ASSE: Making Sure Your Safety Message Doesn't Get Lost in Translation

Hispanics are spreading faster and farther within the United States than any other ethnic group in this country's history, a Spanish language expert told attendees at the American Society of Safety Engineers' annual conference, held June 12-15 in New Orleans.

And if you're a safety professional who doesn't work in "gateway states" such as Texas, California and Florida -- where 80 percent of Hispanics are clustered -- Allen Boraiko, vice president of corporate development for Gilbert, Ariz.-based HispanoAmerican Communications, has a message for you.

"Don't worry. They're moving your way," Boraiko said. "You're going to be faced with challenges of communicating with this new work force."

The objectives of Boraiko's session, titled "Translation 101 for Safety Professionals," were to help safety professionals decide how to choose a competent English-to-Spanish translator and to provide safety professionals with some "ammunition" to make their case to upper management if their company needs to hire a translator or interpreter to communicate important safety information.

With the Hispanic work force growing by leaps and bounds, such "ammunition" is abundant. According to Boraiko:

  • The United States currently is the fourth-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, with 40.4 million native and foreign-born Hispanics (an all-time high). By 2020, the United States is projected to have 61 million Hispanics, which will make it the second-largest Spanish-speaking nation, behind only Mexico.
  • While 80 percent of Hispanics concentrate in California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Arizona, New Jersey, New Mexico and Colorado, they are redistributing themselves around the United States to places where jobs are available. Between 1980 and 2000, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Massachusetts registered Hispanic population increases of more than 200 percent and gained more than 200,000 additional Hispanics per state.
  • More and more U.S.-born Hispanics are choosing to live in suburban and rural areas. And a rising number of foreign-born Hispanics are bypassing traditional strongholds such as Los Angeles and Miami and moving to rural and non-metropolitan areas directly from their mother countries.
  • Hispanics account for 13 percent of the U.S. labor force today; in 2020, they'll make up 25 percent.
  • Spanish-speaking workers are at greater risk of injury and illness than their co-workers because Hispanics typically take whatever work they can find -- which means they often wind up in the most dangerous jobs. For example, in 2000, Hispanics made up 10.7 percent of the work force but suffered 13.8 percent of workplace fatalities.

What do all these statistics mean? According to Boraiko, they mean that "more companies in more places are -- or soon will be -- faced with the need to communicate job health and safety information in Spanish."

Unfortunately, companies in rural and non-metropolitan areas can expect a stiffer challenge when it comes to communicating with Spanish-speaking workers, according to Boraiko: The majority of Hispanics who recently have come to these areas have not finished high school and speak, read and write Spanish poorly. And he asserted that the undereducated Hispanic workers in rural, high-growth Hispanic counties are most frequently hurt or killed on the job.

Do I Need a Translator?

Boraiko explained that "translation" is the passing of a message into written form and "interpretation" involves passing a message in verbal form. Some safety professionals use an employee on their work force to serve as a de facto English-Spanish translator or interpreter. However, while Boraiko pointed out that such an arrangement can work, he cautioned that it's merely a stop-gap solution -- "not the solution" -- because bilingual workers weren't hired for their language skills and won't be available every time a translation is needed.

There are other options for bilingual translation in the workplace, such as machine translation and computer-assisted translation, but both have their drawbacks. For instance, machine translation programs, which execute computer codes to produce translation, are accurate for word-for-word translation but ignore context -- lending themselves to situations in which the true meaning of the original sentence gets lost in translation.

Computer-assisted translation is more sophisticated, Boraiko said. Built on database management, it conveys messages across language barriers using translation memory tools, and its chief benefit is that it automatically creates a glossary that can be used on future projects.

Still, Boraiko believes there's no substitute for the real thing.

"Truly competent translation and interpretation is the domain of a specially prepared linguists," Boraiko said. "Not the office cleaning lady, nor the mailroom clerk, nor even college-educated managers who volunteer to use the second languages they 'picked up' in 'the school of life.'"

However, as trained, accredited, highly skilled translators often charge "steeply" for their services, Boraiko said safety managers need to be aware of situations that do not require the hiring of a professional translator or interpreter. You may not need to hire a professional if:

  • The content of your message is simple and can be conveyed unequivocally with symbols -- such as a "No Smoking" sign or a traffic safety sign;
  • Only the most basic meaning of the message needs to be understood -- such as "No Step," "bill us" or "shipment lost";
  • The context helps compensate for the ambiguity -- such as "HOT, Do Not Touch" embossed on a heater grill.

Choosing a Translator

In many cases, EHS practitioners will find that hiring a professional translator or interpreter is necessary to "help assure that the training given to non-English-speaking employees has been received, is understood and is being followed and acted upon."

But this presents a task that may seem nearly as daunting as communicating with a Spanish-speaking work force: judging, selecting and working with a translator or interpreter.

Boraiko offers these 10 suggestions:

  1. Ask for references. Try to talk to clients of the prospective translator that are similar to your organization and its communication needs.
  2. Perform your due diligence. Ask clients if the translator performed the work on time, how the translator kept them apprised of the project's progress and how delays or additional requests were handled.
  3. Ask for a referral to an inactive client. Try to find out why the client no longer is using the translator's services.
  4. Check credentials. Ascertain if the translator holds a degree or diploma from a translation school and is a member of the American Translators Association or a similar standards-setting body. The best translators are broadly and well-educated and write excellently in their native language.
  5. Make sure the translator thoroughly understands the culture and mentality of the foreign language speakers you intend to reach.
  6. Find out what technology and software the translator uses. Does the translator have the application programs needed to open and work with your document or image files and to convert translated text files into files compatible with the software that you or your designers use and that can be e-mailed?
  7. Assure that the translator stands behind his or her work. If you require a certified translation -- such as of a deposition in a workers' compensation case -- be certain that the translator has the expertise and the authority to certify the translation and warrant that it is true and correct in all material respects.
  8. Obtain a written estimate of the price of your translation project. Because translation projects vary, few translators have set prices. Be prepared to give the translator your original document or a copy so that a fair estimate can be calculated. Prices are calculated by multiplying the rate per word -- anywhere from a few cents to 50 cents or more -- by the word count.
  9. Schedule your project realistically. Experienced translators know their abilities and limits, and few are comfortable or competent translating more than 2,000 to 5,000 words per day. You must accommodate your project deadlines to this human reality.
  10. Always remember: You get what you pay for. Resist the temptation to find a volunteer or an untrained person to do your translation. Anyone willing to work for little or nothing will not deliver the quality you need to get your message across. If your budget won't allow you to have all your safety documents professionally translated, prioritize and start with the most important first. Getting the job done right the first time will save time, money, headaches and lives in the long run.
Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.