When Bad Translations Taint a Democratic Exercise

With about one in four voters self-identifying as Hispanic, Broward County in Florida is an unlikely place to find official English documents translated badly into Spanish—like ballot documentation. However, mistakes can slip by in the most diverse of communities, even those that should theoretically be packed with instantly available linguistic resources, ranging from untrained amateurs to qualified professional translators.

Were Good Intentions Undermined by Bad Translations?

With 271,517 students, the Broward County school district was eager to raise teachers’ wages and bring in more school security staff. It also wanted to step up mental health and tutoring programs that would benefit K-12 students from 2023 through to 2027.

To do so, it democratically asked voters to voice their thoughts on a four-year property tax increase. This boosted income stream would fund compliance with the Secure the Next Generation Renewal initiative.

Tricky Technical Terms Need Trained Translators

Using highly specialized language, this referendum posited an increase that would rise from the current half a ‘mill’ to a full ‘mill,’ over a four-year period. However, the Spanish version of this ballot question mistranslated the word mill as million.

And this is where the problem arose. In financial terms, the English ballot outlined an intention to increase property rates from about $50 to $100 for each $100,000 of home value—magnitudes less than the startling ‘million’ mentioned in the Spanish ballot.

Sharp-Eyed Bilingual Resident Spots a Translation Problem

It wasn’t until an Argentina-born resident contacted the South Florida Sun Sentinel about this discrepancy that anyone crosschecked all the English and Spanish balloting documents. Then it quickly became clear that this was a major issue.

Two other serious errors were found: “essential instruction” was mistranslated as “essential expenditures,” while the Spanish phrase used to describe school resource officers failed to indicate their status as specialized law enforcement personnel. Instead, they were characterized as administrative staff.

With very specific definitions, these two technical phrases are usually translated as follows:

  • A millage (or mill) rate is the term used to calculate property tax liabilities in some states. A mill is one-thousandth of a dollar; in property tax terms, it’s equal to $1.00 of tax for each $1,000 of assessment. In Spanish, this is usually translated as tasa de amillaramiento.
  • A School Resource Officer (SRO) is a sworn state-certified police officer assigned to work full-time in a school, receiving specialized training for interacting with faculty, students, and administration staff, ensuring a safe and positive environment for students. A quick internet search produced almost a dozen variants used on official websites, with perhaps the most descriptive being Agente Profesional de Seguridad Escolar.

Damage Control Through Fast Revision

Quite naturally, this leap in tax liability would affect the way that many local residents voted on this referendum. There can be little doubt that the amount of the tax increase would have influenced the decisions of many Spanish-speaking voters.

With more than 64,000 vote-by-mail ballots already received, and early voting beginning a few days later, the School District had to move fast. A new translation was prepared and sent to the Broward Supervisor of Elections.

Prominently displayed at all polling sites, it also featured on the Elections Office website, and was shared through all its distribution channels, thus keeping the Spanish-speaking public informed about these changes, just in time.

Spanish and Its Many Variants Now Include a U.S. Version

As over 70% of Latino families continue to speak Spanish in their homes, second- and third-generation immigrants have developed their own U.S. melting pot variant. In addition to living input from all over Latin America, U.S. Spanish is also shaped by close contact with English, sharing a common culture.

In fact, there are now more Spanish speakers in the USA than in Spain itself, quietly acknowledged by the fact that U.S. Spanish is now a spellcheck variant in MS Office. This means that a very sensitive ear is needed when translating from English into Spanish for audiences in the USA, particularly for major issues with long-term ramifications.

Happy Ending for Broward County Schools

This story ends on a happy note: regardless of the languages they speak, Broward County voters said YES and SI to this proposed ‘one mill’ rate. The average condo owner will now pay about $15 a month, and $26 for people living in houses, underwriting an increase in funding that’s earmarked for teacher recruitment and retention, as well as safer schools for everyone.

Moral of the Story: Weighing the possible negative and positive outcomes, it’s always smarter to hire a reputable agency like Trusted Translations, working only with experienced translators and running every text through a quality review system. That’s because being penny-wise is often pound-foolish:  Lo barato sale caro. as they say in Spanish …

Photo by Edmond Dantès