“Do you know Spanish?” It’s a question I’m all too familiar with at work—and I know what comes next: “What does this mean?” “Is this the right word?” or even: “Can you translate this bit of copy?” (To be clear: I can’t. Though I’m Latina, my Spanish is somewhere between very bad and non-existent.)
As a writer and editor working in media, and one who has Latina magazine on their résumé, it’s maybe not surprising that I get asked these questions, because so many of us do—and not just those who are presumed to speak Spanish, or who are writers. Whether for internal understanding or even external communications, many workers get tasked with this non-paid, non-sanctioned job. But it puts them, and their companies, in a bad spot.
“Translation is a specialized profession that requires expertise, experience, and cultural sensitivity,” says Alex Tabar, founder and CEO of Yucalab, a bilingual content marketing agency.
“Although an employee may have language skills, they may not necessarily have the skills and experience to produce an accurate and effective translation.”
This is particularly true for humor or puns. It’s also, as Tabar notes, super important for cultural sensitivity. Certain words hold different connotations among dialects and national backgrounds. (In fact, I can think of one word right now that would indicate bad armpit odor in one country, but be a complete insult in another, as it’s used as a derogative for a private part. Can you imagine if the employee was working at a personal care company?)
A professional translator for 20 years, José Manuel Hernández emphasizes that not only does it take time and dedication to learn a language enough to convey someone’s ideas in it, language and cultural jargon evolves—and that’s not always picked up by someone who only uses a language at home or whose background is something else entirely.
“Languages are alive and they thrive differently depending on their ecosystem,” Manuel Hernández says. “They’ve been alive for centuries and they grow daily—so they require constant study and appreciation, something an [everyday] employee is most likely not doing in their free time.”
He notes that most of these quick translations done by employees are going to be vetted online or through something like AI or Google Translate and then smoothed out—a not-so-great practice, particularly for anything consumer-facing. “If the text will be seen by the public or in a professional setting, such as a court, a medical office, or a university, the eyes of a seasoned translator, linguist, and/or philologist becomes essential,” he says.
“Translation is a crucial element in marketing and advertising, as it goes beyond just translating words,” says Tabar. “It involves adapting the message to the target audience’s cultural norms, values, and preferences while considering branding elements such as the brand voice and tone.” In other words? Not everyone has the skills to do it.
Not only is it negligent and culturally risky to ask for these translations from an employee who is not a professional translator, it’s also a bad business practice of not paying for (extra) work. “[Translators] offer this service for a fee because it requires a significant investment of time, effort, and resources to produce high-quality translations,” says Tabar. “Paying for translation work ensures that the work is done by professionals who have the skills and experience to produce accurate and effective translations. It also helps to foster a culture of respect and recognition for the work of translators and the value of language skills in the marketplace.”
When it comes to particular languages that are often tied to marginalized groups in the U.S., it’s even more important to pay for these services and set a precedent across the company. For example, Latinas have the largest gender wage gap. On average, Latinas in the U.S. are paid 46% less than white men and 26% less than white women, according to Lean In, and are also underpaid in comparison to their Asian, Black, and Native American peers.
When asking for translation work, you’re adding to their workload without proper compensation (particularly since they’re more likely, statistically, to already be underpaid)—a practice called “cultural taxation.” Unfortunately, those who speak out on this practice may (and often do) endure bad outcomes, in particular being labeled as difficult or not team players. This makes setting the precedent of hiring professional translators that much more important. It not only allows a worker to do the work they were hired for (and at the rate hired), but it helps mitigate any resentment, bitterness, or unconscious bias.
“People without experience in translation who are asked to do one are put in a lose-lose situation,” says Manuel Hernández. So, what happens if you’re asked to do translation work that is outside the scope of your role? Decline, and then offer a solution. “It’s important to remember that a bad translation can cause miscommunication and lead to serious problems for a brand or company,” says Tabar. “It’s perfectly fine to decline and suggest seeking the services of a professional translator or agency. [By doing this you] are still contributing to the company’s success and helping ensure the quality of the final product.”
Manuel Hernández notes that for companies, translators and translating agencies can often be much more cost effective than one may think, and can often be hired by the hour, but if you do have consistent translator needs, putting one on a retainer isn’t hard to do (and can also be even more cost effective). By setting a precedent of outsourcing and paying for translation services, companies can establish better pay practices among their current employees, reduce tension and resentment across employees, have better employer and employee relations, and ensure a healthy workforce.