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Lost in Translation or Chinese Food for Thought?
Justice Department Vs. Massachusetts Ballot Issue Could Land in Court
By DAVID SCHOETZ
June 28, 2007 —
“Virtue Soup” or “Sticky Rice”?
Your preference may depend on your politics.
A ballot issue in the city of Boston has pinned the Department of
Justice’s Civil Rights Division against the Massachusetts secretary of
state’s office — and the controversy may end up in court.
Under a 2005 agreement with the Justice Department, Massachusetts
agreed to make ballots translated from English into Cantonese and
Mandarin available to Boston’s Chinese voters.
While some critics balked at the idea of offering ballots in any
language except English, Massachusetts — like New York and California
— complied. Or so it thought.
Now the federal government is pressuring the Bay State to not only
transliterate — to write in the characters of another alphabet — the
contents of the ballot, such as instructions and offices, but also the
surnames of candidates.
With the 2008 presidential election approaching, state election
officials took a look at how some of the big political names,
transliterated from English to Chinese, might appear in character
For some, the translation, which must be done syllable by syllable,
painted a better picture than others.
On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s name,
for example, might translate to “Sticky Rice” on the ballot. If former
senator and “Law and Order” star Fred Thompson officially hops into
the GOP race, Chinese voters could have the option of voting for
Of course, the soup and rice would face a challenges from “Triumphant
Wheat,” aka Arizona Sen. John McCain, and Rudy Guiliani, the former
New York City mayor, whose Chinese translation might be read as
On the Democratic side of the aisle, N.Y. Sen. Hillary Clinton may not
be happy to see her name translated into “Tired Forest,” while
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama might be read, to his satisfaction, as
Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Massachusetts Secretary of State William
Galvin, said the issue goes beyond the big names of the presidential
campaign. Many of Boston’s Chinese voters, he said, may likely
recognize those candidates. But throw in city councilor and state
representative candidates and other more obscure potential
officeholders and the confusion only mounts.
“And then you have this added factor of good and bad characters,” said
McNiff, pointing out the somewhat favorable transliterations enjoyed
by some candidates and unseemly Chinese ballot titles others may
But the Justice Department continues to pressure Massachusetts
election officials, arguing that the inclusion of Chinese surnames on
the ballot not only would comply with the consent agreement, but that
the inclusion would better preserve democracy than forcing confused
voters to rely on poll monitors.
“We’ll attempt to seek an amicable settlement whenever possible,”
Cynthia Magnuson, Justice Department Civil Rights Division
spokeswoman, told ABC News, adding that Boston city officials have
agreed with them and that it’s the state leaders who are failing to
meet the terms of the agreement.
McNiff said the differences of opinion may ultimately end up in court,
a lawsuit that Magnuson said is not ideal, but could potentially
happen if necessary.
Sam Yoon, a Korean-born Boston city councilor, said he understands the
amusement the controversy has generated for some. But he’s also heard
from angry constituents and is working with Asian-American and
advocacy groups to respond officially to the secretary of state’s
“It’s kind of bewilderment,” Yoon said in an interview with ABC News.
“Bewilderment at [Galvin’s] failure to understand a system of
transliteration that over a billion people use and rely on, to
pronounce words that aren’t Chinese.”
Voters who take Chinese ballots won’t mistake Mitt Romney for “Sticky
Rice,” Yoon said, describing the notion that Chinese-American voters
would be that clueless in the voting booth as “condescending.”
Yoon said that Chinese surnames on ballots work in other cities and
suggested that photos next to each candidate’s name would also clear
up any confusion. Like Magnuson, he’d prefer that voters be able to
make their own decisions — without any unnecessary outside influence.
“Anything we can do to foster independence and self-sufficiency in the
polling booth,” he said.
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