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To Translate or Not to Translate?

A language is much more than a list of words. For that reason, translation is about much more than replacing a set of words in one language with a set of words in another. Written documents are created to convey a message or a series of messages to the reader. When a document created for one audience needs to be used for a second audience of a different language or cultural group, the highest priority is the preservation of the document's communicative purpose. In some cases this means that new documents are created from scratch for a specific language or cultural group. In other cases; for instance, if low literacy is common in the target audience the message of the document in English may need to be conveyed through a different medium, like audio or video. Thus, before automatically having a document translated, decision-makers must ask themselves the following questions:

  • Will the communicative purpose of this document still be achieved once the document has been translated?

  • Will this new audience see it, use it, and understand it in the same way as the original English-speaking audience?

If the answer to these questions is no, then translation may not be the best solution. The characteristics of the audience—their cultural experiences, knowledge, and patterns of behavior, as well as functional characteristics like average literacy level—should determine how best to convey the message of the original English written materials.

If it is determined that a document should be translated, the characteristics listed above should still guide the translation. The focus of the translated text should be to convey the original intended meaning of the English document, not simply the words. Not only are English and Spanish different languages, but English-speaking and Spanish-speaking audiences may respond differently to the same information. The conventions for expression in the target language may require the use of completely different concepts or ideas than found in the original text. For this reason, back-to-English translation are not a good measure of quality or content faithfulness.

Moreover, the culture and communication style of Spanish speakers differs from those of native English speakers. Useful Spanish materials are those that retain native speech using messages that resonate with ideas and concepts familiar to the Spanish reader.