A "BRT" bus pulls up on a painted red lane
A bus enters the new transit-only lane on Van Ness Avenue, as a crowd looks on from across the street. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan

The Spanish ad copy for now-failed Proposition A, a $400 million bond to revamp San Francisco’s transit and streets, was rife with errors and confusing wording, Spanish speakers have noted in the week following the election.

Prop. A, which ran on the June 7 ballot and fell short of the two-thirds vote required for its passage, was championed by Mayor London Breed and most San Francisco politicos as a much-needed infrastructure revamp for public transportation without raising taxes.

But even with such powerful backing, glaring errors appeared throughout the ad for the generally uncontested ballot measure: Typos, incorrect gender agreement, and some mistranslated words that appeared to be consistent with European Spanish instead of the Latin American Spanish widely spoken in San Francisco.

The mistranslations included the word for the main subject of the entire ad: the word “bond” was mistranslated to “fianza,” a word that instead means “bail bond,” instead of the correct translation, “bono.” The word “fonda,” a typo that was intended to mean “funds” in the ad, actually refers to a tavern or inn in Latin American Spanish.

As a result, a chart outlining the different expenses included in the Prop. A bond was titled “La fianza fonda estes prioridades,” which translates roughly to “The tavern’s bail bond has thises priorities,” noted labor organizer Chema Hernández Gil on Twitter on Monday.

What’s more, the price tag on the bond was entirely unclear to an uninformed Spanish reader. When breaking down the planned expenses in millions of dollars, the Spanish ad included an “m” after each number, which in Spanish could indicate either a thousand (mil) or a million (millón).

It is not clarified anywhere in the ad that the total bond was for $400 million.

It is unclear how much of an effect the poor translation had on Prop. A’s failure, which currently needs only 3,350 more votes in favor to reach the required two-thirds. Spanish speakers make up a small, but not insignificant, percentage of the electorate: 7,473 of the nearly 500,000 registered voters in San Francisco are registered as Spanish voters.

Salvadoran-born District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar said that political language should be simple and clear enough for all voters to understand, and called the errors “disrespectful and a little bit tone deaf.”

Melgar said that, however, regardless of errors in the Spanish ad material, many areas of the city with significant Spanish-speaking communities voted in support of Prop. A.

“Despite the lack of attention and respect, they still voted for the damn thing!” Melgar said. Meanwhile, her English-speaking constituents in southwest San Francisco voted against the measure.

The Spanish Prop. A materials weren’t the only ones with errors: Some Chinese speakers noticed an incorrect character for the word “proposition” in the Prop A signs at an April Chinatown rally. While phonetically correct and likely intelligible by the average reader, the typo changed the meaning to “Subject A” instead of “Proposition A.”

It is unclear who translated the English page describing the ballot measure into Spanish. The Spanish ad was paid for by the Yes on A committee, which received major funding from Salesforce, Lyft, and self-driving car service company Cruise.

Neither Yes on A nor KMM Strategies, the lead consulting firm on Prop. A, have responded to requests for comment.

The SFMTA declined to comment on the topic.

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim over eight years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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5 Comments

  1. Normal government incompetence and why we don’t need to give them anymore power over our lives, then the absolute minimum.

  2. One should also note the SF DOE provides election ballots in 4 languages. English, Chinese, Spanish and Filipino. Several of my Filipino friends lament that there is no Filipino language. The dialect used is a standardized version of Tagalog.

  3. Come on … $400M to float Muni …. where the yard clean up crew sits around all day reading newspaper and do no clean. Where Muni engineers have side gigs as moonlighting as contractor on non Muni projects. Enough is enough, Muni needs restructuring, it has become an inefficient drag on public transport and needs financial accountability and reform!

  4. How about the public being tired of fiscal mismanagement? It took $300 million and 27 years to put up the Van Ness Ave. Muni lanes. I wonder which contractors received this money for this over priced, 27 year old project, and milking the system. Now they want more?

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