(Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Translation errors leave S.F.’s Chinese community unheard at public meeting on housing

On Guard column header Joe

Quick, San Francisco — what neighborhood is called the “Inside the Setting Sun” District?
If you answered with a resounding “huh?!” then you’re not alone.

At a Feb. 19 city public outreach meeting held in Chinatown’s YMCA, English to Chinese translation errors both spoken and written capped off an already frustratingly bad public outreach session meant to canvass the Chinatown community’s opinions on San Francisco housing, according to those who attended.

Instead of building bridges between the Chinese community and city government, I’m told, the event left many of the 200 or so attendees just plain mad.

The meeting was hosted by the Mayor’s Office of Housing, in conjunction with the Planning Department and Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

It started off rough, as the attendees couldn’t hear the city officials due to a lack of sound equipment. And even when people could hear, bad translations confused many, I was told.

“The interpreter was very bad,” said Coco Huang, a housekeeper and Chinatown SRO resident who attended the meeting and spoke to me in Cantonese with the help of a translator. “Even the survey in Chinese, it was so bad that I’d rather complete the survey in English.”

That survey asked attendees what neighborhood they lived in. The choices? All terribly translated.

The Sunset District was described as “Inside the Setting Sun,” The Mission District was translated as “quest” or “purpose,” another neighborhood that I assume is near the University of San Francisco was translated as “South Florida University,” and the Tenderloin was — and this is my favorite — translated as “a beef filet.”

A spoken translator there was no better. Huang and others told me this translator struggled to keep up with the planners who were speaking, and mangled the English speakers’ words.

Huang is in the process of learning some English, so she could tell just how crummy the interpreter was. “I think half of the time the interpreter was making a mistake,” she said.

She also told me English-speaking planners cut off speakers and were just plain rude to attendees. I asked Huang, a single mother of 9-year-old, to tell me what she would have told The City had they not cut her off.

“I would tell the facilitator we need more real affordable housing, affordable for SRO families here in Chinatown,” she said. “it really saddens me to see a family of five or six living in a tiny room.”

It seems The City’s problems weren’t limited to just translation issues.

That’s especially no bueno (a little Spanish for you, folks) as among the attendees were the Community Tenants Association, an influential group of tenants rights activists. The Chinese language newspaper Sing Tao Daily reported the tenants association called out the quality of The City’s outreach and worried San Francisco’s housing plans for the next five years will not be “fairly planned.”

“We appreciate the feedback on our February 19 Community Forum in Chinatown and continually strive to enhance our community engagement strategies,” a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Housing said in a statement.

The office of housing told me they had hired a contractor called LanguageLine to provide interpretation. When they were told an interpreter was making interpretation mistakes, they replaced them.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents Chinatown, said that isn’t good enough.

“They should completely retool how they’re going about this if they’re hiring some contractor who just parachuted into San Francisco,” Peskin said. Because it’s not just important to be linguistically competent; you have to be community competent.

“They could hire someone from the community who knows the subject matter so Tenderloin doesn’t get translated as ‘chunk of beef,’” he said.

And hey, Mayor’s Office of Housing, I’m no fluent Cantonese speaker, but as a San Franciscan I’ve picked up at least one useful phrase for you — “Ai-ya!”

I say it frequently when pulling dumb moves, like stubbing a toe, as it roughly signals dismay, surprise, and exasperation. I can guarantee you a healthy chunk of the room you spoke to were saying it to themselves after hearing your shoddy translations.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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