One side effect of the coronavirus crisis has been a sharp spike in misinformation and hoaxes, whether it’s dubious medical advice as to how to combat Covid-19 or the seemingly endless audio files passed from cellphone to cellphone pertaining to be from medical professionals.
On Wednesday, it was EL PAÍS English Edition’s turn to be subject to what is known in Spanish as a bulo, after someone posted an image (a photo of a monitor, mind, not even a screenshot) of what many assumed was our front page.
For anyone who took the time to look closely, it was clearly a Google-translated version of the main EL PAÍS webpage – something that can be done in seconds in most browsers – and to be fair the translated text was actually fairly good. But, of course, Google had taken the surname of the Popular Party chief Pablo Casado, and converted into “Married” – which was pretty funny.
This tweet with the image was retweeted 1.2k times and garnered 4.3k likes.
What was not so funny, however, was how quickly people were inclined to believe that this was in fact from the English Edition, and the image began to spread like wildfire over social media and WhatsApp, accompanied by a wide range of comments mocking EL PAÍS for resorting to Google Translate for its apparent mistake. And this, of course, despite the fact that even the most cursory glance at the English Edition’s homepage would reveal that the picture was not what it purported to be.
Even Hermann Tertsch, a Member of the European Parliament for far-right party Vox, reposted the image to his nearly 208,000 followers, although as you can see in the tweet below, he did rectify once the error was pointed out to him. It was also shared by Popular Party regional deputy Almudena Negro, who also sent out a later tweet saying that EL PAÍS had debunked the image. (Both Tertsch and Negro are journalists, by the way.)
EL PAÍS’s heroic social media team swung into action, and began to tweet to people sharing the image that it was not in fact our site, but rather an automatic translation of the main homepage. Some of those who had shared the image did, to be fair, retweet this information, but interestingly most chose not to delete the original posts – no doubt when something you’ve shared on social media starts to get traction, it’s a tough call to rectify.
Perhaps the most surprising turn of events, however, was when a Spanish digital news site chose to write a story about the image and share some of the responses to it. The tone of the article was mocking of the “error,” to say the least. But maybe more criticism over journalistic practices is due for a news site that runs an article like this one without making any attempt to verify the veracity of the image. As a former colleague of mine loved to say, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
During the coronavirus crisis, the English Edition of EL PAÍS has received more traffic than ever, as English speakers in Spain and abroad seek reliable, up-to-date information about the ongoing situation in the country, and in particular the deescalation measures.
As such, it’s probably a good time to explain once again what it is that we do and how we do it. We never use machine translation such as Google Translate or any other such programs. This is, above all else, for the simple reason that we very rarely produce a carbon copy of the original articles in Spanish.
We like to say we produce ‘versions’ of the source stories, given that a huge part of our job involves adding context and explanation
We like to say we produce “versions” of the source stories, given that a huge part of our job involves adding context and explanation, often cutting sections, adding other information and completely rewriting the texts when it is necessary. The aim is for anyone who reads that article to have a complete understanding of what it is trying to convey, and why this information is important. Even if you have never set foot in Spain a day in your life, you should never get lost in one of our articles.
While translation skills are essential for our work, so are journalistic ones, including prioritizing which stories are most important for our readers, the ability to produce clean copy as fast as possible while under pressure, and all of the technical knowledge that goes hand-in-hand with running a website and social media accounts.
Also, we nearly always rewrite headlines. A headline that works for a Spanish reader will very rarely work for an English-speaking reader, and while we use American English in our articles – we began life as a supplement to the International Herald Tribune, and before the coronavirus crisis had more readers in the US than anywhere else – we tend toward a more British style of headline writing given that it is freer of constraints.
And finally, just in case you weren’t clear on this already, we would never, ever, translate Pablo Casado as “Paul Married,” nor would Jaime Mayor Oreja be referred to as “Jamie Bigger Ear.” As one reader pointed out yesterday during this particular Twitter storm, if we did do this, we would be headed for a world of trouble if we ever wrote about TV personality Kiko Matamoros…