Lost in translation: Nevada campaigns bungle Spanish posts

LAS VEGAS (AP) — A voter would never hug a policy, call a political party a festivity or say a politician lacks a “thorn.” But those are some of the messages Nevada’s Spanish-speaking voters have been getting in the form of problematic translations on candidates’ websites, news releases and ads.

The mistakes — whether the result of human error or the use of online translation tools — can be confusing and even elicit chuckles or eye rolls. And if the goal of the written material is to draw Latinos’ support, it could have the opposite effect.

“It just gives Latinos yet another reason to be disengaged from political life, from some kind of political engagement, especially in a midterm year where this is such a great opportunity to not think of Latinos at the eleventh hour,” said Dolores Inés Casillas, associate professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“In politics, it used to be impressive to have a candidate start off a speech with like, ‘Buenos días, ¿cómo están?’ and sprinkle in a little bit of these high school Spanish phrases,” she said. “But we are not there anymore.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt’s campaign in September posted on its website a news release riddled with errors, including the use of the word “fiesta” for “party” in the context of a political party, not a celebration.

His site, in English, suggests Nevada residents should “fully embrace” career-focused education, but the translation fell short by suggesting people should “hug” it.

The campaign deleted the press release with the fiesta error within days, but the hug line appeared on the site for weeks before being corrected in recent days.

Laxalt’s campaign said in a statement it used Spanish-speaking translators for ads, its website and other relevant materials. Its vendor “used a translation plugin when uploading some press releases to the website, until they discovered errors, and has used a professional translator since.”

Twenty-nine percent of people in Nevada are Latino, and getting their votes can make a big difference in this swing state. Lagging Hispanic turnout in the 2014 midterm election was cited as one reason Republicans won key victories across the state.

Two years later, heavy organizing among Latinos and immigrant-dominated labor unions was credited with delivering Nevada to Hillary Clinton, along with helping Democrats keep a U.S. Senate seat, flip two U.S. House seats and take control of both state legislative houses.

Republican and Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls have versions of their websites that are fully in Spanish, while a section of the website for U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen, the Democrat trying to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller is also in that language.

Heller’s site offers the option of using Google Translate to read the information in multiple languages.

The problem with the optional translation is that the characterization of Heller as a “stand-up guy” is translated into a man who is standing up.

“The substitution of a seemingly corresponding word from a dictionary can be akin to a graft that the host rejects, to use a biological metaphor; readers similarly can have negative reactions to the form, and thus the content, of a news item or ad,” Kelly Washbourne, professor of translation at Kent State University, said in an email. “Materials that are translated rather than culturally adapted or ‘transcreated’ can even backfire, calling attention to themselves as products of Anglo culture that were not written with Latino/a audiences in mind.”

Jessica Padrón, president of the coalition of progressive activists Latinos Unidos, said mistakes happen regardless of party, but Latinos notice them more — and feel more offended by them — when they come from Republicans who have “embraced policies attacking and targeting immigrants.”

“We definitely need more senior staff in communication positions in both parties,” she said. “Nevada has a booming Asian-American and Pacific Islander and Latino population. We should see an increase in outreach and diversity in senior staff.”

Democrats and Rosen’s campaign have often called Heller “spineless.” They have described him as “el Senador Sin Espina,” but that does not mean lacking strength of character. It means lacking a thorn or quite literally a spine, an idiom that becomes an absurdity in Spanish.

Her campaign said it has several staff members who are fluent in Spanish, including some for whom it is their first language “and ensure translations include appropriate cultural context.”

Judy Jenner, an adjunct professor of translation and interpretation at the University of California San Diego-Extension, said hiring a translator is key since professionals will translate meaning, not just words, and are intimately familiar with cultural contexts and nuances.

She added people oftentimes wrongly assume bilingual people are translators.

“Think about it: I am quite certain that a significant amount of thought and discussion went into every single word of the English-language message that candidates send out to potential voters. The same care must be taken with the Spanish-language message.”


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