December 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 6 // Tools of the Trade // 6TOT2

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Translating Extension Publications into Spanish: Practical Hints for Extension Professionals

Providing high-quality Spanish language materials is not simply a matter of translating what's already on the shelf. Even if you chose to, how do you avoid an embarrassing publication if you don't speak the language? You can, if you identify qualified people and use an orderly process. This article discusses sources and considerations for manuscripts to be used with Spanish-speaking audiences and offers a method for estimating translation costs and a process for reviewing cultural, grammatical, and technical content. Spanish language materials require additional time and skills, but the result is a client well served.

William S. Watson
Assistant Editor and Communications Specialist
Texas Agricultural Extension Service
College Station, Texas
Internet Address:

A More Diverse Audience

Everyone from a public school kindergarten teacher to the president of the United States is aware of the skyrocketing Hispanic population. In the year 2000 census, 35.3 million people living in the United States identified themselves as Hispanic. This represents a 57.9% increase since 1990. At that time, 22.3 million people in this country identified themselves as Hispanic, 17 million of whom were Spanish speakers.

Hispanics are not only growing in number, but they are also moving to areas not previously populated by this group, such as Georgia, North Carolina, and Arkansas. Moreover, many Hispanics in the United States moved here from other countries. The bottom line is that Extension's Spanish-speaking audience has never been larger or more geographically dispersed. Our opportunities to serve this group are growing rapidly, but finding appropriate materials is sometimes challenging.

Some Options

As an Extension educator, you have several options available when trying to reach an audience that is more comfortable reading Spanish. You can:

  • Use or adapt materials already available in Spanish,
  • Develop original materials in Spanish, or
  • Translate English language materials.

The last option is used often, because subject-matter specialists have already developed materials in English. If the English language version works, you can simply have it translated into Spanish. Problem solved, right?

Actually, no. If the material was not written with translation in mind, it requires careful editing and attention for it to be useful to the Hispanic audience.

Manuscript Considerations

For translated materials to be effective with a Spanish-speaking audience, the English-language manuscript must follow the same principles of good writing you would use in developing any educational material. The intended audience will dictate the appropriate reading level, and clarity is always important.

There are, however, some additional factors to consider. Translated materials must take cultural differences into account. Those that don't will display insensitivity and risk offending the audience they are intended to help. Common sense will catch most problem areas. For example, the use of football metaphors or references to "mom and apple pie" would be inappropriate. Subject-matter specialists who are native Spanish speakers or representatives from the Hispanic community can help you identify less obvious trouble spots.

Declarative sentences that avoid colloquialisms, jargon, and complex structures provide the best basis for translations. This is true for technical as well as non-technical materials. Long strings of object modifiers like "Extension County programs Human Resources office" are generally not translation-friendly. Remember also that acronyms seldom translate well. If you must use acronyms, modify them for Spanish so that they make sense. If you include suggested readings, be sure publications listed are available in Spanish or have Spanish language equivalents.

Translations are most successful when the educational materials are succinct and present important points in bulleted lists when possible. Studies also show a preference for bilingual formatting and photos and drawings that appropriately reflect the target audience. In a household where more than one language is spoken, a bilingual publication not only can inform the reader about the subject matter but can also help him or her learn a new language.

Review Process

Once you have an English manuscript ready, you need to have it translated and reviewed for grammatical correctness and technical accuracy. If you don't speak Spanish yourself, you must enlist the help of someone who does or, preferably, assemble a group of proven Spanish-language experts. This group will be able to evaluate sample translations from translation service providers, proofread draft translations, and incorporate changes suggested by bilingual subject-matter specialists.

The Texas Agricultural Extension Service uses the following process for translating and reviewing publications.

  1. An editor prepares the English-language manuscript in accordance with established Extension policies and standards. Once the author and the editor agree that the manuscript is ready, it is forwarded to the Spanish-language editor.

  2. The Spanish-language editor reviews the manuscript for reading level and potential cultural sensitivity issues, then solicits bids for translation from qualified service providers. The author is informed of the cost, and the job is awarded.

  3. Once the translator returns the translation, the Spanish-language editor reviews it. The invoice for the translation goes to the project group.

  4. After the initial review, the Spanish-language editor works with the bilingual subject-matter faculty or qualified students within the department or project group to perform a second review.

  5. The project group may opt to subject the draft translation to field testing or focus group review. This step is highly recommended for materials that are expected to have a long shelf life.

  6. When the translation is approved by the department or project group, the publication goes through the same design, printing, and distribution channels as all other Extension publications.

Translation Considerations

Machine Translation?

Don't be fooled into thinking that using translation software will give you the results you need. Though machine translation has matured considerably, currently there is no alternative to a qualified translator.

Estimating Cost

As you budget for translation, it helps to know that translators often bill by the word of target language output. Nine to 16 cents per word for non-technical text is average in Texas, but rates vary widely across the nation. More technical text can cost upwards of 20 cents per word. Also, the word count of an English language manuscript will grow by about 15% when translated into Spanish. This happens because Spanish uses more articles and is generally "wordier" than English.

These formulas will help you calculate low and high estimates for translation:

  • (English word count x 1.15) x .09 = lower range cost estimate for non-technical text.

  • (English word count x 1.15) x .16 = higher range cost estimate for non-technical text.

These rates vary, but this formula will give you some basis for estimating translation costs.

The Payoff

Producing materials for a Spanish-speaking audience is more time-consuming and involved than producing materials in English. It takes time to identify and establish working relationships with qualified translators and reviewers, but the quality of the materials produced by this extra work demonstrates the level of commitment our audiences deserve.

You can find Texas Cooperative Extension Spanish-language publications at: