THE lonely image of Spanish leader Jose Luis Zapatero at a recent political summit made it painfully clear how isolating an inability to speak English is.
Sitting alone, Zapatero listened to a Spanish translation while the other world leaders thrashed out a debate at the other end of the room in English.
Cut off by the barrier of language and unable to influence the discussion, the isolated figure of Zapatero is easy, as it happens, for most Spaniards to relate to.
A recent survey found that although 90 per cent of Spaniards believe language skills are important, only a third can speak English.
Furthermore, in the poll by the Centre for Sociological Research, one in four admitted that they had been discriminated against during their career for not being able to speak a foreign language.
“I wonder how many people simply walk out when they can’t understand what is on offer.”
And if the most influential man in the country cannot learn English, let’s face it, the rest of the population have little hope of escaping the ‘Spanglish’ stereotype that afflicts so many.
The matter first came to the fore in classic British sitcom Fawlty Towers some three decades ago.
And sadly the grief suffered by Manuel, played by Andrew Sachs all those years ago, is still very apparent.
Indeed, the majority of Spaniards’ language skills have not advanced much further than Manuel’s catchphrase “Qué?”.
And while the English are anything but famed for their grasp of foreign languages, a recent EU survey officially ranked Spain’s linguistic skills as the third worst in the EU, significantly lower than the UK.
But when it comes to translating, Spain is in a league of its own.
The comical and non-sensical blunders which litter its restaurant menus, tourist sites and signs are a never-ending source of amusement to visitors.
Indeed, translation mistakes are so common in Spain, that a number of popular websites and blogs have sprung up showcasing the most amusing and unfortunate gaffs.
The best of these is without a doubt Trevor ApSimon´s blog www.fuckedtranslation.blogspot.com, an extremely funny site, run out of the creator’s home in Barcelona.
Full of the best of the worst from around Spain, it is billed as: “What happens when Spanish institutions and businesses give translation contracts to relatives or to some guy in a bar who once went to London and only charges 0.05€/word.”
ApSimon started the blog two and a half years ago when he became frustrated by the poor pay and treatment he received while working as a translator in Spain.
“Spanish customers are not prepared to pay decent rates – they either take months to pay you or they disappear overnight,” he explains.
Consequently, many translators are not prepared to work in Spain, while most businesses also “choose to spend their money on other things”.
The end result, he explains, is a country full of embarrassing and funny public statements.
His blog is full of the resultant errors found in translations by councils, businesses and restaurants.
And, unlike many sites, he explains the error and even takes time to analyse it.
My personal favourite is a sign on the toilet wall of a restaurant in Jaén: “Don’t though any papers into the water close. Use the trash bean.”
While it is easy to write this off as nonsense at first glance, ApSimon’s analysis shows that an attempt at accurate translation was made.
He believes that the error is most likely a result of the English word ‘bin’ being copied down phonetically after it was pronounced incorrectly.
In light of this, it’s easy to see how Spaniards are tripped up by English pronunciation, as Spanish words are pronounced as they are spelt.
Another common stumbling block is the literal translation, causing many an error in Spanish menus.
While ‘jews’ – or judios, green beans – are regularly offered in restaurants throughout Spain, one amused customer shared the following gems from a restaurant in Jerez: “Clams to the sailor’s blouse” (‘almejas a la marinera’, which should have read ‘clams in a white wine sauce’) and “I hit to the plate” (‘choco a la plancha’, which is grilled squid).
Mistakes like these may provide seemingly harmless entertainment for diners, but they reveal a very serious problem afflicting Spain.
Too many businesses think they can get away with a two-minute internet translation when preparing a document in English.
However, by thinking that a quick internet translator will do the job of a paid professional, business owners are doing a lot more than saving time and money. They are risking the very integrity of their companies.
Justin Roberts, a food exporter based in Jerez, explains: “The irony is professional translation can be very good value and, for a tourism business, I would have thought professional translation is vital.
“I would rather get a menu in Spanish than a mangled and nonsensical version of English,” said Roberts. “I wonder how many people simply walk out when they can’t understand what is on offer.”
This is simply not acceptable for a country that relies on tourism for over ten per cent of its income.
With the current slump in tourism, blamed on the pound’s fall against the euro, restaurant owners should be doing everything they can to secure the business of foreign tourists.
For larger businesses and government bodies poor translations can be even more damaging, suggesting a lack of professionalism and accuracy.
For example, the English translation of the official website for the international wine fair Vinoble 2010 by the Mayoress of Jerez is entitled “Mayoress’ Gretting”.
‘What does this tell us?’, asks Trevor ApSimon on his blog. “That the Mayoress of Jerez cares more about how her hair looks than about how her words are interpreted?
“That her administration is thick and happy to wallow in it?”
As websites become an increasingly important way for businesses to promote themselves, mistakes such as this could seriously damage trade.
English is the most prominent language in international business, and therefore if Spanish companies want to be taken seriously, they must be prepared to invest in professional and accurate translators.
This is particularly crucial in Spain’s tough economic climate, which has recently forced retail giants such as Zara and Mango to expand in Britain in order to stay afloat.
If Spanish companies do not prioritise their translations, they risk being cut off from global business opportunities in the same way that Zapatero too often finds himself unable to communicate with his fellow world leaders in the universal language of English.