Spanish Political Ads' Multiple Translations

Barack Obama is taking his message directly to Hispanic voters, but the attempt can be interpreted as misguided.
Barack Obama is taking his message directly to Hispanic voters, but the attempt can be interpreted as misguided. (
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By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008

How fitting that the most Latinized presidential campaign season in history enters its final week with the Democratic candidate looking deep into our eyes and carefully pronouncing 65 words in Spanish.

"Compartimos un sueño. . . . Este es el sueño Americano."

Just two questions about Barack Obama's new television ad: What is he saying, and to whom is he saying it?

The translation is easy enough: We share a dream. . . . This is the American dream.

But what is he saying, and who gets it? Also, what was the point of buying 30 minutes on Univision last night to run a translated version of his "American Stories" infomercial that simultaneously aired on several English-language networks?

The same can be asked of Republican candidate John McCain, who has aired several commercials with his spoken English translated into Spanish.

Is this just a little bit of linguistic showing off? Most Latino registered voters don't need to be addressed in Spanish. Those born in the United States tend to speak English fluently, and those naturalized as citizens had to pass an English test. The Pew Hispanic Center reports that 84 percent of Latino voters speak English very well or pretty well.

Also: Nearly a quarter of Latino registered voters speak little or no Spanish at all. Won't Obama's and McCain's messages in Spanish be lost on them?

Maybe not. The politics of language and the language of politics are full of bank shots, meta-messages. Sometimes the language is more meaningful than the words. The language is the music, never mind the lyrics.

"It allows that one-on-one cultural touch between the Latino community and a presidential candidate who simply cannot go shake everybody's hand," says Lorena Chambers, a Latina Democratic political consultant with Chambers Lopez & Gaitán.

"When you do something in Spanish, you're trying to communicate a bigger message than the message you're ostensibly sending," says Antonio Tijerino, president of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation. "It resonates. The bigger message is, 'We care about Latinos.' "

But a candidate has to be careful. Latinos, like anybody else, don't like being talked down to. Fluent Hispanic English speakers are proud of their language mastery. They're galled by the charge hurled by some in the immigration debate that Latinos can't or won't learn English.

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