Illustration by Slug Signorino
It took a while, but I finally got to the bottom of HUD’s questionable Creole caper. Let’s take it from the beginning:
(1) A Straight Dope reader alerts me to an odd brochure published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Purportedly a “Creole” translation, the document begins, “Yuh as a rezedent, ave di rights ahn di rispansabilities to elp mek yuh HUD-asisted owzing ah behta owme fi yuh ahn yuh fambily,” and continues in that vein for several pages. (For the full text, see www.straightdope.com/columns/hud doc.html.) A HUD tenants’ association I consult declares it a “racist parody.”
(2) A junior PR staffer at HUD says the translation was produced by a government contractor. Two thousand copies were printed and fifteen hundred were distributed. The brochure was withdrawn after a complaint was filed.
(3) Professor Salikoko Mufwene, chairman of the linguistics department at the University of Chicago and an expert in English-based creoles, says the brochure phonetically reproduces the sound of Caribbean English and bears some resemblance to Jamaican patois. Jamaicans write notes and such in patois, but it’s considered slang, and no one in Jamaica would write a formal government document that way. The HUD brochure reflects “a demeaning attitude, a condescending attitude,” says Mufwene, a Congo native who studied patois in Jamaica. “It’s like saying, ‘If we wrote this in regular English you wouldn’t be able to understand it.'” Jamaicans are taught standard English in school; any Jamaican who can read reads standard English.
(4) Ginny Terzano, HUD’s public affairs director, calls to denounce the brochure as bogus. “This was not sanctioned or authorized by HUD,” says Terzano. “We did not knowingly distribute this. We think it is offensive.” She suggests the brochure is a prank by somebody with “access to the process.”
(5) A few days later Terzano faxes me: “The Government Printing Office (GPO) has now verified that the language of the brochure is Creole. HUD contracted with GPO for translation of the brochure into nine languages and Braille … the GPO stands by their work as an accurate translation into Creole … it’s hard to see what story there is now.” I’ll be the judge of that, ma’am. She says that the document has been permanently yanked.
(6) GPO public affairs officer Andy Sherman tells me that last April HUD requisitioned a translation into Creole, without specifying the type. (Earlier the HUD tenants’ association had requested a version in Haitian Creole, a French-based language, but both English- and French-based creoles are spoken in the Caribbean.) The GPO didn’t know from Creole (“We’re printers, not linguists”) and contracted the job out to Thorner Press in Buffalo, New York. Thorner subcontracted the translation to Cosmos Translations and Interpreters in Toronto.
(7) Marinos Georgatos, president of Cosmos Translations, says he was given seven days to turn around the HUD job. The translator to whom he gave the “Creole” request, a Jamaican living in Toronto, asked Georgatos what type of creole was desired, noting that Jamaican-type patois, an English-based language, is the most widely understood creole in the Caribbean. Georgatos asked Thorner. Thorner had no idea. Georgatos called the Canadian immigration service, which agreed that Jamaican-type patois was the most popular. Georgatos told his guy to proceed with a Jamaican translation. Rezedents Rights was produced.
(8) A proof of the translation arrived at the GPO and was sent to HUD for approval. The proof was returned with “OK to print — no corrections or changes” checked off, accompanied by the note, “To the best of my knowledge, OK to print. This is a Haiti type of Creole. [signed] Sylvia A. Miller.” Miller is a manager in HUD’s multifamily housing office. The GPO gave the go-ahead to print. Unexplained discrepancy: the GPO says it contracted for 5,719 copies, but HUD says it got only 2,000.
Result? “Total garbage, of no use to anyone in the Caribbean,” says O’Neil Hamilton, director of public affairs and information for the Jamaican embassy in Washington. All Jamaican government documents are printed in standard English. “We find this extremely offensive,” he says.
Obvious conclusion number one: Nobody at any step of the process knew anything about “Creole” (except the translator, who guessed wrong). Obvious conclusion number two: Nobody applied the basic sanity test of looking at the document and saying, “This can’t possibly be right.” Me honly ‘ope dat de mon wid im fingah ‘pon de Button nuo betta dan dat.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.