Political translationPoliticians have a reputation for, shall we say, bending their words a little according the situation. Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise then that they would also have a fairly loose approach to the question of what makes a good translation. Last week brought an interesting example from American politics.

Like every year, President Obama gave his State of the Union Address before the U.S. House of Representatives. Guests this year included a prisoner of Cuba, an astronaut, Ebola activists, veterans and others. Like every year, the opposition Republican Party gave its official response after the President's speech. Joni Ernst, the Republican senator from Iowa, delivered the English-language response while Carlos Curbelo, a representative from Florida, gave a "translation" of Ernst's speech in Spanish.

The problem?  Curbelo's "Spanish-Language translated address of Sen. Joni Ernst response" wasn't what professional translators would call a faithful translation. In fact, he added an entire paragraph.

The difference had to do with immigration reform, an issue that is clearly important to many Spanish-speaking Americans. Sen. Ernst's English-language response did not mention immigration reform -- in fact, the senator is a strong opponent of President Obama's views on the issue.

However, as Politico pointed out, Representative Curbelo's Spanish version of the speech said Republicans wanted to work with Obama to fix the immigration system.

“We should also work through the appropriate channels to create permanent solutions for our immigration system, to secure our borders, modernize legal immigration, and strengthen our economy,” said Curbelo in Spanish. “In the past, the president has expressed support for ideas like these. Now we ask him to cooperate with us to get it done.”

Why the difference? One way of looking at it is that any good translation or localization is always aware of its audience and will consider its particular point of view -- and Curbelo's Spanish-language listeners were probably interested in his opinion on the issue.

Steve Benen at MSNBC takes a more cynical view: "An English-speaking audience heard Republicans overlook immigration, while a Spanish-speaking audience was led to believe GOP lawmakers actually want to pass immigration reform. (They don’t.)"

Whichever way you look at it, the case is a telling example for the importance of adapting your message to your intended target audience. The Republican's modified translation may not have been exactly an honest maneuver, but it drives home the need for a well thought-out approach to translation and localization.

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