United We Stand… Up

Wooing the Hispanic community can easily get lost in translation.

Take the U.S. Air Force billboard at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center in San Antonio, which proudly posted “Unido Estamos Parados,” in July. It was the 75th anniversary of the League of United Latin American Citizens and the convention floor was packed with booths from federal agencies, non-profit organizations and other companies on the lookout for Latino recruits. With any luck,  job applicants at the convention were versed in English as well.

Unidos estamos parados

I mention this because as translated, the typically American slogan, “United We Stand,” was, well, wrong.

The past participle “unido” should be plural but “Unidos (plural) Estamos Parados” would be the literal equivalent of “United We Stand on Our Feet” or “United We’ve Stopped” and the equally egregious “United We’ve Come to a Halt.” That’s hardly an incentive to join the armed services, if everyone there is frozen on his or her feet waiting to un-unite; and not exactly what John Dickinson meant when he wrote those words in his famed Liberty Song, in 1768.

The verb infinitives “to stand” and “parar” share some uses in both English and Spanish, such as to rise to, or maintain, an upright position. But the differences outnumber the similarities. We “stand” for good causes in English, but we come to a halt (paramos) at a stop sign in Spanish. My agreement to write three hundred words on “stand” still stands in English, but it would be illegal if certain things rose to an upright position (se pararan) in public places in Spanish.

“United we stand” defies a literal translation. Unidos  venceremos or Nos mantenemos unidos are not quite accurate, and unidos estamos sounds just plain silly. There is already an equivalent in Spanish to “United we stand, divided we fall” from the leftist Chilean composer Sergio Ortega, whose 1970 Hymn of Resistance popularized the phrase El pueblo unido jamás será vencido, roughly translated as “the people united will never be defeated.”  Would the U.S. Air Force adopt it as their slogan? Maybe we shouldn’t stand around to find out.

(This text was published in  VNU’s Marketing & Medios, in September, 2004)

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