Don’t Just Translate, Enculturate!

One of the challenges hitting some web administrators is the need to provide a bilingual version of their website.  The Hispanic population is one of the fastest growing segments of the Catholic faithful and in many markets in the US its becoming a prerequisite that the church offer masses in both English and Spanish.  If church is going to be offered in Spanish it only follows that church communication:  bulletins, emails, and websites all be offered in Spanish as well.  As the web administrator, you may be tasked with building a bilingual version of your website.

You could use Google Translate to translate your whole site, throw up a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe on your site, pat yourself on the back, and call your work done.  You may feel like your doing something, but your not.  One of the challenges of translation is you’re not just translating a language, but you’re translating a culture.  Web designers often speak of the user experience on a website or the different personas of your users.  In the case of a culturally different audience, the personas and their user experience requirements may change dramatically.

I received an important education today in cultural diversity while have a discussion with Father Manny of St. Clements in Chicago.  We were discussing stewardship and he gave me quite an education on the cultural differences of Catholics in Mexico versus the US.  One stark example is I was very surprised to learn that church property is owned by the state in Mexico.  Moving a statue from one side of the church to another could conceivably require the written permission of town’s mayor not the priest’s permission!  While the roots of this state ownership in Mexico has very painful beginnings, today it has the effect of noticeably lowering the administrative burden within each parish church. This actually translates into a reduced need for giving in Mexico as there isn’t nearly as large need to support church operations.  The purpose of the main Sunday collection is typically to provide food money for the priests.  This is just one stark example of a cultural difference between our two cultures, but there’s many more that affect how and what we communicate.

Immigrants to the US are faced with learning a dramatically new culture and the one item of stability they frequently search out for is the church.  To many immigrants their priest is not just their priest, but their community leader, an extension of their family, and trusted adviser.  While you may say, well of course! These ties are much more pervasive in a Hispanic immigrant community than perhaps the average American community.

Even at the website content level, cultural differences become important.  Menu options may resonate best as verbs versus nouns.  Menu options such as “Serve” or “Education” shouldn’t be literally translated but rather using their verb companions of “Serving” or “Schooling” may be more appropriate.  Similarly, what belongs on your home page, may be different.  Getting in touch with the priest personally may be much more important that becoming a registered parishioner.  Now, I don’t want to even pretend to have list of best practices in designing websites for an Hispanic audience, but I do remember one of the fundamentals of communication, listening.  Please, ask them.

As an web administrator, your have a responsibility to engage your audience, listen to their needs, and through their input develop your church community’s website.  This may be the hardest part of your work, but it also may be the most rewarding!

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Author:Joe Luedtke

Joe Luedtke is LPi and is currently leading LPi’s efforts to move into the on-line world. Joe works for the world's largest and oldest social network, religion, and believes that this social network could benefit tremendously from the the proper use of Internet technologies.
  • Peschkenmedia

     There is a difference between ‘translation’ and ‘adaptation’. I produce professional adaptations for TV and other religious content. Most translators today translate only words, but not what they say.

  • Craig Berry

    One of my co-workers speaks Spanish and says the Google translation is pretty shoddy. I’ve translated other languages to English and while it’s not great, I can sort of pick out what’s going on.

    Is it better than nothing? Possibly. My biggest concern is if something is so poorly translated that the actual over-arching message is incorrect.

    Back in the day…babelfish was popular, I suppose Google Translate is the most popular nowadays. Are there any other online translators worth mentioning?

  • Lisahendey

    I echo Craig’s question — this is a big and ever growing issue at my parish. As the webmaster, I take the Spanish language content from our bulletin (written by our head of Hispanic Ministries) and simply copy and paste it into our site a few times per week so we’re growing some Spanish content on the home page, but I want to do more to serve this large constituency in our parish… time to learn (or rather re-learn) Spanish…