When it comes to mistranslation, signs prove to be a particular stumbling block. Maybe it’s because their function is to provide people with information, while the fact they are often in public spaces makes any slip-up even more noticeable. So, if you’re translating them, it’s imperative you do it right.

In Milford, Delaware in the US, a translated sign has been accused of being far more than just misleading – some have labelled what is says as racist. It was installed at a children’s playground near two junior schools, where both Spanish and English-speaking parents bring their kids during the week.

Delaware Online reports that while the English sign read: “Parental or guardian supervision is required for the use of this playground equipment. Play at your own risk,” the Spanish version said something quite different. Written in Spanish, readers were informed that a permit was required to use the playgrounds’ facilities and that those who violated this instruction could face police action.

Translation error

The signs were up for a year before the discrepancy was made public by WXDE radio talk show host Dan Gaffney. He took a picture of the signs and shared it with his Facebook followers. When Milford School District Superintendent Dr Phyllis Kohel learnt of the problem a day later, the signs were immediately removed.

It’s easy to see why the discovery that the signs were different caused such offence. While English speakers were advised that children should be kept an eye on, making the notice more of a disclaimer, the Spanish version read more like an anti-trespassing warning.

Local resident Margaret Reyes told the news provider: “In that year [the sign was up], I wonder how many Spanish-speaking parents brought their kids to that park, then turned around and left with the feeling that they weren’t wanted?”

One reason why the signs may have differed so markedly is that the Spanish translation could have been copied from one of the sports field signs at local middle schools. While a non-Spanish speaker may have assumed these signs were similar to those required at the park, middle school sports field notices actually warn people they need a permit to enter. This is what Mrs Kohel thinks happened, and she made clear that she did not believe there was any intent to discriminate.

Following the discovery of the error, Mrs Kohel emailed all district schools urging them to ensure that their signs read the same in all languages and that their meaning was clear.

Lost in translation

This is not the first time we have recounted stories of signs being lost in translation. In Wales last year, Welsh-speaking drivers in the Vale of Glamorgan were advised to “follow the entertainment”, rather than the diversion, according to the BBC.

Translating signs correctly is absolutely critical. While the Milford story could have caused offence to residents, the case in Wales might have ended badly if a driver did not take the diversion and ended up in the path of danger.

In an increasingly multicultural world, it’s important that everyone receives important information like this in their mother tongue. Whether it’s in a hospital, on a road or in a school playground, translated signs should say exactly what they are supposed to say.