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Chinatown group to ask for translators

The United States may be “one nation under God,” but not all its residents speak one language, say members of the Chinese Progressive Association which is proposing to add translation equipment to the City Council chambers.

CPA members said at a meeting yesterday that the growing immigrant population wants to be more involved in the political process of the city, but can’t because many don’t understand English. The language of politics is particularly difficult to follow, even for those who have mastered the basics, said member Lydia Lowe.

Voter turnout hovers at 50 percent in general elections, indicating a need for increased voter registration and education, she said.

“In our community, immigrants are a growing sector. There are a lot of people whose English isn’t that good. Our organization tries to get immigrants involved and to participate in the political process. But a real obstacle for people is language,” Lowe said.

The CPA educates immigrants by taking them to City Council meetings on issues such as affordable housing, but many don’t understand the proceedings. In the past, volunteers would translate the meeting for other observes, Lowe said. While somewhat effective, some spectators found the practice distracting.

To solve the problem, the CPA decided to experiment with headset interpretation equipment, sponsored by the Boston Tenant Coalition. This experiment was successful, Lowe said, and the group decided to propose the concept to City Council.

The cost of the proposal has not been determined. However, the CPA earned an $8,000 Hyams Foundation grant, which went toward 35 headsets and three transmitters. The City Council chambers are scheduled for rewiring, Lowe said, and the job could include interpretation equipment, she said.

“The fact that it is being rewired does offer that possibility,” said Councilor Charles Turner (South End, Roxbury), who has offered initial support for the proposal. I think it makes a lot of sense … given the diversity of the city. People who speak different languages should be able to participate in the legislative process.”

The CPA also informally approached Mayor Thomas Menino and several City Council aides with the idea at an October welcoming event for new residents. The idea was well received, she claimed.

Before formally approaching the councilors, the CPA hopes to prove the interpretation equipment necessary with data from the 2000 Census. A committee was assigned the research task yesterday’s meeting.

“We are hoping to use the data to show growth in the Asian community,” Lowe said. An informal CPA exit poll in Chinatown on Election Day revealed that residents want interpretive services, she said.

“We questioned 217 voters and over 150 said that they needed language assistance and wanted bilingual balance,” she said. Even so, the proposal is still in its “early stages.”

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