Lost (And Found) in Translation


Client: Should we translate our New Hire docs into Spanish?

Me: Do you have Spanish-speaking workers?

Client: Yes.

Me: How many?

Client: 80. Give or take.

Me: What language do they prefer.

Client: Spanish.

Me: And what was the question again?

Client: Should we translate…. Oh. Ok. Just translate it.


Construction firms all over the country are grappling with the translation situation. Coinciding with the Hispanic population boom in the US, the construction industry now finds 30-60% of its workers Hispanic.


These Hispanic workers are nearly 2x as likely to be injured or killed on the jobsite. This is due to 3 main reasons:

  1. Hispanics work a lot of dangerous jobs.
  2. Hispanics predominantly prefer Spanish.
  3. Hispanic cultures differ from American culture.


There is plenty to delve into with these 3 points, but pertaining to the question of translation, the takeaway is this: Hispanics are disproportionately more likely to be injured or killed on the job, so this represents a disproportionate amount of Risk.


OK… so now what?


How do we reduce the Risk?



IDEA 1: Reduce the amount of Hispanics on the job. 

This is simple Supply & Demand in our labor market. If you are an able-bodied English-speaking guy out of a job, you can get one quickly. Guaranteed. It involves hanging 38 sheets of 5/8” drywall everyday, but it’s a job.

Want it? Not really. Hispanics will bust their tails doing the jobs no one else really wants. We tolerate the language barrier on the jobsite because Hispanics want the jobs and they are good at them.



IDEA 2: Communicate more effectively with Hispanics.

This seems more realistic. If you need to convey critical messages to your Hispanic workers and they prefer Spanish, well, either deliver the message en Español or assemble a class to teach them English. Doing neither is simply ignoring the problem.


GC’s: “Not My Employees, Not My Risk.”

I’ve spoken to many GC’s about the translation situation. Several have mentioned they are not concerned with the language barrier because the Hispanics are not their employees. These GC’s structure their contracts so the safety burden is on the sub-contractors, not them. Therefore, if a man/hombre goes down… not my problem. It’s yours.


Then I ask if they’ve ever been sued following an injury on their job. Sure – all the time. We have the deepest pockets.


But… you structure your contracts to protect yourself, right?


Well… anyone can sue anyone these days….



It’s still Risk.


So we are back to the translation situation. It’s cheap insurance.

This makes sense, doesn’t it?


We have Hispanics in large numbers and they get hurt more often than other ethnicities and they prefer Spanish and all our stuff is in English.

Let’s move onto the next set of questions….



How Much Does It Cost?

Translation costs depend on whether it’s standard or technical content. Standard commodity-type translation work will run you 10-12 cents per word.


More technical content will cost around 16-20 cents per word.


From a high-level ROI perspective, I recently asked a group of Safety professionals what they thought the average cost of a jobsite injury was. Industry stats reported $38K. This group? About $55K.


You could always just copy and paste your way through Google Translate. It’s free, but you get what you pay for. If you want to translate a sign informing visitors to remove muddy boots prior to entering the construction trailer – use Google Translate. For anything more than this… pay a professional.


Or start with Google Translate yourself and pay someone to proofread the work.



Why Don’t They Just Learn English?

We’ve covered this before, but in April 2012 the Pew Hispanic Center released a study entitled When Labels Don’t Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity. It reported among foreign-born Hispanics, 38% were bilingual and 24% are English dominant. Among U.S.-born Hispanics, more than half (51%) are English dominant.


OK… if nearly half are bilingual – why the need to translate?


Good question. Because Spanish is preferred – for most on the job it’s their native language.


For example, I speak Spanish and English. But if you are giving me detailed instructions about my job that may help me avoid a gory death…. well, I’d prefer you do that in English.


If we’re going to shoot the breeze about the Bears getting trounced by the Niners on MNF, you pick the language. No problem either way. Your call.


But giving me life-saving advice about my dangerous job? Yeah…  give that to me in English, please.


Aren’t There Different Dialects?

Absolutely. My Cuban father-in-law frequently reminds me I am teaching my sons Mexican Spanish. I know. But we live in Chicago, not Miami. Lo siento, Abuelo.

But in translation we can cover all dialects with CNN Spanish. The Spanish that covers everybody. It’s middle of the calle Spanish that applies to all Latin American Spanish.



Once We Start… Where Does It Stop?

In Chicago there is a large Polish labor base in addition to the Hispanics. If you translate docs into Spanish, should you do Polish as well?


It’s a question of Risk. If a Polish guy gets hurt, could he claim you never made an effort to communicate with him in his preferred language?




Next question: How many Polish workers do you have?

You see where this is headed…. So, if you decide on translation propagation, follow these rules.



Know Your Goals.

If you want to translate a legal document that no one really reads (by design, maybe?) that has been structured with big $3 words by lawyers… fine. Understand that and have it translated to read like incomprehensible barrister blah blah.


But if you really want the content to be understood, you may need a bit more than simple translation from English. Why?  Read Rule 2….



Know Your Audience. 

Hispanic construction workers, the majority of which have not gone through the US school system, have around a 6th grade education level. In Spanish.


If you are translating ASTM standards from English into Spanish, you may be misjudging your audience. Or for example, a term like “Competent Person” may mean something to an average English-speaking construction worker.


What does it mean when translated as “Persona Competente”? 


Let’s not leave it to chance – let’s add some content targeting our Hispanic audience to ensure we are all clear in identifying competent humans.




Think WWJD: What Would Jesus Do?

No, not Jesus Christ… Jesus Gonzalez. Your roofer. Say you were Jesus… Put yourself in his shoes for a moment.


You are working hard. You are about to install another bunk of asphalt architectural shingles on a 7/12 pitch roof when you feel your lower back slide into your spleen. Dios mío. This aint good. Something in your back is seriously caddywhompus… it’s not good.


Your teammates get you off the roof safely. Your foreman hears the news. He calls his boss. You try to walk but you can’t. Pain is shooting down your thighs like a squadron of tiny Japanese bullet trains.


A few English-speakers who have been ignoring you for the last four months inform you a paramedic is coming. “Everything will be alright…” they say. They’ll take care of everything.


Then you remember your cousin Ramón’s friend who is a lawyer. He said if you ever got hurt on the job to call him right away. Otherwise you’ll get screwed over by the GC and get no money for your wife and kids. You’ll have no way to make money en el futuro…. Who do you trust?


What do you do?

You make the call.

You lawyer up.



Back to You

Now you are you. Welcome back. You are in court. Four years later. The question of effective communication about the risks of the job comes up.


Did you make en effort to convey critical information to Hispanics – like Jesus – on your job in a language they preferred?  


Even if the answer is it’s hardly a guarantee of judicial victory. But it would sure be nice to have, wouldn’t it?  


Invest in areas proportionate to your risk.

And with basic document translation, a little can go along way.



Bradley Hartmann is founder and El Presidente at Red Angle (www.redanglespanish.com), a  training and consulting firm bridging the English-Spanish language gap in the construction industry.



Categories: Jobsite Leadership

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