Friday, April 10, 2015

Lost in Translation

Imagine you’re an employee.  You go to your employee handbook to find an answer to a quick question.  Instead of a helpful answer, you find nonsense, or worse, a swear word.  For over 23 million workers in the U.S. – and more all the time, this may happen more often than employers think. The cause is inadequate translation of employee handbooks and policies.  This arises most often in the context of materials translated from English to Spanish, but translations from English to other languages involve the same problems. 

Here are a couple of examples of tricky translations: 
  • In Spain, the verb “coger” means to grab, take, or get, as in “get a timecard from Accounting.”  In Argentina and some other Latin American countries, however,  “coger” is a common, vulgar description of sexual intercourse. 
  • A policy covering timekeeping and attendance is titled “Reloj de Tiempo” and provided to an employer’s Spanish-speaking workers.  A literal translation of this phrase is “clock of time,” which would seem nonsensical to the workers receiving it.  This unhelpful title was the result of an expensive, professional translation of the employer’s policies.

Offensive, nonsensical, or even just awkward translated content in a policy or handbook does two things: (1) it shows a lack of cultural understanding of a  portion of your workforce that may be large and growing; and (2) it promotes misunderstanding and can set employees up for noncompliance with a policy you thought was clear.  Neither situation is good for the employee or the employer.

Employers have a reason for all of their policies, but some are particularly critical.  Anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, FMLA, leave, and at-will policies are often necessary for the successful defense of employment litigation. If these policies are poorly translated and therefore confusing or misleading to non-English speaking workers, they will be far less effective as liability shields.
When providing translated policies or training materials to workers, employers need to choose their translators carefully and make sure that the translator understands and can effectively convey what the employer is trying to communicate.  For example, not all employees use the same vernacular, even if they speak the same language.  63% of Hispanics are from Mexico, and 18.2% are from South or Central America.  Spanish speakers from different countries, or even from different regions of the same country, often use different terms to convey a particular meaning.  To the extent possible, translations need to use neutral or universal language that will be clear to all Spanish speakers. In addition, a translator who understands the legal concepts and employer priorities behind the material to be translated will do the best job of conveying the employer’s message. 

Good translations are expensive.  Bad translations are initially cheap but in the long run can be very costly.  They can result in litigation and prevent or impede employee engagement and retention.  

Posted by Kate Bischoff and Hernan Cipriotti
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