If you wonder what those Spanish signs in New York City subway stations say, you’re not alone. So do many of the 2.1 million Latinos who live here.
In response to the growing number of Spanish-speaking commuters, the MTA has created a series of posters in Spanish informing Latino riders of “rules of conduct” and of service advisories for the trains. In most cases the Spanish signs say exactly the same thing as the signs in English, and that is precisely the problem.
When you translate literally, word for word from English into Spanish, a sentence can lose its meaning. Take the MTA’s post–9/11 campaign posters, for example, which read, “If you see something, say something.” In Spanish the sign reads, “Si ves algo, di algo.” The play on words—“something” for “something”—doesn’t survive the translation, and in fact the slogan is given a whole new meaning. If translated back into English it reads, “If you see anything, say anything”—i.e., “If you see anything (pink umbrella), say anything (I love peanut-butter sandwiches).”
Posted at the entrance of every subway station behind a Plexiglas case there is another kind of sign, equally as confusing for Spanish speakers. The “Rules of Conduct” posters list a series of rules that one must adhere to in order to ride the subway. The first is “Do not damage subway or bus property—that includes drawing, graffiti, or scratching.” Although not a model sentence in English either, when translated its message reads, “Do not damage the property of the subterranean trains or buses, even making graffiti drawings or scratching,” and the word used for “scratching” is misleading. The Spanish sign uses rasguñar, a term that always applies to the human body, not to an object. You can “rasguñar” an arm, but you cannot “rasguñar” a subway car. The appropriate word to use would be rayar, defined by the Oxford Spanish Dictionary as “to scratch,” with one example being “le rayaron el coche” (someone scratched her car).
The last item in the “Rules of Conduct” list states, “Please do not carry open bulky items likely to cause inconvenience.” In Spanish it reads, “Por favor no cargar artículos grandes que podrán estorbar o causar algún peligro tanto para usted mismo como otras.” The Spanish version not only reads like a conversation between Tonto and the Lone Ranger—twice as long as its English counterpart—but the message has been deliberately modified to mean something else. While the word “danger” does not appear in the original sentence, in the latter it is the main theme of the statement. Although this rule is intended to prevent people from causing an inconvenience to others—say by blocking the subway door with a giant suitcase—for Latinos reading it, it is warning against carrying dangerous and harmful objects onto the car that might hurt another passenger or oneself. The discrepancy between the versions implies that while English speakers are asked to be mindful of their neighbors and limit their load, Spanish speakers are being told to leave their machetes and WMDs at home.
In 2003 the MTA had a $7.5 billion budget—or enough money to hire a truly bilingual speaker to write these texts so that the signs might actually be useful to New York City’s Spanish speakers. But perhaps these mistranslations should come as no surprise in a country whose president, in an effort to reach out to the Latino community, is constantly making similar mistakes. In his speech at the Republican National Convention, President Bush said, “No dejaremos a ningún niño atrás.” Although he was referring to the “No Child Left Behind” campaign, the Spanish-speaking Republicans in the audience must have been mystified. Bush’s Spanish version says that no child will be left behind, but the meaning is just a bit too literal, as in “no child will be left behind a door or behind the house.”
Adriana Simoneta is a writer based in Manhattan.