Banning Escort Ads: Spanish Fly Lost in Translation


Spain must be in some real deep mierda. Raphael Nadal’s victory in Wimbledon, Catalonia clamoring once more for greater autonomy and the country’s first ever World Cup title, apparently, are not enough smoke to curtain their mounting deficit and unemployment rates. Zapatero wants now to ban prostitution classified ads from Spanish newspapers.

The debate stirred by his state of the nation speech is dully predictable: the government claims to be fighting human trafficking with the measure, while the national press, who profits 40 million euros a year from the square-inch call girl teasers that make up 60 percent of all classified ads in the country, argues that the intrusion violates the “fundamental constitutional rights of freedom of speech and right to information” of readers engaged in a largely legal trade (in Spain, as in most EU countries, pimping and brothels are illegal, but not prostitution itself).

In typical new labor fashion (let’s keep it lowercase to avoid confusion with oil prospecting Republican pets elsewhere), Zapatero’s speech coated the government’s intended measures with an irreproachable human rights concern. Their real moralistic, whore-bashing agenda, however, is so blatantly betrayed by the specific phrasing of the speech that it can hardly be called “hidden”.

According to the Guardian, the Spanish prime minister expostulated that

As long as these advertisements exist, they contribute to the idea of this activity as normal.

Far from me to belittle the distinguished broadsheet’s translation efforts, but a look at the original quote in El País shows that El Diablo lives in Los details:

Mientras sigan existiendo anuncios de contactos se estará contribuyendo a la normalización de esta actividad [la prostitución], por lo que estos anuncios deben eliminarse.

A more direct translation would read:

While escort ads continue to exist, it will be contributing to the normalization of that activity, and that’s the reason why those ads must be gone.

The discerning reader will notice three subtle details in the quote that Zapatero’s speechwriting assistants were accomplished enough to sweep in between the lines:

1) He never used the word “prostitution”. It is an interpolation from El País (and laudably omitted from the Guardian quote, by the way).

2) The ads’ alleged harmful effect is the “normalization” of the activity in question.

3) What Zapatero claims must happen is that the ads must, in a literal translation, “eliminate themselves.”

Number 3 is oddly to point: Spanish “Minister of Equality” Bibiana Aído exhorted the press to eliminate the ads by means of “self-regulation”, only requesting a government report on “legal alternatives” after her entreaties fell on deaf ears. Now that the ads have failed to engage in suicidal behavior, the government is looking for non-authoritarian means to take the elimination into its own hands.

Number 2 concerns a popular translinguistic weasel word. How do you mean, “normalization”? Could it be “regularization”? Or perhaps “legitimization”? Or “justification”? “Acceptance”? The elasticity is quite convenient. Because it means all those things, it actually means nothing. But nevertheless it drops in your lap a blurry, shapeless hot potato that you can’t quite address, but is most likely undesirable and detrimental to, like, the greater good of things and stuff.

Now number 1 is where speechwriters prove to be worth every euro. Zapatero is effectively saying that escort ads convey the message that there’s nothing wrong with human trafficking. And he doesn’t even need to bother with formalities like research demonstrating causal links between the two phenomena. Who needs facts when you have rhetorics?

Facts are dangerous things. They could prove quite detrimental to the Spanish government’s entirely humanitarian aims, as observed by the Guardian:

Most of the newspaper ads are not placed by individual women but by the mafias – largely from Romania, Nigeria and various Latin American countries – who exploit them. Proof of this emerged this month when police broke up a prostitution network in Madrid after following up ads in various papers.

It’s brilliant. What better way to fight human trafficking than to push the traffickers into further obscurity? Let henceforth no criminal leave behind any traces that may lead to their capture. If we all join hands and rally around decency and the common good, we can drive all human exploitation and abuse so far below our brightly lit, well-patrolled streets we won’t see any of it ever again. The days of embarrassing, election-jeopardizing crime statistics will be a thing of the past.

If only our governments could put their genius into something constructive.

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