Campaigns Embrace Spanish, But What Are They Saying?

Bilingual fliers in support of mayoral hopefuls have been arriving in Latino households over the past few weeks. Many have translation and grammatical errors in Spanish. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak/Voices of NY)

Bilingual fliers in support of mayoral hopefuls have been arriving in Latino households over the past few weeks. Many have translation and grammatical errors in Spanish. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak/Voices of NY)

It has become tradition in recent years: Most of New York’s aspiring mayors are trying to reach out to Spanish-speaking voters in their native language. But how to correctly address those New Yorkers remains a challenge.

For example, while most campaign literature uses the term “neoyorquinos”  ̶  the accepted term for “New Yorkers”  ̶  it’s also common to read “neoyorkinos” and other variations. In a website letter in Spanish to voters, Democratic candidate Sal Albanese addresses them as “nuyorquinos,” and a flier for Bill Thompson targets “New Yorkinos.”

According to a review of campaign material in Spanish by Voices of NY, the “neoyorquinos” dilemma is the least of it. Most of the Spanish texts, whether on the candidates’ websites or in mailers targeting Latino households, show an abundance of misspellings and grammatical mistakes.

“I get the sense that the candidates are relying on volunteers who are Spanish-speaking, and who may have learned Spanish as a second language,” said editor and translator Esther Allen, who teaches at Baruch College. “I would be very surprised if they were sent to translation agencies, because the translation agencies usually do very high-level work.”

Bill de Blasio

Most of the candidates’ websites read awkwardly to a native speaker, and many translations are wrong. For example, in Bill de Blasio’s website’s “Sobre Bill” section, “landmark tenants’ rights legislation” appears incorrectly translated as “legislación de derechos para inquilinos emblemáticos” (“rights legislation for landmark tenants”).

Thompson’s website incorrectly translates “Board of Education” as “Borde de Educación” (“Edge of Education”) and “bias crimes” (which should be “crímenes de odio” or “de prejuicio”) as “crímenes preferenciales” (“preferential crimes”). A flier about Thompson working to increase “accountabity” in public schools translates the word as “contabilidad” (“accounting”) and “boroughs” (“condados”) as “municipios” (“municipalities”).

Bill Thompson

On Christine Quinn’s website, a biographical video in Spanish refers to her as “oradora del concilio de la ciudad,” words rarely used to say the standard “portavoz del Concejo Municipal,” (City Council speaker) which is present throughout the rest of her website. A “Quinn for Mayor” mailer included the incorrect constructions “continuará de tener resultados” (“will continue of having results”) and “protegidos días de enfermedad” (“sick days protected”).

Shorter website entries also contain errors, including John Liu’s 1,000-word biographical text. A spokesman for Liu’s campaign said that “the website section is proudly done in-house by staff and volunteers.” He added that they have corrected the typos brought to his attention – among them, the common and much-dreaded mix-up between “año” (year) and “ano” (anus).

Neither Quinn, de Blasio or Thompson’s campaigns responded to repeated emails and calls seeking comment. Latino voters are likely to account for between 20 and 25 percent of the electorate in both the September 10 primary and general elections this year.

Juan Manuel Benítez, host of NY1 en Español’s show “Pura Política,” said the city has a long tradition of politicians addressing Hispanic voters in their native language. He added that this practice has only increased under Mayor Bloomberg, who regularly speaks in Spanish at events, press conferences and in campaign commercials.

“The first television ad Bloomberg released during his 2005 reelection campaign was in Spanish,” said Benítez, who has reported local politics in Spanish for a decade.

According to the Voices of NY review, Democrats de Blasio, Thompson, Quinn and Erick Salgado boast the largest Spanish-language presence on their campaign websites, which include bios and policy positions. De Blasio went the furthest, filming a nearly one-and-a-half-minute video ad in which he speaks throughout in correct but heavily-accented Spanish.

Mayoral hopefuls Liu, Albanese and Republican John Catsimatidis also include a small “En Español” page on their websites, with mainly just their translated bios.

Only Republican Joe Lhota, Democrat Anthony Weiner and, surprisingly, independent candidate of Puerto Rican heritage Adolfo Carrión, have no Spanish presence on their websites.

For Benítez, the poor quality of the Spanish texts in the campaign doesn’t come as a surprise.

“I don’t think it shows a lack of commitment; it is a lack of sophistication,” he said. “Sometimes, campaigns don’t hire the right people, or they think that any Spanish-language speaker can do the job. It is not quite so.”

Allen thinks that the fact that the candidates may be relying on inexperienced translators is “problematic.”

“It’s very weird to me that the candidates haven’t figured out that to do Spanish in this very lame way that is full of mistakes that are even hilarious is actually going to serve them quite badly,” said Allen, who co-edited the soon-to-be published book “In Translation: Translators on their Work and What It Means.”

“I think that the Spanish speakers of New York have been extremely generous because I think it’s really quite new this idea of reaching out to them in Spanish,” she added. “On the other hand, if, as an English speaker, you go to a website in Japan or China that is supposedly in English and it’s in this ridiculous, garbled English, we all know that you’re going to think less of that company and their professionalism.”

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