Don't Skimp on Translation Services - Q&A with Nangel Lindberg, PhD, CHR Investigator and KPNW IRB Member
Q. What are some of the limitations of common translation practices?
A. The biggest problems are 1) asking bi-lingual study staff to translate documents when they have no formal training as translators, and 2) when professional translators are used, lack of quality control over the work performed.
Studies often ask Spanish-speaking staff to do the work of an interpreter or, worse, the work of a translator. This usually happens due to limited resources or when investigators don’t plan for the cost of professional translation services. This reflects a lack of understanding of the complexities of translation.
Often, Spanish-speaking staff have limited fluency, use grammatically incorrect language (orally and in writing), and are unaware of what we call ‘false cognates,’ words that may sound alike, but which mean different things in two languages ( ‘a billion’ in English is very different from ‘un billón’ is Spanish; ‘deception’ in English and ‘decepción’ in Spanish are completely different things).
Even when using professional translators, studies tend not to have the work checked for readability. This is a major problem because a common feature of professional translation into Spanish is a tendency to increase the readability level. While the original English text may be written at a 5th grade level, the translated text is usually written at a high-school or greater level. Where a common word would do (‘permission’), English-to-Spanish translators will generally choose a much more difficult one (‘acquiescence’).
This becomes a significant problem when materials, particularly those focused on self-care, health promotion, or study consents, are intended for individuals of limited literacy. Particularly with regard to informed consent, we have to ensure that low-literacy Spanish speakers understand what they are signing.
Q. What are some problems you have seen in Spanish-language study materials?
Even large studies that should have appropriate resources make significant errors when crafting materials in Spanish. In a dietary assessment used in a recent study, the food frequency questionnaire was translated into Spanish using a word (choclo) that in parts of South America means ‘corn.’ For the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, where corn is the staple food, ‘choclo’ is a clog-like shoe, often brandished by mothers at misbehaving children. Needless to say, most individuals did not endorse eating ‘choclo.’
A bad translation or something translated at a reading level that is too high for participants to understand is not meeting our basic requirements.
Q. Are there best practices for translating materials for a Spanish-speaking audience?
Research projects should not use staff members who happen to speak Spanish to translate participant materials. They should hire an experienced professional translator and use a quality control process to ensure that what they’re getting back is in fact the same message they provided in English.
- If possible, talk to the translator before the translation work begins and explain that you want the text to have the same tone, readability, and ease of comprehension as the original. State whether you want the text translated using the familiar (‘tú’) form or the formal (‘usted’) form.
- Pay a consultant to review or spot-check the translation.
- Ask a Spanish-speaking volunteer or staff member to review the text and note words or sentences that are hard to understand.
- Use a readability calculator to get a sense of how accessible the Spanish text is.
Q. What are some of the worst translations you’ve seen?
English-speakers often see them when traveling abroad and find them amusing, but Spanish-speaking people in the U.S. are subjected to these errors all the time. This is how one of my favorite signs translates into English:
“Anonymous divulge conditions uncertain in this call 311 of the siege of the work.” I think it is trying to say that you can anonymously report unsafe conditions at work by dialing 311.