What’s Lost in Translation? Asian Americans Fight for Bilingual Ballots in Boston

“Sticky rice” is no longer an option at the polls in this year’s presidential election, but that hasn’t changed Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin’s opposition to transliterating English names into Chinese characters on the November ballot.

A battle has raged for the past year between Asian American activists and Galvin over the extension of a 2005 voting rights agreement that has required Massachusetts to transliterate English names into Chinese characters on election ballots.

At the end of June, elderly Asian Americans marched through the rain to the State Capitol to demand a meeting with Gavin over the issue of bilingual ballots. However, Gavin has repeatedly denied requests to meet with the Asian American community over the issue.

Galvin said that transliteration, the practice of using Chinese characters to approximate the sound of a candidate’s name in Mandarin or Cantonese, is imprecise and would confuse voters. Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, for example, would literally translate to “sticky rice.” Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, could translate as either “Oh Intellectual Overcome Profound Oh Gemstone” or “Europe Pulling a Horse.” Former Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Hillary Clinton, could translate as either “Upset Stomach” or “Like Prosperity.”

But Asian Americans contend that the characterization is false, since transliteration is a common practice used widely by Chinese newspapers to approximate English names into Mandarin. Groups including Chinese Progressive Association say Galvin is violating a 2005 settlement between the City of Boston and the federal Department of  Justice to provide bilingual ballots in Chinese and Vietnamese. Under that agreement, Boston is required to provide bilingual ballots through 2008.

In July 2007, however, Galvin filed a challenge in federal court against the ruling.

“Elections have to be precise,” Galvin told USA Today at the time, saying transliteration can have “unintended negative inferences.”

Boston City Councilman Sam Yoon took issue with that viewpoint in Asian Week.

“By that logic,” Yoon wrote of Galvin’s reference to Mitt Romney (literally translated as sticky rice), “English-speaking voters would mistake our President for a plant, the U.S. Secretary of State for a bowl of rice and Massachusetts’ junior Senator for an Indian spice.”

Battles over bilingual ballots are not new. In 2005, the debate over the need for bilingual ballots roiled Congress, which had until 2007 to extend a portion of the Voting Rights Act.

According to an Associated Press article from the time, advocates for the law argued that more jurisdictions should be included because voting participation had “skyrocketed” among Asian Americans and Latinos.

Ballot opponents, including Linda Chavez, president of One Nation Indivisible, said the requirements for bilingual ballots put undue pressure on states.

“Chavez said that in 2002, Los Angeles County alone spent more than $3 million on bilingual materials,” according to the article, referring to her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. “Other witnesses said the expense is minimal, less than 5 percent of what is typically spent on an election.”

Seven counties in California and New York City also transliterate ballots. But even in a city like New York, where heterogeneity is celebrated, the push to transliterate came only after a lengthy battle in 1994 and a rebuke from the Justice Department.

Some activists allege that Galvin’s opposition to the bill is the result of growing anti-immigrant sentiment rather than of any real concern over confusion.

In a column in Bay State Banner, Lydia Lowe, the Executive Director of the Chinese Progressive Association, wrote that while Galvin was comfortable ignoring requests to meet with the Asian American community, he went on talk radio to say that Asian Americans were asking for “special treatment.”

“Galvin knows he can count on a growing anti-immigrant political climate as part of the backdrop that allows him and the mainstream media to misrepresent the facts and poke fun at Chinese names,” she wrote.

Asian Americans have three weeks left to overturn Galvin’s opposition to the bill.

In June, the Boston City Council passed a home rule petition that would require the city to provide transliterated names on the ballot. The petition now awaits approval by the state legislature and the governor. After state approval, an additional 90 days would have to pass before the bill could take effect. Asian American activists fear that if the legislature doesn’t take action now, before the legislative session adjourns later this month, Chinese voters will have no recourse before November’s election.