Mistranslated advertising hinders campaign for San Francisco’s Proposition A

A botched translation of promotional material could have cost the election for supporters of San Francisco’s Proposition A.

The proposition, which would have allocated $400 million toward the city’s public transportation system, needed a two-thirds majority in order to pass. It received 65.11% of the vote — had it received 3,350 more votes, it would have passed. Though Proposition A was backed by several powerful local politicians like Mayor London Breed, numerous mistranslations in the Spanish-language campaigning might have hindered its ability to resonate with Spanish-speaking voters.

Proposition A would have improved Muni, the city’s public transportation system, which is notably low in quality compared to other major urban areas (less than half of the system’s trains were on time in 2019). However, a widely circulated Spanish advertisement for the proposition was riddled with grammatical and semantic errors, along with ambiguities that made the advertisement unclear and confusing.

For example, the advertisement claimed that the proposition would put “$400 m” toward the city’s public transportation system. In English, this is not ambiguous, however, in Spanish, “m” could mean “mil” (“thousand”) or “millón” (million). Because the ad did not clarify that it meant $400 million, the Spanish version could have been interpreted as meaning $400,000.

Another instance involved the mistranslation of several words, leading to at least one relatively incoherent sentence. Local organizer Chema Hernández Gil pointed out on Twitter that the advertisement’s translation of the sentence “The bond funds these priorities” was relatively nonsensical, due to the use of incorrect translations of the words “bond” and “fund,” along with a typographical error in the translation of the word “this.” 

In this instance, the advertisement used the word “fianza,” which refers to a bail bond, instead of the more accurate “bono.” Additionally, the word “fonda” was used for “fund” — in Latin American Spanish, this word is typically used as a noun to refer to an inn or tavern. As a result, a back-translation of the Spanish advertisement’s sentence “La fianza fonda estes prioridades” into English would yield something like “The tavern’s bail bond these priorities” — a far cry from the intended “The bond funds these priorities.” 

It should also be noted that prominent machine translation systems like Google Translate and Microsoft Translator produce a more accurate translation of the original sentence, making it unclear how such an error wound up in the final product of such a major proposition.

According to the local news outlet Mission Local, Myrna Melgar, a San Francisco politician called the errors “disrespectful and a little tone deaf.” Other elections this year have also been characterized by erroneous translations — in Sonoma County, a poorly reviewed translation of the voter information guides could have led voters to believe that the deadline to vote was months earlier than the actual deadline.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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