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HJ Demonstrations
To Translate or Not to Translate?
Basic Building Blocks of Translation
Linguistic Levels
Common Errors in Translation
Syntax/Grammar Errors
Vocabulary Errors
Spelling/Punctuation errors

Imagine a limited English speaking patient who may have chicken pox looking up the words “chicken” and “pox” in a Spanish/English dictionary – or someone with liver spots trying to understand what spots on his liver have to do with the brown patches on his arm. Countless common English phrases – including many medical terms – take on a whole new meaning when they are translated word by word into another language.
Doctors often rely on written materials to supplement their diagnosis or relay other important information to their patients. Complex health information written in English can be difficult even for English-speaking patients to understand fully. For limited English speaking patients, a lack of (or poor quality) written materials in the patients’ native languages can lead to misunderstandings and inadequate follow-up or treatment.
Hablamos Juntos is working to address this challenge by equipping the people within healthcare organizations who are responsible for the availability of quality Spanish language materials with tools to do the following:

  • Establish policies and procedures related to translation and the production of Spanish language materials;
  • Distinguish situations requiring the development of new Spanish materials from scratch from situations in which translations from English will suffice;
  • Judge the quality of Spanish materials;
  • Work effectively with translators; and
  • Utilize specialized tools developed by Hablamos Juntos to support the development and use of Spanish materials.

These topics will be covered extensively in our Resource Guide, which will be available on this website in September 2005. In the meantime, we hope you’ll explore this section of the site to learn more about the activities grantees have undertaken to provide local LEP populations with quality Spanish language materials, some of the basic building blocks of translation, common errors made in translation from English to Spanish, and other resources that may be of use to you.


Learning from Hablamos Juntos Demonstrations

Early in the project, grantees began the process of improving their Spanish language materials by conducting an internal audit of all written materials that were being used at their sites. Most grantees found that the development of Spanish materials was haphazard and not well coordinated at their sites. In most cases, there was no central repository for Spanish materials and no single decision maker. The look, quality, and availability of the materials that had been developed reflected the lack of planning and forethought. As with many aspects of dealing with language barriers, demand for Spanish written materials also exceeded the resources available. The internal audit and gap analysis helped sites prioritize which materials were needed most and begin to develop organizational structure to guide decision making and expenditures. There were three important outcomes of the gap analysis:

  • The development of policies outlining who was responsible for decision making regarding Spanish materials, and how these materials would be prioritized and paid for;
  • Poor quality materials were taken out of circulation; and
  • Materials available were centralized (sometimes electronically) so that materials that had already been developed were easily accessible throughout the organization.

Though grantees found that translation is not always the optimum choice for the development of Spanish materials (see To Translate Or Not to Translate?), in cases where translation is appropriate, choosing a translator becomes the next challenge. In the Resource Guide that will be available on this site in the fall of 2005, we will distill lessons learned by the grantees about contracting with translators. In the meantime, please feel free to review the guidelines developed by the Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters (CATI). These guidelines were developed in conjunction with one of the Hablamos Juntos grantees, MedVerse.
The ultimate goal of grantees is to develop materials that communicate clearly across different cultural backgrounds, education levels, and communication styles. To evaluate these materials, grantees are using a variety of methods, and are specifically testing an evaluation tool developed by a team of consultants for Hablamos Juntos. The hope is that this tool may help grantees to measure the usability and cultural appropriateness of new Spanish language materials. Materials developed by Hablamos Juntos grantees will be available to all health care facilities to use or adapt.



To Translate or Not to Translate?

A language is much more than a list of words. For that reason, translation is about much more than replacing a set of words in one language with a set of words in another. Written documents are created to convey a message or a series of messages to the reader. When a document created for one audience needs to be used for a second audience of a different language or cultural group, the highest priority is the preservation of the document's communicative purpose. In some cases this means that new documents are created from scratch for a specific language or cultural group. In other cases; for instance, if low literacy is common in the target audience the message of the document in English may need to be conveyed through a different medium, like audio or video. Thus, before automatically having a document translated, decision-makers must ask themselves the following questions:

  • Will the communicative purpose of this document still be achieved once the document has been translated?
  • Will this new audience see it, use it, and understand it in the same way as the original English-speaking audience?

If the answer to these questions is no, then translation may not be the best solution. The characteristics of the audience—their cultural experiences, knowledge, and patterns of behavior, as well as functional characteristics like average literacy level—should determine how best to convey the message of the original English written materials.
If it is determined that a document should be translated, the characteristics listed above should still guide the translation. The focus of the translated text should be to convey the original intended meaning of the English document, not simply the words. Not only are English and Spanish different languages, but English-speaking and Spanish-speaking audiences may respond differently to the same information. The conventions for expression in the target language may require the use of completely different concepts or ideas than found in the original text. For this reason, back-to-English translation are not a good measure of quality or content faithfulness.
Moreover, the culture and communication style of Spanish speakers differs from those of native English speakers. Useful Spanish materials are those that retain native speech using messages that resonate with ideas and concepts familiar to the Spanish reader.



Basic Building Blocks of Translation
Linguistic Levels

Grantees are dealing with the development of quality Spanish materials in a variety of ways. The procedures they are developing to govern this process are a function of their existing resources, needs, and capacity. Once the implementation period is over in September 2005, we will discuss these procedures in depth. One of the main procedures used to develop Spanish language materials is translation. And though there may be many cases in which Spanish language materials are best developed from scratch—an idea which will be discussed further in the Resource Guide along with other lessons learned by HJ grantees—for basic documents like forms and legal documents, translation remains an important process. As such, we will use this page to provide an introduction to what we’ve come to see as the basic building blocks of translation from one language to another. This section of the site also discusses some of the most common errors made in translation from English to Spanish.
Though it may seem obvious, the most important aspect of translation is not replacing each word in English with a comparable word in Spanish, but rather accurately assessing the communicative purpose of the original document in English and determining whether a translated version can achieve the same purpose in Spanish
In the assessment process a translator must determine:

  1. What is the function and how is the source text used?
  2. Can the communicative purpose be achieved with a translation or should it be different for the new audience?
  3. What are the functional and situational features in the target text?

Thus, the process of translation must start with the consideration of the communicative context of the translated text. What is its purpose? What is its intended audience? When and where is the text going to be received? Can this purpose be achieved with the intended audience using text? As any other text, a translation should be produced having its function and audience in mind. For this reason, Hablamos Juntos recommends the development of a translation brief before a document is translated. Experienced translators would not accept an assignment without this basic information.

Linguistic Levels
As may be apparent from the discussion above, translation is a complex process involving both detailed knowledge of multiple languages as well as communicative and cultural knowledge. Linguists have developed a helpful model for describing some of this complexity, which itemizes the components of which language is formed (linguistic levels). These are as follows:

  • Lexical—meaning that a language has a set of words, vocabulary or lexicon.
  • Morphological—meaning that a language has a set of rules by which new words can be created. For example, the word "insensitive" derives from "sensitive".
  • Syntactic—meaning that a language has a set or rules by which words can be combined to form sentences. For example, "The patient went to the hospital" is a possible sentence in English, but "Patient the went hospital the to" is not.
  • Semantic: Linguistic units such as words and sentences are associated with a specific meaning or convey specific information.
  • Pragmatic: Sentences are used in a specific situation or communicative context. A language has a set of rules by which the appropriateness of sentences in a specific context is determined.

Translators in the United States work under onerous requirements to remain faithful to the English original, but the questions remains: Is faithfulness at all levels necessary to produce equivalent text in a translation? No. Indeed, many errors in translation are the result of this deep obligation to faithfulness without regard to the impact on different linguistic levels. Faithfulness is necessary at the semantic level, and sometimes at the pragmatic level as well, but blind adherence to faithfulness at all linguistic levels can produce poor results.
The following passage is Mark Twain’s own translation of a speech he delivered in German to the Vienna Press Club (from The Language Instinct, How the Mind Creates Language by Steven Pinker,1994, p.51). This passage is an excellent example of faithfulness at the syntactic level inhibiting comprehension.


“I am indeed the truest friend of the German language–and not only now, but from long since–yes, before twenty years already….I would only some changes effect. I would only the language method–the luxurious, elaborate construction compress, the eternal parenthesis suppress, do away with, annihilate; the introduction of more than thirteen subjects in one sentence forbid; the verb so far to the front pull that one it without a telescope discover can. With one word, my gentlemen, I would your beloved language simply so that, my gentlemen, when you her for prayer need, One her yonder-up understands. I might gladly the separable verb also a little bit reform. I might none do let what Schiller did: he has the whole history of the Thirty Years’ War between the two members of a separate verb inpushed. That has even German itself aroused, and one has Schiller the permission refused the History of the Hundred Years’ War to compose –God be it thanked! After all these reforms establish be will, will the German language the noblest and the prettiest on the world be”.


Common Errors in Translation
Syntax/Grammar Errors
Vocabulary Errors
Spelling/Punctuation errors


For the last year, a team specializing in Hispanic linguistics at the Hablamos Juntos National Program Office has been reviewing translated materials submitted by the HJ grantees. Though thoughtfully translated, these materials exemplify some of the greatest challenges in English-to-Spanish translation. On this page, we will discuss each of these common errors in turn, and provide a sample translated document with comments made by one of our linguists.


Syntax / Grammar Errors

These errors are produced when the translator is faithful to the syntax of the source language. The following is an example of inappropriate translation from English to Spanish in which the incorrect translation is motivated by faithfulness to the syntax of English. The error in the following example stems from the fact that, in English, a noun in the subject position (“charges”) is not preceded by an article (“the”). In Spanish, nouns in the subject position have to be preceded by an article (“Los costos”).

Source Text

Translated Text

Suggested Translation

"Charges for persons meeting medical indigence criteria may be waived or reduced."

“Costos a personas que califican como indigentes pueden ser reducidos o anulados.”

“A las personas que califican como indigentes, se les puede reducir o anular los costos.”

Vocabulary errors

Some words sound similarly from language to language. For example,“sensible” in English and “sensible” in Spanish. However, they have totally different meanings: “intelligent” in English and “sensitive” in Spanish. These words are considered false cognates of these languages. If we use Spanish “sensible” to translate English “sensible”, we are making a translation error at the vocabulary level. In the following example, the word “pariente”, which means “relative” in Spanish, is incorrectly used to translate “parent” in English.

Source Text

Translated Text

Suggested Translation

Relationship (parent, legal guardian, personal representative, etc.)

Relación (pariente, representante legal, guardián legal, etc.)

Relación (padre o madre, representante legal, guardián legal, etc.)

spelling / punctuation errors

These are not necessarily translation errors. They happen when the translator or the text creator does not follow the spelling / punctuation rules of the target language. These errors may result in loss of credibility in the information provided or the source of the material. In the following example, the Spanish word “proteja” is incorrectly spelled as “protega”. This error can have a very negative impact in the reader (in this case, the patient).

Source Text

Translated Text

Suggested Translation

"Safeguard Your Baby"

"Protega a Su Bebé"

"Proteja a Su Bebé"

These types of errors can be viewed in context in the following document, which was translated from English to Spanish and then reviewed and commented on by one of the HJ linguists.
To see the translated document with highlighted comments, please click here.
To see the original English source document, please click here.