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Phoenix city councilwoman calls interpretation service 'embarrassing'

"A little bit embarrassing” and "disrespectful" is how one Phoenix city councilwoman described Spanish interpretation during a recent council meeting. 

During Tuesday’s meeting on the city manager's proposed budget, the interpretation was interrupted more than once.

“Can I ask permission to just support in translating because we’re really missing not only words but also thoughts and context,” said Viri Hernandez.

Mayor Kate Gallego declined and continued using the city contracted interpreter. 

At one point, Councilwoman Betty Guardado said, “I’m getting text messages. No one’s understanding what’s being translated.”

Gallego then switched interpreters. Council meetings have one interpreter who works on a headset system for people listening to the meeting and the other interpreter is assigned during public comment for people who address the council.

When KJZZ News asked the mayor's office for a comment about Tuesday's meeting, a spokesperson provided a statement: “The mayor believes everyone should be heard and understood at public meetings and recognizes that council interpretation services could be improved. The city is currently exploring all options to ensure interpretation is best serving Phoenicians."

The next day, as the council prepared to vote on extending the current contracts for interpretation services, Guardado said, “It was a little bit embarrassing to see what happened yesterday here on the dais and what’s happened in the past.”

She noted that some people take time off work to attend meetings and speaking publicly is not easy for everyone.

“To come here and feel that they’re not being heard because the translation is not being done correctly, I think that is profoundly disrespectful,” Guardado said.

She asked that specific interpreters who’ve worked well in the past handle future meetings, when possible. 

“I think I'm comfortable with having our translators begin the translation, but if there's issues as we are moving forward, they should be able to say, we know that this is not being translated correctly, when we want “X” person that's here with us to do that translation for us,” she said.

Going forward, the council agreed that if interpretation is inaccurate, speakers can have someone else interpret for them if they choose.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the council extended its interpretation contracts six months not to exceed $158,000 for AT Translators, LLC and PCI &TS, LLC. Staff will use the time to develop a qualified vendor list for the next contracts. 

According to a council report:

“These contracts will allow the city to provide in-person, telephone and written interpretation and translation services on an as-needed basis. Interpreter and translation services are provided during public, private and community meetings and events in addition to emergency and non-emergency situations. This month-to-month extension supports the public interest because these contracts minimize language and other communication barriers by ensuring accessibility for any City department, office or board, and employees and/or consumers who converse in languages other than English.”

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As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.