Would you vote for the current dragonfly? That was the question posed to Spanish-speaking voters in Worcester, Massachusetts, according to Telegram.com. The ballot for the upcoming election omitted a single letter in a Spanish translation and consequently listed one candidate’s occupation as “current dragonfly” (“aguacil actual”) instead of “current sheriff” (“alguacil actual”). As a result, the secretary of state responsible for the election was forced to recall of hundreds of thousands of ballots.
As the US electorate becomes increasingly multilingual, the role of election-related translation grows increasingly more important, and we see that translation errors create more political humor and mishaps. Most mistranslations are accidental, like the dragonfly incident, but some are alleged to be intentional effort to sway voters in a particular direction. Consequent corrections may cost political capital or actual taxpayer money.
Accusations of Intentional Mistranslation
Translation made headlines recently after a Spanish-language ad targeted California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman. In the attack ad, a California union accused Whitman of saying one thing about immigration in English and another thing in Spanish. The San Jose Mercury News disputed this claim in an article called a “Reality Check”; however, most Spanish-speaking voters will never see the “reality check” written in English. The political damage was already done. People are naturally mistrusting of what they do not understand, and that includes what they do not understand in another language. Situations such as this hearken back to the old adage, “tradutorre, traditore,” a cynical Italian play on words that states translators are simply traitors.
This is not the first time critics have accused a candidate of political doublespeak via the assistance of a translator. In the 2008 presidential campaign, a translator tried to help candidate John McCain appeal to both the conservative and liberal sides of the immigration issue. In a television ad, McCain mentioned “Pro-innovation Immigration Policies” in English (language that appeared to promote a conservative immigration agenda), but the Spanish text that appeared on screen was translated as “Innovación en las Políticas de Inmigración” or “Immigration Policy Innovation” / “Innovation in Immigration Policy” (which conjures the idea of a potentially more liberal approach to immigration reform). This subtle change in meaning was harshly criticized by many of McCain’s adversaries.
Costly Language Corrections
Campaign managers and candidates are not the only ones to produce translation errors in the days leading up to an election; as mentioned in the first example, governments do it too. Ballots are the most crucial of election materials, and various ballot translation errors have made news headlines over the past decade. Some mistranslations have erroneously altered costs listed in measure descriptions by billions of dollars. Others have been off by a single letter like the misspelling of “Barack Obama” as “Barack Osama” on 2008 New York absentee ballots for Spanish speakers. Some translation errors have caused little disruption, while others have included critical misinformation such as instructions to cast votes by marking the wrong part of the ballot. Most of these translation errors are unintentional, but again some ballot errors have allegedly been deliberate attempts to confuse and influence voters.
Regardless of whether these translation errors are large or small, accidental or deliberate, most need to be corrected. Some mistakes have been resolved at minimal cost by posting correction signs at voting booths. Other remedies have cost taxpayers tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in reprinting and redistributing ballots. In light of current budget deficits, costly errors are likely to continue to make headlines whenever and wherever they occur. Additionally, the growing immigrant populations and intensifying immigration debates will continue to highlight the topic of translation in future elections.
Campaign managers, candidates and government entities will avoid getting proverbially “lost in translation” as they plan to use professional from professional language service providers that utilize specialized, native-speaking translators and a proven quality control process.