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Politics & Policy

Grow SF makes embarrassing Chinese translation mistake in billboard attacking supervisor Mar

Kit Chong, a resident of the Sunset District, walks in front of the Grow SF billboard on 31st and Taraval on April 26th, 2022. I Eloise Kelsey

One of San Francisco’s most aggressive and politically active nonprofits is taking down a billboard attacking Supervisor Gordon Mar because of errors the group made in translating the message to Chinese.

A political action committee affiliated with the group Grow SF paid for the newly installed billboard at the corner of Taraval Street and 31st Avenue in the city’s Sunset neighborhood. The billboard asks voters to vote out Mar, who’s running for re-election in November this year, and it accuses him of “failing” the district’s children. The bilingual billboard, written in both English and Chinese, also slammed Mar’s recent opposition to the school board recall, which passed overwhelmingly in February and had strong support from Sunset voters.

But in an ironic twist, the billboard’s messaging in Chinese contained errors on several counts. The Standard informed Grow SF of the mistakes after members of the organization reached out seeking coverage.

The billboard referred to “Gordon Mar” with the Chinese characters “马尔,” a name written in simplified Chinese based on the translation of “Mar.” However, Gordon Mar, a Chinese American, has a Chinese language name, “馬兆明.” 

The billboard also translated Supervisor to “监事,” which is the direct translation of a “supervising individual,” rather than using “市議員” or “市參事,” both of which mean municipal legislator. Both options are widely used in the local Chinese community and Chinese language media.

Grow SF billboard on 31st and Taraval in San Francisco on April 26th, 2022. | Eloise Kelsey

Grow SF co-founder Steven Buss and Sachin Agarwal sent a statement to The Standard acknowledging the errors. They blamed the mistakes on a contract translator “who didn't fully understand San Francisco,” and said the billboard will be taken down. 

“It was an honest mistake by the contractor and as soon as we were informed of the error we asked for the billboard to be taken down immediately,” they said in the statement.

Mar fired back at Grow SF, saying the special interests behind these ads have distorted his record.

“These attacks are prime examples of the cynical and poisonous partisanship that has come to dominate San Francisco city elections,” Mar said.

Grow SF, founded in 2020, is a new political group aligned with San Francisco’s more moderate, if not neoliberal, political camps. The group has spent tens of thousands of dollars in support of the school board recall, the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin, and also criticizing westside supervisors as out of touch with their constituents.

Grow SF's political committee placed an ad on Sing Tao Daily’s website asking people to vote out Gordon Mar on April 11, 2022. The Chinese translation was correct. | Screenshot

This is not the first time Grow SF has engaged with the city’s Chinese-speaking community. Previously, the group sent out Chinese language mailers in the Sunset and Richmond districts to attack Mar and Supervisor Connie Chan based on their school board recall positions. They also purchased Chinese newspaper ads targeting Mar with similar messages. But for those materials, the Chinese translation was correct.

The billboard was still standing Tuesday when a Sunset resident Kit Chong walked by and told The Standard that she agrees with its point, even if the messaging was off.

“[Mar] is not a good supervisor in our district,” said Chong, who is a Chinese immigrant. “He failed our children by opposing the school board recall, not listening to the community.”

Kit Chong, a resident of the Sunset District, stands in front of the Grow SF billboard on 31st Avenue and Taraval Street on April 26th, 2022. | Eloise Kelsey

Mar disagrees, of course, and he said he’s confident voters will reject “outrageous attacks” like the billboard as he continues to work on “improving educational opportunities for our children and youth and protecting our neighborhoods from crime.”