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Ballot translations could mean too much

Mitt Romney could be read as Sticky or Uncooked Rice, Fred Thompson as Virtue Soup, and Tom Menino? Rainbow farmer -- or worse.

That's one translation of their names into Chinese, according to Secretary of State William F. Galvin, and if the US Justice Department's voting rights division has its way, that is how they could appear on many Boston ballots in 2008.

Under a 2005 agreement, which Galvin is now challenging in court, the federal government required Boston to translate election ballots -- including the candidates' names -- into Chinese characters in precincts with prominent Chinese-speaking populations.

Galvin said that he has sup ported, even pushed for the ballots to be printed in Chinese, as long as the surnames remain in Roman letters. Translating them into Chinese, he said, would create chaos and imbalance in an electoral system that needs to be as precise as possible.

The problem, he said, is that there is no actual translation of the names. Instead, the Chinese translate English names phonetically, by finding characters that most closely match the sound of each syllable in the name. There are many different characters that could be used to capture that sound and many different meanings for each character, creating the possibility that the Chinese voters could read something quite other than "Romney" or "Thompson" when they read the ballot.

To add more confusion, Galvin said, the ballots have to be offered in two major Chinese dialects -- Cantonese and Mandarin -- leading to more potential variations on the candidates' names.

"When you present these approximations to voters, you very likely end up asking them to choose between someone who is virtuous or someone without a mind of his own," said Galvin, the state's chief election officer.

In Mandarin, for instance, Galvin said, his own name could be translated either as High Prominent Noble Educated -- or Stick Mosquito.

According to the translators whom Galvin consulted, Menino's name could be read as Imbecile in Chinese. Or Sun Moon Rainbow Farmer. Or, in the worst case scenario for the mayor, Barbarian Mud No Mind of His Own.

Romney's name can be seen as Sticky Rice or Uncooked Rice, Galvin said. If former US Senator Fred Thompson jumps into the Republican presidential race, Sticky or Uncooked Rice has the potential of appearing on the March presidential primary ballot in 49 of the Boston's more than 200 precincts, battling with Virtue Soup.

If Romney wins the GOP presidential nomination, it's a potential race against Oh Bus Horse (Barack Obama's surname in Cantonese) in November.

Advocates for minority voting rights say Galvin's objections are spurious. They say if the translations of the name are awkward, the candidates should have the right to step in and change them. They say that election officials should use characters that Asian language newspapers use for transliterating the names of political figures.

"We are looking to make sure Asian Americans are able to vote for their candidates of choice," said Glenn Magpantay, staff attorney for the New York-based Asian American Legal Defense Fund, which is pushing the legal case to enforce the transliteration of the names. "That is difficult to do when voters with limited English proficiency cannot find those candidates."

Cynthia Magnuson, spokeswoman for the Justice Department's civil rights division, said problems with election monitors marking up voters' ballots in the past are enough evidence to warrant a transliteration system that allows individuals who are not proficient in English to cast their ballots by themselves. The current system allows monitors to enter the voting booths with those who need help.

"Our previous experience with monitors in the election is that there were poll monitors who, for whatever reason, were mis-marking ballots of Chinese voters," Magnuson said. "This will allow them to vote independently."

Both Magnuson and Magpantay say the system has worked well in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

But Galvin said that any mandate from the courts to transliterate the names would create "huge" administrative nightmares and open up the ballot process to challenges.

He also disputed the notion that there would be any less chance for fraud.