languageBy John Pellegrini

As of the year 2000, according to the US Census Bureau there were 32.8 million Latino or Hispanic residents in the United States representing somewhere over 12 percent of the total population. That number is low, considering many “residents” are not counted for whatever reasons. That number is also low because in the four years since that Census report was taken, there have been increases. I’m not stating any of this for political reasons, but I am bringing this up because this is something that many of you are already facing or may soon have to face: producing commercials and promos in Spanish. What makes this more interesting is when, like me, you don’t speak the language at all.

This is the situation I find myself in currently where I work, and you might find yourself in very soon. Due to consolidations and rapid dominance of certain English language based formats, Spanish is quickly becoming a new format of choice for station clusters who can’t figure out what to do with their third Country or Light Rock station that has no ratings. In West Michigan there is a large enough Latino or Hispanic population to warrant a full time Spanish-speaking station, and in early 2003 our group made that station a reality.

By the way, you’ve no doubt noticed that I’m using both Latino and Hispanic for reference names. That’s because there’s no definite rule yet as to which is the preferred term. I know many people favor Latino, but, for example, in Chicago there is a huge South American and Cuban population (as well as people who are actually from Spain) who have made it clear that they are highly offended when they are referred to as Latinos and want to be known only as Hispanic. Again, I have no interest in the political debate over the matter, so I’m using both until I hear otherwise from the Federal Bureau of Sanctioned Ethnic Terminology.

So how do you produce spots in a language you don’t understand, especially when the voice-over is recorded and you’re asked to edit it afterward without the help of someone who can translate for you? For that matter, how do you write copy in English that is suitable for translation? Very carefully, is the answer to both of those questions. There are some helpful things that I’ve learned in the many months since we launched the format, and I’m passing them along here for those of you who find yourself in a similar situation. I’m sure there are plenty of larger market prod folk who have already had plenty of experience in this and could add more tips in a follow up, and I encourage those of you out there to write down that info and send it into RAP — because sooner or later virtually everyone who reads RAP will find themselves in this situation. And the more we know about it, the better off we’ll be.

Fortunately for me I have the benefit of two air personalities, a part-time production assistant and an account rep that are fluent in Spanish and can help me with editing. But from time to time I find myself alone, guessing as to the correct sentence. After a while, I can usually figure out which sentence is the incorrect sentence and which one is correct. The two air people always correct themselves, and let’s face it, a flub is a flub in any language and everyone seems to always make the same weird noises when they screw up. Usually it’s a Bronx cheer, or it’s a curse, or it’s a “NOOOO” or similar blurb.

The only time when I’m really nervous about editing is when I’m not the one recording the voice track and I’m working on it after everyone has left the building. I have found that if I can have a copy of the English version of the script as well as the Spanish translation, I can usually follow along well enough to figure out where I am, though I still don’t really understand what’s actually being said. I have even been able to figure out entire sentences that can be deleted for the sake of time. Though I always play it for someone who knows the language to make sure that my edits still make linguistic sense. Which now brings me to the biggest challenge with Spanish… copy writing.

Writing copy in English that will be translated to another language is possibly the most challenging prospect I’ve ever been faced with in my 20 plus years of this insane biz. That’s because the vast majority of what we consider common expressions in English have no immediate counterparts in Spanish or other languages. Many times the translation of a simple phrase can take two or three sentences in Spanish. As you can guess, this causes huge problems with timing. We’ve had some agency scripts come in that needed to be translated which, though only 15 lines and 180 words in English, wind up being 230 words and 20 lines in Spanish — over 90 seconds. The problem was that when our translator was faced with an expression in English that she couldn’t translate into Spanish, she would add a sentence or two of explanation. In a script that might have five phrases like that you could wind up with ten extra sentences.

I quickly learned that sticking to basic English and basic concepts and a word count of under 160 is the fast answer, but I’m also working with our translator to understand the language differences better, and thankfully she corrects and improves my copy when we discuss what the client wants to get across. However, as I’ve been saying all along, if I knew Spanish, I would be much better off. Also our translator, who by the way doubles as an air talent, has a lot of experience writing commercial copy, so that’s a big help. She’s a certified elementary school Spanish teacher, born and raised in Mexico City, and is teaching me on the side in exchange for my helping her out with understanding English slang better.

The toughest problem is dealing with advertising agencies and clients who write their own copy. Most agencies and clients are okay with us re-writing the copy for Spanish, but the problem is jumping through all the hoops in order to get to the person in the agency that can make that decision. Then there is the occasional idiot client who refuses to have their copy altered in any way no matter what language in which it’s presently written. We usually just edit and translate them as best we can and move on.

One problem that comes up occasionally is which version of Spanish is being used. I’m learning that Caribbean Spanish or Cuban and Puerto Rican Spanish is different from the Castilian Spanish that’s spoken in Mexico, and all of them are different from the Spanish that’s spoken in Spain. What’s the big deal, you might ask? The format we’re using is primarily for Mexican music. Two of our air talents are from Mexico. Ditto the target audience. The problem lies in if the spot is voiced or written by someone that speaks one of the other dialects; each one has just enough unique syntax to cause problems for listeners. Plus you can get into hot water due to centuries of fighting between countries when you’re using the wrong version of Spanish — and that’s a whole can of worms I don’t want to even come close to opening. Suffice to say we leave the majority of those problems up to the agencies. It’s like the grammatical differences between the English spoken here in the Midwestern United States and the English spoken in Glasgow, Scotland, UK.

You’ll also find words from other languages in the different versions of Spanish. For example, Mexican Spanish is peppered with bits of French due to France’s occupation of Mexico in the mid 1800’s when Napoleon III tried to establish a French Empire of Mexico after the Mexican American war of 1846-48. Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of Mexico’s defeat of the French in 1865. But that was plenty of time for numerous French words, especially French words related to food (no surprise there) to be absorbed into the Mexican language. Yet you’ll find virtually none in any of the other versions of Spanish. It’s amazing what I could have learned in history class had I not been sleeping at the time.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this new venture is the number of spots that run in English with no translation. The account rep who speaks Spanish, was born in Texas and has lived in West Michigan for many years, told me that there are large numbers of people in the community who listen because they love the music and the heritage of the format but can’t speak a word of Spanish. He also indicated that plenty of people are bilingual, so a spot in English is not a big deal. We have some clients who have indicated that they don’t want their commercials translated because they have no one on their staff who can speak Spanish. This isn’t as unusual as you might think, and the feeling from the advertisers is that they don’t want to lose out on a potential customer base due to a perceived language problem. We never seem to have any complaints from listeners regarding the English commercials, so the concept is apparently acceptable. However we do get the occasional complaint by non-Spanish speaking Anglos who are worried that we might be “offending” someone by not having all our commercials in Spanish. We’ve decided that if we do get a complaint, we’ll try to fix the situation, but so far, as previously mentioned, we’ve received none.

Another problem — though it’s not happened here yet but I’ve heard of it from some other stations in other markets — is the occasional client that thinks he or she is fluent in Spanish and is in fact not even close. I heard of one nightmare situation that happened to an associate in which a client who had only rudimentary high school Spanish (many years back in their past) recorded a spot that was so completely incorrect that the station received complaints. So far all of the clients we’ve had that wanted to do their own voiceover have been fluent enough to get the job done, but just to be safe, I avoid these situations by making sure that one of our air talents is in the studio so that they can help them and correct their mistakes. The clients we’ve had who did do their own voiceover are usually grateful when coached by one of our personalities, plus our team can help them with other ideas that would get the point across better.

On the other side of the coin, the most difficult part of all is getting the English speaking members of the sales staff to understand that translations take extra work and more time, which means there will be no immediate or last minute turn-arounds — especially since our translator only works until noon-ish each day. There have been a few salespeople who went to one of those internet instant translator sites and ran their copy through that, thinking that they would save us some time… well at least they’re thinking… but soon became educated to the fact that those internet translators almost never translate correctly. There’s a lot of jargon and slang that either doesn’t get translated, or you get an entirely different meaning for the phrase you’re trying to use. I’m reminded of the old Monty Python sketch about Dutch to English translation problems, and a real translation pamphlet that made the rounds a few decades ago (the originating country escapes me) entitled, “English As She Is Rightly Spoke.”

We also had an interesting situation arise when a local advertising agency had paid a translating service a huge amount of money to translate their script only to be informed by our translator that the copy had horrible grammar mistakes. The high paid translation service refused to admit they were wrong so our translator called a friend of hers at the Mexican Consulate in Chicago to verify that the copy from the high paid translator was incorrect. The high paid translator has been doing translations here for a long time but has been doing them incorrectly. Apparently he was from Mexico but moved here over 30 years ago and according to our translator forgot how to write the language properly. The advertising agency thanked us for correcting the spot and vowed to never use the high paid guy again. Word has gotten out on his lack of credibility, and his reputation is suffering. Laziness will always lose out eventually.

I am beginning to understand what Ernest Hemingway said about learning new languages; that you just have to immerse yourself into the culture — osmosis if you will — and you eventually will master it. Of course, I can’t afford to move to Mexico right now, but this is probably the next best thing.

One other cultural difference that has come up is the subject of deadlines. In the Mexican Culture, as in many other Hispanic and European cultures, there’s no such thing as a deadline. They don’t have a word for it, or a conception of the process. Instead there is a belief that if we can get it done today, that’s wonderful; but if we have to put it off for a few days without telling anyone, so be it so long as we’re all happy. There is also a cultural belief that appointments are unnecessary, and to show up at the last second without prior notice or warning to record a commercial is perfectly acceptable. To many Americans, especially those of us who are nuts enough to be in radio production, this is considered rude and bad behavior, but to the Mexican people it’s perfectly acceptable. Unfortunately, many Americans have absolutely no ability to tolerate other culture’s practices, and there can be cases of salespeople and office managers getting pissed off at clients for this, which surprises and angers the clients who don’t understand why something that has never been a problem for them while dealing with other businesses in their community is suddenly such a huge issue.

This is why it is imperative that if you are going to work with other cultures that you need to educate yourself fully in the customs of that particular culture so that you can understand that if something doesn’t happen the way you would expect, that it’s merely the way things are for that particular culture and you need to be flexible enough to roll with the changes. As a result of these types of situations, I have gained a tremendous newfound respect for diplomats. I can also see why the wars of the past could break out between countries over just the smallest little infractions of cultural belief, and how if we expect to get anywhere in the world of the future that we must start learning to get along better.

Working with another culture is something that we are all going to do before the end of the next decade. The world is getting smaller all the time, and if you have any intention of making headway in the broadcasting industry, then you are going to need to embrace the idea of expanding your mindset on a global level. The internet is making freelancing for other stations around the world much easier. You could suddenly find yourself being solicited by stations in Europe, South America, Africa, and even the Far East. How well you will do with these new business ventures will only be decided by how willing you will be to learn and embrace global cultural differences. Also, if you have any dreams of visiting other countries, having contact people there when you arrive to meet you and show you around is a far better way to travel than to take some pre-packaged tour group trip.

As I mentioned up front in this article, this is the first time I’ve dealt with a new language in 20 years of radio, and I’m sure that there are plenty of people reading this article who are saying to themselves, “Ha! Beginner! Neophyte! He has no idea!” Of course, I am writing this primarily as a primer for those who have no experience in this kind of situation. However, as I also mentioned, it would be great to hear from you if you’re currently involved in the same situations. What are your experiences, and how do you make the processes work where you are? The world is indeed getting smaller, and it is only to our own career detriment that we not take advantage of whatever becomes available. And in my personal case, I’ve found out where all the REALLY GOOD Mexican restaurants are in town.