Translation consternation.


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“I’ve got a 40-page company policy and about 40 Hispanic employees. Any advice when it comes to translation?”


This question came at me during the Q&A session following a Landscape Spanish Seminar I hosted outside Chicago last week.

My initial thought was, “Save your money. No one reads company policies in any language.”



And maybe I should have said that.

But I didn’t.



The questioner looked earnest and since many business owners with Hispanic employees never consider investing a nickel to bridge the language gap, I was impressed he asked.


“What’s your objective?”



He looked at me like I was a tall, skinny redheaded Spanish-speaker.

OK… bad analogy.

He looked at me funny.



“To communicate the company policy.”




OK then.



I asked because there are 4 primary reasons construction firms inquire about translation services:




Legal: CYC (Cover Your Culo) in depositions, lawsuits.




Insurance: A kind eye from an Underwriter.




Marketing: Differentiation.




Communication: You actually want to share información with your team. You will invest time and money ensuring Spanish-speakers absorb it. You’ll follow up afterwards to make sure it sticks.



A construction document that is translated well can achieve ALL OF THE ABOVE status… with some tradeoffs. Here are some guidelines to avoid translation consternation.



Consider the audience. 

The average Hispanic construction worker has a 6th grade education.

Lose the $3 words in the translation.

Keep the message simple.

Use short sentences.

– Reiterate with bullet points.



Don’t fear slang.

Speak their language. Don’t allow “cinta métrica” when your crews universally call a tape measure a “metro.” When complete, have a bilingual worker proof it.


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Use Pictures.

They are worth 1000 palabras.

(This applies to all languages.)

If you can’t find good images to use….




Work with a Graphic Designer. 

White Space.


Font sizes.




If you really care about the message, have a graphic designer lay it out. Good design improves retention because it eliminates clutter on the page.



Make it concrete.

Metaphors are effective communication tools in any language.

Use them.




Make it informal.

This takes some of the edge off. Speak with a human voice. Make sure your translator understands the goal is to connect with the common worker.


TRADEOFF: If your primary motive is legal, keep it formal.




If the motive is purely legal – keep the translation direct.

If you are only doing this to appease Legal, run a direct translation. Few Hispanics will understand what the document says, but in a courtroom it will hold up better (in theory) because it will be consistent in English + Spanish (in theory).



If the motive is purely legal – keep it short.

The more content you have on paper – in any language – indicates more commitment. A 350-page Safety Manual is worse than a 200-page manual. Why? More opportunity for your team to not do what’s in there.



This piece of closing advice may be the most important:



Question the assumption.


Translation is often the lowest common denominator.

We already have it English, so… make it sound Spanish.

If the assumption is translation – question it.


Is translated text the best medium to share the message?

Can everyone read?


Would a video be better?

How about an audio CD?

A poster?



It depends on your objective.

If you’re unclear on the objective, save your money until it’s crystal clear.




Bradley Hartmann is founder and El Presidente at Red Angle (, a  training and consulting firm bridging the English-Spanish language gap in the construction industry. He similblogs these posts at Professional Builder’s Housing Zone


Categories: Construction Spanish

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