Español Neutro for School Translations
By Leslie Padilla-Williams
What would you think if you received a letter from your child’s school that contains this sentence: If you ain’t got no money, yo can get lunch on the ease, dude? I have school-aged children, so I know I would have a patatús (“nervous breakdown”) if I had received that letter. I would immediately question the qualifications of the school’s administrators, the curriculum being taught, and whether or not the teachers knew English well enough to teach it! After the initial shock, I would feel downright insulted.
I work in a school district in southern California that has over twenty-five schools. More than half of the parents at nearly sixteen schools chose Spanish as their preferred language of correspondence. Although I could not find statistics on the preferred language of correspondence of all of California schools, I assume it must be high. I am also betting that in the near future that number will increase. Title VI & Executive Order 13166 are federal mandates that require school districts to provide “meaningful” communication with non-English and limited-English parents. I wish they had defined “meaningful” and not left it up to school districts to interpret! Is using Google Translate a tool to provide “meaningful “ communication? Does the use of untrained and qualified translators provide parents with “meaningful” communication? Does a translation of a document using substandard Spanish, incorrect punctuation and syntax, regionalisms, Spanglish and translation errors constitute “meaningful” communication?
Every time I deliver an interpreting or translating course to bilingual school staff, I ask participants how many Spanish-speaking countries exist in the world. Out of hundreds of participants, less than one percent is able to answer the question correctly. According to the Royal Spanish Academy, there are twenty-one official Spanish-speaking countries. Each of these countries have their particular way of expressing themselves. So how do we choose the “right” Spanish to use to translate school documents? Two brilliant Columbians, Juan Andrés and Nicolás Ospina, explained the difficulty in their song Qué difícil es hablar en español that you can find on YouTube . To add harm to injury, Spanish-speakers from Spain claim that Castilian Spanish is the “academic” Spanish that should always be used in translations. My English to Spanish Translation II professor at UCSD Extension, Carmen Alzás, explained that technically speaking Castilian is the name of a dialect spoken in Castilla (prior to Spain’s unification), and Spanish, as it is internationally known, is used to refer to the language that since then has received many contributions from other provinces of Spain and other countries in America. She also pointed out that there are many references to the facts that the terms are interchangeable—an opinion shared by the Association of Spanish Language Academies.
Here’s where the need for using universal academic Spanish or español neutron comes to play. If I ask a translator the Spanish translation of the term “a quarter” in the context of money; a Mexican translator might think of peseta, a Guatemalan translator might think of choca, a Spanish-speaker raised in Los Angeles might think of cora. It is highly probable that these three translator might not understand each other’s rendition of the English word “quarter”. However, if this term was translated as una moneda de veinticinco centavos, all Spanish speakers would understand. Voila —that’s español neutro! One just has to see CNN en español or visit their website to get proof that this type of Spanish really exists. In educational settings, I strongly advocate the use of academic Spanish when translating English documents. After all, isn’t Common Core State Standards pushing for academic English? Even English speakers are marking the difference between every-day language and “academic” language.
Would you call the following translation an example of “meaningful” communication with a parent: Estoy muy excitada de introducirles al nuevo principal. Of course, the translator was attempting to translate “I am very excited to introduce the new principal,” but actually said: I am very aroused to insert the new principal [into you?]. This is just one of thousands of examples of translations that use false cognates and Spanglish that I have collected over my fifteen-plus years as an educational translator.
The case in point is that parents should never, ever, receive correspondence from their child’s school in English or in Spanish that will “arouse” their disgust and fail to communicate vital information that they need to fully participate in the child’s education.