Why use a sentence instead of "anónimamente"?
September 17, 2015 8:36 AM   Subscribe

On New York City building sites, why does the Spanish signage say "No tiene que dar su nombre" instead of using the Spanish adverb for "anonymously"?

In New York City, on in-progress buildings, I see the required sign that tells you: "To anonymously report unsafe conditions at this worksite, call 311." There's a Spanish translation underneath saying: "Para reportar condiciones peligrosas en un sitio de trabajo, llame al 311. No tiene que dar su nombre." Why does the Spanish version say "You don't have to give your name" instead of using the Spanish adverb "anónimamente"? This blog post hypothesizes: it's because the writers assume a lower literacy level among the Spanish readers than among English readers. Is that right? Is it more likely that a low-literacy English reader in NYC knows "anonymously" than it is that a low-literacy Spanish reader in NYC knows "anónimamente"?

I've looked on nyc.gov and found that the relevant law (part of the building code) specifies the Spanish phrasing in figures 301.9.1.4(1), (2), and (3), but I'm not sure where to look to find out how long ago that phrasing was added to the building code or how people arrived at this exact phrasing; I'm a bit of a novice at searching the Legislative Research Center.
posted by brainwane to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I've always assumed that the wording on those signs was originally written by someone whose spanish was a second language but the assumption of lower literacy also seems like a thing that might happen. I'm trying and failing to remember what I noticed similar signs saying in actual spanish speaking countries. Mostly just PELIGRO with stick figures being crushed by construction equipment, I think.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:43 AM on September 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Another potential explanation is that the English phrasing was written first, and whoever translated wasn't specifically asked to make the wording exactly equivalent. He/she then rephrased the statement in more natural language. So you're just looking at a first draft and a revision. (Honestly, I wouldn't presume that whoever is writing this sign is even considering differences in the translation--they're probably more like "oh yeah and we're also supposed to put it in Spanish.")
posted by cogitron at 8:45 AM on September 17, 2015

One more thought: literacy assumptions could come into play if the English-sign writer didn't think about accessibility at all, but the translator did.

Drafter of the English phrasing: "We ought to require that a sign is posting stating how to anonymously report unsafe working conditions. Done and done."
Translator, who either thinks about language for a living or is at least briefly considering what the best wording is: "SIGH. How many people working in unsafe construction sites will read the word 'anonymously'? I'll fix it in the Spanish version."

My guess, though, is that the assumption discussed above is false, if only because "anónimamente" is pronounced according to clear phonetic rules. So if you can read in Spanish, and you've heard the word before, you'll be able to figure it out. But a low-literacy English reader is likely to have trouble linking "anonymously" with the pronunciation.
posted by cogitron at 8:55 AM on September 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

Speculation: A monolingual Spanish-speaker is more likely than an English speaker to be an undocumented worker and may therefore have greater concerns about getting involved in any sort of legal/government system. "Anonymously" isn't super-specific; someone could easily interpret it to mean that they'll ask you to give your name when making the complaint but just won't share it when they investigate. The more explicit Spanish-language version may be a way of addressing those cultural concerns.
posted by jaguar at 8:55 AM on September 17, 2015 [9 favorites]

Speaking as a graphic designer, it might be more difficult to jam a whole long word like "anómimamente" into a sign whereas you could more easily space and break "No tiene que dar su nombre" to fit.
posted by zadcat at 9:01 AM on September 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

N-Gram viewer for "anónimamente" in the Spanish corpus.

N-Gram viewer for "anonymous" in the English corpus.

If I understand this correctly, the word is used about ten times more frequently in English than in Spanish.
posted by griphus at 9:01 AM on September 17, 2015 [19 favorites]

I understand the question and I don't want to derail, but I think the real question here is "Why are English signs written in such academic/bureaucratic language?" I teach ESL and developmental English, and I often find myself staring at signs in hotels, elevators, and on highways that seem to require a college degree to understand. I despair of how anyone who's panicked by an emergency, let alone visiting from another country and not fluent in English, would be able to make use of the information. (And don't start me on California's "playful" "Click it or Ticket!" highway notices.)

So without any real information on the situation, I favor cogito's imagined scenario. I salute you, imaginary translator!
posted by wintersweet at 9:02 AM on September 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

Spanish doesn't equal English. It is pretty standard for there to not be a direct translation because even if the word exists and is used in Spanish, it has different standards of use (for example, a word may seem the same but have a much more narrow definition in actual usage or the word may be overly academic). Along those lines, Spanish often doesn't go through the most direct route to express anything, grammatically speaking.
posted by Aranquis at 9:08 AM on September 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

"Why are English signs written in such academic/bureaucratic language?"

Precise requirements of legalese, and the pervasive cultural sense that if you're not using big, fancy words, your subject or topic must not be very important and/or doesn't need to be taken seriously.

The latter point is why Up Goer Five is so striking.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:44 AM on September 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

I remember an English-Spanish interpreter I know telling me how a lot of times she ended up not using the exact word, partly because there are a lot of different Spanishes - so even if "anoniamente" is perfectly intelligible and obvious in Mexican Spanish or Spanish Spanish, it might be virtually unused in Dominican Spanish or Puerto Rican Spanish or Argentinian Spanish (I have no actual knowledge of how often the word is used in any version of Spanish). She would end up breaking things down into sentences because even though she was fluent in "Spanish" she wasn't fluent in every kind of Spanish.

It kind of reminds me of a time when I was working at a museum and talking to some French-Canadian kids about a family of monkeys; their English was OK (ETA: the kids, not the monkeys) but one of them wanted to know if the monkeys were "amiable" (and pronounced it more in the French way than the English way). "Amiable" is a word in English, but it's still not a word we use often. I had to pronounce it back to myself before I recognized it as the French word and was able to translate it back to myself as "friendly".
posted by mskyle at 9:45 AM on September 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

I am not fluent in Spanish but my second language skills are strong (and I have lived and traveled in Latin America and Spain over many years). I cannot ever recall seeing that word used anywhere. Anónimo/a, yes; adverb form, never. I think that particular phrase is simply uncommon and would feel tortured. It might even imply something slightly different and more extreme than "you don't have to leave your name."
posted by vunder at 9:47 AM on September 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

To come back on the topic of "it's a cultural thing, not a literacy thing," as a bit of anecdata, my city has a Cultural Navigator Program, to provide assistance to the large number of immigrants in the city. There's a wide variety of people attracted to tech jobs.

The program had a handout, written in English by immigrants for other immigrants. I don't know why this was written in English, but the purpose was to have a fellow immigrant provide a brief list of major topics that a newly arrived immigrant should be aware of. Things like, here's a bank that speaks your language, here's a grocery store that carries your favorite staples, etc.

The differences between the advice were striking. Coming from China? The Chinese writer explained how best to make an initial contact with the public school system. Coming from Russia? The Russian writer explained that if a police officer pulls you over, don't try to offer a bribe.

So, perhaps the person writing the Spanish translation was trying to be very helpful for the intended audience, speaking in plain, direct language, that "anonymous" means "even if the person on the 311 call might ask for your name, you don't have to give it."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:55 AM on September 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

-mente adverbs are not nearly as commonly used in Spanish as they are in English. I overuse them, because I overuse -ly adverbs in English, too, and my wife and friends make fun of me for it.
posted by zjacreman at 10:50 AM on September 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

I'd like to nth those who are saying that it is not primarily an issue of culture or literacy, but a sociolinguistic one. Speaking as a (near) native Spanish speaker, I agree that "anóninamente" (and -mente adverbs in general, as zjacreman points out) are not as common in Spanish as they are in English. "Anóninamente" doesn't just sound "academic" or "literate," it sounds unusual and out of place.

And while it might be helpful for monolingual/English-dominant speakers to understand it as "Spanish is often just an indirect, circuitous language," I would want to emphasize that living and speaking in Spanish I/we do not experience Spanish that way.
posted by correcaminos at 12:18 PM on September 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

N-Gram viewer for "anónimamente" in the Spanish corpus.

N-Gram viewer for "anonymous" in the English corpus.

If I understand this correctly, the word is used about ten times more frequently in English than in Spanish.

To build off of this and echo zjacreman's point, Spanish uses way fewer -mente adjectives:

"frecuéntemente" is usually "con frecuencia"
"generalmente" is usually "por lo general"
"desgraciadamente" is usually "por degracia" (meaning "unfortunately")

etc. etc.
posted by chainsofreedom at 12:21 PM on September 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

Yup. Using "-mente" everywhere waves a flag that indicates that you are not a first language Spanish speaker. I don't say that Spanish is circuitous or indirect; rather I identify bureaucratic English signage as crashingly unsubtle and without finesse.

If I ever go to linguistics grad school I am totally writing my dissertation about this issue. After a few decades in the language industry, I frequently read a manual and say something like "this is a crap translation from German." I really don't know why people can smell the source language; there is just some quality in the translation that you just can't capture in the original.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 1:40 PM on September 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am grateful for all of the wisdom here. Thanks! I understand a little better now.

If anyone could point to an explanation by the public servants who decided on the current phrasing, I'd love that. Otherwise I am reasonably satisfied!
posted by brainwane at 1:48 PM on September 17, 2015

The part of the code mandating that specific Spanish verbiage on the signage was amended into the 2008 Building Code (which appears to be the most recent revision) via Local Law 47 of 2013 which was drafted and/or submitted "by Council Members Dilan, Arroyo, Comrie, Koo, Wills and Gennaro (by request of the Mayor)."

It wasn't in the original 2008 release starting on document pg. 595/PDF pg. 705 which only specifies the sign has to be in Spanish, but has no required Spanish verbiage.
posted by griphus at 2:28 PM on September 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

(You can contact those [possibly former] Council Members to see if they can tell you specifically who drafted the Spanish verbiage.)
posted by griphus at 2:31 PM on September 17, 2015

I really don't know why people can smell the source language; there is just some quality in the translation that you just can't capture in the original.

In dealing with localization/translation issues at my work, I can definitely spot the translated-from-German vs the translated-from-Russian. I think it's about syntax and word choices and little facts like in German, all Nouns are capitalized, and they get accidentally carried over into the English translation. Like, "this is the rule here, so it must be the same over here," and it isn't.

This previous MeFi article had a great look into this -- 12 reasons why Arabic is terrific

Arabic has a number of very unusual agreement rules. My absolute favorite is that all non-human plurals are grammatically feminine singular:

al-kutub hadra' (الكتب خضراء)

"The books, she is green"

Now, say "the books, she is green" while pretending you're Sallah, and you can hear why actors/writers/directors portrayals put those noun-verb disagreements directly into scripts to make a portrayal ring true.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:43 PM on September 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I directed an interpreter services program for a while, and I am a certified Spanish interpreter.

People upthread are right. A good interpreter or translator usually adjusts the language to better reach the audience (without taking or adding information to the original message).

The assumption is that if a Spanish-speaking person is educated, they are likely to speak English as well, so translations and interpretations are almost entirely for those whose education is basic or non-existent.

However, when the message to translate or interpret is legally binding or in any way necessarily complex, content fidelity overrules user-friendliness.
posted by Tarumba at 5:11 AM on September 18, 2015

I don't speak Spanish, so I don't have a lot of authority to answer this question. But I'm going to assume this is right:

the word is used about ten times more frequently in English than in Spanish.

Here's an example that could make this more intuitive. When I studied Italian, the professor taught us that "quotidiano" has an equivalent in English: "quotidian." However, she pointed out that "quotidian" is a word most English speakers never use. Many English speakers don't know what it means, and even if they do know, they'd prefer another word, like "everyday." Maybe you'd write the word "quotidian," but can you imagine ever using it in conversation? Probably not. But Italian speakers apparently think nothing of dropping "quotidiano" into a casual conversation. So while you might think the Italian word "quotidiano" should literally be translated into English as "quotidian," the reality is that's probably not the best translation.
posted by John Cohen at 9:13 AM on September 18, 2015

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