HispanicVista Columnists

A “Culture of Translation” In Public Communications

By Frank Gómez


Twenty years ago, troubled by poor translations in advertisements aimed at Hispanics, I often called ad agencies to point out errors.  Translations have improved markedly since then, notwithstanding occasional lapses and the resulting embarrassments for clients.  The agencies, both Latino and mainstream, have improved because they have developed an internal “culture of translation.”


Government agencies, however, and some Spanish language media have a way to go.  It shows in the Spanish language versions of official documents, press releases, websites, speeches and virtually all forms of public communications.  It also shows, albeit less frequently, in the corporate world when companies instruct agencies to translate a general market advertisement into Spanish with the result that the purpose of the communication is frustrated and the message becomes distorted. 


A Corporate Example


Recently, a company developed an English language ad for California featuring a self-described Mexican immigrant.  Two problems arose: first, the company used the ad in Puerto Rico; and second, the translated “tag line,” was not understandable. The intent was good, but the execution was a waste of time, effort and money. 


Neither the company nor the agency that adapted the ad for Puerto Rico could be said to have a well-founded “culture of translation,” or they would have realized that an adapted ad often does not work.  They would have realized that the translation actually did them a disservice.  They would have realized that the translator was incompetent. 


The lessons to be drawn from this and similar examples in the corporate world are many.  But it can all be reduced to a clear need to acquire a culture of translation within the company that says, “Yes, language is important.”   And acquiring that mindset will not happen overnight.  It will take time, people, expertise and dedication.


Media Examples


I keep a list of anglicisms and other errors creep into Spanish language media.  The electoral season provided good examples of bad usage.  Some reporters insist on saying “correr para un puesto,” or “to run for a position” instead of “postularse para un puesto.”  Other articles, including some based on government communications, refer to “asuntos congresionales,” or “congressional matters.”  This should be “asuntos legislativos,” or “asuntos del Congreso,” since “congressional” does not exist in Spanish. 


Incorrect spoken language finds itself in the media – and it should not, unless it is a direct quote.  For example, “admisión” for “entrada,” that is, the price to enter; “aplicar para un puesto” instead of “solicitar un puesto” (“aplicar” means to apply something physically, or to be industrious, as in “she applies herself”); or “demandar mejores servicios” for “to demand better services.”  The difficulty here is that “demandar” in Spanish means “to sue,” and a “demanda” is a lawsuit. 


Examples abound, and when we are bombarded daily by English, perhaps they are inevitable.  It is encouraging, however, that most media take the issue seriously.  National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) conferences feature panels and workshops for journalists and editors working in Spanish. Two years ago, the NAHJ published its own “Manual de Estilo.”  And several news organizations have stylebooks or other internal guides, including CNN en Español and Univision.  Hoy, the New York daily with sister papers in Chicago and Los Angeles, is working with the Instituto Cervantes to refine a stylebook for use by its staff.


Such steps at Spanish language media around the country are very welcome.  A “culture of translation” was present at the birth of some of these, and others have been devoting the attention and resources to develop one as they mature.  But improving they are!  This is important, given the great influence the media wield.  They should be the guardians of Spanish.  Anyone wanting to see some good examples of quality journalism in Spanish can go to the websites of these and other well-known media.


Public Sector Gaffes  


A pamphlet in New York City invited residents to a “salud de la comunidad justa,” or a “health in the just community.”  This assault on the language of Cervantes was for a community health fair.  It gets worse!  It said there would be “hospitalidad libre y regalos.”  It intended “free healthy snacks and gifts,” but what came out was “free hospitality and free gifts.”   And it said “mucha, mucha para la familia entera.”  We can only guess about what “mucha” for the whole family referred to.  It was clear – but laughable – that “pruebas al oir,” or “tests upon hearing” meant “hearing tests.” 


New York City’s comptroller recently issued a report on language barriers to health care.  Clearly, interpretation and translation in this field are a matter not only of justice but often of life or death.   The Spanish language version of the “reporte” (instead of “informe”) was full of errors, not enough to fail to communicate, but enough to conclude that it was not translated by a professional. 


The text used “habilidad,” or “skill” for “capacidad,”  and placed punctuation before the quotation marks instead of after, as Spanish requires.  It also used the singular pronoun “le” (you, him, her) when it needed the plural “les” (them).  The Spanish language press release, clearly, was atrocious.  These and similar bad translations disserve readers, disrespect the Spanish language, and slight the translator profession. 


The comptroller has the right idea, however, since medical translation and interpretation is often a matter of life and death.  Many hospitals and medical facilities, unfortunately, rely on untrained, unqualified volunteers for critically important language services.  They include doctors who, although “bilingual,” are not competent interpreters.  Even worse, they turn to family members – even children – for interpreting that should be done by professionals.  A culture of translation in health care is sorely lacking.  One insurer and health care provider, however, California-based Kaiser-Permanente, is a leader in the field.  Other companies and public health organizations could learn a good deal from that company.


Lessons Learned


These and countless other examples, many reproduced in our fine Spanish language media, illustrate vividly that we have a way to go to instill and take advantage of a culture of translation in the private and public sectors.  Some companies “got it” years ago: Anheuser-Busch, Goya, Coca-Cola… others.  They understood, and their ad and PR agencies understood.  Their “culture” includes people who know the difference, who speak Spanish well.  It shows in their ads – and probably shows at the cash register.   .  You can be sure that these and other pioneering firms do no disrespect to Latinos.


Government agencies, however, are woefully “translation challenged.”  With rare exceptions, they have not understood the importance of good communications in Spanish and have not invested in the services of professionals.  Yes, translation, like interpretation, is a profession.  It requires special skills, education, training, experience, worldliness, dedication, intelligence and specialization. 


As interest in the Hispanic community has grown, so has grown my interest in translations.  In fact, in counseling clients, I focus first on language and cultural factors in ads and other communications.  Too often I am presented with a “fait accompli,” an ad or document that has already been adapted or translated and, regrettably, sometimes distributed.   They have learned that getting counsel on the take-off as well as the landing is a good investment.  Corporate image, brand image, standing in the community and sales are all at stake.  


Developing and taking advantage of a “culture of translation” in government and the private sector would result in improved communications, improved services and greater respect for the communicators.  That looks like a win-win to me.   Intérpretes y Traductores de Español (translators and interpreters of Spanish), a New York City-based non-profit association, is a valuable source of help.  Visit www.InTradEs.com.


Frank Gómez, a contributing columnist to HispanicVista.com (www.hispanicvista.com) is a retired Foreign Service Office and corporate executive, is now at LatinInsights (www.LatinInsoghts.com), a research and communications firm.  He is an award-winning adjunct professor of translation at NYU.  He can be reached at fgomez@latininsights.com