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The Hartford Courant
Lost In The Translation
BY Reyna Bessy
June 20, 2003
I was recently reminded of the misconceptions many people have about the Spanish language while reading an article in The Courant on the Spanish translation of the mail-in voter registration card issued by the secretary of the state's office. In defense of the much-criticized translation, Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz claimed that there is such a thing as ``neutral'' Spanish. Who knew? Reading the newspaper first thing in the morning can be such a learning experience.
People often ask me if I understand the Spanish spoken in different Spanish-speaking countries. This question puzzles me. Somehow, there seems to be a popular misconception that Spanish is not one language spoken from Mexico to Argentina, in many countries in the Caribbean and in Spain. When did this rumor start? A Cuban might call out to someone, ``Oye, chico,'' while an Argentinean might say, ``Oye, pibe.'' These are regionalisms, but we all know what the words mean. The idea of there being different types of Spanish language is absurd.
I can only guess the difficulties that native New Yorkers must have when they visit New Orleans, or that somebody from Kentucky must have in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, the language they speak to each other, regardless of their accents and regionalisms, is English. In England, for instance, there are accents that are regional as well as those based on socioeconomic class, but this does not mean that the language itself is different.
Curious about the translation that caused the outcry, I decided to see for myself. Obtaining a copy of the voter-registration form in Spanish was not easy. Many towns are required to have copies available only if they have a large percentage of Latinos. However, the secretary of the state's office was most accommodating and faxed a copy.
The language in the ``Inscripción Para Votar Por Correo'' has many problems. I could easily understand why highly respected people in the Latino community, including Edna Negrón Rosario, regional director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, and Fernando Betancourt, director of the state Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, felt the need to contact the secretary of the state about the errors in the form.
Last revised in November 2001, the ``Inscripción Para Votar Por Correo'' implies that it should be used to cast a vote in the mail, and not to register by mail. Sadly, this was only the beginning. In one section, the words ``convicted of a felony'' are translated as ``condenado por una felonia,'' which is not as proper or clear a term as ``delito mayor'' or ``ofensa criminal.'' Looking at four different dictionaries, I was finally able to find one in which ``felonia'' was listed as ``felony.'' However, my legal dictionary and most Spanish dictionaries list ``felonia'' as treason and disloyalty, not as a crime.
After navigating among the boxes in this form, I came to one that instructs people to return the form by mail to the ``alcaldia de su pueblo,'' which means the mayor's office. Since most Connecticut towns do not have mayors (or might have their mayors in jail), it would have been so much simpler to address this form to the ``jefe de registro electoral'' (registrar of voters), which each town does have. Aside from the misuse of words, other problems in this translation include typographical errors, lack of accents and of opening question marks.
This poorly written document makes one wonder how state agencies go about translating forms. Do they hire translators, and if so, what are the required qualifications? Is it a matter of getting the lowest bid? Or does the assignment go to anyone in the office who claims to be bilingual?
Access to voting and the right to vote are the most fundamental aspects of a democracy. Bysiewicz should be given credit for her quick response in remedying the problems in this form. She has created an advisory group on Spanish translations to assist her. This group will include both Negrón Rosario and Betancourt, as well as Latino legislators and others.
As we approach the Fourth of July, I am glad to know that from now on, Latinos in Connecticut will have no excuse for not registering to vote, or for staying home during elections and letting someone else take responsibility for shaping this democracy we live in.