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In Defense of the Spanish Language: How to Give Meaning to Your Translations

Guest post by Community Media Workshop board member Queta Rodríguez Bauer

Ever since I came to this country more than 30 years ago, one of my pet peeves has been the poor quality of Spanish translations.

When I see posters, ads, brochures or signs, I cringe.

I even wonder whether the quality has deteriorated in recent years, or whether it may have become an obsession of mine to avidly read all translated materials that fall into my hands with the futile hope that this time I will find no errors. Most likely there is some of both, since the former feeds the latter.

As a result of the increase in the Latino population, there are two consequences that affect language. One is that there are more first-generation Latinos who learned Spanish from their parents. The second is that governments and organizations who want to reach Spanish-speaking immigrants are developing more materials in Spanish. But the efforts are often wasted due to the poor quality of the translations.

 

So why the poor quality? I have a theory.

My sense is that more often than not, translations of items like brochures, labels, taglines and signs are made by first-generation Latinos, employed by the organizations that need the translations. These employees are acculturated Americans, having grown up and gone to school here, and speak Spanish because their parents spoke Spanish to them when they were growing up. They are well-intentioned when they offer their services; they will save their organization some money and show their willingness to help; and the organization may also view this as a money-saving practice. And how hard can it be to make a short translation? (For long translations organizations usually use professional services.)

The problem is that often the people making the translations have grown up hearing or speaking the wrong vocabulary or the incorrect syntax without realizing it. Moreover, people may repeat the incorrect words so many times that after a while they stop sounding weird.

In some cases, first-generation Latinos come from immigrant homes where the parents had little formal education because they had to work as children. These parents spoke to their own children using a type of Spanish that reflected their lack of education. As a result the children picked up their parents’ Spanish, and their written Spanish lacks the correct grammar and syntax. Furthermore, because their vocabulary is limited, their translations tend to be too literal.

Many first-generation Latinos speak Spanish very well, and even write it well (including my daughters and my Latino employees). But even they make mistakes sometimes because they did not learn the language as they would have, had they gone to school and grown up in a Spanish-speaking country.

In order to have the best possible translations into Spanish, I recommend considering the following guidelines:

• To begin, if your English copy is confusing, unclear, or poorly written, you will have a poor, unclear translation in Spanish. (“Garbage in, garbage out.”) Make sure your English copy is clear and understandable.

• Always have a professional, or somebody who was educated in a Spanish speaking country, translate your materials, or at least review the translations your first generation Spanish speakers did for you.

• When you know you are going to need materials in both languages, develop the materials in English and Spanish at the same time, with the help of a bilingual person. Sometimes people think of taglines or descriptions that sound very well in English, but once translated don’t make very much sense. They then have to be explained in Spanish, taking much more space than normal, which is important for graphic designers.

• Keep in mind translations into Spanish normally expand about 30%. Your graphic designer will have to take that into account.

• Do not confuse correct grammar and syntax with style. As with English, things can be correctly described but awkwardly phrased.

• Do not use metaphors or sports terminology in English or be prepared to use a different metaphor in Spanish.

• If possible, run your translations by native Spanish speakers from several countries to make sure you are not using words that may be offensive, or at least strange, for other nationalities. For instance: “guaguá” in Mexico means doggy, and “guagua” (no accent) means “bus” in Caribbean countries and “baby” in Andean countries.

• It seems obvious, but many people, whether they are native speakers or not, forget that when in doubt they can use a dictionary. I also recommend WordReference.com to verify the meaning of words; the website even has very useful discussion forums and links to authoritative sources. But avoid overly literal translations!

While trying to reach Latinos in the U.S., one of the first rules is to show respect for your audience by showing respect for the language.

It can seem rather condescending to provide materials in Spanish that are plagued with mistakes. Good communication, whether in English or in another language, is all about meaning; and meaning has to be conveyed with clarity. If your English copy is clear, and your Spanish translation has the correct syntax and vocabulary, it doesn’t matter if the translation is not literal. You will be saying what you mean.

 

Queta Rodríguez Bauer, MSC, ABC, is Principal of Cultural Communications, LLC., a strategic communications firm in Chicago. She may be reached at 773-285-1055 or qbauer@culturalcommunications.com.

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