If you live in Spain, you’ve no doubt developed quite a few headaches whilst squinting at your computer screen, re-reading 100-word long sentences on government websites, incapable of making head or tail of what it is they’re trying to say exactly.
It’s no secret that Spain loves bureaucracy, but when it comes to administrative texts, it almost seems as if the civil servants charged with writing them wished to convey that what’s being said is official and important by making any explanation overly wordy and complicated. Either that, or they’re deliberately trying to making it hard to understand.
And while it’s true that written Spanish does tend use more long-winded flowery language than English for example, it isn’t just a case of foreigners getting ‘lost in translation’.
A new study by Spanish consulting firm Prodigioso Volcán revealed that 78 percent of official texts are not clear and therefore are not well understood by the Spanish population.
After analysing 760 administrative texts linked to ministries, regional governments, municipalities, state agencies and universities, they concluded that 78 percent of these official documents are not written in a way which is easy to understand.
Of all of them, the most comprehensible are those related to gender-based violence, while the most complex are those that explain how to apply for a grant or scholarship (98 percent of these are not easy to understand).
One of the most convoluted texts they found was the 22-page document on Social Security and Minimum Vital Income (Ingreso Mínimo Vital), which was written in such an overly formal and twisted language they estimated that an overwhelming majority of native Spanish speakers would be confused by it.
Even those who write the texts agree they’re too complicated
As part of their investigation, Prodigioso Volcán also interviewed 20 experts whose job it is to write these texts. These professionals admitted that these texts were not actually aimed at everyday citizens, but at other administrative technicians instead.
They acknowledged that many of these documents “use the passive voice, uncommon words, bad punctuation, spelling errors, too many words per sentence and an absence of connectors”.
Spaniards are fighting back
Spanish citizens are beginning to fight back against this overly complicated language, demanding that it be written more clearly so that everyone can understand.
Estrella Montolío, a professor of Spanish Language, is part of a group of activists calling for change, saying that everyone has the right to understand.
As well as writing articles, texts, creating a podcast, and giving talks on the subject, she has also written a manifesto demanding clear and simple language in administrative texts, which has been sent to heads of different institutions and entities, including the Minister of Education, the President of Congress and to the president of the General Council of the Judiciary.
“We demand an administrative communication that is easier to understand (clearer), closer (less impersonal and less pompous) and friendlier (less hierarchical and threatening)”, part of the manifesto states.
Marc Bayés, who has a PhD in Spanish Language and is a professor at the University of Barcelona has also been trying to combat the use of this type of overly flowery language and even dedicated his thesis to it.
He says that this lack of clarity carries many risks; for example, it can prevent a citizen from finding the information they need or complicate the management of a fundamental procedure.
There is “a large well of obscure texts which, at times, are directly opaque,” he said with regard, particularly to notifications from the Hacienda (Spanish tax authorities).
“A clear text reduces inequality because there are many people who do not have a great ability in the language,” he continued.
A petition has even been set up on change.org calling for clear and simple language in administrative documents, which you can sign here.
This isn’t the first time that Spanish citizens have been complaining about overly complicated language.
After a series of complaints, in 2009 Spain set up a Commission for the Modernisation of Legal Language, which issued a report that spoke of the need to turn towards simpler language and argued that improving clarity “strengthens the rule of law”.