The votes have been counted and today we learned that Barack Obama will be President of the United States for four more years. It was a hard-fought election between Obama and his opponent Mitt Romney – made all the more difficult by the well-publicised translation glitches that occurred along the way.

When just shy of one-fifth of American citizens speak a language other than English at home (according to research conducted by the United States’ Census Bureau for a 2007 report), it is imperative to ensure these voters are reached when it comes to a matter of national importance, such as the Presidential Election. The report notes that while 80.3 per cent of the US population speak only English when they are at home, 19.7 per cent speak a different language in this setting. The majority of these people were found to speak Spanish or Spanish Creole, while Indo-European, Asian and Pacific languages were also listed.

Misleading mistranslations


With so much diversity, one of the major considerations when preparing for an election is to ensure every voter has accessible guidance and information. Not translating voting ballots correctly can mean some people are unable to vote the way they intended.

However, Maricopa County in Arizona was guilty of a mistranslation mishap in October, when it handed out Spanish versions of the voter registration cards and discovered they listed the wrong voting day. While yesterday (November 6th) saw Americans heading to the polling stations, Latino residents of the county were directed to vote on November 8th.

The majority of Spanish-speaking voters will not have been affected by the error as the county election office mailed two million correct copies. However, an estimated 50 people were provided with their card when they visited the county office, and these featured the mistake.

Calamity soon struck Maricopa County again. A few weeks later, it was discovered 2,000 educational bookmarks the authority had printed up in Spanish also featured the wrong General Election date. This time, far more than 50 people may have seen the error. At best, such a mistake can cause offence to the person reading it, and at worse it could cause them to miss the vote altogether.

Korean voters in California also encountered a case of mistranslation in the build-up to the big day. The state was forced to reprint and send its voter’s guides after it was spotted that the original claimed that Proposition 30 would push up the sales tax by 25 cents. In reality, the proposition would increase the levy by one-quarter of a penny. Again, this is the kind of mistake that could significantly sway a person’s vote.

Another ballot mistranslation occurred in Maryland, with WUSA9 reporting last month that a possible error was discovered in the Spanish version of the slip. Question 6 of the ballot concerns same-sex marriage equality, but two Spanish speakers claim the summary on the ballot has changed the order of certain words. They say this could result in Spanish-speaking residents voting for the opposite option to what they wanted. Ross Goldstein, the deputy administrator of the Board of Elections, apologised but said the wording had been translated correctly.

Getting to grips with the political lingo

Of course, English speakers may also have encountered difficulties trying to follow the campaign efforts of Obama and Romney in the build-up to the election. Luckily Inklings, the news publication of Staples High School in Connecticut, has published a useful guide for people struggling to understand what some of the political lingo the two candidates used means.

It lists some of the most misunderstood phrases of the General Election, including top-down economics (the fiscal theory that bestowing economic benefits such as tax breaks on the wealthy members of the population will benefit the poorer members) and phantom jobs (the words Romney has used to describe the number of jobs the Obama administration has created over the past four years).

With Obama back in the White House, it will be four more years before Americans are called to vote in a presidential election again. Let’s hope their vote doesn’t get lost in translation next time.