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International Business: Elections lost in translation

Published: Friday, Oct. 28 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

For the 2012 election, Salt Lake County will be required to provide Spanish ballot translations and additional language assistance to voters who need it, bucking a national trend toward decreased election translation requirements.

Most of us assume the smart people in Salt Lake will implement these changes well, but as this is a new practice, there is still a risk that these elections could somehow be lost in translation.

Cuyahoga County, Ohio, is providing bilingual ballots for the first time in these upcoming 2011 elections. Unfortunately, with those ballots, the county is also introducing considerable confusion. The "yes" and "no" ovals associated with two of three state issues appear to be missing from under the English explanations and appear only in separate columns under the Spanish translations.

Four things tend to motivate organizations to provide high quality translation for the public: charity, reward, duty and fear.

Charity motivates religious organizations to translate at record-breaking pace. A reward of international profits often motivates businesses to translate websites and marketing materials, and this generally — hopefully — causes them to value an accurate translation that will represent their brand well.

On the other hand, when governments are required by law, like the Voting Rights Act, to provide translation, those responsible may not feel as determined to provide such high quality language services without a profit motive. We all like to hope public servants are also motivated by duty, and maybe even charity, not just a fear of the law; however, without strong motivation, some public servants may not place great importance on translation, leading to translations that are proverbially only "good enough for government work" or worse.

Many previous bilingual ballots across the nation are evidence of this risk.

"In the past, jurisdictions mistranslated ballots by listing Democrats as Republicans, and vice versa, or provided Korean interpreters to Chinese-speaking voters," notes the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Dozens of newsworthy ballot translation errors and typos have terrorized elections over the past decade.

Some mistranslations have been off by a single letter, like the misspelling of "Barack Obama" as "Barack Osama" on 2008 New York absentee ballots for Spanish speakers.

A 2010 ballot in Massachusetts had to be reprinted when the Spanish version listed a candidate as the current dragonfly instead of the current sheriff.

Some translation blunders have caused little disruption, and others have misrepresented critical misinformation such as telling voters to mark above a candidate's name instead of below it or misstating the cost of a proposition by hundreds of billions of dollars. Most ballot translation errors are unintentional, but some have allegedly been deliberate attempts to confuse voters.

Regardless of whether such errors are large or small, accidental or deliberate, most of them need to be corrected. Some have been fixed at minimal cost through the use of signs at polling places. Other corrections and reprintings have cost taxpayers and others $15,000, $80,000, $200,000 and more.

Ballot translation is not necessarily easy or straightforward. Leading up to the 2008 presidential elections, some Massachusetts citizens and election officials were concerned that a requirement for Chinese transliteration of candidate names could represent Mitt Romney with Chinese characters that meant "sticky rice" or Hillary Clinton with characters that meant "upset stomach." The concern was that such transliterations, which might be different depending on the personal preference of the translator, could bias voters against some candidates; however, this potential problem was ultimately averted with the decision to leave candidate names in English.

Considering these potential challenges, government officials should solicit the right types of language services for crucial ballot information. Perhaps machine translation will be sufficient to provide the "gist" of general, non-essential voting information, as is available in many languages for Ontario Canada's instructional voting videos on YouTube. Sometimes amateur bilingual assistance from family, friends and poll workers can also be a benefit to those needing general information. However, automated or amateur translation of essential information on actual ballots runs the risk of wasting taxpayer dollars when the law consequently requires corrections to keep elections fair.

We all hope the good civil servants in Salt Lake County and other local governments will be motivated — and educated — to use high quality professional services, not merely free online services or non-native bilingual employees, to translate multilingual ballots. Government employees may not have a traditional profit motive, but taxpaying businesses and citizens are always grateful when the government takes reasonable steps to get things right the first time.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek, a translation technology company based in Lehi, Utah. He also teaches a course on translation technology at Brigham Young University and has taught similar courses at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Email: awooten@lingotek.com. Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten.

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