15 Jan 2014

What Companies Can Learn from the Obamacare Website’s Botched Spanish Translation


Obamacares botched roll-out has some pertinent lessons about translation services.

The roll-out of the Affordable Health Care Act (also known as Obamacare) website has been rocky, to say the least. One of the latest bumps in the road has been the Spanish-language version of the site. Many critics are claiming that pages on the site have clearly been translated by a computer, making for a confusing site that is more “Spanglish” than Spanish.

“There are problems with the verbs and word order that make sentences hard to understand,” Professor Veronica Plaza told The Associated Press. “Sometimes,” she added, “it’s just the terms they use.”

At Rubric, we can’t help but wonder at the translation methodology for the Cuidadodesalud.gov website. When it comes to translating websites and technology solutions, an automatic approach always results in more trouble than it’s worth.

A Method to the Madness

Automatic translation can seem like a tempting option for companies that are looking for affordable website localization services. The problem is that the result is usually a mess of words that might follow the law of translating the language, but not the spirit. As Ms. Plaza noted, some of the most common errors on the Obamacare website happen with grammar. Since the hierarchy of words differs from language to language (for example, in Spanish, the noun comes before the adjective), translation can overlook these nuances.

Our translators agree, with one explaining that, when it comes to the translated website, “sometimes it just does not sound natural… it reads well but not with the best of styles. Some pages are not that bad, but there are others with clear issues of all kinds.”

Some pages are fully functional and smoothly translated, while others display glaring grammatical errors. Still others hosted links that led to the wrong webpages.

Having both translation and technical errors must mean that there was something more fundamentally off. We’ve worked with clients across many different industries to translate their websites. To us, it’s clear that the biggest problem for Cuidadodesalud.com was structural.

A Bottom-Up Approach

One of the mistakes companies make when they’re evaluating a website localization project is to hire a team of translators and let them run free on the site, translating as they go. But what if one translator decides to translate “smartphones” and another translates it into the language equivalent of “mobile device”?

Worse, what if one translator has industry experience and knows the local business terminology for certain products and services… and the rest of the translators don’t? You’ll likely end up seeing something very similar to the “Spanglish” of the Affordable Healthcare Act’s website.

To avoid these types of problems at Rubric, we always have one primary translator begin prep work. He or she will translate the most common phrases and terminology that appear on the website. That way, as other translators come onto the project, there’s a common guide for reference, guaranteeing uniformity across the website.

Rushing through a translation project may seem like a good idea until you have to spend hours and hours going back over the pages, picking out those misused words and phrases. In translation, consistency is king.

Volume Isn’t the Problem

The Cuidadodesalud.gov website was a huge undertaking, but the important lesson here for all companies—no matter the industry—is that the problem wasn’t actually the size of the site. When it comes to website localization projects, volume is never the problem – it always goes back to the organizational strategy used to translate and deploy the project in the first place.

We can only hope that the team behind Cuidadodesalud.gov gets it right the second time around.

Want to learn more about the art of translation? Read about the Rubric Experience.