Language Resources & Inspiration

Four Reasons Why Poorly Written Signs in Spanish Just "Ain't Write!"

by Tonya Tiggett, Owner of Speak Our Language, LLC

In our January monthly eNews I posted a terribly written, grammatically incorrect Spanish sign that I saw posted on the back of a bathroom door at a very large, profitable restaurant chain in the Midwest.   I couldn't resist taking a picture of it and posing a challenge to you, our eNews subscribers and clients, to ask if you could find what was wrong with the sign.  (See the end of this article for answers).

Bathroom Sign Spanish

"Why is this such a big deal?" You might ask. "Can't you just appreciate that they made an effort in written Spanish for their Spanish-speaking employees, even if not perfect, and just leave it at that?" Here's the amazing thing; this sign was translated by a native Spanish-speaker! , it's true...

"Of course they know how to write perfectly and correctly," we think. "It's their native language."

"Ahh! (human buzzer noise) That would not be correct!" As my autistic middle school student Franklin used to blurt out when someone in our Spanish class stated an incorrect fact.  It's as incorrect as the title of this blog: i.e. incorrect verb choice and misspelling of the homonym "write" in the context above.

Reasons Why Poorly Written Signs in Spanish Just "Ain't Write:"

  1. Businesses hopefully take pride in accuracy and quality.  Therefore, any business should logically want to avoid incorrect language use being associated with its brand, particularly when it is as poorly written as this bathroom sign is. Why would a company want such signage posted publicly for bilingual customers to see? While many of you are not fluent, you are literate enough to know somethin' just ain't write with this sign!
  2. More importantly, what do Latinos think about this type of error? Speak Our Language and Accessible Translation Solutions conducted a survey on this question in 2012. 

    How much does it negatively impact your trust in a company when there is poorly written or grammatically incorrect information in Spanish? It impacts my trust …

    Survey Respondent Type A lot Somewhat Not at all
    Bilingual Hispanics 66.7 % 25% 8.3%
    Spanish-only or preferred Spanish Hispanics 100%    
  3. For those of us who speak both languages comfortably, or primarily English, we may tend to take this less seriously or less offensively. However, the signage is not intended for those of us who are bilingual. If you go by our survey, the Latinos who prefer to receive information in their native Spanish clearly indicated that their trust is negatively impacted when companies make mistakes, like those on this bathroom sign. Remember, this sign is intended for them and it is their trust that will be tested.
  4. Translation errors make a company brand look cheap and culturally insensitive. The cost to hire a quality translation firm is worth it to get it right the first time around. Getting it right also gives the positive perception of quality and sensitivity to a consumer group whose buying power will top $1.5 trillion by 2015. We can break it down like this into hard dollars:
  • Quality and cultural sensitivity lead to trust with consumers
  • Trust with one's consumers leads to increased customer interaction
  • Increased customer interaction leads to increased spending
  • Increased spending leads to increased revenue for companies

It's a win-win for everyone. Silly mistakes on signs in Spanish dilute the quality of the company brand and while well-intentioned, they are actually messages of carelessness or insensitivity toward a specific customer base.

For example, how do you feel about the English in the sign below? This was published on the language website under their funny signs category. Ah, the irony. Makes you question the intelligence of the sign-bearer, no?   Poorly written information in Spanish, or in any language, makes us do the same thing with the intelligence of the company that commits such errors.


My plea to companies and to those of you in charge of translation:

  • Please get it right the first time and if you find a mistake - fix it right away.
  • Hire a professional to do your translation, like Accessible Translation Solutions.
  • Ask what process the translation company goes through to select their translators.  
  • If a firm you select does not use certified translators, meaning certified by an organization outside their own company, then keep looking.

For goodness sake, whatever you do, don't use online translation tools for final translations to be printed and displayed for the public consumer to see.  Even your in-house published information will be under the scrutiny of bilingual employees (who are also consumers) who also can, and will, spot the errors. 

Remember, the language you choose represents your business.  Period. If you cut corners you might end up with something that consumers will know just "ain't write" and they will be more than happy to go to the company who does get it "right."

Errors on sign:

  1. Employeados is not a word in Spanish. It is a poor phonetic transcription of "empleados" which means "employees" in Spanish. There should also be the phrase favor de after empleados to request the employees to do something. In this case, wash their hands.
  2. Lava is singular and in the wrong conjugation. Since it is employees (plural), the verb should be lávense or lavar either in command, reflexive form or the infinivite. This means "wash one's hands" in Spanish.
  3. Sus is a correct, colloquially used word (your) in this context but when referencing body parts it is more correct to use the definite article las which mean "the" in Spanish. We would say "your hands" in English and in Spanish it is "Wash the hands."
  4. There should be a preposition de between antes volver
  5. "A" requires "el" after it to say "to the job" in Spanish. So it would be a contraction Al that is needed.

Correct translations would be:

  • Option #1: Empleados, lávense las manos antes de volver al trabajo. (Correct)
  • Option #2: Empleados, favor de lavar las manos antes de volver al trabajo. (Correct and sounds a little more polite than the first one, so this is the best one to use out of the two).

How would this direct and poor translation sound in English?

Emploees washes their hands before to return to work.

Congratulations to our January SOL eNewsletter subscriber Tara Narcross who responded to our eNewsletter challenge to find the corrections.  Tara wins a $10 gift card to El Arepazo Latin Grill in downtown Columbus! 

For more information on this topic, or to consider bringing this topic to your company: * English Well Talking. Here Speeching America: Six Reasons Why Quality Language Services Are Critical for Your Company Brand is the title of a workshop that Speak Our Language and Accessible Translation Solutions provide to organizations for diversity or communications workshops.


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