No Public Restrooms

I’m not one of those people who point out to waitresses or sales clerks that their sign or their menu has a glaring typo or grammar error in it. I’m one of those people who see errors in print and just smugly think about how bad the printed material looks. Except for this one time. Well, OK, I’ve done it a couple of times, but this one time sticks in my memory because of the response I got. I was at a farm stand and nursery and since it was fall in New England, the store had barrels of apples displayed. One barrel bore the sign “Locally Grown Mac’s.” See how bad that is? No one could resist pointing out that error, right? So when one of the workers came over I said, “You know, ‘Macs’ is plural there; it doesn’t need an apostrophe, it should just be m-a-c-s.” The man looked at me quizzically for an instant. Then he smiled and said, “Weah just fahmahs*!” So much for spreading enlightenment.

But I do notice these things, sometimes with consternation at the poor English, sometimes with amusement at the silly translation (“rape, sailor style,” “fried ear wire”). Living near a city with a large Hispanic population, I see a large number of signs poorly translated into Spanish. This dismays me on several fronts. First, the person having the English sign translated did not value the translation profession enough to hire an actual translator. Too many people do not realize that translation is not as simple as turning one word into another. Second, the Spanish is often nonsense, so it is not helping Spanish-speakers. And third, the incorrect Spanish on these signs is perpetuating the use of nonstandard Spanish or sometimes Spanglish.

So it was with great joy and satisfaction that I recently read a sign posted on a door at a NAPA Auto Parts store. This beautiful piece of literature read: No Public Restrooms/Servicios Privados. An actual Spanish-sounding rendering of the English words, something a Spanish speaker could understand, a way to effectively reduce the hordes of Spanish-speakers storming the store and asking to use the bathrooms (OK, maybe not that last one). Note the pleasing agreement of adjective and noun; the concise, yet appropriate choice of words; the delightfully correct spelling; the lovely avoidance of the word “baños.” A true gem.

Knowing it was an exercise in futility, I immediately asked the clerk where the sign came from. He didn’t know. I could have pursued the matter further à la Chris Durban, a well-known translator who used to publish pieces on her research into where things went wrong when companies produced bad translations. But I was satisfied just knowing the sign existed.And it wasn’t even handmade. It was an actual plastic sign with printed letters, so they must have ordered it from a business. Somewhere out there is a design store that cares enough to produce signs with proper translations. My hope in humanity is restored.


*Translation for non-New Englanders: We’re just farmers.