AP Story on Obamacare Spanish Site Misinforms and Misleads English-Language Press

Jan 14, 2014
9:34 AM

UPDATE: VOXXI also ran a piece in December that is a bit more accurate than the one the AP wrote.

There are many points that need to be made about a poorly reported Associated Press article claiming that several Spanish speakers are up in arms about how the government’s CuidadoDeSalud.gov page was a computer-generated translation riddled with linguistic errors and “Spanglish,” but before diving into that, let me make one thing clear: not having a fully functioning Spanish site ready in October when HealthCare.gov rolled out in English was a story that many outlets (NBC Latino, Fox News Latino and Boston’s NPR) covered. In October.

Such news barely registered with the mainstream U.S. media landscape because so much attention focused on HealthCare.gov’s launch failings. The lack of a Spanish website once again proved one of the biggest mistakes large organizations continue to make: in a country with a fast-growing number of Spanish speakers, treating Spanish as a lost-lost second cousin no longer cuts it in the United States. In addition, assuming that Spanish will also be a translation instead of original content also sends the wrong message—English-dominant organizations such as the government really don’t see Spanish speakers as equals. I have been spouting that theme for years, and quite frankly, most private and public organizations still don’t understand that.

However, this week’s AP article falls into the very same trap that it is trying to criticize: if you are going to actually critique what is proper Spanish, at least approach it from the eyes of a native Spanish speaker. As someone who has worked in the world of Spanish language development, both in media and education, for over 25 years, the AP article doesn’t fully pass the test.


Here’s why:

  • Let’s start with the title of the Spanish language website: CuidadoDeSalud.gov. Any native Spanish speaker or serious student of Spanish could easily tell you that the term “cuidado de salud” or “cuidado de la salud” is a perfectly acceptable term for “health care” or “care of one’s health.” In fact, all you need to do is consult newspaper articles from all over Latin America. From Argentina (January 14, 2014): “Reducir el consumo de sal, clave para el cuidado de la salud”. From Puerto Rico (January 11, 2014): “a nuestra gente el cuidado de salud que necesita”. From CNN Mexico (December 28, 2013): “Twitter, al cuidado de la salud de los británicos”. One Mexican company uses the term as an official company name, while another also uses it within the context the importance of good health care. For the AP to suggest that the name is plain wrong is just irresponsible, since in the context presented on the website, it does not mean “for the caution of health.” If the site said “Cuidado con la salud,” then AP has a point, but the website doesn’t, so the reporting is inaccurate. It is also irresponsible that other reporters and columnists didn’t even explore this very basic fact. Instead, we instantly assume that the AP is the standard. As with any media outlet, even the AP makes mistakes. Just ask Rand Paul. Also, the English site is called HealthCare.gov, so why wouldn’t the Spanish translation be any different?
  • The site is riddled with “Spanglish” terms: The AP article uses the example of one person based in Miami who says the following, “When you get into the details of the plans, it’s not all written in Spanish. It’s written in Spanglish, so we end up having to translate it for them.” Granted, government websites translated into Spanish have never been good, and it goes back to the fact that I raised earlier: that content does indeed need to be written in Spanish and not translated. However, reviewing the actual site would suggest otherwise. For example, a term such as “inscribir” makes complete sense over “aplicar.” As a native Spanish speaker, I think the website translation is mediocre, but it is readable, just like every other Spanish version of U.S. government pages. I have read much worse and I have read much better. But is the site Spanglish? Not even close. Spanglish is using invented variations of English words, like “choosear.” (Yes, I actually saw that word once in a translation for the word “choose.”)
  • The site must be computer-generated. Again, this suggestion comes from one person in the article and it is buried in the story. Computer-generated translations would bring up bad word order, bad syntax and it would just read poorly. This translation does not read poorly. By the way, I have several other editorial suggestions that would make the site better. The first one? Write in Spanish and do a heavier adaptation that is more natural. See the pattern here on how to avoid the critics? There are plenty of authentic Spanish-language health care sites in the world. Maybe people working on the website should pay more attention to them? And, one more thing: Spanish style is initial capital letters and lowercase. Seeing headlines in all initial capital letters is a Spanish editor’s pet peeve. (For example: “Pequeñas empresas” and not “Pequeñas Empresas”.)
  • Then there is the entire issue with the word “prima” (for “premium”), which also means “female cousin.” Granted, for a second, I did a double take. Also, if you actually read the entire AP article, it is the only example of an error that was listed (buried in the middle of the story), so the notion of the site being riddled with errors speaks to more irresponsible reporting. The term is correct within the context of the page, which is a page about health care. Here are some examples of “prima”  usage in other outlets: today’s Nuevo Herald from Miami (my emphasis): “Los datos tampoco suministraron detalles sobre la selección del plan por condado, o si los consumidores deseaban pagar mayores primas para tener una red más amplia o un deducible menor.”  Also, check here and here. Oh yeah, and Univision, too. Of course those who don’t do the research will be quick to say, “riddled with errors.” But it goes to the fact that the AP article needed to talk to people who know Spanish editorial content. Instead, the AP relied on the opinion of one person and concluded that it is a disturbing national trend which would cause disaster for The White House.
  • Finally, English-language media needs to step back for a minute and actually talk with linguistic experts and people who do this for a living, especially health care translation work. The AP article misled you, and you did little to discover more on your own.

Nonetheless, there is one thing that is disturbing, and it is the follow-up reporting Buzzfeed did, so maybe AP’s article did so some good:

The White House officials said they were aware of the sometimes-clunky Spanish. “We are committed to ongoing improvements,” the senior official said via email.

The officials warned against assuming a less-than-ideal Spanish-language website would affect Latino enrollment numbers.

“The Latino community is using in-person assistance at a higher rate than the general public,” the official said. Many Latinos speak English, administration officials have said, and so the Spanish-language site is not the primary way to reach them.

“This sort of translation does not affect your average Latino enrollee,” the official said.

Did The White House have to go there? Why not just say, “Hey, we got to make some fixes with specific terms, but the translation reflects current industry standards?”

Translation is a very complex art, and it is clear that those involved in the rollout didn’t get it. But they didn’t get it because they never correctly approached the development of a Spanish-language in the first place when they had a chance to do it right. Now they are just settling and trying to defend it, but at the same time, the opinions of just two or three people in one AP article really don’t speak to the bigger issue about all this: stop treating Spanish as a second-class language, and if the mainstream media had more people who understood the nuances of this issue, articles like the AP’s story would have done a better job in explaining the complete picture.

Cuidado, indeed. Now that is the right way to say, “Caution.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. In the last two years, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS’ Face the NationNPR,  Univisionand The New York Times. Currently, he is a digital producer for Al Jazeera America’s The Stream. The views expressed in any of the LR columns written by Julito on this page do not reflect the editorial stance of Latino Rebels or Al Jazeera America. His opinions are his own and his alone.