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Why Spanish-Language Websites For 2020 Democratic Contenders Are Filled With Errors


Many 2020 presidential candidates have Spanish-language websites, so you might think Spanish-speaking voters are a constituency they think is worth reaching out to. But it turns out a lot of the sites were pretty much Google translations of the campaign's English websites. Reporter Jesus Rodriguez spent some time reading these sites. He's grading them on their Spanish. He wrote about what he found in Politico and joins us now. Welcome to the studio.

JESUS RODRIGUEZ: Thanks so much for having me.

CORNISH: First, tell us about the range of errors and mistakes you found on campaign websites. What were you looking for? And what did you find?

RODRIGUEZ: It was a really wide variety. I looked at everything from typos to complete sentences, some phrases that were mistranslated. Idioms were a really big part of it. A lot of times, it doesn't come across as you intend to. And also at the same time, just in general, the text as a whole - how much of it matched the output that you would get from Google Translate when you run the English text through it.

CORNISH: Give us some letter grades - two candidates who did well, two candidates who did poorly.

RODRIGUEZ: Yep. So two candidates who did well at the top of the class came Cory Booker and Senator Kamala Harris. They both got A-minuses. Both of them had some very, very minor flaws on their campaigns. Senator Harris - she corrected hers pretty quickly when it was pointed out. But two candidates I would say that are really struggling, one would be Senator Amy Klobuchar, who had a letter grade of C because her website very largely matched the output from Google Translate. Another would be actually Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has a failing grade because he doesn't have a Spanish website at all despite the fact that he is a fluent Spanish speaker.

CORNISH: Can you give us an example of bad translation on one of these sites?

RODRIGUEZ: One of the most egregious mistakes that I saw was a phrase that was in Senator Elizabeth Warren's website that said - the Spanish phrase was essentially (speaking Spanish) which doesn't really make any sense. What she was trying to say was to translate a button from - on the landing page of her English website that says, I'm not really sure, and here's why. That was meant to entice potential voters into learning more about the campaign. But when that was translated into Spanish, it really did not come across as anything that was comprehensible to a Spanish voter.

CORNISH: So you can't even give us (laughter)...

RODRIGUEZ: No, I can't even tell you what that means (laughter).

CORNISH: Also Kamala Harris had some trouble. What did you find?

RODRIGUEZ: Senator Kamala Harris initially had said that she had essentially wasted her life defending the values of the American people. The word spend in Spanish is gastar, however that's most commonly used to refer to gastar, like spend money, things like that or in this case, we waste money. So she was actually looking for is saying (speaking Spanish) for example, you know, really making sure that the verb was not mistranslated.

CORNISH: You say that this isn't a job for just any Spanish speaker. How come?

RODRIGUEZ: That's right. You really need somebody who specializes in this kind of translation who really knows the political language that would be used in a Spanish-language campaign. It's not enough to just have a Spanish speaker on your staff who can just sort of look at it and say, yeah, these are Spanish words and they form sentences. It's really important to get down to the cultural context and understand what type of political messaging is used when you're speaking to a Spanish-speaking voter.

CORNISH: You're a young person. Do you go to campaign websites, like, for fun? I mean, it feels like do campaign websites really matter anymore?

RODRIGUEZ: Latinx outreach is not just having a Spanish website. It's also what kind of policies are you putting out that would benefit the Hispanic community in the United States? So the Spanish website isn't everything. However, it is kind of the front door of the campaign, and it's the most forward-facing, outward-facing part of a candidate's outreach.

CORNISH: That's Jesus Rodriguez. He wrote about the 2020 candidates' Spanish-language websites for Politico. Thank you for sharing with us.

RODRIGUEZ: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.