December 10, 2006

Spanish on the Senate floor: the great non-debate

A few days I posted about the new "Stop Martinez" website, set up by the lobbying group English First to oppose President Bush's choice of Sen. Mel Martinez as the next chairman of the Republican National Committee. The English Firsters feel that Martinez is unfit for such a post because of his positions on immigration and "official English" legislation. As a supposedly damning piece of evidence, the "Stop Martinez" site gives this bullet point:

The "doubts about the translation" link improbably leads to a Language Log post by Mark Liberman that had very little to do with Martinez's speech. Rather, Mark discussed an automated translation of a wire story about the speech that appeared on the site for El Sol de Zacatecas, a Mexican newspaper. I pointed out that this post was utterly irrelevant to whatever beef the English Firsters have with Martinez. Now Jim Boulet, executive director of English First, has responded to my post on "Martinez Watch," a blog affiliated with the "Stop Martinez" site. I appreciate Mr. Boulet taking the time to explain the rationale for linking to Mark's post, but I have to admit his explanation leaves me more baffled than ever.

Let me address Boulet's response paragraph by paragraph (his comments in red):

The points that the link intended to demonstrate were two:
First, debate over accurate translation of a speech or document of any length is inevitable and, accordingly, the United States would do well to continue as a single-language nation for official purposes. Based on both his voting record and his Senate Spanish speech, Senator Martinez disagrees.

This entirely misses the point of the linked post, which, once again, was about an odd computer-generated translation of a news article provided by a Mexican newspaper's website. There was no "debate over accurate translation" regarding the Spanish portion of Martinez's speech on the Senate floor. Mark Liberman's post was more about the current limits of machine translation (also discussed here and here) than anything having to do with Sen. Martinez or his use of Spanish. It strikes me as deeply disingenuous to shoehorn an academic discussion about MT into an argument about official English. Yes, any translation from one language to another can be critiqued for accuracy, especially a computer-generated one like the article on the El Sol de Zacatecas site. It takes an enormous leap of logic to then conclude that the U.S. should "continue as a single-language nation." (By the way, the U.S. has never been a "single-language nation.")

Second, the Martinez Spanish speech was supposed to attract Hispanic support for the Hispanic nominee he was endorsing. Instead, his remarks sparked debates among some Spanish speakers about translation accuracy.

As far as I can tell, this is entirely untrue. There were no such "debates among some Spanish speakers about translation accuracy" stemming from the Martinez speech. Mark came across the automated Spanish-to-English translation on the site for El Sol de Zacatecas from a news search and then posted about the obvious shortcomings in relying on translation tools like Babel Fish and Google Translate, which offer up such laughers as "the official transcription published east Thursday" for the Spanish article's phrase la transcripción oficial publicada este jueves. Again, that had absolutely nothing to do with any difficulties in translating Martinez's speech. Indeed, it's hard to imagine there being any such "debates" about accurately translating the speech (at least by humans), since Martinez's Spanish-language remarks consisted of a few unremarkable sentences in support of Alberto Gonzales, then up for confirmation for Attorney General. What's more, Martinez supplied his own translation of the Spanish remarks for the Congressional Record (see below).

Given the documented differences between Castilian Spanish and the Spanish usage of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Cuban Americans, complaints about Spanish word usage are inevitable. A political speech suffers when it drives people to dictionaries rather than to action.

This is also pulled out of nowhere. I don't know of anyone who was driven to a dictionary by Sen. Martinez's speech, or anyone who complained about dialectal variations or "Spanish word usage." Martinez's remarks would have been easily comprehensible to any (human) Spanish speaker. What was less than comprehensible (once again!) was an article about the speech that was fed into an automated Spanish-to-English translator and posted to a website. The "documented differences" among different Spanish-speaking communities is another red herring. As if English is somehow spared from "complaints about word usage" due to differences in spoken dialects!

President Bush's Spanish fluency has even been questioned: "Spanish wire service EFE reported last year that Bush speaks Spanish "poorly." Perhaps all of America's politicians would do better to stick to English.

Hoo boy. If President Bush's Spanish-language ineptitude is supposed to be some sort of linguistic benchmark, then yes, by all means, let's ban the public use of Spanish. (Some might argue that by the same token Bush's [dis]fluency in his native language would dictate a similar ban on English.) Fortunately, there are many American politicians, even native-born gringos, who are capable of speaking Spanish far more proficiently than the President. His brother Jeb (whose wife is Mexican) would be one example.

Another rather surprising example is Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who we can assume is fully acceptable to the English Firsters since he sponsored the amendment to the Senate immigration bill last May declaring English the "national language" of the United States. It turns out Mel Martinez wasn't the first U.S. senator to use Spanish in a floor speech, despite press reports claiming so at the time. Inhofe himself has done it on more than one occasion. In 2003, he spoke in Spanish at least twice, on Feb. 26 and Nov. 12, both times in support of the controversial nominee for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Miguel Estrada. In the two speeches, which are quite similar in content, Inhofe recalled speaking to a group from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, a sister city of Tulsa, where Inhofe was once mayor. His Nov. 12 speech  (PDF) concluded with words resembling those that Martinez would later give in support of Gonzales:

Muchos Hispános estan escuchando ahora ..... y yo quiero decir.
Por descrácia, hay personas en el senádo que no quieren escuchar a ni una palabra de la verdad.
Yo invito a la communidad hispána para llama a sus senadores para insistir en los derechos de Miguel Estrada y en la confirmación de juéces de los Estados Unidos.

The translation entered by Inhofe into the Congressional Record reads:

Many Hispanic Americans are listening right now ..... and I want to say:
Disgracefully, there are people in the Senate that don't want to listen to even one word of the truth.
I invite the Hispanic community to call their senators to insist on the rights of Miguel Estrada and on the confirmation of the judges of the United States.

Inhofe's speech of Feb. 26, 2003 appeared in the Congressional Record (PDF) without an English translation for the Spanish comments. But a transcript of this speech can be found on Inhofe's own website, so he doesn't seem too embarrassed by his use of Spanish on the Senate floor. His words came back to haunt him in May, though, when his "national language" amendment was debated by the Senate, and opponents such as Sen. Dick Durbin questioned whether Inhofe's Spanish-language remarks could legally be printed in the Congressional Record under the proposed amendment. Inhofe, who acknowledged having made "probably five speeches on the floor in Spanish," denied that the legislation would have any such effect.

Finally, as promised, here is the Spanish-language section of Martinez's floor speech of Feb. 2, 2005 (text, PDF):

Y a los Hispano-Americanos a lo largo y ancho de esta gran nacion: tanto a nuestros niños, como a nuestros estudiantes de Derecho y los padres y abuelos que han venido a America a crear una vida mejor para ellos y sus familias, hoy les tengo un mensaje:
El Juez Gonzales es uno de nosotros. El representa todos nuestros sueños y esperanzas para nuestros hijos. Debemos reconocer la importancia de este momento--sobre todo para nuestra juventud. No podemos permitir que la politiquería nos quite este momento que nos enorgullece a todos. Apoyemos a Alberto Gonzales.

And here is the translation entered into the Congressional Record:

And to Hispanic Americans throughout our Nation:
From our schoolchildren, to law students, to parents and grandparents who came to America to create a better life for themselves and their families in the United States, I have this message for you today: Judge Gonzales is one of us. He represents all of our hopes and dreams for our children and for all of us as Hispanic Americans. Let us acknowledge the importance of this moment, especially for our young people. We cannot allow petty politicking to deny this moment that fills all with such pride. Let us all support Alberto Gonzales.

That's it. Ninety-seven words in all, in a 1,234-word speech, or less than 8 percent of Martinez's total spoken output. No "debate over accurate translation," no "complaints over Spanish word usage," just some boilerplate directed at the Latino constituency. Just like the boilerplate that Inhofe, leader of the Senate fight to make English the country's official (or at least "national") language, used himself on several occasions. So what's the fuss? It's nothing more than a trumped-up charge in a trumped-up debate, all in the service of an alarmist brand of linguistic isolationism. How about we spend our energies debating substantive political issues rather than a fabricated one?

[Update: I will concede one point to Mr. Boulet. It's true that any cross-linguistic rendering can be critiqued for accuracy, especially among the discerning readers of Language Log. Here is Matthew Stuckwisch's take on the translation of Martinez's speech that appeared in the Congressional Record:

Whilst Martínez says "esta gran nación" (this great N/nation), the Congressional record states "our Nation". Perhaps to add parallelism in the English the simple term "niños" (children) was changed to "schoolchildren". The remaining structure of the next sentence has been rather distorted, substantially changing the meaning IMO. He then says "Debemos reconocer" (We must recognise), an indicative statement, whereas the translation uses the imperative "Let us acknowledge". Oddly "sobre todo" (above all) was changed to "especially", even though above all is a common expression with the same meaning in English. The English translation quite curiously added the adjective "petty" (non-existent in the Spanish) to "politicking". The Spanish "nos quite" (take from us) is, in my opinion, far more active than "deny", as I think it portrays politicking in a worse light. While none of these make a huge difference in the overall meaning of his speech, in this day and age of taking two or three word quotes and changing them into huge political issues, the translation entered could be extremely improved:
"And to the Hispanic-Americans throughout our Nation: equally to our children, our law students, the parents and grandparents who came to America to make a better life for themselves and their families, I have a message today: Judge Gonzales is one of us. He represents all of our hopes and dreams for our children. We must recognise the importance of this moment — above all for our youth. We cannot allow politicking to take this moment from us that makes all of us so proud. Let us support Alberto Gonzales."
Also, there's an interesting usage note for the Spanish hyphen. Whilst in English it is generally known as a joiner, in Spanish it's generally consider a divider. That is if you're talking about a Hispanic v American conflict, you would say "un conflict hispano- americano", to show that the two terms are being contrasted. C.f. a person who considers themselves both Hispanic and American, "una persona hispanoamericana", which of course, actually ends up meaning all of Latin America as well in the Spanish. As far as I know, the best way in Spanish to say Hispanics from (US of) America is "hispanos estadounidenses". Actually, that speech could probably be a good case example of some of the issues involved in translation.

And here is Alexander Jabbari's assessment of the speeches and their transcriptions:

After reading your recent Language Log post, I thought you might be interested to hear that the transcriptions of both Jim Inhofe's and Mel Martinez's Spanish speeches are riddled with orthographical mistakes, and furthermore that Inhofe's use of Spanish in his Nov. 12 speech is not very good and sounds like it was translated directly from English by someone who is not a native speaker of Spanish, whereas Martinez's Spanish is perfect. I'm sure that's not surprising, as Martinez speaks Spanish as a first language and Inhofe evidently doesn't, but what was mostly surprising to me was the transcription. The transcription of Inhofe's speech contains spelling errors ("descrácia" instead of desgracia), misuse of diacritics ("senádo" instead of "senado," along with many other words containing diacritics where they don't belong), and an error in capitalization ("Hispános" instead of hispanos), not to mention the translation glosses "hispanos" as "Hispanic Americans," though the term refers to Hispanics of any country. Although Martinez's Spanish is impeccable, the transcription of his Spanish is not. It also contains a few capitalization errors (such as "estudiantes de Derecho" instead of estudiantes de derecho) and contains no diacritics whatsoever (except "ñ"), though many words in his speech should be written with diacritics (such as nación, which is written as "nacion" in the transcription).

And Bill Poser points out that "llama" in the Congressional Record transcription of Inhofe's speech should read "llamar".]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at December 10, 2006 10:04 AM