Saturday, November 1, 2008

"No abrir el puerta. Tienes una alarme gracias."*

Just got a link to this article about a bad translation on a road sign:

This story is entertaining and I can totally see how that happened, although honestly they should have checked on things when the e-mail came back all in Welsh. But it reminds me of something I see around where I live all the time: bad translations into Spanish.

Now, I'm not a native speaker of Spanish, but honestly it seems to me that when you are going to translate something into Spanish you should at least put enough effort into it to, let's say, check it out with a native speaker of Spanish. I mean, it's not like there aren't any native Spanish speakers around. For example, the title of this post is a paraphrase of a sign that hangs on one of the doors in the building where I work, easily visible from the main second-floor hallway. I happen to personally know at least three native speakers of Spanish who actually work in the building who could have easily said, "Um, nope, this is what you want to say." Not to mention that there are plenty of proficient non-native speakers around who wouldn't make such obvious errors in gender and subject-verb agreement, not to mention using the word "alarme", which doesn't even exist. (They should have gone with alarma.) In my more socially activated moments, I find it a little disrespectful to the Spanish-speaking community in the area that people won't even bother to do a good job with their Spanish translations of signs around in the area. It's kind of like saying, "We recognize that we should provide something in Spanish for you because there are enough Spanish speakers around, but we don't respect you or your language enough to actually do a half-decent job."

English speakers find it comical when obvious mistranslations have been done by non-native speakers who obviously don't know English well enough to know how badly they are doing. Two websites that are dedicated to the phenomenon are and But you will also often hear people complaining about incomprehensible owner's manuals which came with foreign products they have purchased and beefing about, "Why can't you just learn to speak English?" To people with this attitude I say, people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

Seriously though, through my study of sociolinguistics I have learned that people often use linguistic discrimination as a way to cover up honest-to-goodness prejudice against another group of people. It might not be acceptable to make fun of a group of people, but people will often find it acceptable if you make fun of the way they talk. That's why one linguist has called linguistic discrimination the last acceptable form of discrimination. (*shudder*)

Note to people who are posting signs in Spanish in my building: I am not a native speaker, but I could certainly do a better job than whoever is doing your translation now. And I work cheap.

*"Don't open the door. You have an alarm thank you."

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