Spanish interpreting nuances

The 2010 US Census has spoken. According to US Census Bureau officials, the growing Hispanic population in the United States has reached a new milestone, topping 50 million, or 16.3% of the nation, officially solidifying its position as the country’s second-largest demographic. Officials state that the US population has become more racially and ethnically diverse over the past ten years. The Hispanic population has grown 43% since 2000, and their buying power surged to $1 trillion in 2010. The global business market has generally accepted the buying power of the Hispanic community, but have they altered their strategy to close the communication gap?

Companies selling products or services to different populations of Spanish-speaking customers want their messages to be understood by Cubans in Miami, bilingual New York Puerto Ricans and first-generation Mexican immigrants. And that is just in the United States. If a company sells to a global audience, it is even more stretched. The difference between Mexican Spanish and the version favored in Spain or Columbia include many nuances in pronunciation and culture. Spoken in some 23 countries by more than 450 million people, Spanish is really more a family of closely related languages. Each of these groups has a distinct accent, vocabulary and set of regional phrases.

The most common Spanish spoken in the United States is standard Latin American. It is sometimes called “Highland” Spanish, since it is generally spoken in the mountainous areas of Latin America. While each country retains its own accents and has some unique vocabulary, residents of countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia generally speak Latin American Spanish, especially in urban centers. This dialect is noted for its pronunciation of each letter and its strong r sounds.

The Spanish of Madrid and northern Spain, called Castilian, developed characteristics including the pronunciation of ci and ce as a voiceless dental fricative, like th in English. In Madrid, gracias (thank you) sounds like gratheas. The letter z is similarly transformed.

The third major type of Spanish is spoken in the Caribbean, coastal areas of Latin America and in some cases in southern Spain. Today, Caribbean or “Lowland” Spanish is characterized by its relative informality, its rapid pace and the dropping of s sounds, allowing people to talk faster.

There are, of course, many more varieties of Spanish (see sidebar) — as many as there are regions and dialects even within separate countries. For companies providing interpreting or seeking out professional interpreting services, it is very important to hone in quickly on what type of Spanish speaker you are communicating with. Assuming Spanish is just Spanish is a mistake that companies should no longer make. Providing interpreters with skilled backgrounds in the nuances of Spanish will help differentiate a company in terms of customer service, experience and perception. In a competitive marketplace small details like this can make a big difference. When Nataly Kelly, chief research officer at Common Sense Advisory, was asked about the business case for specialized Spanish interpreting, she responded, “The likelihood of misunderstandings is lower and comprehension is higher when there’s regional concordance between the interpreter and the Spanish speaker. So definitely, a company can argue that the overall communication is better. Regional concordance can be a competitive differentiator.”

The smallest nuance can make a big difference, especially in the medical world. Once during a home visit with parents of a child needing speech therapy, an interpreter was needed to communicate with the parents. The therapist asked how the child was fed during infancy. The mother responded “teta,” which the interpreter mistook for breast milk, and responded as such. As the appointment progressed, the interpreter realized that the mother was actually referring to a bottle and not the breast, and immediately intervened and corrected her mistake. Because of the nature of the visit, had the interpreter not made the Spanish distinction, the type of therapy the child received would have been incorrect. In this particular case, the interpreter was from Puerto Rico and the parents were from Mexico.


Tips for selecting an interpreter

In many businesses, interpreting should be a readily available service to non-English speaking clientele. If you are aware that a significant percentage of your customer base speaks Spanish, then providing customer service support, call center support, sales personnel and so on should become a part of your operational plan. With regard to Spanish interpreting, there are steps that may be taken to provide the best experience possible for your customers. Interpreting becomes tricky when managing the different versions or dialects of Spanish. Some language service providers (LSPs) provide translations into what the industry calls neutral, standard or universal Spanish translations. Put into simple terms, these interpretations are meant to be understood by the widest range of Spanish-speakers possible, and are mostly free of regionalisms and any marker that distinguishes word usage as being from a specific country.

However, Kelly cautions against neutral Spanish in interpreting. “If they want to do a good job, Spanish interpreters working in the United States have no choice but to familiarize themselves with as many regional terms as possible. An interpreter living in Texas who is familiar with Mexican Spanish may have an advantage over an interpreter from Spain. If you speak a less common variety of Spanish, you’ll have to learn at least the major regionalisms for the types of Spanish speakers you’re likely to encounter in your interpreting work.” Kelly offers an example: “Many Spanish speakers living in the United States and some parts of Mexico use the word troca for truck. However, to Spanish speakers from outside the region, the word troca might sound like a mistake — they might use camioneta instead. My advice to interpreters who don’t know where the Spanish speaker is from is to start out using terms that are most likely to be understood regardless of the origin of the speaker, and then to adapt to regional preferences. If the Spanish speaker uses troca, there’s no point in using camioneta, as this could actually create confusion. Many interpreters have a very hard time doing this, as they feel that the words they learned to use are the only ‘correct’ words.” Kelly continues, “Another common example is seguro, which can mean insurance, but can also be verbal shorthand for social security. In some parts of the Spanish-speaking world, the term aseguranza is used for insurance, though many Spanish speakers feel that this word is not a correct equivalent. However, if this is the word that is familiar to the speaker, it’s usually the best word for the interpreter to use.”

From call centers to direct customer interactions, language companies offering interpreting service must deliver on Spanish nuances. Failure to successfully manage the issues of cultural sensitivity and Spanish language variety can have far-reaching consequences for clients’ businesses.  An interpreter’s main goal is to facilitate communication between two people who speak different languages and have different cultures. As human beings, we are inclined to invest emotionally and insert opinion. Interpreters must remain neutral conveyers of information, stripped of personal interjection. As interpreters, it is not just about conveying what is being spoken, but to establish trust between the customer and the service provider. By doing so, the relationship is maintained. 

If you have interpreting needs, here are a few tips to help you navigate the complexities of Spanish speakers’ needs. As Kelly points out, don’t go neutral. “Neutral Spanish” was developed to bridge the gap between the different linguistic and cultural identities within Spanish speaking people. It tends to disregard local grammatical and vocabulary differences in order to standardize the language. This can work well for written materials, but when engaging in conversational interpreting, it isn’t recommended.

Cultural adaptation is a must. To understand the Hispanic market, you need to understand the beliefs and culture of each country of origin. Therefore, the messages being delivered may not be the same for each group and the cultural sensitivities may differ. This requires understanding both the protocols and the taboos that define ways of communicating in a given market. Cultural adaptation provides the cultural lens through which your non-English-speaking customers view your message, your products and services, and ultimately, your values.

Making cultural adaptation a key feature of your interpreting effort is an important step in communication. By building those cultural elements into the final interpreting delivery, you help ensure a culturally sensitive result that preserves the essential meaning of the original message without alienating your audience.

The selection of an interpreter is the most important factor in a successful customer interaction. The interpreter should have formal training in the particular field of expertise. There are many credential/training programs available as well as oral proficiency tests. If there is a need for medical interpreting, make sure the interpreter is qualified and credentialed in that area. If you provide technical products and have a need for Spanish-speaking support, investigate these qualifications as well.

The interpreter should understand his or her function in the interpreting process and how important it is not to convey personal beliefs and establish trust as well as boundaries. Much of this should have taken place during the training process.

Selecting an interpreter, in particular one for Spanish interpreting, requires certain skill sets that might not be readily apparent when engaging in an initial conversation. Almost as important as the Spanish language itself, the interpreter should have formal training in the particular field of expertise. To ensure you partner with the appropriate individual or LSP company, here are some questions you may consider asking:

What language pair(s) are you proficient in?

Have you passed a written as well as an oral assessment exam?

How many hours did you attend training? What was the course outline? Do you attend or provide continuing education courses? (Ask for proof of completion of the interpreter training courses and other relevant educational background.)

What is your experience in the field you will be interpreting for? Do you understand its terminology?

Do you have past references to share?

A good LSP will complete a needs analysis of a business prior to rendering interpreting services, which should encompass all of the above. As Hispanic buying power continues to grow, the market remains complex, which means that we may not be able to solely utilize one resource.