"Don't worry," the government pamphlet assures in Spanish, "You won't become pregnant asking questions!"
That's more wit than many would attribute to government at any level. It's also wide of the intended meaning, because the English text of which the Spanish is a translatin speaks of becoming embarrassed, which happens to look similar to the Spanish word for pregnant, embarazado.
Another government pamphlet advises installing "an automatic zipper" on outdoor toilets, while English version settles for an automatic re-closing device.
A third official publication warns Spanish-reading pet owners that castration may lead to complication in "animals that have reached their majority," meaning "fully grown."
Prompted by federal and state laws, government at all levels in California is stumbling into a world of multilinguality, with mistakes that are at times amusing, occasionally unintelligible and mostly avoidable.
While amusing mistranslations may be the most striking, more common are banal faults of spelling, gender, tense, acent marks, grammar and word meaning. b
For instance, Spanish words for the English preposition "for" and verb "to be" are often misused. In Spanish there are two words for each of the English words and their use depends on the sentence subject.
Only the California Department of Motory Vehicles, whose translations can spell the difference between life and death on the road, seems to cope fully with the wide variety of languages commonly spoken in various parts of California -- and with the pitfalls lurking along the road between tongues.
As a result, the department has its own translations unit to render English texts into Spanish, Filipino, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
The resulting translations are checked by other experts and tested in communities where the languages are spoken.
But the DMV is the exception, a survey by the Los Angeles Times indicates. More typical is the practice of the Los Angeles County assessor's office that relies, as do most other government agencies, on the service of Hispanic personnel to "put into Spanish" the extremely technical documents -- tax bills and applications for homeowners' tax exemptions' for example -- that the assessor deems necessary.
The Los Angeles Department of Health Services, with 80 percent of its maternity patients speaking Spanish, hired its first full-time translator only this year.
The translator, Maria Fonnegra, found a collection of Spanish-language pamphlets on health-care topics and dietary advice drafted in slavish imitation of the English original and lapsing occasionally into the intimate voice characteristic of Romance languages in addressing a deity, children and pets.
Such a slipshod approach to meeting translation needs results in near-incomprehensibilty, according to Dr. Carmen Sanchez-Sadek, an assistant professor of Spanish at California State University, Los Angeles, and Dr. Delina A. Halushka, instructor of Spanish at Santa Monica and West Los Angeles colleges, who monitored a cross-section of Spanish-language versions of governmental publications -- federal, state and local.
"A knowledge of English is indispensable for a reader to understand many of these translations," said Dr. Sanchez-Sadek. That's because most of the translations followed the original text almost word for word, oblivious of the linguistic requirements of fluent Spanish, she explained.
"Growing up with a language is not enough to enable you to do an adequate translation. I know people who add an 'a' or an 'o' to an English word and think that makes it Spanish -- like 'chair-o,'" Trinidad Fenner, DMV's multilingual program coordinator, said.
The opposite extreme caused problems, too, she said. When she joined DMV more than 20 years ago, the department was producing the first Spanish edition of its driver's handbook, with a college professor providing the translation.
"I was just a clerk," she recalled, "and they asked me to read the manuscript, I did, and I thought: My goodness!"
The Spanish, she said, was very correct, when literary, but also far removed from what one would expect in a handbook and well above the reading level sought in popular publications of whatever tongue.
She described the department's present translation policy this way: "Be correct, but remember that we are trying to communicate and not to educate our readers in their language. The whole issue is safety."
False congnates, or words that look similar to English words but have different meanings are a common booby trap, according to Don Farris, DMV's chief Spanish translator. For example, the Spanish verb asistir looks like the English assist, but really it means to attend.
Even a well-translated text can suffer under the eyes of proofreaders who speak only English, he said.
He recalled that the printer dropped the "r" from the last word of the phrase se prohibe cargar, Spanish for "no loading." the result was a phrase more suitable for toilet training than driving.