Dr. St. Germaine-Dilts on Spanish Speakers and Tech Comm

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. I’m your host Ryan Weber. Today we have an interview with Dr. Nicole St. Germaine-Dilts of Angelo State University. Dr. St. Germaine-Dilts is a Professor of Technical Communication, who received her Ph.D. from Texas Tech University. Her research area is how Hispanic and Spanish language speakers use technical information and access it through translation and localization. I apologize there’s a bit of background noise on this interview. We recorded it live at the Council for Programs in Scientific and Technical Communication Conference and so you can hear in the background the chatter of scholars engaging in exciting academic work. Don’t-don’t mind the chatter too much.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Alright, well welcome to the podcast Nicole, and I wanted to talk to you about you work in Spanish language speaking technical communication and my first question is your work is documented an English-speaking bias in technical communication, how does that bias manifest and what are its consequences?

[Nicole St. Germaine-Dilts] Well how the bias manifests is a lack of translation first of all. Many companies find that it is just not economically feasible to translate at all, even considering that almost 15% of our populations speak Spanish as their primary language and feels more comfortable speaking Spanish. Now you know an additional percentage is bilingual. The question that companies ask is, “Is this cost effective?” and all too often they find that they just cannot justify the value of translation with the resources they have. The effects of it though are massive. Study after study has shown that consumers and users of technology, they want to read these things in their native language unless they’re super comfortable with the technology. You just feel more comfortable. People are afraid if they miss you know or if they misunderstand some phrasing that they’ll break whatever it is and as a result, they tend to shy away from products and from services or software that is not documented in their original language. The effect that that has is that some of these people, unless they’re very vigilant and very motivated, they do not have the same access to technology that people with native, local, ability in English have and that’s unfortunately. And in the end, it has what we have the “technology gap”, where we’re leaving people who aren’t native, comfortable speakers of English further behind.

[Weber] Right, right. Well I assume on the economic end there are lost sales for companies as well so that front-end cost may be justified in back-end sales later.

[St. Germaine-Dilts] Right and of course. Unfortunately, in the U.S., we don’t have any sort of advisory board or you know anything from the government that says, “Okay, you know we do have to  include at least these languages because we don’t have an official language.” A lot of people think our official language is English, but it’s not, we don’t have one. In the EU, it’s different you have to have at least I believe 3 of the number of state languages if you want to produce documentation for the EU.

[Weber] Oh wow.

[St. Germaine-Dilts] I don’t really think that they tell them, but the companies sort out you know which languages are most advantageous but here we’re left to our own devices and sometimes that’s not always a good thing.

[Weber] Right, certainly yeah. A lot of your work focuses specifically on translating medical information for Spanish speakers. What effective practices have you learned from your research?

[St. Germaine-Dilts] Well one of the things that you must do as Spanish speakers, especially if you’re working within the United States, is realize that there are different dialects of Spanish. And too often we tend to think you know, “Oh Spanish-speaking, that equals Mexico.”

[Weber] Right.

[St. Germaine-Dilts] Or you know, if you’re in New York and the east coast, you might think that equals the Dominican Republic or whatever it is and then they try to use that universally, so you know they’re using Dominican Spanish in Texas or vice versa. It needs to be more localized than that. Companies really don’t like to hear that because it’s even more expensive. You have to have a subject matter expert that has the culture, but culturally Spanish-speaking countries are very diverse and even in health when it comes to things like, “Well what is domestic violence?” You know you’ll find that the definition for somebody from the Dominican Republic is different from Mexico, which is different from Cuba, and you can’t you know health practices vary just as widely as the language and that means that you have to get down and dirty on the ground work, with focus groups. Find out “Is this working for this population,” and also work with the health care practitioners who are working with them. You know because the consequences of getting it wrong are very serious.

[Weber] Right. That’s really interesting. Your research often references Executive order 13166, can you describe what is this executive order and how does it affect the work of technical communicators?

[St. Germaine-Dilts] Well the executive order was signed into law by President Clinton in the early 90’s. Basically what it says is that if you are receiving federal funding, and most clinics, hospitals are, I mean if you’re accepting Medicaid, Medicare, that’s federal funds.

[Weber] Right. Right.

[St. Germaine-Dilts] You have to provide not only interpretation service but appropriate translations of key materials.

[Weber] Okay.

[St. Germaine-Dilts] Now the problem is, is that the rest is it’s supervised by the Department of Justice, but it’s very loose. Basically it only comes to their attention if there is a complaint, and a lot of times some of these people aren’t-don’t feel empowered or they don’t know that they can complain, and so that leads to problems. Now in addition how people interpret that is rather loose. An interpretation system can be you know on the phone or it can be-I’ve talked to Spanish-speakers who have said, “Yeah well I’m from Mexico and they brought me a Filipino nurse and I can’t understand her. I know she’s speaking Spanish, but I don’t know what she’s saying really.”

[Weber] Right.

[St. Germaine-Dilts] So with the translations and this is more where technical communicators step in. We need to first of all localize these documents for particular cultures, even people within the U.S., the Spanish­ speakers, the Vietnamese, the Chinese, and we need to work with translators and hospitals to make sure that those key documents, like consent forms, sheets that describe their medication, brochures that show about their maybe the procedure that they’re about to undergo that all of that is translated and localized so.

[Weber] Right. So to reiterate a key theme, it’s not enough to translate your documents into Spanish, it’s that they have to be localized for particular cultures of Spanish-speakers.

[St. Germaine-Dilts] Right and that’s key. Even talking about graphics, the traditions are very different. In the United States, particularly with medical information or highly technical information, we like to use line drawings because we like to strip detail and show this is exactly what’s going on. If it’s a surgery on your knee, we’ll just show a cutout line drawing of the knee and that doesn’t work, especially for Mexican and Tejano or Texas-born Spanish-speakers. They like things to be in context and to them like a line drawing of your patella is very out of context, “What does this mean?” And sometimes in my work, people couldn’t even identify what they were looking at.

[Weber] Really? That’s interesting, yeah.

[St. Germaine-Dilts] Yeah, in one instance there was a picture of DNA. The brochure was about birth control and birth defects. No, it was birth defects, and it showed the picture of DNA coming together like it’s a birth, and it wasn’t that people weren’t educated. They knew what DNA was, but-.

[Weber] Right.

[St. Germaine-Dilts] But that graphic.

[Weber] That photography was not familiar to them, right.

[St. Germaine-Dilts] Right, it wasn’t familiar, and they said, “If we’re talking about birth defects, why are we looking at this instead of maybe people going through therapy for birth defects? Or you know things that make sense to me. How does this impact my life? This line drawing does not explain that.”

[Weber] Very good, so how can-overall howcan technical communicators better meet the needs of Spanish-speakers and users?

[St. Germaine-Dilts] Well for one thing we have to be advocates, those of us that are working in localization, especially in the academic side. We have to look for these partnerships with hospitals and all too often it’s not that health practitioners don’t want to help people, it’s that they don’t know, and they don’t know that we’re here for them.

[Weber] Right.

[St. Germaine-Dilts] For example, I worked with an obstetrician, and she didn’t even know before she met me that people did this. She thought it just got translated and she said, “Well I know we have cultural problems, but I thought you know I have a Spanish-speaking nurse on staff, who was covering us.”

[Weber] Was good enough, yeah.

[St. Germaine-Dilts] Right, they don’t realize that we’re here for them as a resource and we need to make them aware of that and the more we do the more visibility we have and the more likely they are to call on us when they need help. So, we can make this better. You know we can.

[Weber] Are there resources that you would recommend for technical communicators who are struggling with localization or involved in localization and may want some direction?

[St. Germaine-Dilts] Well really the best resources you can have is a subject matter expert.

[Weber] Right. Okay.

[St. Germaine-Dilts] We make those partnerships with the medical community. One way I’ve found to do that, when I first moved to St. Angelo was to go to networking events.

[Weber] Okay. Oh great, yeah.

[St. Germaine-Dilts] And met nurses and I met physicians. Or even when I went to doctor’s, the clinic, I made them aware of what I was doing. Or sometimes I’d be reviewing a book for a journal, and thy would say “Well what is that? And you know strike up conversations, network and meet people, and ask them for their input and their help. You know that’s really the only way to do it because health care especially or technology, it’s so diverse and there’s no real way for academics or even people working in the field to know specifically what these people need unless you’re talking to them and seeing it first-hand.

[Weber] Alright, great well thank you very much, this is really useful information. I appreciate your time.

[St. Germaine-Dilts] Well thank you so much.

[Weber] Alright.

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