maybe in their country they are afraid of the police. And so it’s crucial to get correct and complete information to people who speak other languages.”
Mirna Rodriguez, a former Austin resident, knows how hard that can be. Her first language is Spanish, but she practices her English every day. She says she understands more than many people in her Spanish-speaking community.
“But the thing is when people — like old people or people who speak Spanish — try to get more help, it’s really hard to try to get assistance in the city,” she said.
Rodriguez said more information needs to be translated beyond emergencies — things like access to health care. Because calling 311 for that info is often unsuccessful, she said because the operator often doesn’t speak Spanish well.
“The city really needs to have good communication,” she said. “And have a good website and good communication so that people know where to go for shelter, where to go for assistance, where to go for food.”
Rodriguez says sometimes people laugh when you can’t speak English properly, which can cause shame and embarrassment.
Phuong Lien Palafox, a speech language pathologist, works with many people in Austin who don’t speak English.
“They cry because they say people just make me feel so dumb and so stupid that I can’t communicate in the majority language,” she said. “And you know, as a speech language pathologist, as a communication specialist, communication is a two-way street.”
Palafox said sometimes the city will translate meetings and notices, but that’s poorly done. Bilingual communities and groups are often left to fill the gaps.
When interpretation services are lacking, Diaz said, it can lead to mistrust and put people in jeopardy if there’s an emergency.
She said the city will put a message through Google Translate but it doesn’t always make sense. Then speakers of other languages stop bothering to read them.
How can the city solve this?
Local advocates say addressing the gaps in languages access takes a combination of efforts. Diaz said one way is by working with trusted community groups.
“In my experience [the groups] are more than willing to help with translating any kind of information,” she said. “If a city department uses Google translate or AI translation then the community organizations can check those [translations] out.”
Sharma said the city is making changes. Austin residents speak more than 45 different languages, and the city already offers information in 10, including Spanish, American Sign Language, Chinese Simplified and Vietnamese. Based on the latest census data, the city added Tigrinya, Swahili and Nepali to its emergency alert list. The alerts include information on wildfire evacuation and where to find cooling centers and shelters.
The city is also doing more to inform the community that translation and interpretation services exist by posting posters in public places and using social media, city officials said.
Palafox said that’s a step in the right direction. But ultimately, this is about serving all of Austin.
“I think it’s a lot more complicated than just language access,” she said. “To me it is about communication dignity and that has to go beyond just the signs they are putting up.”