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Translate All Initiatives, Senator Padilla

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Sometimes you can get reform by applying a small principle more broadly. The case of Senate Bill 1233 is an example of this.

The bill, sponsored by California State Sen. Alex Padilla, a Los Angeles Democrat, has been quietly moving its way through legislative committees. It appears to be a simple fix in one part of the initiative process: a new requirement that, in multi-lingual California, the title and summary for ballot initiatives be translated into foreign languages.

In those counties where significant numbers of people speak those languages, the translations of the title and summary should be part of the petition that circulates for signatures.

That all makes the sense in the world, because of this basic principle: people who are making laws through the initiative process should understand what the initiative says.

Of course, that's a principle that California's initiative process fails to live up to.

Initiatives are long and getting longer -- 5,000 words or more is common. Often in the name of political concerns, the text is confusing or vague. There are real debates about what initiatives would mean.

I had an exchange just the other day with a budget expert about particulars of Gov. Jerry Brown's initiative to raise temporary taxes -- and where exactly that money would go. Even on this high-profile initiative, the details aren't entirely clear.

How could we reverse this trend toward complexity and confusion?

Translation is the answer.

It's not enough to translate only the title and summary. Every initiative -- the whole thing -- should be translated into the major languages of California. Why would that matter? Because the act of translation requires simplification.

Of course, translation would be difficult to impossible given the complexity of many measures. So to get accurate translation, the writing of initiatives would have to be done by some neutral body -- not by initiative sponsors.

California should have an office of translators, linguists and other experts who could do this work.

Sound strange? It isn't. This is exactly how Switzerland, the home of initiative and referendum (and the inspiration for California's direct democracy 100 years ago), handles initiatives.

The Swiss have four national languages, and this office is devoted to working with initiative sponsors to turn their intentions into language so plain that it will mean the same thing in many languages. In this way, translation is a force for making initiatives, simpler and easier to understand.

I visited the office of this Swiss body in Bern, where I was told that the office motto is: "Think Like a Philosopher. Write Like a Farmer."

That's the spirit we need in California. So Senator Padilla, this is a nice little first step to help those voters who don't speak English. But Californians need those initiatives translated for everyone, regardless of language.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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