Speaking in Tongues: Best Practices for Communications in Another Language

    Robert Austin, APR


    Speaking in Tongues: Best Practices for Communications in Another Language
    by Robert Austin, APR, 2019 PRSA Colorado board member


    At the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank, where I lead the public and professional relations department, we may be overseeing the translation of public education materials to Spanish while also facilitating the translation of technical documents full of ophthalmology terms into Japanese. Whether it’s for a campaign, your website, or social media posts, there are some key concepts to keep in mind when looking at translating public relations materials to other languages.

    But first, let me give a real-world example of how all of this can go wrong and how embarrassing translation errors can spread. Several dozen official websites on organ donation in the United States have Spanish language versions that use the word “recipiente” to mean a transplant recipient, or someone who has received a transplant. To understand why this is a problem, head over to Google and search the word “recipiente,” then click on “Images.”  Here’s a direct link to this search so you can see for yourself.

    See what I mean? The Spanish word “recipiente” more commonly means “container” or “receptacle.”  The Spanish word we’re really looking for to describe a transplant recipient is “receptor.” It is hard to say how this mis-translation originated or why so many websites have mistakenly propagated it. Whatever the original cause, the scope of the use of the word in these U.S. websites is astonishing, and a bit embarrassing.

    To ensure your translation project stays on track and avoids these kinds of translation oddities, consider these important best practices:

    1. Know the difference between translation and localization. Translations are applied word-for-word from the source document into the target language. Localization, on the other hand, involves making the material in the target language convey meaning to the target culture.

      Translations are factual and accurate, with the target language saying the exact same thing as the original. Emails, help documents, and instruction manuals are examples of when straight translations are appropriate.

      Localization, on the other hand, is original and authentic to the audience. It seeks to make sure the translated concepts are culturally acceptable, understandable and appropriate. Localization is more useful for websites, training materials, product information, brochures and campaign materials. Localization works best if you’ve done proper research among your target audience first to ensure your message resonates the same culturally as it does with other audiences. You may find you even need separate campaign messaging or taglines.
    1. Being a native speaker or bilingual is not a profession. It’s probably fine to use native speakers or a highly competent bilingual staff member on impromptu social media posts or quick response texts or emails with constituents. Yet, when it comes to translating campaigns, documents, websites, and other more involved materials, you need a professional translator. Time and time again, you’ll run into assumptions that a native speaker is, by default, a competent translator. They simply are not the same thing. Likewise, speaking a foreign language doesn’t cut it either. I speak, read, and write competently in Spanish. Yet, translation is not my profession. Hire only qualified translators, in-language writers, editors, and proofreaders. When shopping for translation services, ask questions about certifications and continuing education for its translation staff.
    1. Get a specialist when necessary. You wouldn’t let your dentist remove your appendix, so don’t let a general translator translate your legal contracts. Many translation firms guarantee a subject matter expert and others require you to ask for one. Legal, medical, and most any regulated or highly specialized industry will require unique vocabulary and a familiarity with the subject matter. In some regulated businesses, you may also be required to show certificates of accuracy or compliance with ISO quality processes. Choose a service that offers this, if necessary.
    1. Make it a process. When developing messaging in English, you probably separate the process of writing, editing, proofreading, and testing. Likewise, translation and localization should separate the translation, editing, and proofreading processes as well. Choose a service that offers these separate functions with fresh eyes at each step, if possible. Yes, it may cost a bit more but the damage to your public perception done by translation errors can be costlier.
    1. Ditch automated translations. It is true that automated translations are becoming faster, more accurate, and more convenient. Sometimes they can be very useful to get the gist of something written in another language or if you are in a foreign country and need directions to the train station. They are not, however, good enough to rely on for anything else and certainly not your PR campaign. Just don’t do it.
    1. Choose the right Spanish. Every serious student of Spanish eventually finds out the hard way that the word you learned in school to say “to pick up” means something vulgar in Mexico and Argentina but nowhere else. There are hundreds of examples like this. The bottom line is that Spanish as it is found in 22 countries can differ in vocabulary, grammar, and usage from country to country and even region to region within a country. European Spanish is different from the Spanish found in the Americas and, while it will be understood here, it may sit funny on the ear of a Latin American audience and vice versa. Knowing your audience is, once again, the key. If your target audience is in Chile, you’ll want to translate or localize to Chilean Spanish.

      Yet, it’s a bit trickier for audiences in the United States, where Spanish speakers may have come from dozens of Spanish-speaking countries. There’s a tendency to want to translate PR materials to Mexican Spanish because of the large numbers of Spanish speakers of Mexican heritage in the U.S. Yet, it’s not necessarily the best strategy, as the U.S. also has a rich Spanish diversity.

      Many translation services will offer what they call “neutral,” “Latin American,” or even “U.S.” Spanish. The truth is that there really is no such thing as a neutral or Latin American Spanish dialect. Nonetheless, it is possible to find a balanced version of Spanish that’s understood across Latin American audiences. The best advice is to know who your audience is and discuss it with your translator. Unless your campaign or materials are targeting a very specific audience (Chileans, Argentinians, Mexicans), then shoot for this neutral offering. The goal is that the product be both understandable and free of idiomatic expressions that may fit only one flavor of Spanish.

    Robert Austin, APR, directs the public and professional relations department at the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank. He is a new board member for PRSA Colorado and is completely enamored with the Spanish language.  


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